In a similar vein, in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, when Yossarian accuses God of being a clumsy, bumbling incompetent, Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screams at Yossarian to stop.
“What the hell are you getting so upset about?” [Yossarian] asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.
When I heard the story of the woman who rejected God in the wake of the terrible lost her child I thought: How sad that this woman was engaged in an emotional war against God, who didn’t cause her child’s death and could not have prevented it. As a result, she could not turn to God for strength and solace when she most needed comfort.
Our ancestors described God in very human terms: Torah speaks of God’s hands and mouth, anger and love. The God of the Torah is both anthropomorphic (at times taking the form of a human being) and anthropopathic (possessing human emotions). As the Rabbis later said, Torah speaks in the language of human beings. The metaphors of the Torah are our ancestors’ way to explain their experience of the divine.
We all need to believe in something beyond ourselves. We need to be part of something bigger and grander, something meaningful and enduring. God — however each of us chooses to conceive God — fulfills that need. God endows us with value in this fabulously and frighteningly vast universe where we might otherwise think ourselves insignificant. God — however we envision or experience the Divine — affirms our holiness, our free will, and our capacity for good.
And we’re not alone. Even Pharaoh needed God. Yes, the pharaoh of Egypt who believed himself to be god and whose people worshipped him as god, needed God — that which is beyond even him.
Joseph is brought out of Potiphar’s dungeon to interpret the dreams of an agitated and distraught Pharaoh. Dreams of cows and corn, first healthy and full followed by gaunt and scrawny specimens that devour the robust. Clearly these are dreams fraught with meaning, and Pharaoh is frantic to unlock their secret. Joseph rescues him from his anxiety by explaining that Egypt will enjoy seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine so severe, the excess and stockpiles of the first seven years will run out quickly.
“Accordingly [Joseph advises Pharaoh], let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt. And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities. Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.” (Genesis 41:33-36)
Pharaoh, pleased with Joseph’s sage advice, turns to his courtiers and asks, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (v. 38) What an astonishing question! Pharaoh attributes to Joseph ruach Elohim, “the spirit of God”? But isn’t Pharaoh himself the god of Egypt?
There is more:
So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you.” (Genesis 41:39)
Pharaoh recognizes God as the source of wisdom, a wisdom far superior to his own or that of his wise men, magicians, and courtiers.
And even more: Pharaoh confers on Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah, which the JPS translation understands to be Egyptian for “God speaks; he lives” or “creator of life.”
Even Pharaoh needs God. This does not mean that we must adopt at face value the image of God or the litany of beliefs about God expressed in Hebrew Scripture. Truth is, there are many contradictions even within the text itself. But we, no less than our ancestors, and no less than our children and grandchildren, need to believe in something beyond ourselves, something that lends immediate purpose and enduring meaning to our lives, something that makes each of us holy. That “something” is God.
The Maccabees did not hold to the biblical view of God. They did not expect God to wage war on the Syrians, or fight their battles for them. They did not wait for God to lead them into war, a pillar of cloud or fire. They credited God after the fact with their victory, but it is clear that they understood God to have inspired their courage and perseverance. The apocryphal book of Second Maccabees is composed of two letters; the language is formal and formulaic:
Those in Jerusalem and those in Judea and the senate and Judas,
To Aristobulus, who is of the family of the anointed priests, teacher of Ptolemy the king, and to the Jews in Egypt, greeting, and good health. Having been saved by God out of grave dangers we thank Him greatly for taking our side against the king. For He drove out those who fought against the holy city. (II Maccabees 1:10-12)
When we use language to describe a subjective emotional or spiritual experience, or to convey complex ideas, we employ imaginative metaphors — there is no other way to express ourselves through language. Religious language is poetry, capturing both the heights to which our lives and souls soar, and the depths to which we sadly descend. To say God is “above” or “beyond” is no different than to say that God is “within.” Each is a metaphor. We can speak of God as “He” or “parent” or “ruler” when we intend the life force of the universe, the animating power of existence, or the totality of the universe. We need our minds and imaginations to catch wing on the poetry of religious God-talk, not become stuck in the quagmire of “literalism” that reduces grand and glorious conceptualizations to paltry and impoverished pictures.
It is imperative that we not permit certain fundamentalist and socially conservative elements of our society to claim a monopoly on the term “God” and the right to define and interpret God for us all. In essence, they are claiming to own a copyright to God — only they know what God said, wrote, and meant. Even Pharaoh doesn’t do that. Their copyright on God then entitles them to impose their will — neatly attributed to God, of course! — on others, on us. It is time to say “No more!” to this insulting and insidious game.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman