jewish ideas of god

Early Jewish Conceptions of God

Early Jewish literature was not concerned with proving God's existence or categorically defining God's nature.

Early Jewish literature was not concerned with proving God’s existence or categorically defining God’s nature.

In the Hebrew Bible, God plays many roles and has many personalities. God is a judge, lawgiver, liberator, creator, father, king, and shepherd. Oftentimes, God’s attributes seem contradictory. God is said to be, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6), but God is also a vengeful warrior. Unlike the conception of God as perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful developed by the medieval philosophers, the God of the Bible is conflicted. As Jack Miles puts it in God: A Biography: “After each of His major actions, He discovers that He has not done quite what He thought He was doing, or has done something He never intended to do.”

The God of the Bible has real personality. God is depicted in nonphilosophical, human terms. God experiences anger and patience, jealousy and love. God is even described using physical imagery. God delivered the Israelite slaves from the Egyptians with, “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 26:8). In addition, the God of the Bible is accessible to humankind. God speaks through prophets and performs miracles for all to see. God’s dialogue with humankind is not a one-way relationship. God listens to the complaints of humans, even when they concern God Himself. Abraham, disturbed that God wants to destroy Sodom, challenges God to reconsider, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?…Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:23,25)

Two attributes of the biblical God–God’s creative capacity and God’s oneness–stand out in both their centrality and their novelty. The Bible begins with the creation story, in which God orders a chaotic, cosmic mess into an orderly world in six days. The Bible does not discuss where God came from. This makes it unique in ancient Near Eastern literature, whose stories about the world’s creation begin with the birth of the gods. God’s role as a creator is especially significant because it is in the context of creation that humans are described as being “in the image of God.” Monotheism is, arguably, the fundamental teaching and contribution of the Hebrew Bible. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), for Jews perhaps the best-known verse in the Torah, is recited in the Shema prayer, a central element of Jewish liturgy.

God as portrayed in rabbinic literature (the Talmud and midrash) is very similar to the God of the Bible. The Rabbis do not try to define God, and they continue to describe God in multiple, human terms. However, some differences do emerge. In rabbinic literature, God is a bit more removed from humankind. God no longer communicates with humans through prophets and is no longer considered an active religious legislator (the rabbinic sages occupy this role). In a famous talmudic dispute, a group of rabbis rule in favor of a majority opinion that directly contradicts a heavenly voice. The passage concludes that, “the Torah is not in heaven.” God, it seems, is not the final arbiter of religious law.

The conception of God in the heikhalot literature (a genre of mystical literature contemporaneous with the classical texts of rabbinic literature) is also worth noting. The mystics who wrote and studied heikhalot literature tried to achieve visions of the divine throne similar to the one described in the first chapter of the biblical book of Ezekiel. The representation of the physicality of God is striking in this form of mysticism. In the Shiur Komah, the most radically anthropomorphic mystical text, God’s physical proportions are described in detail. For example, God is said to have a neck 130.8 million miles in length and fingers each 150.3 million miles long.

Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE), a contemporary of the early tannaim (the authors of early midrashic works and of the Mishnah) was the first Jewish philosopher. He deviated from the norms of early Jewish discourse about God, integrating Greek thought with Jewish tradition and explaining God in an abstract philosophical way, quite similar to the methods eventually employed by the medieval Jewish philosophers.

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