I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and might,
He is become my deliverance.
This is my God and I will enshrine Him;
the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.
Adonai is an ish milchama / Warrior [lit. “man of war”)] —
Adonai is His name!
God as an ish milchama (“warrior”) disturbs some people. Curiously, it’s not so much the militaristic image as it is the very human image that bothers them.
The Rabbis could have easily finessed this verse by saying that the Israelites experienced the redemption from Egypt so powerfully, it was as if God were a warrior on their behalf. Instead, they push what appears to be a metaphor into the “No. Really! Literally!” zone. Commenting on the first of the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20, midrash Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael tells us:
I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD. Why is this said? Because at the sea He appeared to them as a mighty hero doing battle, as it is said: “The Lord is an ish milchama (warrior) (Exodus 15:3).” At Sinai He appeared to them as an old man full of mercy. It is said: And they saw the God of Israel etc. (Exodus 24:10). And of the time after they had been redeemed, what does it say? And the like of the very heaven for clarity (Exodus 24:10). Again it says: I looked until thrones were placed (Daniel 7:9).” And it also says: A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him etc. (Daniel 7:10). (Mekhilta de’RabbiYishmael, Bachodesh 5)
The same tradition is found in midrash Pesikta Rabbati:
At the Sea of Reeds He appeared to them as a young man, and at Mount Sinai He appeared to them as an old man. (Pesikta Rabbati 21:5)
God appeared twice to the Israelites in human form? In two different human forms? Really?
From my 21st century perch, it is apparent to me that the images of God as a warrior, or a wise and merciful elder are just that — images, visual metaphors. They are pictures people create in their minds with words in order to think about God who is more than our minds and imaginations can encompass. Our tradition abounds in images of God. For our biblical ancestors, God was often made manifest in concrete avatars such as angels or a burning bush. God is king, father, commander. For the Rabbis, God is rooted in the human heart and mind; we access God through study, prayer, and the observance of mitzvot. For Rambam (Moses Maimonides), God is the Active Intellect: pure thought and reason that makes possible this universe, but which does not directly create it, and does not interact with it. The Kabbalists rejected the remote, unchanging, disinterested God of the rationalists. They said that God is not utterly beyond the universe: the universe is contained within God, whose flow of energy is dynamic and continuously flows through us, interacting with us. These are not definitions of God; they are images of God.
In the modern age, rationalism has resurfaced and resonates far more strongly than poetry and mysticism. Many have tried to reread Torah and rabbinic literature through a rational lens, explaining and excusing the “ancient texts,” rather than allowing the texts to flow through them and convey meaning.
How can we move beyond rejectionist rationalism and reclaim the spirituality of our sacred stories? The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote of a “Second Naivete” that we reach — intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually — after we have passed through the critical, rational phase of intellectual growth. In the Second Naivete we discover another way to engage sacred text. "Beyond the desert (Rational stage) of criticism, we wish to be called again." (The Symbolism of Evil, p. 349) Having shed unquestioning truth and shrugged off the dismissal of our sacred stories as “mere myth,” we are now open to the spiritual depths of our sacred stories: What can we learn about life? human nature? becoming better versions of ourselves? how to live better lives? how to repair the world? It is not a static, ossified “Truth” we seek, but rather wisdom.
The images, once rejected, return to us as ripe fruit. For example: In the Bavli (Berakhot 5) the Rabbis envision God as having difficulty controlling and containing the divine anger. Where does God go? To the Holy of Holies, where the High Priest gives him a blessing, a prayer to recite each day — much as any one of us might do to promote our patience and subdue our tempers. In Eichah Rabbah, the Sages envision God as a jealous, petulant lover, overwrought that his beloved (Israel) has dallied with other lovers (idols), and who responds with violent wrath (the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.). The patriarchs, prophets, and Torah herself implore God to forgive Israel, but God’s ire is red hot until Rachel appears. Rachel tells God that if she, who is but flesh and blood, was able to set aside her feelings of jealousy when her sister married her beloved, Jacob, surely God can do the same. And God does.
The Rabbis give us a God who needs the blessings and counsel of people. For the Rabbis, God is so far beyond the images they conjure that there is no danger employing them: Who would take them at face value? So, too, God’s appearance at the Reed Sea as a young, courageous, virile warrior, and His appearance at Mt. Sinai as a wise and compassionate elder: there were two revelations of God, not one. God was revealed at the Sea and at Sinai. The revelation of God was not a one-time event. Images of God abound, because revelation of God abounds. As the Kotzker Rebbe taught: "Where is God? Wherever you let God in."
Rabbi Arthur Green writes:
“For me the personal God is a bridge between soul and mystery, a personification of the unknown, a set of projected images that we need and use, rather than an ultimate reality.” (Radical Judaism, p. 158)
For me, the universe is within God, and God is within us: the reality and animating force found in every cell of our bodies. Our job is to discover the meaning and purpose of our existence. When we do, we find the values and principles to preserve and promote life. We have also found God.
Don’t fear the images. Grab hold of them and let them take you for a spiritual rollercoaster ride.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman