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God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor

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This is the first attempt in biblical studies to apply the tools developed by theoreticians of metaphor to the common biblical metaphor of God as king. The extent to which elements of human kingship are projected onto God is investigated, and several significant conclusions emerge:

  • Royal characteristics that have a diminutive connotation are generally not projected onto God.
  • God's nature as greatest king is emphasized through use of superlatives. For example, his garb is enormous and he has a large number of royal attendants. God is not limited by the metaphor.
  • When the entailments of the metaphor would have conflicted with Israelite proscriptions, such as the iconic prohibition, the metaphor is avoided.
  • The metaphor is predominant enough to influence Israel's depiction of human kingship. For example, the term gadol (“great,” “majestic”) is appropriated by God the king and is not used of the Israelite king.
  • There is no single metaphor 'God is king'; as Israelite kingship changes, the metaphor undergoes parallel changes. Also, biblical authors emphasize different aspects of God's kingship in specific contexts.

The lack of a complete fit between human kingship (the vehicle) and God as king (the tenor) is consistent with the tensive view of metaphor, which predominates in contemporary scholarship. The literary study has other benefits. By enumerating the parallels between human and heavenly messengers, it finds that angels should be construed as projections of royal officials. The analysis of human enthronement rituals as they are projected onto God suggests that there was no annual enthronement festival which celebrated God becoming king. The systematic study of the metaphor also opens new avenues for exploring a number of issues in the study of Israelite religion.

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“Two central problems immediately emerge in studying ‘God is king’ as a metaphor, where God’s kingship in Israel is patterned after human kingship. We must consider the possibility that some references to God as king predate the Israelite monarchy, in which case the Israelite monarchy could not have been the vehicle of the metaphor. Second, we must allow for the possibility that the image of God as king might have shaped human kingship rather than vice versa.” (Page 14)

“I have suggested that ‘God is king’ is a live biblical metaphor which is best explicated by examining the common elements shared by the biblical conceptions of God and king.” (Page 23)

“the conception that God is king predates the establishment of the monarchy” (Page 14)

“‘The kingship of God’ has been overused in religious rhetoric; it has lost the vivid associations that it might have carried in ancient Israel. It is this set of associations that the current work sets out to recover.” (Page 13)

“The method suggested for studying metaphors forces us to fully describe human kingship (the vehicle) before we can understand the metaphor ‘God is king’.” (Page 24)

  • Title: God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor
  • Author: Marc Z. Brettler
  • Publisher: Sheffield Academic
  • Publication Date: 2009
  • Pages: 219

Marc Zvi Brettler earned a BA, MA, and PhD from Brandeis University and is currently Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies there. In 2004 he won the National Jewish Book Award for his work on The Jewish Study Bible.


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    Save on Publisher Spotlight through February 29!


    Digital list price: $34.99
    Regular price: $25.99
    Save $7.80 (30%)