Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

God’s eye view – in the parasha and at the protests (34)

Protesters demonstrate against the government's judicial overhaul plan on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, July 1, 2023. (Gilad Furst) Times of Israel

This is my 34th consecutive post connecting the parasha and Israel’s pro-democracy protests. To receive e-mail notifications for future posts, write to me using the contact form on my banner (above right).  

This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, includes a striking exhortation: Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 26:15). The request for blessings for the people and land of Israel is routine, but the image of God looking down from heaven is not. What does it signify?

Its context in Ki Tavo suggests oversight of a process of accounting. After three years in the land, the Israelites are required to tithe, give a tenth of, their crops to the Levites, resident aliens, widows, and orphans, making a formal declaration that they have done so in accordance with all the rules (Deuteronomy 26:12-14). Then they must implore God to look down from his holy habitation, from heaven, seeking his affirmation that that they’ve followed all the correct procedures and declared their compliance. God as heavenly accountant, signing off on Israel’s tax return.

Psalm 14 opens with the same image used differently. No-one implores God to look down from heaven. He looks down, of his own accord, not on Israel, but on all humanity (v 2). He’s hoping to find wise people who seek him, but he finds only perverse people who have gone astray (v 2). These verses are reminiscent of God’s descent to see what’s going on in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:21). Whereas the reference in Ki Tavo focused on obedience to specific rules – the laws of tithing, and the commandments in general – Psalm 14 has a universalist stance. But both are concerned with monitoring human behavior.

As in Psalm 14, in Psalm 33, God looks down from heaven at all humankind, gazes from his dwelling-place at all the inhabitants of the earth (vv 13-14). There’s no monitoring here, and God’s not looking down to differentiate. He simply looks at people who look to him. It’s desirable to be the object of God’s gaze: he keeps his eye on those who revere him, preserving their lives, especially in times of famine (v 19).

Psalm 80 shows the complexity of this image. Once again, Israel – described here in botanical imagery as a vine and a stock  – begs God to look down from heaven (v 15). But this time it’s not so much what God sees that’s important as the direction in which he’s facing, and the effect of his countenance. ‘Turn again’ (v 14), Israel implores. They hope that God’s angry face, that caused them to wither (v 17), will once again shine on them (v 8, cf. the priestly blessing, Numbers 6:23-27) and save them.

In Psalm 102, God looks down at the earth from his holy height, from heaven, to respond to the groan of prisoners and set them free (vv 19-20). The next verse refers to Zion and Jerusalem, suggesting that the Psalm is Israel-centric (v 21). But it also speaks about all the ‘peoples’ and ‘kingdoms’ that will gather in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, emphasizing that God sees all the world (v 22) when he looks down from heaven.

Two other biblical passages make a connection between Jerusalem and the image of God looking down from heaven.  In Isaiah 63, the prophet implores God to look down from heaven and see, from his holy and glorious habitation, the suffering of his people (v 15). Your adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary, Isaiah tells God (v 18). This is a crushing blow for Israel, but is the prophet also offering reassurance? The Jerusalem Temple may have been destroyed, but God resides safely in heaven, his holy and glorious abode, far from earthly mayhem. The Temple was not his home, but a focus of his attention.

Lamentations 3 likewise deals with the destruction of Jerusalem by its enemies (vv 46-47), and the hope that God will look down from heaven and see his people’s suffering (v 50). Three times, the poet mentions his own eyes: my eyes flow with rivers of tears (v 48); my eyes will flow without ceasing (v 49); my eyes cause me grief at the fate of the city’s young women (v 51). Is he hoping to inspire God to imitate him and open his eyes?

A superb, highly recommended, exhibition at the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem (through October 20) tells the history of Israeli protest through photographs and videos. You can book on the website for guided tours on Fridays at 11.00. The images below are not from the exhibition, but you can find a few here: Democrisis: Protest, Resistance and Civil Disobedience in Israel.

A feature of Democrisis that jumps out is the transformative impact on demonstrations of drone photography. The exhibition’s opening image (it’s not chronological) shows a Black Flag (anti-Netanyahu) demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square during the Covid-19 pandemic. Painted lines divide the square, enabling protesters to observe Corona restrictions while demonstrating. The image (similar to the one below) must have been captured by a drone.

In this Saturday, April 25, 2020 photo, people keep social distancing amid concerns over the country’s coronavirus outbreak, during “Black Flag” protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and government corruption, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty) Times of Israel

Other images – a red line, symbolizing the line the Coalition Government crossed long ago, snaking through Jerusalem, and a group of ‘handmaids’ in red and white surrounding the pool in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square – must also have been taken by drone.

Drone photography has transformed how demonstrations are reported. Intoxicating drone images of Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv appear in the Israeli press every Motzei Shabbat — as addictive as the vast headcounts that, week after week, accompany them. These and other protest photos are shared around the world, helping to generate some of the most positive coverage of Israel in the foreign press for years.

Protesters supporting women’s rights dressed as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale TV series attend a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system in the old port of Acre, north Israel, Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit). Times of Israel

And photographs taken from the air have influenced how protests are planned. The massive Declaration of Independence Scroll that has been raised aloft above crowds at demonstrations reminds protesters of the values they committed to and, for many, why they came to this country in the first place. But its impact is arguably even greater for social media viewers, who can see (if not read) the words.

Demonstrators carry a massive Declaration of Independence during a rally in Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli government’s planned overhaul of the judicial system, on February 18, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90). Times of Israel.

Messages such as the one below — ‘And the main thing is not to be afraid’ — and the slogan in my headline photo — ‘We must stop Israel’s destroyers’ — can also be empowering on the day. But again their main impact is on viewers who will see them later in drone photographs on social media.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2023. (Courtesy/GIlad Furst) Times of Israel.

The photographs of early demonstrations exhibited at the Museum on the Seam – port strikes, the Black Panther protests demanding equality for Jews from the Middle East and North Africa – are powerful primarily for their closeups of Israeli faces, famous and anonymous. By contrast, with some striking exceptions, individuals are less prominent in images of the pro-democracy protests. Their power lies in their representation of multitudes. I can’t help thinking of another biblical passage that, without explicitly describing God looking down from heaven, captures unforgettably a God’s eye view of the world.

Isaiah 40:21 Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in, 23 who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

In drone photographs of Israel’s pro-democracy protests, we are the grasshoppers. As for our current princes and rulers, I know I’m not alone in praying that this too will pass.

Embed from Getty Images



About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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