God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor, JSOTS, #76

By Marc Zvi Brettler
Sheffield : JSOT (1989). 239 Pages.

Reviewed by
7.2 (Fall 1996) : 116-118

Biblical authors draw upon metaphorical language to emphasize different aspects of God's attributes and works. The present work explores what Scripture teaches about God when it presents Him as king. In Brettler's own words "to what extent and in what ways do writers project elements of kingship onto God?"

A detailed examination of the institution of Israelite kingship and its comparison with the attributes of God as king open a new type of window toward understanding the biblical God (16). But this is a complex matter for at least two reasons:

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 for 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 (14).

The first question considers the source of kingship imagery prior to the monarchy in Israel. In response, the author examines the kingship of adjacent cultures to consider their impact on the biblical presentation of God's kingship. The second question addresses the issue of archetypal meaning. Did Israel take its understanding of kingship from God's attributes and works? Not surprisingly, the author takes great pains to establish the primary basis for the metaphor in Israel's kingship, and within the framework of its historical development where possible. This is difficult because the way Scripture records the trappings of kingship varies in clarity and detail. Brettler focuses on specific aspects of kingship imagery, giving careful attention to the manner in which biblical writers select only the details of kingship that magnify God's attributes and works. The frailties are either virtually omitted or postured in such a way as to bring honor to the Great King: "Thus most entailments of human kingship that are projected on to God convey God's superlative nature, combining the metaphor `God is King' with the theological notion `God is incomparable'" (163). It follows that the superlative nature of God's kingship receives emphasis by failure to project on to God expressions from the human sphere which denote royal weakness. In brief, these and other superlative expressions use the metaphor "God is King" to portray God as the overlord par excellence, whose kingship surpasses that of any human monarch (33).

But the metaphor's lack of correspondence in every detail is instructive. The fact that only certain of the "appellations applied to God illustrate in what way God was seen as king in ancient Israel" (48, emphasis added). In the interpretation (or "unpacking") of metaphors, it is tempting to go beyond the correspondences given by the text's own controls and "fill out" the picture. The biblical writer's own restrictions should serve as a warning against "creative" exegesis (e.g., illegitimate totality transfer).

 Brettler commonly makes observations that are helpful to the methods and conclusions of metaphor research, even to the limitations of metaphor for representing God's true greatness:

The biblical authors were aware that even these full-fledged royal appellations fail to describe God properly. . . . These discontinuities are central to a proper understanding of God as King for they show precisely where he fails to be bound by the metaphor. . . . The use of particular royal appellations offers general boundaries for understand-ing God, but through morphological syntactic and contextual modifica-tions, the biblical authors clarify that God's Kingship is qualitatively different from human Kingship (49).

It goes without saying that Brettler's work has broader implica-tions for a biblical theology. The "figurative" dimension of language, although equal in importance to grammatical and syntactical controls, has not received proportionate attention. This apparent lack seems out of balance when one considers the amount of metaphorical language in Scripture.

 This reviewer highly recommends Brettler's work to those whose commitment to interpreting Scripture is sufficient to carry them into a somewhat unfamiliar and complex area of language.