What We Talk About When We Talk About God

So God is just like you and me, right? Maimonides explains why the Bible's descriptions of God can't be taken literally.

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TO COME NEAR (karav). To say that God is near to those who call upon Him (Psalm 145:18) is to speak about intellectual comprehension, not physical location (Guide 1.18). The same applies to words which suggest that people can touch or approach God. They approach God in the way one approaches the understanding of a principle or idea. Thus, a person might say, "Scientists are getting closer and closer to a cure for this disease." What is meant is that their ideas are becoming clearer and their theories more comprehensive.

TO SPEAK (amar). God does not have a mouth or utter sounds. A person who attempted to record God's communication with Abraham or Moses would hear nothing. The hundreds of passages that say "and God spoke" are using figurative language to mean "and God willed" (Guide 1.65). By virtue of superior understanding of God, the prophet is able to understand what God wants us to do, which is to say, what God commands. These commandments need not be transmitted by sound waves in the air. Similarly, God's hearing is another word for His comprehending (Guide 1.45).

From these examples it is clear that the drift of Maimonides' exegesis is to make the relationship between God and His prophets an intellectual one. Maimonides is one in a long line of Jewish commentators who have proposed rationalistic interpretations of Scripture. Thus, words denoting place, sight, hearing, or positions are interpreted as mental properties or dispositions. In our own vocabulary, it could be said that Maimonides has attempted to demythologize biblical narrative. Instead of a God who dwells in heaven, sits on a throne, visits earth, and utters sounds, we are given a God who is perfect intelligence. Instead of prophets who are visited by God in a literal way, we are given prophets who understand what God wants for the world.

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Kenneth Seeskin

Kenneth Seeskin is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University.