Ruminations

Anthropomorphic Features of God in the Old Testament

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The title intends to explain why God seems to be more fallibly human in the beginning of Scripture than later on. For example, in the New Testament, God is and acts exactly how we perceive Him to be: omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. He doesn’t need anything, such as the Old Testament sacrifices, which in the Ancient Near East (ANE) were thought to feed the gods who would die without it (!), and blood was for their thirst.

If we start from the very beginning, we see God conversing with Adam and Eve like a neighbor (which He was at that point). Then He is more and more distant. After the Flood one needs prophets. It isn’t until Jesus comes (which indirectly may signify his deity) that this indirect relationship is briefly truncated (cf. “Ask for things while I’m with you” [John 14ff.] – whereas surely God can do anything whether He’s in the flesh or not, right? But that’s the point of our essay, the Problem of Evil [cf. Matthew 17:17]; John 11:21 – Jesus proves, like the Centurion’s son, that he doesn’t need to be present the way folkloristic magic, what the people believed (and what he entertained, important for later!) at the time).

God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, and especially omniscience can easily be challenged in the beginning of the Bible. This is not because those were more “primitive” times – The Old Testament was written from 1500-~300 BC, and if you’re not a conservative on this issue, the argument is even more in the conservative favor, because you’d place that composition at ~800-150 BC, and theology didn’t really change much on this basic issue (sacrifices existed into New Testament times, etc).

So, God asks Adam and Eve in the beginning, “Where are you?” “Who told you that you are naked?” etc. This is a rhetorical question, because there’s no one in the world (literally) that could tell them they were naked, except I suppose the snake, which again wouldn’t need a question. The same is true of God’s (metaphor physically expressed) sending the two angels to Sodom and Gomorrha to “find out” if there were even 5 righteous people there (they only find Lot and his wife and two daughters – 4; a questionable number indeed since his wife disobeys the divine messengers and turns around in full obstinance (like sin) to what people back then never did when told, and the two daughters as we know begin the Moabite and Amonite races in ways that are beyond the scope of this essay..). BUT, the angels do not check Gomorrha which is destroyed at the same time. This is therefore an illustration to Abraham that: 1) God is not indifferent to our queries, and 2) He knows better. “But couldn’t He have made Abraham to know that He knows?” Sure. Does He need to? Not really. Then we’d ask why Abraham had to have physical characteristics of such and such nature, which is irrelevant because it’s arbitrary and doesn’t need to be otherwise. If anything, the message and symbol are more effective this way, not to mention that we learn better through stories than lectures (which could again be remedied, but is again unnecessary and worse in view of the lost opportunity for the symbol, whose substance, our natural laws, essence, etc, is also arbitrary and not necessary to be otherwise (actually impossible – see Euthyphro Dilemma)).

Moving on, the Old Testament (OT) sacrifices reflected this same “acquiescence” that Jesus did in his day for the people – why re-establish a whole mentality? That didn’t change frequently at all in those days – the Mesopotamian writing style didn’t change for thousands of years, for example. God could work with a system rather than reinvent the wheel. True, He could replace everyone’s “mentality,” but again, there’s no point. This may also reflect the fact that He wants to remain hidden for good reasons as well as have several types of symbols and purposes – see The Great Deception [2 Thessalonians 2:10-12] – in their day and perhaps in ours.

This is why God is referred to as “El,” which was the main ancient Canaanite deity (but not as popular as the storm god Baal and the other baalim). In the New Testament (NT), in several places it’s acknowledged that God doesn’t need anything: neither a temple built by human hands (a late OT “admission” as well), nor sacrifices or anything of the like since He created the world and couldn’t logically need what needed Him in the first place (Genesis 1). Scholars like Ernst Haenchen maintain that this is a late influence from Greek philosophy (Stoicism), but while Paul certainly knew of Greek philosophy, this concept was known to the OT quite well – Psalm 50:12-15 (also Matthew 6:8). Haenchen inexplicably rejects this as not being universal, which is quite obviously the case. No ancient mythology had a deity creating the world Ex Nihilo, hence could not logically be independent of the “chaos” that reigned in the beginning.

The most peculiar of the anthropomorphic features of God is the fact that any Israelite who saw Him (or even His angels in later times – cf. Judges 13), would die on the spot. This was clearly some ancient pagan belief, but God, as we’ve said, entertained it, perhaps even sarcastically. In Exodus 19:19-25 God seems to “forget” He told Moses that anyone who came up to the mountain would die; yet Moses’ memory is untarnished on this point. When God appears to Moses in Deuteronomy 33-34, He has to show only his backside and Moses has a leftover glow. Paul interprets this metaphorically in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 (while clearly believing in the event as literal and historical). In typical midrash, which is often misunderstood, Paul uses the lesson in this. In Galatians, Paul “erroneously” uses an argument his Greek audience would understand for convenience’s sake (like how mathematicians use 0!=1 for convenience), similar to how God decides to deal with things. Paul’s argument, like God’s actions, hinges not on the technicality of it, but the meaning, so trying to refute midrash whose intent doesn’t utilize details like this at its base, is starting off in the wrong direction (the word for seed in Galatians 3:16 has a plural in Greek but not in Hebrew; although the LXX translates it in the singular in Greek, clearly the intent is plural. But Paul is hinting at another, deeper significance). After all, Jesus was flesh and blood, which is fallible, but his essence and significance were far deeper than these superficial traits. Similar reasons are probably behind the seemingly malicious reasons God has for the confusion of languages (Genesis 11:8). And this is why also Hebrews 9:4 refers to a golden pot of manna whereas this is unstated in Scripture. But we know from Philo of Alexandria that it was common Jewish tradition. And it makes sense: if the rest of the items were golden as Scripture says, it only stands to reason that the pot wouldn’t be a rusty broken item from your grandmother’s closet.

The later prophets seem more developed for these reasons. Jeremiah says that God never asked for sacrifices in the desert exactly for these two points we are making: 1. It was never the original intent that God needed anything and was self-centered, rather than “us”-centered, so long as we were obedient to what was right. 2. The midrash of the rabbis, when used correctly, is not an error of an imaginative tradition (which was actually quite pedantically literal if one reads the Talmud) – it might actually reflect something older than the 2nd century BC in some ways. Often the earlier works reflect later concepts which non-conservative scholars immediately chalk off to “later editors.” For example, Amos, a northern prophet who presumably would’ve had no interest in Judea’s affairs especially with the looming sword of Damocles that was the Assyrian empire, writes in Amos 9:11-15 about how Judah will be re-established. This is treated as a later addition by a post-Exilic author who for some reason decided to give a northern prophet the honor of this ex vaticinu prophecy. Not to mention that this type of textual criticism is unknown and unknowable actually in Old Testament texts due to their antiquity and as a result lack of manuscript verification. The complex methods of analysis for Amos specifically actually prevent these types of arbitrary excisions, and ultimately are a result of the accuracy and shock of these daring prophecies. If one wants to see genuine development (frequently in the wrong direction) of theology, one only has to examine the history of Christian theology and the numerous heresies. The Bible’s uncompromising uniformity and rejection of what was popular but sinful does not compare at all!

Some direct proof of this is the fact that God tells Abraham to go along with Sarah’s unjust and inhumane request, while clearly disagreeing with her (Genesis 21:12-13). This was not only contrary to God, but the general law at the time forbade the exile of a slavewoman and her children even if the man’s main wife conceived. God does something similar at Samuel’s anointment of David by telling Samuel how to trick Saul. But when push came to shove, always with a dual purpose (that of showing the Israelites who their, and everyone’s God is), God doesn’t hesitate to act just like with the Exodus. Another way of God showing His power for more than one reason and in more than one way (also for the Egyptians and this was not just gloating), while knowing that same generation would consistently aggravate Him. In the end, the reason why God had/has all those anthropomorphic features is because He wanted to show that He was with us. As Jesus says in John 14:15-18:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him…I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

This is why God the Father was with the Israelites from Abraham and on, Jesus during his ministry, and the Holy Spirit with all Christians now: God was with all mankind from the beginning, not just His technical reappearance to Abraham c.1750 BC (see our upcoming Chronology); He appeared to Balaam, Melchizedek, as well as Enoch, Noah, and many other pre-Abrahamic believers. Jesus’ technical existence was in Israel and with the same types of metaphors we consistently see throughout the Bible, for “Israel” only, yet he was meant for all mankind. And the Holy Spirit reflects this reality.

This might all sound like a “cop-out” trying to hide the influence of man upon religion, in this case Judeo-Christianity. But tact is different from compromise (in the negative sense). Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship when necessary, appealed to his Jewishness when amongst Jews, and quoted Greek writers when speaking to Greeks as both Acts and his letters show. As he says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23,

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

This is the general theme that pervades the entire Bible consistently. This is not hypocrisy on Paul’s part, and this is not evidence of human development in the Bible. If the presentation changes, but not the intent, there is no syncretism – something opponents of the Bible and religion in general frequently fail to realize. For example, many churches were built on top of previous pagan shrines. Many religious customs were originally pagan, but were given a Christian meaning. Muhammad did the same with customs that the Medinans had by saying, “You can keep the same customs, as long as they’re directed at Allah.” Imagine you are a pagan and you have a certain way of praying: kneeling, hands opened and lifted, looking up at the sky like the ancient way – the way Moses (and the ancient Semites) prayed. If you started praying that way to a different deity, are you now a syncretist? Of course not. If the purpose remains the same, and the outward ritual reflects this and isn’t just a cover, then it is not a corruption of the philosophy. For example, a Greco-Roman philosopher once debated the Roman emperor Trajan. Trajan came up with an erroneous argument which the philosopher could’ve easily refuted but refrained from doing so. When asked why, he stated, “one does not debate a man who is master of 120 legions (approximately 600,000 soldiers, which is about twice what the Romans ever had at their peak).” Weak-willed? Yes, if important, given his reasons. Did he change his mind? No. In Romans 14 (as well as 1 Corinthians 8), Paul develops an ingenious argument to alleviate the Roman Christians’ concern over pagan sacrificed meat. Basically in those days, any meat sold on the market had a chance of having been used as a pagan sacrifice by Roman priests who then sold the leftovers to the market. This naturally bothered Christians. However Paul explains that since the Roman gods don’t actually exist, their sacrifice has no actual blasphemy or idolatry – it’s all just made up rituals over a real substance (the meat), and so they shouldn’t worry. Was this occasioned and “developed” because of a man-made need? Yes! Is the argument therefore incorrect? Not at all, those gods don’t exist one way or another. In Genesis 30:37-43, Jacob, in a Mendelian-like pseudo-scientific effort makes his flocks stronger and striped. The sticks he places in the troughs are typical magic of the time, yet this wasn’t why the animals speciated with stripes and spots – it was because God saw Laban’s injustice as Gen. 31:10-13 makes clear. Yet Jacob clearly wasn’t chastised by saying, “Stop doing this,” since he believed this was from God (due to the dream) and not from magic, yet didn’t know how else to bring about speciation in an age more than 3000 years before genetics were known. Another obvious example is the fact that any non-Levite Israelite was immediately struck dead when he touched or even saw the insides of the Ark of the Covenant. Yet the Philistines were able to carry it away with “only” bubonic plague as a result (the rats with swells they left in the inside represented the disease as was their medicine back then). Clearly God never intended for legalism to reign over the metaphor that his strict laws represented (an issue that Jesus brought up as proof against the Pharisees’ hyper-literalism in Matt 15//Mark 7 when he pointed out David ate of the holy bread and how the priests can circumcise on the Sabbath). The various seemingly brutal killings of Israelites who out of curiosity looked at the Ark’s insides, or when someone touched it, even to straighten it out from falling from the bulls (who are unharmed, unlike when Joshua took various Canaanite cities), is explainable by the fact that in those days people were extremely conformed mentally and it took a lot of bold and unashamed audacity to do something like this; it wasn’t like our day where everyone has their own opinion by nature and it’s ok. For example, Mesopotamian writing style didn’t change for thousands of years.

When obvious syncretism and moral errors came from the Israelites, the Bible vehemently resisted them. This starts from Moses’ day with his Israelites, who like the unbelievers in Jesus’ day had witnessed miracles but were indifferent to the reality they knew they represented. And continues to the numerous godless kings of Judah and Israel, all the way down to Herod Agrippa I, who was struck by God for accepting blasphemous praise as both Acts and Josephus tell us. He persecuted the Apostles for this same crime, quite obviously as the Bible tells us because he liked the favor of the Jews (and contrary to Josephus’ usual filtered presentation of the king as a “tolerant and great one”). Like Trajan’s opponent, he remained silent, but his conscience was wounded as Romans 14 describes. He obviously accepted the praise, like he did from the Jews when persecuting Christians or whatever was popular, which amounts to confirmation, whether silent or not. Even without approving, silence can be damning as 1 Corinthians 8 tells us regarding the “weak” brother. But with respect to intent, one’s silence cannot be interpreted as either admission or denial, as we know from Jesus’ trial.

At any rate, there are numerous times when the Bible and individual prophets of God went against what was popular at their own (physical only!) peril. Despite maintaining that Judaism was just an offshoot of Canaanite religion, E. A. Elmer unwittingly or not contradicts this in his “The Old Testament in Light of its Canaanite Background” (1936) by telling us how the popular religious traits of the Middle East in Old Testament times had two major characteristics from Mesopotamia to Palestine to Egypt that the Bible never shared: 1. Reverence for the baalim, 2. Various hedonistic pleasures that accompanied all of ancient Near Eastern religion. The Bible incessantly fights the former and never even deigns to entertain the latter. Rudolph Bultmann maintains that the persons consecrated to God and Judaism were Temple prostitutes. This is an untenable opinion based on the aspects of ancient Near Eastern religion, but there is no evidence from the Bible. Samuel is one such person and there is no such hint. In fact mere fornication (from men, not just women as in Deuteronomy 22) seems to be forbidden when David tells the priest Ahimelech that his men have kept from women in general, let alone on a holy mission (1 Samuel 21:5). When Eli’s sons did this, which was tolerated only because it was so commonplace in the rest of the known world, the whole family line was cursed for all eternity! Even if there were supposedly competing traditions that made their way into Scripture, if one group could hold their ground so firmly for what would be virtually no reason, clearly we have something more than merely natural religion here. At any rate, there would have been evidence of the Baalim had there been such competing traditions at play.

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