God: A Great Personality

The biblical God is a God we can relate to.


Reprinted with permission from The Way Into: Encountering God in Judaism, published by Jewish Lights.

At the very beginning of human history, God goes searching for Adam. Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and have hidden among the trees of the garden. God will not let them hide. God wanders through the garden, calling out, "Where are you?" Shortly thereafter, Cain kills Abel, and God calls out to Cain, "Where is your brother, Abel?"


When we read biblical narratives of this kind, we should always ask: Why are the stories written in this way? These same stories could have been narrated in many different ways, but the Bible records these particular versions. In both instances, God uses the second person: "Where are you?" and "Where is your brother?" In each case the question is directed to an individual human being. These mythic narratives are designed to teach us something about the nature of the human being. They also teach us about the biblical image of God. This God relates to, addresses, commands, and negotiates with individual human beings. More important, this God cares about the destiny of individual human beings, of all human beings. For Adam and Eve and Cain are us. God addresses each of us as well: "Where are you?" "Where is your brother?"

The image of God in these stories is a "personal" God. God is portrayed as acting with intent, purpose, and concern toward and about individual human beings. God enters into interpersonal relationships. The term interpersonal relationship implies the presence of two persons. The only kind of god who would not be a personal god is one who acts blindly, by rote, without focus or intentionality, who mechanically follows a set of laws, whose mind never changes, who does not have a mind to change in the first place, who knows nothing about feelings, who does not have an inner life.

The personal God lives in a dynamic, ever‑changing relationship with people; the impersonal god knows nothing of relationships. This metaphor of a personal God is concretized in the many more specific biblical metaphors for God: God is a shepherd, a parent, a teacher, a lover, a sovereign, a judge, a spouse. These are all relational qualities: a shepherd needs sheep, a sovereign needs subjects, a lover needs a beloved. They all capture the sense that God is personally and intensely involved in relationships with people.

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Dr. Neil Gillman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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