Anthropomorphisms and their Meaning

by Ludwig Köhler

from Old Testament Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), pp. 22-25.

[In the Old Testament] the language which ascribes to God the attributes of man is neither restrained nor incidental; indeed, anthropomorphism is to be found on every page of the Old Testament in a wealth of detail, unashamed and even drastic. God speaks, Gen. 1:3; converses, Lev. 4:1; calls, Lev. 1:1; he hears, Ex. 16:12; sees, Gen. 1:4; smells, 1 Sam 26:19; laughs, Ps. 2:4; and hisses, Isa. 7:18. He has eyes, Amos 9:4, which he sets on sinners; hands, with which he grasps them, Amos 9:2; a hand, that is against the prophets that see vanity, Ezek. 13:9; fingers, with which he writes the tables of the Law, Deut. 9:10; an arm, which he stretches out with might, Jer. 27:5, and which he lays bare before all nations to seperate them, Isa. 52:10; ears, Num. 11:18, 14:28, Ezek. 8:18, 2 Kings 19:28; feet, under which he whirls the clouds like dust, Nah. 1:3, and for which there is even a footstool, Isa. 66:1; a mouth, with which he instructs the peoples, Jer. 9:12; lips that are full of indignation and a tongue that is a devouring fire, Isa. 30:27; a head, that has a defense, Ps. 60:7; a face which he maketh to shine upon his saints, Num. 6:25, and which he hides to the terror of the creature, Ps. 104:29; and a back which Moses was permitted to see, Ex. 33:23. His heart turns within him and his emotions are kindled, Hos. 11:8 [read רֲחָמַי] .

Not only is God represented as possessing parts of the human body; he also has feelings and passions like those of a man. Alongside anthropomorphisms in the strict sense there are anthropopathisms. He feels delight, Jer. 9:24; shows favor, Isa. 60:10; he rejoices with joy and exultation, Zeph. 3:17. But he also rebukes, Isa. 17:13; he hates, Deut. 12:31; he rejects, Jer. 14:19; he abhors, Ps. 106:40; he feels disgust, Lev. 20:23. He is provoked to anger, Jer. 7:18, and can be jealous; indeed this is an outstanding trait of his character. While the gods of a Pantheon need to be tolerant and permit their worshippers to invoke other gods, the God of the Old Testament never ceases to insist upon his exclusiveness. "I am a jealous God," Ex. 20:5, Deut. 5:9. The position of this text is noteworthy—it is in the Decalogue—a significant place and one that was always immediately relevant to everyone under the Old Covenant. While his outward jealousy is unchanged (see pp. 52, 66) his inward reactions are variable. He can repent of what he has undertaken; Gen. 6:6, Jonah 3:10. He can be moved to intense anger: it is kindled against Israel's insubordination, 2 Sam. 24:1, and his anger and his jealousy smoke against the impenitent, Deut. 29:20. Things can be a trouble to him, so that he is weary to bear them; Isa. 1:14.

Likewise God's works and ways are described in bold anthropomorphisms. He treads down the peoples as in a winepress, so that his garments are sprinkled with their lifeblood, Isa. 63:1-6. He rideth upon the heaven, Deut. 33:26. He goes forth out of Seir and marches out of the field of Edom, Judg. 5:4. He bursts forth from his temple and treads upon the high places of the earth, Mic. 1:3. He comes down to see the Tower of Babel, Gen. 11:5. He walks in his garden in the cool of the day, Gen. 3:8. Like a Homeric hero he scoffs at his enemies, Ps. 2:4, 59:8. He bends Judah as a bow and places Ephraim thereon as the arrow, Zech. 9:13. For he is a man of war, Ex. 15:3, and mighty in battle, Ps. 24:8. When Hosea compares him to a moth and rottenness, 5:12, to a lion and a young lion, 5:14, to a lion that roars, 11:10, to a panther that watches by the way, to the dew that brings growth, 14:5, he is probably making his own spontaneous similes; but that is not true of the great majority of anthropomorphisms, to which we have made only scant reference. They are not creations of the moment, but of long usage and therefore of real significance.

A history of the anthropomorphism of the Old Testament has not yet been written. It would be of no great value even theologically. For we find very little variation in the anthropomorphisms from one part of the Old Testament to another or from one period of time to another. There are certainly a great number of anthropomorphisms in the Psalter, which as a whole and in its final form is late, and in the later Prophets: this may be due in part to the fact that the later writers simply make full use of the forms of expression they have taken over from their predecessors; it shows also however that they had no objection to these forms. Anthropomorphisms remain relevant in the Old Testament; they suffer no "spiritualization."

It is also to be noted that they show no evidence of classification. The Old Testament does not know a wise God in one place and a warlike or inventive or ill-humoured or friendly or formidable God in another place. The character of God varies according to what is appropriate at any one moment. God is not presented as belonging to a strict or carefully distinguished type; he is presented as changeable and therefore very much alive, but always the same God. The result is a great richness in the conception of God. [On the change in the Septuagint see Charles T. Fritsch, The Anti-Anthropomorphisms of the Greek Pentateuch, Princeton Univ. Press, 1943.]

One realizes at this point the function of the anthropomorphisms. Their intention is not in the least to reduce God to a rank similar to that of man. To describe God in terms of human characteristics is not to humanize him. That has never happened except in unreasonable polemic. Rather the purpose of anthropomorphisms is to make God accessible to man. They hold open the door for encounter and controversy between God's will and man's will. They represent God as person. They avoid the error of presenting God as a careless and soulless abstract Idea or a fixed Principle standing over against man like a strong silent battlement. God is personal. He has a will, he exists in controversy ready to communicate himself, offended at men's sins yet with a ready ear for their supplication and compassion for their confessions of guilt: in a word, God is a living God. Through the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament God stands before man as the personal and living God, who meets him with will and with works, who directs his will and his words towards men and draws near to men. God is the living God (Jer. 10:10).