To unlock and truly understand the Old Testament one needs a number of exegetical keys, and one of these keys is labelled “Anthropomorphism”. This became painfully clear to me recently when I was asked a question by an intelligent and delightfully pious young girl in our congregation. “Fr. Lawrence,” she said, “it looks like God gets mad really easily in the Old Testament. Is that true?”
As C. S. Lewis once observed, whether or not you really under understand something is tested whenever you have to explain it to a child, for then you cannot hide behind long words—like anthropomorphism (or its twin, anthropopathism). You have to come out of hiding from behind the jargon and try to explain what you really mean.
What we mean by “anthropomorphism” is that the Old Testament sometimes talks as if God were a human being like us. It talks about “the arm of the Lord”, even though God doesn’t actually have an arm or limbs or body parts at all. It talks about God having strong emotions that overcome Him, like we have strong emotions that sometimes overcome us, even though He is not subject to emotional fits like we too often are. And it talks like this so we can better understand what God is like and how He relates to us.
Take for example Genesis 18:20-21 about God checking out the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah. This text says, “The Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have one altogether according to the outcry which has come to Me, and if not, I will know.’”
In this scenario we see God presented with a report about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. The accusations against the cities are very serious, and so God says he will “go down” and investigate the matter personally. He will look around and check it out Himself to see if the situation is as bad as the reports suggest, “and if not, I will know”.
Here we have a picture of God not knowing how things stood in Sodom and Gomorrah. But being a just and righteous God, He does not want to judge and punish them unfairly, so He goes on a mission to investigate it before deciding how to judge them. This is an example of anthropomorphism. God in fact knows everything, but the Bible talks as if God didn’t know something and needed to find out in order to make the point that God always judges justly.
Or take Psalm 78:65. This psalm paints a picture of God overcome with angry indignation. His people Israel were in sore straights, being oppressed by their enemies. The priests fell by the sword, and a fire of wrath devoured the young men and the young women had no marriage song. But God would not ignore Israel’s plight forever. For “then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a warrior shouting because of wine”. He routed Israel’s enemies and put them to everlasting shame. The image is of God becoming so angry that He began to bellow, “like a warrior shouting because of wine”—or, more prosaically, like a soldier shouting because he was drunk.
This is an example of anthropopathism, or ascribing human emotions to God. People then were familiar with the sight of soldiers getting drunk, rowdy, and shouting too much. The psalmist uses this daring image to describe God’s wrath against Israel’s foes: just like sensible people got out of the way of drunken soldiers when they began to shout, so Israel’s enemies better look out when God began to defend His people. Drunken soldiers were scary, and God would prove Himself scary to Israel’s foes. God is not really overcome by such emotion; He does not get provoked to the point where He shouts like drunken soldiers do. But He will take such vigorous action in saving His suffering people that it will look like He is that angry.
We see this same sort of anthropomorphism when the Old Testament talks about God’s divine council, the angels who stand in attendance upon Him. Kings in the ancient Near East had a council of courtiers whom they depended upon for help, counsel, and advice, and many passages in the Old Testament paint the same picture of God. The ancients could not conceive of a king without a court, and so they pictured God (or the gods) as part of a court as well. For the pagans, this court was a kind of heavenly pantheon, with all the gods coming together to talk things out and reach a common plan before taking action on earth. In monotheistic Israel Yahweh could hardly take His place as one god among many, but He still functioned as part of a heavenly council. But the other members of His council were angels, not actual gods.
We see this is such passages as Psalm 29:1 which reads, “Ascribe to Yahweh, O sons of gods, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength!” or Psalm 89:5 which reads, “Let the heavens praise Your wonders, Yahweh, Your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!” The “sons of gods” (Hebrew bene elohim) are the angels, the “holy ones” who constitute the “assembly” or council of God.
We this council in the background in Job 1:6 where it says that “the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh”. We see it in such passages as Genesis 1:26 and Isaiah 6:8, where God speaks to His council saying respectively, “Let us make man in our image” and “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” We get a more detailed look at the council functioning in the foreground in 1 Kings 22.
In this 1 Kings 22 passage, the prophet Micaiah portrays Yahweh as deliberating with His council on the best way to make the wicked king Ahab go forth to war and be killed in battle at Ramoth-Gilead as a judgment upon him for his sins. Thus Yahweh asks His council, “Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-Gilead?” One of the council comes forward and volunteers for the job: “I will entice him.” Yahweh then asks the spirit how he will do this, and the angel replies, “I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets”. Then Yahweh blesses the angelic plan and the angel goes forth to falsely inspire such court prophets as Zedekiah the son of Chanaanah. Here we are given a glimpse of how Yahweh’s heavenly court was pictured as functioning.
Note: in all the ancient Near Eastern pictures of the heavenly pantheon/ court, the numbers of the council were sufficiently limited to allow for discussion like the one in 1 Kings 22. Both the gods of the pagan pantheon and the angels of Yahweh’s heavenly court were envisioned in earthly terms, existing in numbers rather like those in the court of an earthly king surrounding him and giving advice.
This is, I suggest, another example of Biblical anthropomorphism. And for two reasons: 1. The angels actually serving God number more than could be fit into such an ancient Near Eastern court; and 2. God does not need to take advice from anyone, including the angels. Let me explain.
Firstly, God has more angels serving Him than suggested by the picture offered in 1 Kings 22. Even later Old Testament texts such as Daniel 7:10 witness to this: “Thousands of thousands were attending Him, and ten thousands upon ten thousands were standing before Him”. The same understanding of how numerous were angels in heaven can be found in Revelation 5:11: “And I looked and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders and the number of them was ten thousands of ten thousands, and thousands of thousands.” It is true that the passages from Daniel and Revelation were visions, and not snapshots taken with a cellphone camera. It is also true that this picture differs significantly from that of 1 Kings 22, where the number of heavenly counsellors is small enough to facilitate discussion among them all.
Later Christian reflection confirms the later Biblical picture of an immense and virtually countless number of angels in heaven. Based on St. Paul’s mention of heavenly “thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities” in Colossians 1:16, theologians such as (Pseudo) Dionysius and St. John of Damascus enumerated a list of nine different angelic orders, arranged in a hierarchy of power. One gets the idea of an immense and uncountable number of angels filling heaven and the entire cosmos.
Secondly, when one moves from the vivid verbal images of the Hebrew world to the more precisely-conceptualized world of Christian Hellenism, a picture of the divine nature emerges in which God suffers from no deficit of knowledge, and has no need of advice from His heavenly court.
This divine infinitude is hinted at in such Old Testament passages as Isaiah 40:13 (“Who has directed the Spirit of Yahweh, or as His counsellor has informed Him?”) and Proverbs 15:11 (“Sheol and Abaddon lie open before Yahweh; how much more the hearts of the sons of men!”). But these Hebrew hints come to full flower in Christian theology, which insists that God is infinite in knowledge, that He transcends every limit, that He is boundless, that He exists outside of time so that He sees and knows everything before it happens. God is so great that He could hold the entire universe as easily as a man could hold a walnut in his hand. Such a God does not need a divine council to give Him advice. In His timeless and eternal essence, so transcendent as to be unknowable by anything created, He soars above the angels and above anything else that He has made.
The image of God presiding over a heavenly council of angels, consulting them, and receiving their suggestions (such as we see in 1 Kings 22) is an anthropomorphic part of the culture of the ancient Near East. It is true that angels near His throne actually exist, and that they ceaselessly cry “Holy, holy, holy!” in ecstatic adoration. But the portrayal of angels or any created thing functioning in the way that courtiers functioned in the royal courts of the ancient world is anthropomorphic. That image was not given to us in Scripture to reveal an accurate behind-the-scenes look at a “day in the life” of the transcendent Godhead. Instead it was intended to reveal that Yahweh was a true King over His people. He was not a lonely and solitary royal wannabe with no army, support, or power. He had a throne on which He sat, and a heavenly temple in which He resided, and an army to enforce His will, and a royal court to attend Him. These images do not mean that God actually has a chair on which He sits, or a palace in which He lives, or the other accoutrements common to ancient kings. The point of these images was that Yahweh truly reigned in power, and that we could depend upon that power to save us.
Making the distinction between Scriptural image and actual reality is not demythologization. It is sound Christian exegesis. We look at the Old Testament images to find the messages they were actually meant to convey.