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