God in the Bible

The Bible does not have a single conception of God.

Even if many Jews can no longer accept that the Bible is literally revealed or inspired by God, it is held in such a high regard by most Jews that no other written text can approach it. Reference to biblical quotations pro­vides, in effect, common ground to Jews who might disagree on virtually everything else. 

The Bible, however, does not present a single, coherent view of God, and if certain generalizations are permissible, that seems due more to chance than to a concerted program.

There is very little that can be called philosophical discourse, in the Greek sense, in the Bible. The biblical God may be superhuman, but he is definitely a person, an actor in a drama that encompasses the destiny of individuals and nations and indeed ultimately the whole of the uni­verse.

This personal God is often described in language that is so personal that it has proved an embarrassment to thinkers schooled in Greek thought. He is called a judge, a king, a shepherd, a man of war. He has emotions which are all too human: he is said to be jealous and angry, and he sometimes changes his mind and feels regret. Nor does biblical language hesitate to speak of God’s activity as though he had a human body. He is described as sitting in the sky with his feet resting on the earth as on a footstool; his hand is raised up, his forearm is outstretched, his right arm is powerful; his mouth speaks, he roars aloud, and he has “long nostrils” (meaning that he is patient and slow to lose his temper). No doubt this language can be explained as metaphorical or as poetic license, but it is so common in the text that it inevitably colors the per­sonality of God.

And yet at the same time the Bible is insistent that God is not visible. It is true that occasionally people see God (e.g., Exodus 24:9, Isaiah 6:1), but such passages are rare, and the general idea seems to be that normal, living people cannot see God. Even Moses was not allowed to see God, “for no man can see me while living” (Exodus 33:20). The Israelites are reminded that “when God spoke to you on Horeb out of the fire you saw no form; so take care not to relapse and make yourselves any idol in representational form, a carving whether male or female; a carving of any animal on the ground or of any winged bird that flies in the sky; a carving of anything that creeps on the ground or of any fish in the water underground; and not to look upwards to the sky and see the sun and moon and stars like an army in the sky, and abase yourselves and worship and serve them.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-19, alluding to Exodus 20:3-5, ct. Deuteronomy 5:7)

Worship of such images is acceptable for the other nations, but God’s own people are forbidden to follow suit.

The polemic against worshipping God in a visible form is closely con­nected to the polemic against worshipping a multiplicity of gods. If there is any theological principle that is asserted repeatedly and consis­tently in the Bible, it is the unity of God. The slogan “the Lord is one” (Adonai echad), proclaimed in the first line of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4), is repeated by the prophet Zechariah in his vision of a day when “the Lord shall be king of all the world, when the Lord shall be one and his name one” (Zechariah 14:0). This unity is not only numerical, meaning that God is singular and not, as some falsely claim, dual or plural. It also means that God is unique: because he is the one true God he is different in kind from all other gods men worship.

Another frequently stressed attribute of God is his eternity. He has always existed, and he always will exist, he is the First and the Last (Isaiah 44:6, cf. Psalm 90:2, 146:10). As we might say, he is outside time. He is also outside space. He is beyond the world and yet he is everywhere within it.

“Where could I go to escape from your spirit:

Where could I flee from your presence?

If I were to soar into the sky you would be there.

If I were to sink into the underworld you would be there.

If I rose on wings of dawn, made my home on the furthermost seashore, even there your hand would guide me, your right hand hold me.”

(Psalm 139:7 10)

Reprinted with permission from An Introduction to Judaism, published by Cambridge University Press.

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