Exploring the Multiple Metaphors for God in Shirat Haazinu
Parashat Haazinu tells of a relationship gone awry. According to the poem at the heart of Deuteronomy 32 (referred to as “the Song of Moses” or, after its first word, “Shirat Haazinu”), God established a special relationship with the people Israel and lovingly watched over and cared for them; yet they rejected God and turned to other deities. Enraged at their betrayal, God resolves to decimate Israel. But God relents after realizing that the other nations might misinterpret Israel’s demise as a testament to their own power, not as a divinely inflicted punishment; so God decides instead to avenge the Israelites against their enemies.
One of the remarkable things about this poetic composition is the many different metaphors the poet uses for God. In the span of just fifteen verses (vv. 4-18), we find metaphors of God as a rock, father, eyelid, eagle, and mother. Exploring these metaphors teaches us about the poem’s perception of God’s nature and God’s relationship to Israel, and about the way metaphor works in the Bible.
God as Rock: The Poem’s Main Metaphor
After an introductory invocation (vv. 1-3), the poem looks back on God’s early relationship with Israel (vv. 4-14). The first few verses of this pericope establish a stark contrast between God and Israel: God is “upright (ישר)” (v. 4), but Israel is “crooked (עקש)” (v. 5); God’s deeds are “perfect (תמים)” (v. 4), but Israel is “blemished (מומם)” (v. 5); God is Israel’s “Father (אביך)” (v. 6), but Israel is God’s “non-children (לא בניו)” (v. 5). The poet sets up this contrast, and the poem’s key word, by calling God, “the Rock (צור)” in v. 4.
The word “rock” recurs eight times in the Song: five times to depict the God of Israel (vv. 4, 15, 18, 30, 31), twice as an ironic reference to foreign gods (vv. 31, 37), and once in connection to oil produced from a “flinty rock (חלמיש צור)” (v. 13). But the rock metaphor does not operate the same way in each of these citations. Context makes the metaphor mean different things in different verses.
Metaphor Theory: Associated Commonplaces
In an influential 1954-1955 essay, the philosopher Max Black introduced the notion of “associated commonplaces” into the study of metaphors.This phrase refers to the features shared by the two components involved in a metaphor. If you think of a metaphor like a Venn diagram, with two overlapping circles representing the two halves of the analogy, the associated commonplaces are the elements in the intersecting section.
In Parashat Haazinu, what do God and a large rock formation have in common? In v. 4, “the Rock” appears in conjunction with descriptions of God as “steadfast…true and upright.” These words highlight the solid, seemingly immovable aspect of a rock, which the poet compares to God’s unwavering loyalty and righteousness. Yet, rocks have many other features, and the poet picks up on different associated commonplaces as the metaphor appears later in the poem.
For instance, v. 15 returns to the metaphor of God as rock, recounting how Israel spurned “the Rock of his rescue.” This verse makes reference to the way a large rock can provide protection, a characteristic frequently invoked by the many manifestations of this metaphor in the Psalms, as in the depictions of God as “my rock and my redeemer (צוּרִ֥י וְגֹאֲלִֽי)” (Psalm 19:15) or “my strength…my fortress, my rescuer, my God, my rock in whom I seek refuge” (Psalm 18:2-3). This military meaning of the metaphor of God as rock in v. 15 contrasts with its meaning in v. 4, where the analogy implies divine loyalty and righteousness in a broad, non-military context.
A Diverse Array of Other Divine Metaphors
As the first main pericope (vv. 4-14) paints a positive image of God and the early relationship between God and Israel, the poem uses of a number of different metaphors to depict God’s loving and protective care of Israel.
God as a Father
After comparing God to a rock in v. 4, the poem introduces a different divine metaphor in v. 6 when it asks: “Is He not your father, who created you, He made you and established you?” The three verbs in this verse focus our attention on God’s role as Israel’s creator (also see Malachi 2:10). In contrast, other biblical passages utilize the metaphor of God as father in order to call attention to different associated commonplaces and different facets of the divine-human relationship. For example, some texts speak of God as a father in order to portray God’s love and compassion (Psalm 103:13; Isaiah 63:16) or God’s disciplinary role (Proverbs 3:12), or to emphasize that the special bond between God and Israel sometimes brings with it unmet expectations (see Jeremiah 3:4, 19; 31:9).
God as an Eyelid
The poem goes on to recall how God found and cared for Israel in the wilderness: God “watched over him, guarded him like the pupil of God’s eye” (v. 10). This simile aims to illustrate how God protected Israel like an eyelid, which instinctively blinks to safeguard the vulnerable pupil (as in Psalm 17:8).
God as an Eagle
Verse 11 introduces another divine metaphor, describing God as an eagle watching over its young: “Like an eagle who rouses its nest, over his young he hovers; he spread his wings, he took him, he carried him on his pinion.” Some scholars argue that the verb (יעיר) translated here as “rouses” may mean “to protect.” That reading further strengthens the connection between the seemingly different metaphors juxtaposed in vv. 10-11, for the eyelid and eagle analogies both emphasize God’s protection and care for Israel during the early phase of their relationship.
God as a Nursing Mother
The poem goes on to recount how God brought Israel to the Promised Land and provided food for them: “He set them atop the heights of the land, and he ate the produce of the field. He nursed him with honey from the crag and oil from the flinty rock” (v. 13). Some translations mask the maternal metaphor by rendering the last verb in this verse as “fed” instead of “nursed” (for example, see the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh). Nevertheless, the Hebrew verb י-נ-ק clearly establishes an image of God as a nursing mother who lovingly, attentively, and generously nourishes her newborn child (also see Numbers 11:12 and Isaiah 43:3-4; 49:15). This metaphor further enhances the picture of God’s devoted care for Israel communicated by the previous two metaphors, which makes Israel’s later defiance all the more astonishing.
God as Israel’s Spurned Mother
In subsequent verses the tone and message of the poem change, as God’s graciousness gives way to Israel’s ingratitude. After describing how Israel worshiped foreign deities, the poet charges: “You neglected the Rock who begot you; you forgot the God who labored to bring you forth” (v. 18). This verse contains another comparison between God and a mother, but the associated commonplaces differ.
Whereas v. 13 focuses on the way the mother feeds her young baby, v. 18 moves back in time and calls attention to the birthing process. Like the image of God as a father in v. 6, this metaphor centers on God’s role as Israel’s creator. However, by depicting God as a mother who endured the pain and effort of labor to give birth to her child, the poet casts Israel’s rejection of God in an even more negative light. The metaphor thus enhances the stark contrast between God’s treatment of Israel and Israel’s subsequent treatment of God.
Why So Many Metaphors?
In the span of just fifteen verses, Shirat Haazinu imagines God as a stable rock, a father, an eyelid, an eagle, a nursing mother, a mother who has gone through labor, and a protective rock. Why not choose a single metaphor to depict God in a straightforward and consistent fashion? This parashah teaches that we need multiple metaphors, in the Bible and in our own lives, because no single comparison can encapsulate all there is to say about God and the complexity of the divine-human connection.
Reflecting on the reason biblical texts present a mix of divine images, Brent Strawn concludes:
One metaphor alone by itself … cannot, in the words of Brueggemann, get this God said right. The elusive nature of Yahweh is, in fact, what leads to the use of metaphorical language … in the first place.
After studying the juxtaposition of different metaphors throughout the book of Hosea, Göran Eidevall proposes that the purpose of such a “plurality of perspectives” is not simply stylistic variation. He asserts:
The effect is radical relativization. No model is given a monopolistic position….which hints at the insight that all kinds of “anthropomorphism” are, in the final analysis, hopelessly inadequate as representations of the deity: “for I am God, and not human” (Hosea 11:9).
As we, as human beings, attempt to deepen our understanding of God, how God operates in the world, what God expects from us, and what it means to be part of the people Israel joined in a covenantal relationship with God, we turn to metaphor. For the authors of the Bible, and for us, metaphor becomes a means by which we can span the chasm between the known—our own world–and the unknown, the Divine. And to do this, one metaphor simply is not enough.
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September 23, 2014
January 14, 2020
Professor Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss is Associate Professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and incoming Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (NELC), and Rabbinic Ordination from HUC-JIR, New York. Weiss served as Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and Campaign Coordinator for “American Values Religious Voices: 100 Days. 100 Letters.” She is author of Figurative Language in Biblical Prose Narrative: Metaphor in the Book of Samuel.
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