Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"I brought this on myself; I knew at the start how He gets..."

James McGrath posted in his blog about a comment I made in class one day. Now, I'm starting from the common metaphor that the relationship between God and Israel (or Christ and his Church, take your pick) is analogous to the relationship between a man and his wife. Men and their wives are close, have bonds of loyalty and mutual respect and various obligations they owe one another. They even cause each other pain, as men and wives can. As cited on that page:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says: “The Assembly of Israel said to the Holy One: Even though He embitters me and causes me to suffer, He shall lie between my breasts” (Yalkut Shimoni, Song of Songs, 984).

This gets me to my next point. McGrath links 1 Corinthians 10:6-12.
We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!

This goes beyond the acceptance that spouses may occasionally inadvertently hurt each other. Every time Israel displeases God, a great and terrible wrath is unleashed, to human eyes seeming way out of proportion to the crimes committed. And yet Israel is still to blame for these outbursts. No matter what God does, if it was something Israel did to set Him off... Israel is required to repent. Israel must not test the Lord, and Israel must not complain. Otherwise God is left doing something terrible and asking, "Baby, why do you make me hit you? You know how I get."

I could easily end here and say that Christianity is essentially patriarchal, both based in misogyny and perpetuating it by elevating it to God-like behavior. But that's a boring place to end, and reserved for really lazy scholars. The big question is, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Did ideas about God's right to abuse Israel give the Israelites fuel to abuse their wives? Or did the norms of Israelite marriage color their portrayal of God's relationship with Israel? One thing seems certain: the normative relationship between married people in America does not include one party using corporeal punishment to discipline the other, and then blaming the violence on the disciplined party. In this our cultural context is very different from what the Israelites were taking for granted.

Now, does this mean we have to throw out the spousal metaphor because our spousal relationships have changed? Or can we keep the spousal metaphor and change our relationship with God to suit it? Now that women are encouraged to take onto themselves more autonomy and agency, even at the expense of their husbands' power, does that recast the roles of God and Israel, or of Christ and the Church? Just as women are demanding more respect and consideration from men, are Christians free to demand more respect and consideration from God?

It seems to me that we either have to throw out the spousal metaphor now that men aren't allowed to abuse women the way God abuses Israel, or we have to demand that God keep up with modern ideals. I personally find this latter option much more interesting. If men and women are rightly treated as equals in a marriage, does that mean that God and Israel should be rightly treated as equals?

This implication totally turns the mainstream Christian hierarchy on its head. While Judaism allows for much more dispute with God (Israel itself means "struggle with God"), Christianity tends to adopt a much more submission-oriented approach. The assumption that humans must submit to God no matter what seems at odds with the "equality resolution." The only option then is to decide we're wrong to treat men and women as equals. Instead of changing our relationship with God to fit our modern social context, we must reverse our modern social context to match an earlier relationship with God.

It seems in the interest of Biblical orthodoxy one would have to choose the latter. It's the neatest way to seal up this nasty friction resulting from a metaphor that no longer seems to apply. Return everyone to the conditions under which the metaphor worked.

Still. As a woman who doesn't particularly want to go that route, I'll suggest a new relationship with God. What happens when humans demand the equality and respect from God that wives demand of husbands? It might require a re-imagining of God's place in our lives, and that re-imagining may essentially change a religion whose core is "submit yourselves to God; He knows best." If we essentially change Christianity to fit God into new ideas of mutual spousal respect, is it still Christianity anymore? If no... what is it?


Bob MacDonald said...

Projection is certainly one mode of explanation of relationship. And it has its place. It is not true in the TNK that every troubled thing is the bride's fault. 1. Job is vindicated against his religious friends. 2. The psalmist manages to get God to step into the trap set for the wicked (see e.g. Psalm 7). 3. We really do make mistakes - we are enslaved to them in many ways (see e.g. Psalm 51 or any of the penitential psalms - like 6.

If there were no real exodus, then I would suppose that the situation is as you suggest - let God conform to our emerging better values :|

But suppose that there really is a difference made through the force of the faith in the escape on eagle's wings (Ex 19) that God effects or through the hour of Glorification and consecration for us that Jesus effects through his death (John 17). Then the reality we are learning (and invited) to enter is not of our own making (Psalm 100).

Cobalt said...

So, I'm not entirely sure after reading your comment what to walk away with. How do you think that our changing expectations of marriage affect the reception and application of a spousal metaphor based in very different expectations?

Bob MacDonald said...

"How do you think that our changing expectations of marriage affect the reception and application of a spousal metaphor based in very different expectations?"

Good question - and I did not answer it at all in my first comment. That comment is about reasoning - and I reason by juxtaposition. I think the spousal metaphor we receive needs to be considered as to where it came from and why it was written so. I consider it came out of the Greek household code reflecting Aristotle and I think it is read in our age mostly wrongly because there is always a power struggle in a relationship.

I think we should read the ancients with the same freedom exhibited by Jesus - you have heard it was said, but I say unto you. And I think we should bind less than we do. I am in favour of committed same-sex relationships for example. Neither my wife nor I holds any particular position about authority but we each defer to the other in many ways learned over a long period of time through many severe mercies.

Even the metaphor of Father, Son and Holy Ghost as well as the metaphor of bride (as per married to Torah, or married to Christ - whether considered as individual or the corporate body) - even these two fundamental metaphors cannot be reasoned about except by absorbing the blows - when you get a Bible, be sure to issue boxing gloves to the opposition.

No one has ever asked my opinion on this - I hope this is helpful a bit.