Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) and the haftarah is Isaiah 60:1-22).
A popular image of God is of an old man with a beard, floating in the sky and stretching out his hand like the God that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel. But the Hebrew Bible never mentions a beard in connection with God. “By the hand of God” appears all over the Bible, but it is simply an idiom for “through the agency of God”. Sometimes a deed is accomplished by the hand of a human being, sometimes by the hand of God.
In the Bible, the most common anthropomorphic image of God is of someone enveloped in robes, sitting on a throne. The face is too bright to be seen, and the hands are not mentioned. But sometimes the feet are.
The feet of God appear in this week’s haftarah, where second Isaiah encourages the exiles in Babylon to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem. God tells Jerusalem that someday the other nations, from Sheba to the Phoenician cities of Lebanon, will bring tribute to her.
The magnificence of the Lebanon will come to you,
All its juniper, fir, and cypress,
To beautify the place of My holy site;
And the place of My raglayim I will honor. (Isaiah 60:13)
raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet. (From regel, רֶגֶל = foot. Regalim, רְגָלִים = feet (more than two); times, occasions.)
The Babylonian army had burned the First Temple to the ground when it captured Jerusalem and deported its leading families to Babylon in 589-587 B.C.E. But in 535 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus captured Babylon and decreed that all of its foreign populations were free to return to their former homes and worship their own gods. Some of the exiled Israelites were skeptical about going. So in this week’s haftarah, God promises that once the Israelites build a new temple in Jerusalem, God will honor it as the place of the divine presence. Second Isaiah refers to God’s presence in terms of both God’s light and God’s raglayim.
The most stunning appearance of God’s feet is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when 74 people climb halfway up Mount Sinai.
Then they went up, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his raglayim it was like a making of bricks of sapir and like an image of the sky for purity. (Exodus/Shemot 24:9-10)
sapir (סַפִּיר) = a blue precious stone. (From the same root as safar (סָפַר) = counted up, and seifer (סֵפֶר) = scroll, document, book.)
Do the 74 Israelites actually see human-shaped feet against the bright blue sky? Is it a shared vision in a dream state? Or do they see something indescribable, which Exodus tries to capture with the metaphors of feet (suggestive of footsteps), sapir (suggestive of writing) and sky (which is also the word for heavens)?
Four other references to God’s feet are based on descriptions of Baal the storm-god in other Canaanite religions. For example:
And He bent down the sky and descended,
And a thick fog was beneath his raglayim. (Psalm 18:10)
Did the original poets who invented these descriptions believe that Baal actually had feet and stood on the clouds, or were they simply writing poetry? What about the poets who applied those descriptions to the God of Israel?
The Bible does use raglayim for several idioms involving human beings. When a man’s foot slips or stumbles, it means he is straying from the path of righteousness. Raglayim also appears as a euphemism for genitals, and even urination. In another biblical idiom, when person A bows at the raglayim of person B, it means A submits to B’s authority. An example occurs in this week’s haftarah immediately after the verse about God’s feet.
And they will walk to you bowing,
The children of your oppressors.
And they will bow down at the soles of your raglayim,
Everyone who used to scorn you.
And they will call you City of God,
Zion, Holy of Israel. (Isaiah 60:14)
People bow down to the ground to honor God throughout the Hebrew Bible, but they never bow to God’s feet. They do, however, bow down to God’s footstool in the Psalms.
Let us enter His sanctuary.
Let us bow down to His hadom-raglayim.
Arise, God, to your resting-place,
You and the ark of Your power! (Psalm 132:7-8)
hadom-raglayim (הֲדֺם־רַגְלַיִם) = the stool for a pair of feet; footstool. (Used in the Bible five times in reference to God, and once in Psalm 110:1 in reference to King David.)
In Psalm 132:7 God’s footstool is the ark inside the sanctuary. In Psalm 99:5 and 1 Chronicles 28:2 it seems to be the whole sanctuary. In Lamentations 2:1 God’s footstool is Zion or Israel in general. In second Isaiah, the idea of God’s footstool expands along with the idea of God:
Thus said Hashem:
The heavens are My throne
And the earth is My hadom-raglayim.
Where is this house that you will build for Me?
Where is this place, my resting-place?
All these were made by My hand,
So all these came into being
—declares God. (Isaiah 66:1-2)
This week’s haftarah is the sixth of seven readings from second Isaiah called the seven haftarot of consolation. Each one gives us a different view of God, either by shaking up one of the traditional beliefs about a local, anthropomorphic God or by expanding on the concept of a single abstract God for the whole universe.
How can we interpret the line “And the place of My raglayim I will honor” in this haftarah?
God is addressing Jerusalem—but not the ruined houses and broken stones of the old city in the hills of Judah. God is really addressing the people of Jerusalem, the exiles who feel ruined and broken in Babylon. Now they have a chance to go home and rebuild. Now the people can make themselves into a holy footstool, a hadom-raglayim, for God.
Then will they see God’s feet over their heads? No. In the rest of this week’s haftarah second Isaiah describes God’s presence in terms of light, not body parts. The haftarah begins: Arise, shine, for your light has come. (See my earlier post, Haftarah for Ki Tavo—Isaiah: Rise and Shine.)
After God promises to honor the temple as if God’s feet rested there, the haftarah says:
God will be for you an everlasting light;
And your God will be your splendor. (Isaiah 60:19)
The presence of God is more like light than like a robed figure with feet. And if you make yourselves a holy community, the light of God will shine through you.