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Anthropomorphism (in the Bible)


The attribution of human characteristics, emotions, and situations to God. Israel's faith in God found concrete expression in anthropomorphic language. Anthropomorphisms occur in all parts of the OT. God is described as having eyes (Am 9.3; Sir 11.12), ears (Dn 9.18), hands (Is 5.25), and feet (Gn 3.8; Is 63.3). He molds man out of the dust, plants a garden, takes His rest (Gn 2.3, 78). He speaks (Gn 1.3; Lv 4.1), listens (Ex 16.12), and closes the door of Noah's ark (Gn 7.16); He even whistles (Is 7.18). Other expressions credit God with human emotions: He laughs (Ps 2.4), rejoices (Zep 3.17), becomes angry (1 Chr 13.10), disgusted (Lv 20.23), regretful (Jer 42.10), and revengeful (Is 1.24). Very frequently He is declared to be a jealous God (Ex 20.5; Dt 5.9).

Such language reflects the Semitic belief that the spiritual and physical realms are not mutually exclusive. The Hebrews, little inclined toward philosophical abstraction, were helped by anthropomorphisms better to understand God's living presence among them.

To speak so familiarly of God entailed some risk, but no widespread misunderstanding of the bold imagery of anthropomorphic language seems to have arisen. Periodically, however (Hos 11.9; Jb 10.4; Nm 23.19), warnings were issued lest anyone take the graphic images literally. Yahweh was consistently understood to be divine, holy, entirely different from creatures, and utterly unique. No man-made image of Him was ever permitted (Dt 4.12; 5.8), lest it be thought to imprison Him or to place Him under man's control. Unlike the pagan gods, Yahweh had no visible shape or form, and was clearly known to be allholy, transcendent, self-sufficient, and spiritual.

Bibliography: w. eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. j. a. baker (London 1961). p. van imschoot, Théologie de l'Ancien Testament, 2 v. (Tournai 195456). e. jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. a. w. heathcote and p. j. allcock (New York 1958).

[r. t. a. murphy]

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