Ever since Cecil B. DeMille used Charlton Heston’s heavily modified voice in his Ten Commandments (1956), the phrase “the voice of God” has become a synonym for “deep male voice.”
But the voice of God has not always been imagined in this way. At times, the voice of God has been described as that of a parent (which could seem benign, benevolent, or terrifying, depending on what kind of relationship you’ve had with your parents). We are also told that God speaks in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). When the prophet Samuel heard God’s voice (1 Samuel 3), it was so ordinary-sounding that Samuel thought it was his teacher Eli. It took God four—four!—calls to Samuel to get the young prophet’s attention.
This is why Ridley Scott’s decision to cast an eleven-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews, a British actor) as the voice of God in the 3-D extravaganza Exodus: Gods and Kings is not only innovative and refreshing, but also startlingly traditional. The Bible more often portrays God’s voice as sounding ordinary and meek than as booming and thunderous. The critics who are deriding Scott’s decision as heretical, blasphemous, or somehow unfaithful to Scripture seem to be overlooking Scripture’s actual descriptions of God’s voice.
From a certain Jewish perspective, to claim that we know anything about God as a matter of factual certainty, let alone that we know something as specific as how God’s voice sounds, is a mistake. Theology is not an empirical discipline; we cannot know anything of the nature of God in the same way we can know the nature of Saturn’s rings. The latter, unlike the former, is discoverable through astronomic explorations, scientific investigations, and empirical observations. Theology is closer to an art than a science; just as something is “true” in art if it resonates with something deep within us, or is reflective of our emotional intuition of the way we experience the world, so too, a theological claim is “true” if it harmonizes with our emotions, is reflective of our lives, or offers us a meaningful narrative for our existence.
And theology is revelatory when it engenders within us feelings of transcendence, when it puts us in touch with God, the infallible Other, and when it catalyzes us to contemplate the numinous and ponder the mystery of existence. Theology, thus, is about both us and God, though not about God as an empirical science, but as a revelation and disclosure of the divine to us. Yet, because revelation still does not disclose any physical or scientific data about God, the prophet Isaiah—or as biblical scholars would have it, Second Isaiah—warns us against uttering any empirical claims about God:
To whom can you compare Me
Or declare me similar?
To whom can you like Me,
So that we seem comparable?
Even the biblical prophets seemed to understand that, while we could make certain theological truth claims about God, we could never truly understand anything about the nature of God with any degree of factual certainty. We could, perhaps, experience God’s “hand” in history, in our lives, and in moments of transcendence, but we can never know, as a matter of fact, what God’s “hand” looks like, any more than we can ever know if God even has a “hand.” To understand more fully, one can consult the writings of Maimonides, especially The Guide to the Perplexed and the Mishneh Torah (The Code of Jewish Law) in the section entitled “Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah.”
To claim to know what the voice of God sounds like as a matter of fact is akin to claiming to know the exact meaning of a symphony, such as Smetana’s Ma Vlast. Not only can one not know the meaning with factual certainty, but one cannot even know how exactly the Smetana symphony is supposed to sound with factual certainty. Perhaps Smetana intended it to be played in different ways at different times; perhaps Smetana knew that in his time, it would be played one way and later, when the craft of music, the individual members of an orchestra, the variety of conductors’ interpretations of the piece—and the instruments themselves—underwent change, its sound would be subtly but noticeably different. We have evidence—not scientific or historical, but biblical evidence—that, just as God was experienced in different ways at different times in history, so too, the sound of God’s voice was experienced in different ways at different times in ancient history.
Moreover, traditional theology—in the Jewish tradition, at least—insists that God’s voice is not uniform: though Jews are monotheists, we do not believe that God speaks in monotone. God’s words are polyphonous—subject to multiple interpretations and many-layered readings. “‘Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, ‘and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’” (Jeremiah 23:29). Scripture can encompass multitudes of interpretations (up to seventy, according to Jewish tradition), in part because God Himself is multi-dimensional and cannot be understood in a simple, facile glance. “Truth is various,” wrote Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader; “truth comes to us in different guises; it is not with the intellect alone that we perceive it.” According to the talmudic interpretation of Jeremiah—“these and these are the words of the living God,” for “just as a hammer shatters a rock into many pieces, so does one biblical verse (God’s word) convey many meanings” (Sanh. 34a)—Woolf may as well have been writing about theological truth as artistic truth.
And not only is the word of God heard in many different ways, but the voice of God itself, suggests Jewish tradition, is heard in many different tones. When Moses heard God speak to him for the first time at the burning bush, the ancient rabbis stated that God’s voice sounded to Moses like that of his father Amram.
If God’s image is not exactly in the eye of the beholder—after all, the Bible states that one cannot look at God and live—the sound of God’s voice does seem to be in the ear of the listener. According to rabbinic theology, just as Moses experienced God’s voice in a certain way, so too, no two individuals experience God in the same fashion. God reveals Himself to individuals in a fashion that “corresponds to the capacity of each individual listener” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b). The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that when God spoke to the entire Jewish people during the theophany at Sinai, each person’s understanding of God differed, because God chose to make Himself understood “according to the comprehension of each” (B.T., Chagigah 13b).
If God’s voice changes to suit the ear of the listener, then the divine word—like the sound of the divine voice itself—may also be open to new, multiple tones and interpretations. If, as the rabbis explain, God spoke to Moses with the voice of his father in order to put Moses at ease, what’s to say that God didn’t rise an octave or two to speak to Joshua with the voice of a young boy? To suggest that God is constrained to only a certain vocal range is to limit God’s power.
Yet, an even more radical—if still thoroughly traditional—tonal shift is waiting to be made. The Talmud describes God as speaking to the wise through a heavenly voice termed a bat-kol: literally, a “daughter of a voice.” The implication is clear: God can make His—nay, Her—voice sound like a woman’s. If Ridley Scott can direct a movie in which a Gladiator-like Moses hears God speak to him with the voice of an eleven-year-old boy, how far off are we from a Book of Judges movie in which a Xena: Warrior Princess-like Deborah hears God in the voice of an 81-year-old woman—say, Judi Dench?
Would we really be able to stand in fear and awe before a feminine God? If presidential politics and predictions for the 2016 election are any indication, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Almost a century after Virginia Woolf demanded that women be given a room of their own, perhaps it is well-nigh time that women be given a voice of their own as well. Hollywood, are you listening? Because very, very soon, that authoritative voice in our ears will sound an awful lot more like our mother’s than our father’s. And for this revolutionary voyage out of staid scales and modes toward exciting new vocalizations, we have only our uninhibited imaginations—and God Herself—to thank.