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Islamic Tahrif, Jewish Metaphors And The 99 Names Of Allah – OpEd

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Taḥrīf (distortion’) is an Arabic term used by most Muslim Scholars to refer to the alterations they believe have been made to the previous revelations of God in Tawrat (Torah), Zabur (Psalms) and the Injil (Gospel). It is sometimes also used to describe Biblical metaphors. 

For example, Professor Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss reminds us that in the poem at the heart of Deuteronomy 32 (often referred to as “the Song of Moses”), God established a special covenantal relationship with the People of Israel.

One of the remarkable things about this poetic passage is the many different metaphors used for God. In just fifteen verses (vv. 4-18), we find metaphors of God as a rock, father, eyelid, eagle, and mother. Exploring these metaphors teaches us about the poem’s perception of God’s nature and God’s relationship to Israel, and about the way metaphor works in the Bible.

After an introductory invocation (vv. 1-3), the poem looks back on God’s early relationship with Israel (vv. 4-14). The first few verses of this pericope establish a stark contrast between God and Israel: God is “upright” (v. 4), but Israel is “crooked” (v. 5); God’s deeds are “perfect” (v. 4), but Israel is “blemished” (v. 5); God is Israel’s “Father ” (v. 6), but Israel is God’s “non-children” (v. 5). The poet sets up this contrast, and the poem’s key word, by calling God, “the Rock (צור)” in v. 4.

The word “rock” recurs eight times in the Song: five times to depict the God of Israel (vv. 4, 15, 18, 30, 31), twice as an ironic reference to foreign gods (vv. 31, 37), and once in connection to oil produced from a “flinty rock” (v. 13). But the rock metaphor does not operate the same way in each of these citations. Context makes the metaphor mean different things in different verses.  

In an influential 1954-1955 essay, the philosopher Max Black introduced the notion of “associated commonplaces” into the study of metaphors. What do God and a large rock formation have in common? In v. 4, “the Rock” appears in conjunction with descriptions of God as “steadfast…true and upright.” 

These words highlight the solid, almost immovable aspect of a bolder rock, which the poet compares to God’s unwavering loyalty and righteousness.  Yet, rocks have many other features, and the poet picks up on different associated commonplaces as the metaphor appears later in the poem.

For instance, v. 15 returns to the metaphor of God as rock, recounting how Israel spurned “the Rock of his rescue.” This verse makes reference to the way a large rock can provide protection, a characteristic frequently invoked by the many manifestations of this metaphor in the Psalms, as in the depictions of God as “my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:15) or “my strength…my fortress, my rescuer, my God, my rock in whom I seek refuge” (Psalm 18:2-3).  

A military meaning of the metaphor of God as rock in v. 15 contrasts with its meaning in v. 4, where the analogy implies divine loyalty and righteousness in a broad, non-military context.

As the first main pericope (vv. 4-14) paints a positive image of God and the early relationship between God and Israel, the poem uses of a number of different metaphors to depict God’s loving and protective care of Israel.

God as a Father: After comparing God to a rock in v. 4, the poem introduces a different divine metaphor in v. 6 when it asks: “Is He not your father, who created you, He made you and established you?” The three verbs in this verse focus our attention on God’s role as Israel’s creator (also see Malachi 2:10).  In contrast, other biblical passages utilize the metaphor of God as father in order to call attention to different associated commonplaces and different facets of the divine-human relationship. 

For example, some texts speak of God as a father in order to portray God’s love and compassion (Psalm 103:13; Isaiah 63:16) or God’s disciplinary role (Proverbs 3:12), or to emphasize that the special bond between God and Israel sometimes brings with it unmet expectations (see Jeremiah 3:4, 19; 31:9).

God as an Eyelid: The poem goes on to recall how God found and cared for Israel in the wilderness: God “watched over him, guarded him like the pupil of God’s eye” (v. 10). This simile aims to illustrate how God protected Israel like an eyelid, which instinctively blinks to safeguard the vulnerable pupil (as in Psalm 17:8).

God as an Eagle: Verse 11 introduces another divine metaphor, describing God as an eagle watching over its young: “Like an eagle who rouses its nest, over his young he hovers; he spread his wings, he took him, he carried him on his pinion.” 

This further strengthens the connection between the seemingly different metaphors juxtaposed in vv. 10-11, for the eyelid and eagle analogies both emphasize God’s protection and care for Israel during the early phase of their relationship.

God as a Nursing Mother: The poem goes on to recount how God brought Israel to the Promised Land and provided food for them: “He set them atop the heights of the land, and he ate the produce of the field. He nursed him with honey from the crag and oil from the flinty rock” (v. 13). 

Some translations mask the maternal metaphor by rendering the last verb in this verse as “fed” instead of “nursed”. 

But, the Hebrew verb י-נ-ק clearly establishes an image of God as a nursing mother who lovingly, attentively, and generously nourishes her newborn child (also see Numbers 11:12 and Isaiah 43:3-4; 49:15). This metaphor further enhances the picture of God’s devoted care for Israel communicated by the previous two metaphors, which makes Israel’s later defiance all the more astonishing. 

God as Israel’s Spurned Mother: In subsequent verses the tone and message of the poem change, as God’s graciousness gives way to Israel’s ingratitude. After describing how Israel worshiped foreign deities, the poet charges: “You neglected the Rock who begot you; you forgot the God who labored to bring you forth” (v. 18).  This verse contains another comparison between God and a mother, but the associated commonplaces differ.  

Whereas v. 13 focuses on the way the mother feeds her young baby, v. 18 moves back in time and calls attention to the birthing process. Like the image of God as a father in v. 6, this metaphor centers on God’s role as Israel’s creator. 

However, by depicting God as a mother who endured the pain and effort of labor to give birth to her child, the poet casts Israel’s rejection of God in an even more negative light. The metaphor thus enhances the stark contrast between God’s treatment of Israel and Israel’s subsequent treatment of God.

Why So Many Metaphors: In the span of just fifteen verses, the verses imagine God as a solid, stable rock, a father, an eyelid, an eagle, a nursing mother, a mother who has gone through labor, and a protective rock. Why not choose one or two metaphors to depict the one God in a consistent fashion?  

This passage teaches us that we need multiple metaphors, in the Bible and in our own lives, because no single comparison can encapsulate all there is to say about the one God and the complexity of divine-human connections.

While the 99 names of Allah are more abstract than the many anthropomorphisms and metaphors used in the Hebrew Bible and by the rabbis in the post Biblical age, they are each just two different styles and one is as informative as the other. 

Anthropomorphisms and metaphors are not Tahrif. The Qur’an has a much more restrictive iconic style of the one God’s revelation; because after the Roman and Eastern Churches permitted statues of Jesus and Mary to be used in worship, their iconic error needed to be strongly opposed.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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