What We Talk About When We Talk About God

So God is just like you and me, right? Maimonides explains why the Bible's descriptions of God can't be taken literally.

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In the following article, Seeskin describes how the 12th-century Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides reinterpreted biblical texts that imply that God has human characteristics. Seeskin analyzes several passages from Maimonides' philosophical masterpiece The Guide of the Perplexed. The following is reprinted with permission from Maimonides: A Guide For Today's Perplexed, published by Behrman House.

We have seen that the sacred literature of Judaism often describes God in physical terms, and that such descriptions cannot be taken in a literal way. Unless we succumb to the most egregious form of anthropomorphism [and believe that God actually has human form], we must admit that Noah could not walk with God as he walked with his sons, Moses could not speak to God as he did to Aaron, and God could not sit on a throne as King Solomon did. Accordingly, the first portion of The Guide of the Perplexed is a catalogue of terms in the Bible which seem to imply that God has human characteristics. In each case, Maimonides argues that while these terms appear to commit the Bible to an anthropomorphic conception of God, in reality they do not. To bolster this argument, he has to engage in a fair amount of textual exegesis [and interpretation]. Here are a few examples of what his exegesis is like.

IMAGE (tzelem). Genesis 1:26 does say that man was made in the image of God. If taken literally, this passage would mean that God has two arms, two legs, a face, and hair. But if God looks like a human being, why does Judaism go to such lengths to forbid us from drawing or sculpting Him? To avoid an anthropomorphic conclusion, Maimonides points out that image is an ambiguous term (Guide1.1) which sometimes denotes a resemblance in figure or shape. In English, we might say "He is the image of his father," meaning that two people look alike. But sometimes the degree of resemblance is much looser. If we say, "He was the very image of valor," no one would argue that valor has arms and legs. According to Maimonides, it is this second use of image which is the best approximation of the Biblical claim that man was made in God's image. What the text means is that, unlike anything else on earth, God made us in His image by endowing us with rational faculties. Interpreted this way, Genesis 1:26 is both true and important, yet does not imply that there is a physical resemblance between human beings and their Creator.

SEE, APPEAR, or LOOK (raah, hibbit, chazah). Sometimes a prophet will say that he saw God in a vision. Other times a prophet will say that God appeared to him, as in Genesis 18:1: "And the Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre." In still other cases, the Bible claims that God Himself saw something. If God has no shape, no one can see Him, in the way they see corporeal things; by the same token, if God has no body, He does not "see" by virtue of sense organs. Maimonides shows that see and related terms are also ambiguous (Guide 1.4). In English, we speak of seeing with our mind's eye as a way of meaning we understand something, thus: "Yea, my heart has seen much of wisdom and knowledge." Maimonides argues that whenever God "sees" or "is seen" in the Bible, the seeing involved is of this type. The prophet who "sees" God is really thinking about Him, and God's "seeing" is His contemplation of the world. In neither case does the Bible mean that God has a body with sense organs.

TO COME NEAR (karav). To say that God is near to those who call upon Him (Psalm 145:18) is to speak about intellectual comprehension, not physical location (Guide 1.18). The same applies to words which suggest that people can touch or approach God. They approach God in the way one approaches the understanding of a principle or idea. Thus, a person might say, "Scientists are getting closer and closer to a cure for this disease." What is meant is that their ideas are becoming clearer and their theories more comprehensive.

TO SPEAK (amar). God does not have a mouth or utter sounds. A person who attempted to record God's communication with Abraham or Moses would hear nothing. The hundreds of passages that say "and God spoke" are using figurative language to mean "and God willed" (Guide 1.65). By virtue of superior understanding of God, the prophet is able to understand what God wants us to do, which is to say, what God commands. These commandments need not be transmitted by sound waves in the air. Similarly, God's hearing is another word for His comprehending (Guide 1.45).

From these examples it is clear that the drift of Maimonides' exegesis is to make the relationship between God and His prophets an intellectual one. Maimonides is one in a long line of Jewish commentators who have proposed rationalistic interpretations of Scripture. Thus, words denoting place, sight, hearing, or positions are interpreted as mental properties or dispositions. In our own vocabulary, it could be said that Maimonides has attempted to demythologize biblical narrative. Instead of a God who dwells in heaven, sits on a throne, visits earth, and utters sounds, we are given a God who is perfect intelligence. Instead of prophets who are visited by God in a literal way, we are given prophets who understand what God wants for the world.

© Behrman House Inc.

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Kenneth Seeskin

Kenneth Seeskin is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University.