Metaphor has power to depict sublime reality

Metaphor helps us see what is not so easily seen, but it can also be used to poetically express the rather mundane. Take the opening phrase of Song of Songs 1:6 —

“Do not gaze at me because I am dark,

   because the sun has gazed on me (NRSV).”

The sun doesn’t actually “gaze,” but this is a beautiful way to say, “I am tan.”

Rabbi Michael Marmur pointed me to this passage this morning. And there I go using another metaphor. Marmur did not literally point; he actually wrote, but his writing landed in my hands this morning and those words took me to Song of Songs 1:6. But there is something interesting here to be learned.

“This metaphor,” Marmur says, “is used to explain a swarthy complexion. Hebrew has changed remarkably little in three thousand years: when modern Israelis sunbathe, they use the same word King Solomon used on his vacations.”

An aside: When we (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) worship the God of Noah and Abraham, we are worshipping the divine as rooted in thousands of years of history. These old Hebrew words are still alive, thanks to the people of modern day Israel and other speakers of Hebrew.

Back to suntans and that same word:

“There is, however, one significant difference. In the Hebrew spoken today, the verb is employed using the reflexive form, l’hishtazeif: literally, ‘I tan myself.’ While the ancients saw themselves as objects upon which the world and the worlds beyond this world act, we tend to see ourselves more as the subject than the object.”

This is important in understanding the human condition. It’s the difference between saying, “I got a tan,” and “The sun tans me.” The second one is more true, but we today are so focused on self that we tend to make ourselves the center of everything.

We are the subject, not the object in trying to state what life is about. That, I think, captures the human predicament when it comes to relating to God. We never say it, but we tend to think that God rotates around our world, rather than the opposite.

It is the difference between the sun circling the Earth and the Earth circling the sun. If we think the sun circles the Earth, as humans did just a few centuries ago, then we are really going to misunderstand so much about how the physical world works.

Likewise, if we think God circles us, that each of us is the center of our reality, then we are really going to misunderstand so much about how the spiritual world works.

And thus the power of metaphor is shown. It is just as absurd for me to pretend to be the god of my life as it is for the Earth to circle the sun.

(Marmur, “Toward a New Jewish Theological Lexicon,” in Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove’s Jewish Theology in our Time, p. 91.)

Copyright © 2021 Ferrell Foster

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