God’s Phallus: A guest post by Collin Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Cornell writes the always interesting blog, Kaleidobible, which I have featured previously on link posts here at DET. This will hopefully be the first in a semi-regular series of guest posts from Collin.]

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.



Paige. said…
i'm not sure how i feel about what the author (of the book) is saying.

From my research (which, i'll admit, is not much yet), while the practice of worshiping the Asherah was prohibited, many still worshiped her as well as other Goddesses as the wife or consort of God. That worship was slowly abolished, bit by bit, by the Rabbis in ancient times. It wasn't that they were demasculated by worshiping one God, but that they were worried by the rise of Goddess worship taking over, that even males were beginning to worship female gods. In a society where women were supposed to be submissive, property even, though they had rights, this was troublesome.

Goddess worship DID come back eventually to Judaism in the Medieval times. The Shekhinah is used as the wife of God and shown more akin to the "Spirit" of Christianity. Men were considered married to her on Shabbat, just as God was married to her as well as Binah, a higher female aspect of God. In this way, all "Goddesses" of Judaism were still one with God, just like all the male aspects and names were of the same Godhead.

It's gone down today, but Goddess worship (along with the worship of Adonai)is rising again, slowly, within Judaism. At the very least, there are references within Jewish prayers, holidays, and activities that perhaps most will not notice but are actually worship of the Shekhinah, the wife of God.
crob said…
Paige, thanks for reading!

It's a matter of argument in the study of Israelite religions whether or not Asherah was a goddess consort of Yhwh in pre-exilic times. The majority position that you describe is that she was; the minority position (represented by Mark Smith) is that she was't. Maybe a consort of El, but never of Yhwh. Check out his book for that case, based on onomastic, inscriptional, and biblical evidences.

But either way you decide in that argument, part of what Eilberg-Schwartz does is to question the equation of male god = reinforces male domination / female goddess = liberates women. He asks: does a male god really shore up men in their dominance -- or does it injure their status in some way? The answer he gives is certainly controversial.

I would further ask you whether a female goddess has, historically, really helped the cause women that much. Pretty patriarchal societies can worship a female divinity or demigod, right? (including some cultures that you cite, such as ancient Israel or medieval Judaism; also consider the Roman Catholic communion).

Anyway, thanks again, and good studies.
Paul.G said…
Interesting post. one question : How are we supposed to deal with the anthropomorphism of the old testament? Is Bultmann's project of demythologizing applicable here?

I ask because most people today don't believe in a god with arms and legs , and hair.
crob said…
Paul G., you tell me!

I'll defer the Bultmann question to the experts that hang around these DET parts. But I'm not sanguine about the possibilities for Bultmann's particular program of demythologizing w/r/t OT anthropomorphism -- there are big theological reasons why it only makes sense with the New Testament kerygma!

Second, why so leery about anthropomorphism? What might it mean for our treatment of an anthropomorphic OT God that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, i.e., that God has eternally determined himself to be God for us, a God en route to incarnation? I don't yet know, but I am thinking this through.
Paul.G said…
"why so leery about anthropomorphism?"

Hmm , well perhaps for some of the reasons St.Augustine and Aquinas had issues with anthropomorphism. It seems to me that an anthropomorphic god , would be a being amongst other beings within the universe ( much like zeus). I read your engagement with Jaco Gericke , and thought about the issue of an unreconstructed YHWH. Like you i'm not sure that is something I could believe in.

On the other hand didn't the post-exilic community have a reconstructed view of YHWH , that stressed his universality and transcendence?
crob said…
Paul G., hard to say how reconstructed postexilic versions of Yahweh were. Probably more universalistic, yes, perhaps more transcendent, but maybe not less corporeal and particular. In any case, evidently these postexilic iterations of Yahweh weren't so reconstructed that the Judahite community couldn't accept writings from an earlier time! and this is our puzzle as well: a Bible whose authority does not "level up," as it were, with each chronological stratum.

As I understand it, Augustine and Aquinas objected to a God who had any of the susceptibilities inherent to created life: mutability, divisibility, corruptibility, limitation, etc. Perhaps these caused as many problems for their Christology as for their reading of the OT? I guess I am just interested to see what alternatives there may be to their doctrine of God -- not to say we must "cut God to our size," but maybe God's already beat us to it.
Paul.G said…
Maybe God did beat us to it. Perhaps the incarnation is the solution to this conundrum. I think what makes the whole issue unsettling for me is that the we are so far removed from the ancient near east , yet we read Israelite texts as scripture , but due to the distance between us in history there are some gaps. Maybe some of these can't be bridged? I don't know. But this post raises some issues that I will think about , next time I read Von Rad's OT theology ( I highly admire this work of Von Rad's).

One other question I have is this: How should we think of God's presence and acts today? Maybe THIS is where Bultmann comes in?
In my forthcoming monograph, I draw on Bultmann's notion of "paradoxical identity" to elucidate the relation between divine and human agency. :-)

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