What is Biblical Antrhopomorphism?

According to Bonnie Howe, (NIDB 1:173), “Anthropomorphism is the analogical application of human characteristics and actions to something that is not human” (emphasis added). A definition like this one conveniently avoids the possible application of ontological forms (μορφη; morphe) back on to the divine. It is merely analogical, God is like in ways that stop short of the human shape. Howe makes this even further explicit: “Scripture uses anthropomorphisms when it describes God as a person with humanlike feelings and actions.” For Howe, it seems, one would not apply the label anthropomorphism to the form God assumes in a theophany (e.g. Gen 18:1-2).

In his article on theophany, Walter Harrelson (NIDB 5:560) provides an explanation as to why anthropomorphism would not be applied to the form God takes in a theophany: “These special theophanies found in early biblical texts tend to avoid any too specific portrayal of the deity, holding fast to the second commandment of the Decalogue: ‘You shall make no idol’ (Exod 20:4 Exod 20:4 ). Not even words of the poets and sages go so far as to describe the appearance of the deity.” While an explanation of this sort is intelligible in and of itself, it hardly seems to support the full weight of the biblical data.

Is it true that biblical texts avoid too specific a portrayal of the divine? In the second chapter of his book, The Bodies of God in the World of Ancient Israel, Benjamin Sommer presents a wealth of biblical and extra-biblical data that supports an understanding of divine embodiment in Israel, God’s presence in wood or stone being among his principle examples. This data lends itself to the interpretation of other data which can only be examined within the biblical text. These texts suggest that God appears in non-recoverable forms, human forms.

Of course, not all the biblical data is in agreement with this view of divine embodiment (see Sommer’s third chapter), but this fact does not allow us to dispose of the data that we find less relevant or orthodox. Sommer contends, “my bedrock assumption as a biblical theologian is that every passage found in sacred scripture is there to teach us something. We may have the right to react to what is in scripture; we may have the right to disagree with it; but we have no right to ignore it.”

Moving forward in this vein, biblical anthropomorphism is not merely a feature of texts that ascribe to God human characteristics and actions in an obviously metaphorical way (which is a valid facet of a proper understanding of anthropomorphism), but includes those texts which portray the appearance of God as an anthropos, a human. The quintessential case being that of Genesis 18 when YHWH appears to Abraham, and Abraham looks up (literally “lifts his eyes”) and beholds (הנה) three men. The narrator alternates between third person plural verbs and 3 person singular verbs with YHWH as subject (cf. 18:5, 9, 10, 13, 17).

According to Howe, “Too literal readings of anthropomorphisms neglect their metaphorical, analogical qualities.” One could just as easily argue that too metaphorical/analogical readings of anthropomorphisms neglect their very real, corporeal qualities, a modern bias that Sommer challenges in his excellent book. When people dismiss a theology by arguing that something is anthropomorphic, they assume that ‘anthropomorphism’ is a label not unlike ‘metaphorical’ or ‘figurative.’ Saying something is an anthropomorphism asserts nothing beyond saying that here, God is portrayed in some way or ways typically characteristic of humanity. It says little about whether or not that portrayal is metaphorical, analogical, or real


9 thoughts on “What is Biblical Antrhopomorphism?

  1. In the scriptures, YHVH is consistently a man who lives in the sky (in some texts, specifically, in the sun). His deputies, too, are consistently men who live in the sky. And the sky is a solid structure one HighTower above the land.

    The quintessential text is not Gen 18 (though that is relevant) but rather Gen 9:6

    Ge 9:6 Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

    Man is an animated statue of YHVH himself.

    1. In referring to the “quintessential text”, I was referring to theophany texts. Certainly the concept of the image of God is relevant to this discussion, but the texts that contain it are not the quintessential anthropomorphic theophany texts.

  2. I see.

    Here’s my point, though.

    Are we to understand that YHVH is doing the molding of the statue from afar? Or, as I read it, kneeling in the mud? Does he breathe on the mud from the sky and toss trees down from on high? Or is he there in the garden that he manually planted? Does he take the rib out by magic? Or by invasive surgery? Does he walk with Adam in the cool of the day invisibly? Or “hombre con hombre?

    Clearly we are to picture a man entering the garden, from whom Adam and Eve attempt to hide, no? Not a burning bush.

    Read aright and honestly, the God of Moses has a form, and that form is human form, which was copied from the original man, by the original man and in the likeness of the original man.

    God is flesh and breath also. He breathed his own breath into Adam, but said:

    Ge 6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit [breath] shall not always strive with man, for that ***he also [like I am,] is flesh: yet*** his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

    1. In Genesis 1, yes he is creating “from afar.” Speech, not fingers, are his creative tools. It is only in Genesis 2 that he gets dirt underneath his fingernails. This is one of the classic differences between Genesis 1 and 2. So no, Genesis 1 is not a theophany. Genesis 2 is, but that theophany is detached from the creation of man in the image of God in Genesis 1.

  3. >>>…Genesis 2 is, but that theophany is detached from the creation of man in the image of God in Genesis 1…

    Genesis moves from “let there be” to “let us make” and from “after its kind” to “in our image.” Are you saying that, as the text stands now, they are referring to different events and a different Adakm? Or are you referring to the theory of different source texts that should be considered individually, based on whether they have a priestly focus, etc?

  4. It isn’t a matter of source criticism but of literary criticism. Both Genesis 1 and 2 refer to the same event, but they tell it in two different ways. I don’t want to conflate the way the story is told in Genesis 1 with the way it is told in Genesis 2, as though only when read together do we get the real or actual picture.

  5. I made no reference to Gen 1 that I am aware of. I pointed to:

    Ge 9:6 Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

    What literary rules are you adhering to in reaching a “Biblical” anthropology that divorces Chapter two from what the Bible (as a whole) says?

    I would say that, both Genesis 1 and 2 are embraced later in the scriptures, as telling one story. What are the rules?

    1. Genesis 9:6 describes creation from the perspective of Genesis 1, which is why I introduce that text into our conversation. The motif of God’s image is fairly common in the ancient Near East, and I believe that in studying this imagery in its ANE context, one will find the emphasis on the divine image to function differently than the molding of the human from the hummus in Genesis 2. What is going on in Genesis 2 is not divorced from Genesis 1 as much as it is focused on something else. Certainly Genesis 1 and 2 tell one story, but not in the same way. This is similar to saying that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell one story, but not in the same way. Just as it is unfair to conflate the individual gospels into a single gospel (sacrificing the diversity for the sake of unity), it is unfair to conflate the individual creation stories into a single account. We must honor both their unity and their diversity.

      If the imagery of each creation story was painted on a canvas, the proper way to bring the imagery together would be in a art gallery. Here, the paintings can be viewed together as belonging to a single collection without sacrificing the individuality of each picture. And while there may be legitimate points of contact between the paintings, their may also be legitimate distinctives. One distinctive of Genesis 1 would be the transcendence of the creator God. One distinctive of Genesis 2 would be the immanence of the creator God.

      Sommer would argue that Genesis 1 belongs to P which accepts divine embodiment, but not in the same way as JE, to which Genesis 2 belongs. I essentially agree, but I am trying to argue along a somewhat parallel but alternative line of thinking.

  6. You identify Gen 1 as “transcendent,” and thus “let us make man in our image” as an expression from detachment? He is, by the rules of “P” or whatever of necessity be speaking of analogy, rather than a shared form? I don’t see that way. It is the climax of the chapter. Prior to verse 26, all is spoken into being. At 26, he becomes intimate. He is going to make a being who shares his image.

    I find the “P” and “J” stuff too speculative for my taste, and find it shaky ground upon which to conduct an interpretation.

    That isn’t to say that the text, as it stands, doesn’t have problems. I just don’t think erecting walls after every pericope will help grasp the text as it stands, and how the extant edition was intended to be understood.

    If the edition we have before us is the result of Jeremiah’s editing, so be it. I, personally, am not concerned with what P was concerned with, or J, or whoever. And the LXX viewpoint is indeed its own animal, and should be considered separately (especially since it is the text of the NT writers).

    The point is, that from Genesis to Revelation, God is a manlike being who lives in the sky, as are the angels.

    Having said, that, I of course note that in Gen 1, woman shares the image of God, whereas in Gen 2 and forward, the egalitarian view is abandoned. Woman goes from co-bearer of the image to assistant to the image.

    But the point is that when you discuss “Biblical” theology proper, the portrait is of a man… a very physical, human like, solid being, eight miles high.

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