God in the Bible

The Bible does not have a single conception of God.

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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.

bible with light shinging on itThis 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.

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Nicholas Lange

Nicholas de Lange is a rabbi, author, and translator. He is a reader in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Cambridge University.