Mysteries litter the history of Israelite religions. Even if we accept something like Mark Smith’s account of “the early history of God,” outstanding questions remain. Long before the monarchy, Yhwh, a god from the area southeast of Canaan, merged with El, the old Canaanite high god. The centripetal pull continued in the monarchic period. Yhwh absorbed aspects of Ba’al and vestiges of the goddess Asherah. But why did the cult of the goddess play so little a role in Israel? Why was Yhwh, a male god, without a goddess consort? Statehood encouraged the worship of one god, a single divine king paralleling his earthly suzerain – but what motivated the drive towards divine singularity from even before this time? What inspired Israel’s peculiar prohibition on images of Yhwh? Or the circumspection of Israel’s writings about Yhwh’s body and sexuality – in such contrast to, say, writings from Ugarit about their embodied and graphically sexual gods?
Another very different set of unanswered questions exists about the effects of a male god on male worshippers. Feminist critics have shown the deleterious effects of belief in a divine male on women, i.e., the ways that a male god reflects and reifies male domination of women. But what they have not probed is the question, how does a divine male also destabilize the masculinity it serves to legitimate? How does a male god, by dominating his male worshippers, place a question-mark over their own status as dominant?
Howard Eilberg-Schwartz in his book God’s Phallus: And Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Beacon Press, 1995) presents a thesis that engages both sets of questions. In short, he proposes that monotheism caused problems for men in ancient Israel. Because of Yhwh’s solitude on the divine plane, he had no goddess to love erotically. The human Israel took the place of wife to Yhwh – an Israel, notably, headed by men. To avoid the incipient homoeroticism of this arrangement, Israelite religion made two tacks: first, it sought to efface God’s body, especially his (male) sexual parts; second, it feminized Israelite men.
Eilberg-Schwartz follows through in some detail on both halves of this argument. His intellectual resources are broad, though in the main, his approach is psychoanalytic; he aims to pick up where Freud left off in Moses and Monotheism. Eilberg-Schwartz’s explanation for Israel’s resistance to images of God does not rely on new material evidence. Rather, he takes in hand the familiar data about the development of monotheism in Israel, and re-reads it. He rejects the standard scholarly understanding, borrowed from ancient Greek admirers of Judaism: that Israel came to worship an incorporeal and singular god for philosophical reasons. Eilberg-Schwartz shows from a spread of biblical texts that, in fact, ancient Israel and early Judaism probably believed in a corporeal god, and even wrote freely about his extremities, his backside, his personal presence – but prohibited pictures of him; exercised restraint in describing his front and his mid-section; and never mentioned his sexual deeds. So also, Eilberg-Schwartz reviews the ways that Judaism initiates males by injuring their sexual member; demands sexual renunciation of them; and in general problematizes their relationship to their bodies. Eilberg-Schwartz interprets these symbolic actions as attempts to resolve the latent homoeroticism that monotheism brought upon on Israelite men.
Eilberg-Schwartz’s claims are bold; his prose is lucid and readable; his project is sincere, though also somewhat puckish. I don’t know if the book has had much influence on the study of Israelite religion. Eilberg-Schwartz has the credentials (PhD from Brown), but he also draws together conversations that usually remain apart. (Historians of religion don’t usually know much about psychoanalysis or gender theory, and theoreticians of gender don’t usually care much about the intricacies of ancient Mediterranean religion.) I picked up the book for this very reason – because, as someone who studies the Hebrew Bible, I want to stay abreast of fresh and original perspectives, often to be found at the disciplinary margins. I also saw the book as another in a growing tide of voices calling for more attention to the startling fact that the God of Hebrew scripture is in some way bodied. Eilberg-Schwartz has the virtue not only of noting this fact but making a theoretically beefy foray into its implications for thinking about religion.
A few further, brief notes in response to the book:
- First, for me and probably for most readers of this blog, reading history of religions (here with a psychoanalytic bent) requires thick theological skin. Many of us come from more conservative backgrounds. We know the objections to “the god of the gaps”: we shouldn’t assert God’s activity as a causal explanation for places that science can’t yet exhaustively explain (the soul, the beginning of the cosmos, etc.), because those places are always receding. But what we may not be used to is the fact that the history of God itself is explicable more or less “scientifically,” as a complex human process. There are few gaps even in God for a God of the gaps to go. There are resources in modern theology, I think, for reflecting on this. Dialectical theology especially abolishes the direct readability of God off any surface in the world. Nothing directly attests to God – even God’s own history as a developing human concept. But it takes a rugged faith to really think like this.
- Second, I looked for what is falsifiable in Eilberg-Schwartz’s thesis, and a few areas stick out. He assumes that the move towards monotheism in ancient Israel logically precedes their resistance to iconography: the prohibition of images is a consequence of Yhwh’s solitariness. But these two phenomena (monolatry and aniconism) developed in tandem. The historical facts in this regard are murkier than Eilberg-Schwartz admits. He also requires marriage and sex as the pervasive trope for Yhwh’s relationship to Israel, such that it threatened homoeroticism for the men of Israel – but this, too, is far from clear to me. Warrior, shepherd, king – these images seem to be of at least equal weight, and perhaps even more so in early times. The more loving, marital images of Yhwh and Israel may even come from a later and more monotheistic time, which would complicate (if not undercut) Eilberg-Schwartz’s proposal. I am also unsure about the explanatory power of psychoanalysis for understanding religious change in an ancient culture. Freud received criticism for making time-bound cultural neuroses into human universals. And I wonder if reaching back into Israel’s past with heurisms like “homoeroticism” similarly trivialize historical differences and particularity.
- Third, in a lot of literature I read, the contrast is strong between a “Hellenistic” and “incorporeal” god and the “corporeal,” “Hebrew” god. Besides the historical sloppiness of this binary, I also often wonder just how dematerialized and deanthropomorphized a God we (modern Christians) confess. Our theologians may have stopped referring straightforwardly to God’s “hands” or “right arm” or “backside” – but oftentimes notions about God’s “speech” or God’s “action” play a pivotal role in our theology, even of the most reconstructed and philosophical kind. And surely these and others like them are concepts that, ultimately, carry bodily traces. What is an immaterial word, or a wholly non-physical intervention? This to say, divine corporeality may be a more ecumenical problem than we have acknowledged, exceeding the province of arcane Hebrew Bible specialists. We modern Christians may not be as far beyond ancient Israel as we think.