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.
Thank You Father Farley, Praise the Lord!
Father, you seem to come to the conclusion that consulting and discussion in God’s divine council is anthropomorphic instead of actual, based on the truth that God is all-powerful and omniscient. But given that same logic, we could say that the Church has no need of existence. God doesn’t need us to do His work on earth. And we in some sense, His consulting body? God doesn’t listen to us in prayer or if He does, He is not moved by our requests. Two Sundays ago, we had the Feeding of the Five Thousand as our Gospel reading. Clearly, if Jesus could multiply the bread and fish, He could have also miraculously distributed it all to the multitude. And yet, He chose to involve the disciples. This seems to be an apt image for how God involves us, His people, in His work, even though He doesn’t “need” us. And if God has no need of consultation with anyone, how are we to understand prayer? Isn’t there a sort of consulting with God in the act of making requests of Him?
Thank you for your input, Father. My conclusion that the scene in 1 Kings 22 is anthropomorphic is not so much based on the fact of God’s omnipotence and omniscience as on the parallels of Yahweh’s council with the pagan pantheons of the ANE. God’s condescension and using the Church to carry out His work is not the same as consultation: He hears our prayers, but He does not consult our wisdom for His providential acts in the world.
The Lord has always condescended to consult and offer his creatures a real role, but we could say that in describing how he is effected and how he “decides” things, the apophatic tradition of theology becomes an important companion to be sure we don’t rest too heavily on our influence on God. That’s how we got things like magic and sorcery, believing that a somehow transcendent being is still a bit like us.
I have to disagree with you on this one. God does not need counselors, but He delights in sharing His gifts with others. He puts us on thrones, after all. We are “sons of God” through the Son of God. And God in His freedom has chosen not only to adopt us, but to instrumentally channel His blessings through creatures. We sometimes hear that God continues to restrain judgment on account of certain very holy souls. It is not that God requires them but that He has freely chosen to share with His creatures the upholding of the creation in love.
It is key to note, moreover, that the idea of a heavenly council associated with the number seventy is not merely a Near Eastern idea. Specialization leads many to describe as “Near Eastern” ideas things that are actually traditions found from ancient America to ancient China. I believe it is the Maoi people who also describe a divine council of seventy beings. And the tradition is present in Africa, too- there we find the number seventy. Do I think that there are literally only seventy such beings described? I don’t- it is symbolic and always understood as such. But in stating this we recognize the form of the text not only as a husk in which a truth is contained, but the locus of the communication of divine truth. In other words, what is often called anthropomorphism is not a condescension to our weakness so much as it is itself an instrument for revealing God.
And the theological basis for that is that the Anthropos himself, the human being, is the image of God. The human arm was created to signify the power of God. And so when we read of God’s “arm”, the biblical imagery is based on the imagery that God has woven into the human body from its creation. On this point, Peter Leithart’s “Deep Exegesis” is terrific.
Or to the point about kings, it is wisdom by which the world was made, and the scriptures consistently emphasize that the king who seeks counsel is the *wise* king. God eternally takes counsel among Father, Son, and Spirit and so created a world which speaks according to the grammar of trinitarian communion, a world whose perfection is found in the imitation of and participation in that very communion. There is a divine council because there is a Trinity. This is why the debate between trinitarian and divine-conciliar readings of “let us make man” are a false choice. God shaped man to enter into communion with Himself- in the parlance of the temple (the temple- we must recall- is the court and palace of God, the two cherubim by his side signify the council) and so speaks with a “let us” when he creates man in a plural unity- male and female. And another plural destined for pentecostal unity in Genesis 11 when God creates many nations with a “let us.”
This is already absurdly long, but I want to apply this to Genesis 18 as well. God “goes down” to see. We know that God can manifest His presence in degrees of intensity- and can do so in spatial contexts. Moreover we know that this presence can be dangerous depending on the spiritual state of those who come into contact with it. Isaiah is filled with the Spirit when he consumes the fire of God’s altar, but there’s a different result for Nadab and Abihu. When God goes down to “see”, we should remember that the divine eye does not merely take *in* information, but *shines out light.* His eyes shine with fire. And so Sodom meets its destiny precisely in “fire from Heaven”, a symbol of the divine presence. That God appears in the Form of a Man is not a mere condescension, but pertains to the fact that man is made to be filled with the form of God.
So I would conclude by suggesting that Hellenic philosopical theology is not more precise, but precise in a different manner. When I began to assimilate (or so I think) intuitively the nature of the details of the tabernacle furniture and the little turns of phrase (even the jot and tittle), I began to see, to my genuine surprise, that the Hebrew Bible seemed to be speaking with the same kind of amazing precision I expected from philosophical theology. But it was a different grammar. To say “gathers humanity into unity” is not to articulate the unity of human nature and its perfect actualization in the human operation. Rather it is to clothe the high priest with a fabric mixed from top to bottom, wearing twelve stones on his heart and shoulders.
I definitely do not want to come across as some kind of heresy-sniffer. I wouldn’t dream of accusing you of heresy. I only write this to suggest that there may be even more richness to the Scriptures than you recognize here. I would love to get in touch to talk more about this and other subjects, if you’re interested. I have very much appreciated your posture of submission to Scripture and tradition without becoming a wild-eyed heresy-hunting rigorist. One of my longer term aims is to introduce a robust biblical theology (such as that unfolded by Peter Leithart and James Jordan in their work on scripture- a sacramental, symbolic, and liturgical reading of scripture which does not sacrifice its concrete meaning) to a wider Orthodox audience and to represent that in the academy. (I cringe to cite this, but just to contextualize, I am working in an academic context on my second Master’s in Theology from Duke. I did the MA in Early Christianity at ND a couple years ago. I would appreciate your prayer.)