The articles in this series are based upon ideas expressed in the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed). Numbers in brackets represent the book and chapter of Moreh Nevuchim where these ideas are discussed.
Anthropomorphism: attributing human form or human characteristics to something that is not human.
Does God have hands? Does He sit on a throne? Does He enjoy the aroma of sacrifices? Those of us asked such questions in the 21st century would most definitely answer, “No, of course not” but such was not always the case. Based on a literal reading of the Torah and other books of Tanach (the Jewish Bible), one could certainly draw the conclusion that God has a body and behaves like a human being, despite all evidence to the contrary. But these are mere metaphors. The Midrash tells us (Sifre 112) that “the Torah speaks the language of man.”
It ought not surprise us that the Torah uses metaphors. After all, we do the same thing. We say “the sun rose” and “the sun set” even though we are well aware that the “rising” and “setting” is really an illusion caused by the Earth’s rotation. One might say, “The magician sawed the lady in half” even though we all know that he did nothing of the sort. But it’s too cumbersome to describe these events in technically-accurate terms, so we describe them based on how they appear. Similarly, such events as “God descended,” “God spoke” and even “God got angry” are mere metaphors because how much more difficult would it be to express these concepts in technically-accurate terms? I daresay it would be an impossible task!
The Rambam explains [I, 26] that the Torah describes God using terms that could be understood by all. It anthropomorphizes Him because far too many people are simply incapable of conceiving of an incorporeal Being. We see things through the filter of our own experiences and we therefore relate existing to having a body. When we think of God, it’s only natural to picture Him in terms we understand, i.e., like us.
When we anthropomorphize God, we attribute to Him things that would be considered aspects of perfection in a human, even though doing so is not quite accurate. People see and hear, they come and go, and an inability to do so would be considered a defect. Obviously, God doesn’t move. (He’s everywhere! Where would He go?) But if a person couldn’t move, it would be considered an imperfection. Therefore, we attribute motion to God. But the Bible never anthropomorphizes God using anything that would be considered a weakness or a flaw in a person. Accordingly, God is never described as eating, sleeping or being ill.
Onkelos was a convert who translated the Torah into Aramaic based on the way it was taught by Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. His explanation is considered so indispensable that the Sages of the Talmud instituted that it should be reviewed weekly by every Jew, alongside that week’s Torah portion (Brachos 8a). One of the main features of Onkelos’ translation is that he eschews anthropomorphisms. [I, 27] Where the text of the Torah suggests corporeality on the part of God, Onkelos translates in such a way that would remove the possibility of misunderstanding. So when the Torah says “God came down” (Exodus 16:20), Onkelos renders it “God manifested Himself.” When the Torah says “And God heard,” Onkelos translates it as “It was heard before God.” The Rambam praises Onkelos for this.
On rare occasion, Onkelos leaves the Torah’s anthropomorphisms intact. When he does this, he has good reason, based on a given verse’s context. By way of example, the Rambam gives us Genesis 46:4, “I will go down with you to Egypt.” There, the Torah is relating what Yaakov heard in his vision, not something that God actually does in the narrative. Actions attributed to God – like “God descended upon Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:20) do have their anthropomorphisms removed. (The Rambam provides a potential second reason for the anthropomorphism being left in Genesis 46:4. It’s possible that the “I” in “I will go down with you” refers not to God but to the angel who delivered God’s message to Yaakov. We will discuss this idea further IY”H in a future installment on the nature of prophecy.)
Certain things are beyond human ability to grasp, or we cannot comprehend them in their entirety. [I, 31] In this, our mental capabilities are no different than our physical capabilities. A person may be able to lift 50 lbs., but not 500 lbs. We can see things, but not at an infinite distance. Just as humans differ in their individual limits of physical ability, they differ in their intellectual capacities. One person can figure out a complicated matter for himself, while another person might never grasp it even after having it explained many times. So, just like no human being can bench-press a dump truck or read a book from a mile away, there are some things that are simply beyond the ability of any human mind to comprehend.
Some things are unknowable simply because the information is inaccessible. Is the number of stars in the sky odd or even? How many fish are in the ocean? The data is simply unavailable. Other things, a person is unable to assimilate because the new information contradicts his deeply-rooted preconceptions. A person will reject actual facts if they do not support beliefs in which he has been indoctrinated. This is the case with people who are unable to see Biblical descriptions of God as a metaphor. They are invested in the idea that God has a body and they are unable to accept the truth of the matter.
The Rambam explains many of the Torah’s metaphors; we’ll share just a few here:
* The Hebrew noun ayin can mean the physical organ we call an eye, but it can also refer to one’s attention. [I, 44] An example of this occurs in Jeremiah 39:12. The verse says “take him and place your eyes on him….” Obviously, Nebuchadnezzar was not instructing the captain of his guards to pluck out his own eyes and to place them on Jeremiah. He was telling him to watch Jeremiah and “place your eyes” is a metaphor for “pay attention.”
* The Hebrew verb ShMA typically means “to hear” but it can also mean such things as “to obey” and “to know.” [I, 45] We see this, for example, in Exodus 6:9 and Deuteronomy 28:49, respectively. The former says, “they did not listen to Moses.” They heard him just fine, they just didn’t obey. The latter says, “a nation whose language you will not understand.” Again, the people can hear the foreign language perfectly clearly, they just don’t understand the meaning of the words. (This last verse also uses the Hebrew word “lashon,” meaning a tongue, in the sense of a language.)
In these and similar verses, body parts and the actions attributed to them are used metaphorically even when speaking of humans. It is this secondary, metaphorical use of such words that is always intended when speaking of God. So, when the Torah says, “the eyes of God are always upon it” (Deuteronomy 11:12), it doesn’t mean that God has eyes, just that He is paying attention. When it says, “God heard” (Numbers 11:1), it doesn’t mean that He has ears, just that He is aware of a matter. (The Rambam notes that it is implicit in God “hearing” that He takes action in response. This is evident in such verses as “I will hear his cry” (Exodus 22:22). It wouldn’t be of much use for God to hear the cries of the oppressed if He didn’t plan to do something about it!)
We see from all this that there is no compelling reason to attribute to God such bodily parts as hands and such physical activities as motion. The Torah uses these things metaphorically even when speaking of man, all the more so in reference to the Divine.