Does God Have a Body?

ancientartifacts critical reading embodied expanding our perspective hebrew bible mindset scripture tension May 09, 2022

How did the ancient Israelites glean their understanding of the divine? How was the God of the Hebrew Bible characterized? Theologians and scholars have long interpreted the God of the Hebrew Bible as multifaceted and complex. These complexities are not mere inventions of scholars, but have their roots in the text themselves. In some instances, the divine is depicted anthropomorphically (having human characteristics). However, other texts specify that no one can see God and live. 

For example, in Genesis 2-3 God is portrayed as a gardener walking among the first humans. These are the same humans who were made in “the image of God” and God’s breath infused life into them. The anthropomorphic elements of the divine such as the ability to walk, breathe, and speak are all qualities that humanity shares as well. God is physically present in this story and has the capability to move about freely, converse, and express emotions. 

The revelation at Sinai, however, delineates another dimension of the divine. Here, the divine voice bellows from the thunder and lightening surrounding the mountain where the ancient Israelites were encamped. According to Exod 33:23, no one can see God and live, yet Moses may have seen his face (Exod 33:11) or possibly just his back (Exod 33:22-23). 

We are told that the prophet Isaiah saw God and was terrified that he was about to die because of the vision. Fortunately, one of the seraphs flew down, took burning coals from that altar, and purified Isaiah’s lips with the coal (Isa 6:1-7). Amos, however, mentions seeing God at the altar and this event did not seem to cause him dismay (Amos 9:1). 

Does the Old Testament actually describe God as an abstract entity, invisible and incomprehensible to all human perception? I would argue to the contrary. The Bible never mentions that God is invisible, so how can the divine be characterized as an abstract identity? This portrait of the divine is a product of Western Theological thought. The Christian theologian, Augustine of Hippo, and various philosophers of the Middle Ages, such as Maimonides, emphasized the “mysterious” or “abstract” nature of the divine and these interpretations have influenced modern notions of divinity. Augustine wrote fifteen books on the trinity alone and in particular, on the nature of God. He truly desired to understand the divine, but the aloofness and unapproachability that he describes do not match up with sections of Genesis and early Hebrew poetry. Therefore, a dichotomy arose between anthropomorphic descriptions of the divine, which can be found in the Talmud and the Midrash, and later interpretations that insisted that the divine was transcendent. 

It is precisely this tension that gives the God of the Hebrew Bible a vibrant persona, oscillating between human likeness and intangibility. The biblical text depicts the divine as anthropomorphically present and unbounded at the same time. Therefore, God can be in human form speaking with Abraham or embodied in a stone that Jacob slept on at Bethel. God has an expansive self enabling him to be both present and divine at the same time. God’s unique qualities are not diminished in any way by being accessible. He can maintain his transcendence, yet establish human connection as well. 

If the writers and compilers of the Torah did not deem it necessary to remove all anthropomorphic depictions of the divine, then perhaps we too can embrace the various caricatures that the text portrays, in particular those that describe God as having a physical body.

Next week, we will discuss some of the recent published research on this topic...

                                                                                           Jennifer Metten Pantoja

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