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.
There are many ways that one can describe a human being. [I, 46] These include:
* Based on his physicality – “The mayor is a short, balding man with glasses.”
* Based on his attributes – “The mayor is the one in the limo with the motorcade.”
* Based on his actions – “The mayor is the one who built that bridge and dedicated that park.”
One can also accomplish this through inferences. Let’s say that a visitor to town asked, “Does this town have a mayor?” One might reasonably respond, “Of course it does! Look how orderly things are, with no crime or litter! Clearly, there’s someone in charge!”
The prophets who authored the various books of Tanach did likewise in describing God. When doing so, they employed terminology that people would understand. God is described as living, seeing, knowing, moving, and more because these are terms to which people can relate. And, to us, these things are accomplished through such organs as hands, feet and eyes. We therefore metaphorically attribute such organs to God, though we are well aware that He does not actually possess them.
God communicated His will to the prophets. This is referred to as “speaking” because that’s how we humans communicate. When He created the universe, it is referred to in terms of “work” and “rest” because that’s what it’s like when we humans make things. But make no mistake about it: these expressions are strictly metaphors.
Sometimes it’s obvious that they’re metaphors. Look at such verses as “See the word of God” (Jeremiah 2:31), or the more familiar “they saw the sounds” (Exodus 20:14). Why do these verses describe seeing sound rather than hearing it? Because God doesn’t really speak as we do. These are not audible sounds that one might perceive with his ears. Rather, they are spiritual emanations to which one might hearken, but “speaking” and “hearing” don’t really enter into it.
All of these descriptions help us to visualize God as a living Being. [I, 47] You will note, however, that the Torah only attributes three “senses” to God: seeing, hearing and smelling. (God is described as smelling the scent of the sacrifices.) These are stimuli that one senses from a distance. Touching and tasting are never attributed to God, as these are things that a person can only do when in contact with an object. While we metaphorically attribute the passive senses of perception to God, suggesting that He comes into physical contact with things – which a human would need to do in order to feel or taste something – that would be a step too far.