God: His Body, Habits and Relations with Humans

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In the West, the Jewish God is known as Jehovah. Jehovah is English for the Hebrew word Yahweh, which is more properly known as YHWH. The pronunciation of YHWH has been lost. It word is believed to mean "he who causes things to be" and in Biblical times was so holy that no one was allowed to say it except for the highest-level priests in important ceremonies. The Jews did not attempt to pronounce YHWH. It was too holy. Instead they said “HaShem” , the “name.” The famous rabbi Haninina ben Teradion was reportedly tortured to death for uttering the "unutterable." The use of the word Lord to describe God came into usage in part so believers didn’t have to use the word God. The name Jehovah, coined in the Middle Ages, was not used in the Hebrew Bible.

The source of our information about God is the Old Testament, which is largely ascribed to Moses. In the early passages of the Old Testament, God is referred to by several names including El Shaddai, which some scholars say signifies a storm god or god of power, and El 'Elyon. In Exodus 3:14 he reveals his true name to be Yahweh (YHVH, Jehovah). El Shaddai means "God of the Mountain." El 'Elyon means "God Most High."

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: When Americans think of God, they tend to think of an old guy in a white robe and a long white beard. Our image of the patrician deity is painted by contemporary culture (think The Simpsons), though it has Biblical foundations....In her book God: An Anatomy, the respected University of Exeter Professor of Hebrew Bible Francesca Stavrakopoulou argues that God has a body. Candida Moss writes: she takes us on a gripping yet rigorous journey through Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern ideas about God. In general, the gods of Southwestern Asia were lusty, muscular, passionate, and hungry. They had limbs, eyes, ears, and genitalia and they used those body parts to act and interact. Yahweh — the God of the Hebrew Bible — is no different. With the precision of a surgeon, she dissects and analyses God’s body from head to toe and, ahem, everywhere in between. Her arguments are not outlandish. As she meticulously shows descriptions of God’s body are everywhere" and "our bodies are created in the image of God". [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 12, 2021; March 10, 2018]

This makes Christians nervous because the Christian God is supposed to be both omnipotent and completely unlike us. This is bound up in religious competition and claims the God of the Bible is the best of all deities. Stavrakopoulou shows us that Biblical texts try to distinguish between the uniquely powerful God of Judaism and Christianity and the false human-shaped but profoundly weak deities of other traditions. These foreign gods, she told me, “Are ‘disabled’ deities, who have eyes but do not see, hands but do not feel, noses but do not smell, etc. By contrast, God’s body works perfectly well.”

Websites and Resources: Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Judaism Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu Christianity and Christians BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;

God and the Scriptures


“But how do Jews know this about God? According to the BBC: “They don't know it, they believe it, which is different. However, many religious people often talk about God in a way that sounds as if they know about God in the same way that they know what they had for breakfast. For instance, religious people often say they are quite certain about God - by which they mean that they have an inner certainty. And many people have experiences that they believe were times when they were in touch with The best evidence for what God is like comes from what the Bible says, and from particular individuals' experiences of God. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Quite early in his relationship with the Jews, God makes it clear that he will not let them encounter his real likeness in the way that they encounter each other. The result is that the Jews have work out what God is like from what he says and what he does. The story is in Exodus 33 and follows the story of the 10 commandments, and the Golden Calf. |::|

“Moses has spent much time talking with God, and the two of them are clearly quite close. The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. But after getting the 10 commandments Moses wants to see God, so that he can know what he is really like. God says no...you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live. Then the LORD said, There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” |::|

God’s Relationship with Man

Stavrakopoulou says, we can’t “quite do” without the human-like features of God. “Theologians tell us that we are in a relationship with God. But it’s difficult to have a relationship with the abstract. We’re a highly social species, and it’s by means of our bodies that we socialize — it’s how we forge and maintain relationships. Ultimately, God’s body rendered the divine more social.” The same is true today. Our religious connection with God isn’t just spiritual, it’s also embodied: Christians ask God to “hear” our prayers, to be “present” with us, and to “carry” us. These might be metaphors but they are also modes of interaction. Moreover, recognizing the softer — some might say frailer — aspects of God’s body could help people who feel alienated by traditional portraits of the divine. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 12, 2021]

Robert A. Burt of Yale University wrote in Washington Post:“Throughout the Bible, God repeatedly doubts humanity's worth. We see these misgivings in the book of Genesis, when God decides to kill nearly all of humanity in a great flood because of our evil proclivities. Or when He destroys Sodom and Gomorrah because of their residents' sinfulness. Or in Exodus, when God resolves to kill the Israelites, whom He has rescued from slavery in Egypt because of their idolatry of a golden calf, until Moses persuades Him otherwise. [Source: Robert A. Burt m Washington Post, April 6, 2012. Burt is a law professor at Yale University and the author of "In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict" \=/]

20120502-God Michelangelo_-_Earth_Water.GIF
Michelangelo's God Creating the Earth and Water
“The biblical narratives also record doubts on humanity's side — doubts about the worth of obeying God and about his plans for us. By highlighting this aspect of humanity's relationship with God, the Bible reveals itself in an unexpected light: as a guidebook for confronting authority — secular political authority as well as religious authority. Try reading the Bible as if you didn't know the endings to its stories. The book is filled with gripping accounts of people facing crises, with resolutions that are far from clear. When Abraham, in obedience to God's command, binds his son, Isaac, on an altar and raises his knife over him, neither knows that the killing will be interrupted. When Jesus's disciples learn of his death and are overwhelmed by grief and fear, they don't know that He will return to them. When Jesus himself utters his last words from the cross — "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?," according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew — He doesn't know that God will welcome Him in Heaven. \=/

“Whether we approach the Bible as believers in its truth or solely with an appreciation of its literary qualities, we cannot accurately understand the text if we overlook the deep doubts and fears of the characters, including their doubts about God's wisdom. A close reading reveals many instances when human beings withhold allegiance from God — and seemingly with good reason. One obvious example is in the book of Job, in which God authorizes the infliction of suffering on an innocent man to prove to Satan that Job will be loyal to Him. Job responds, however, by cursing the day he was born and threatening suicide, which he imagines would somehow punish God for the injustice he is suffering. "Soon I'll be lying in the earth," Job says. "When you come looking for me, I'll be gone." \=/

“There are other notable occasions. After Abraham is held back at the last moment from fulfilling God's command to kill Isaac, he and God never speak again. Genesis does not proclaim this fact; it simply gives no record of any further communication between them, in contrast to the constant interactions between God and Abraham before this climactic event. There is also no record of any further conversation between Abraham and Isaac. The implications are tantalizing: Isaac has lost faith in his father's paternal benevolence, and in parallel, Abraham has lost faith in God's beneficence toward him after being subjected to this horrific test. \=/

“Similarly, in the Christian Bible, Jesus's disciples abandon Him as He faces death. Peter denies knowing Jesus when challenged in the high priest's courtyard, while other disciples flee after his arrest. Their actions might have been motivated by fear and self-preservation. But it is also plausible from the narrative that the disciples broke off their relationship with Jesus because they felt abandoned by his refusal to use his powers to resist his crucifixion. These stories — and many others involving Cain, Noah, Jacob and Moses — underscore a question that quietly pervades the Hebrew and Christian Bibles: Does God deserve humanity's obedience, its love?” \=/

God’s Power Over Humanity

Robert A. Burt of Yale University wrote in Washington Post: “God has overwhelming power that He can use to destroy us. This may be a reason for believers to fear Him, but it hardly establishes legitimate authority or provides a reason to love Him. Is God worthy of humanity's allegiance because He created us? Abusive or neglectful human parents don't deserve their injured children's loyalty. Is there not good reason to expect more from God — to expect nurturing and protection? [Source: Robert A. Burt m Washington Post, April 6, 2012 \=/]

“But would accepting some standard of justice — for example, that He keep his promises to humanity — limit God? In the biblical narratives, this possibility is raised but never resolved. When God appears to Job in the whirlwind, He seems to mock Job for daring to see any limitation on his power. But later, God seems to acknowledge the truth of Job's claim by restoring his previous fortune twice over. God thus paid double indemnity, in effect, pleading guilty in Job's lawsuit against Him for wrongful conduct. \=/

Adam and Eve banished from the Garden of Eden

“There is, however, another style of divine authority that can be seen in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. It is bilateral rather than unilateral, based on mutual recognition and soliciting consent rather than commanding obedience. This style can be seen with particular clarity when God offers a special covenant to the children of Israel in the Sinai desert after rescuing them from Egyptian slavery. He does not command the Israelites to accept a special relationship with Him. He does not threaten punishment if they do not consent. \=/

“These two forms of divine authority — unilateral and bilateral — recur throughout the biblical texts. But both sides clearly seem to prefer the bilateral relationship, one based on mutual regard and good faith. Whenever God veers toward a command approach, humanity pushes back: Abraham's withdrawal from God, Job's protests, Moses's reminder to God of his past promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel that their descendants would be a great nation. Of course, no one has effective coercive authority over God. But in the biblical texts, God is continually reminded — by Abraham, Moses, Job and Jesus — that coercion cannot pry loose what He truly wants from us: not just obedience but loyalty, allegiance and love.” \=/

Are Humans Programmed to Believe in God?

Human beings are predisposed to believe in God and the afterlife, according to a University of $3-million Oxford study. The findings suggest that there is an inbuilt predisposition in the mind towards seeing the world in religious or spiritual terms and public life will always have a strong religious dimension. Roger Trigg, a philosophy professor and co-director of the project from the Ian Ramsey Centre in the Theology Faculty at Oxford, said: “It means you cannot separate religion and public life. The mind is open to supernatural agency. There are lots of explanations. It is certainly linked to basic cognitive architecture, in other words, the way we think.” [Source: Ruth Gledhill, The Times, Tuesday, 17 May 2011 /+/]

Ruth Gledhill wrote in The Times: Professor Trigg said that it was too simplistic to talk in terms of being “hard-wired” or “programmed” to believe in God, however. Environmental factors also applied, and humans were not naturally monotheistic. The supernatural instinct could manifest in polytheism or other belief systems as well. The research has raised philosophical questions, such as why it is that if God does exist, he makes it so difficult for humans to believe in him or her. “It is not obvious,” Professor Trigg said. “Others might say it would be an encroachment on human freedom if we were too forced to believe in God.” /+/

“One study by Emily Reed Burdett and Dr Barrett at Oxford suggested that children below the age of five found it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations. Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box into which she could not see. Those aged three believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of four many started to understand that their mothers were not all-seeing and all-knowing while continuing to believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agent such as God. /+/

“As every sociologist, or psychologist with an ounce of sociocultural awareness, will tell you, there's simply no way of identifying some 'instinctive' understanding of the world that precedes involvement in a social world of shared ideas and values. Even 'children under five' - especially those with the ability to understand and answer a researcher's questions - have acquired language, which comes imprinted with a mass of cultural assumptions./+/

“This study begs as many questions as it answers. Where, we might ask, did these children derive their concept of 'God' as an 'all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agent'? Are we supposed to believe that's 'inbuilt' too? One of the researchers involved in this particular study continued: “This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persist in societies across the world, we conclude that individuals bound by religious ties might be more likely to co-operate as societies. Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.” /+/

Stephen Hawking: God Not Needed to Create the Universe

Stephen Hawking

The famed Cambridge physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking said the The Big Bang was the result of the laws of physics and did not need the help of God to set the Universe in motion. In his book, “The Grand Design,”he said: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” [Source: Laura Roberts, The Telegraph, September 2, 2010]

Laura Roberts wrote in The Telegraph, “”In A Brief History of Time,” Prof Hawking's most famous work, he did not dismiss the possibility that God had a hand in the creation of the world. He wrote in the 1988 book: "If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God. In his new book he rejects Sir Isaac Newton's theory that the Universe did not spontaneously begin to form but was set in motion by God.

In June 2010, Prof Hawking told a Channel 4 series that he didn't believe that a "personal" God existed. He told Genius of Britain: "The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can't understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science 'God', but it wouldn't be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions."

Jennifer Quinn wrote in the Seattle Times, “The Grand Design,” challenges Isaac Newton’s theory God must have been involved in creation because our solar system couldn’t have come out of chaos simply through nature. But Hawking says it isn’t that simple. To understand the universe, it’s necessary to know both how and why it behaves the way it does, calling the pursuit “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Hawking, who is renowned for his work on black holes, said the 1992 discovery of another planet orbiting a star other than the sun makes “the coincidences of our planetary conditions … far less remarkable and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.” Hawking retired in 2009 as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University after 30 years in the position. The position was once held by Newton. [Source: Jennifer Quinn, Seattle Times, September 2, 2010]

Did God have a Wife? — a Respected Scholar Says He Did

An Oxford scholar says that God had a wife, named Asherah, whom the Book of Kings suggests was worshipped alongside Yahweh in The Temple in Jerusalem. Jennifer Viegas wrote: In 1967, Raphael Patai was the first historian to mention that the ancient Israelites worshipped both Yahweh and Asherah. The theory has gained new prominence because of the research of Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who began her work at Oxford and is now a senior lecturer in the department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter. "You might know him as Yahweh, Allah or God. But on this fact, Jews, Muslims and Christians, the people of the great Abrahamic religions, are agreed: There is only one of Him," Stavrakopoulou said in a statement released to the British media. "He is a solitary figure, a single, universal creator, not one God among many ... or so we like to believe. "After years of research specializing in the history and religion of Israel, however, I have come to a colorful and what could seem, to some, uncomfortable conclusion that God had a wife." [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, March 19, 2011]

Stavrakopoulou bases her theory on ancient texts, amulets and figurines unearthed primarily in the ancient Canaanite coastal city called Ugarit, now modern-day Syria. All of these artifacts reveal that Asherah was a powerful fertility goddess. Asherah's connection to Yahweh, according to Stavrakopoulou, is spelled out in both the Bible and an 8th-century B.C. inscription on pottery found in the Sinai desert at a site called Kuntillet Ajrud. "The inscription is a petition for a blessing," she shares. "Crucially, the inscription asks for a blessing from 'Yahweh and his Asherah.' Here was evidence that presented Yahweh and Asherah as a divine pair. And now a handful of similar inscriptions have since been found, all of which help to strengthen the case that the God of the Bible once had a wife."

Also significant, Stavrakopoulou believes, "is the Bible's admission that the goddess Asherah was worshiped in Yahweh's Temple in Jerusalem. In the Book of Kings, we're told that a statue of Asherah was housed in the temple and that female temple personnel wove ritual textiles for her." J. Edward Wright, president of both The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies and The Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, told Discovery News that he agrees several Hebrew inscriptions mention "Yahweh and his Asherah. Asherah was not entirely edited out of the Bible by its male editors," he added. "Traces of her remain, and based on those traces, archaeological evidence and references to her in texts from nations bordering Israel and Judah, we can reconstruct her role in the religions of the Southern Levant."

The ancient Israelites were polytheists, Brody told Discovery News, "with only a small minority worshiping Yahweh alone before the historic events of 586 B.C." In that year, an elite community within Judea was exiled to Babylon and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This, Brody said, led to "a more universal vision of strict monotheism: one god not only for Judah, but for all of the nations."

Asherah— God’s Wife

Asherah— known across the ancient Near East by various other names, such as Astarte and Istar — was "an important deity, one who was both mighty and nurturing," Wright continued. "Many English translations prefer to translate 'Asherah' as 'Sacred Tree,'" Wright said. "This seems to be in part driven by a modern desire, clearly inspired by the biblical narratives, to hide Asherah behind a veil once again." "Mentions of the goddess Asherah in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are rare and have been heavily edited by the ancient authors who gathered the texts together," Aaron Brody, director of the Bade Museum and an associate professor of Bible and archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion, said. Asherah as a tree symbol was even said to have been "chopped down and burned outside the Temple in acts of certain rulers who were trying to 'purify' the cult, and focus on the worship of a single male god, Yahweh," he added.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Asherah is a well-known Semitic goddess. She appears as the chief consort of the Sumerian god Anu and Ugaritic god El, both of whom were the oldest and most important figures in their respective religious pantheons. She is also referenced in the Bible, not as the wife of God, but as a competing religious figure who at one time had been worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 23:4). In the past a number of scholars have hypothesized that Asherah might, at one time, have been regarded by ancient Israelites as the consort of Yahweh. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 7, 2018]

3000-Year-Old Image of Well-Endowed God with a Wife

In 2018, archaeologists working in the Sinai Peninsula said they dug up a 3,000-year-old image to depict a well-endowed Yahweh (or having a tail) with a wife at his side.Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The picture was unearthed as part of excavations at Kuntillat Arjud, a hillside in the northern Sinai Peninsula that was excavated over four decades ago. Excavations at that site unearthed numerous inscriptions and drawings. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 7, 2018]

Because the site was only occupied for a brief period it is comparatively easy to restrict the date of the find: the inscription and the picture must date to the late ninth-early eighth century BCE. Ze’ ev Meshel an archaeologist based at the Tel Aviv University, who oversaw excavations on behalf of the university and Israel Exploration Society, estimated that it was only used for approximately 25 years.

The discovery that yielded the most controversy, however, was an image of a man and a woman holding hands and wearing crowns. The man is shown with what appears to be a large penis and above the two figures the words “Yahweh and Asherah” are inscribed. Yahweh is one of the primary names used for God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In English Bibles it is translated as “Lord.” Could this be, then, that this is the oldest image of the well-endowed Yahweh and his wife?

Not everyone in convinced. Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou the author of the forthcoming book God: An Anatomy told The Daily Beast that the inscription isn’t a label to the picture at all. “It is best understood,” she said “as an appeal for a blessing from ‘Yahweh and his Asherah’ — the divine couple worshipped in ancient Israel and Judah. But the image and inscription need not be directly related.” Stavrakopoulou and others argue instead that these are images of the minor Egyptian deity and demon, Bes. Professor Shmuel Ahitvu, an expert in inscriptions, told Haaretz that “Bes is a dwarf who was the deity of witches.” If the image is of Bes, then what appears to be his penis is in fact a tail. Stavrakopoulou noted that it’s probably a tail from a typical Bes cloak, which was made from animal skin. Just because the image and the inscription are unrelated, however, does not mean that God was a singleton. There are a number of undisputed references to Yahweh and Asherah at the site. As for his nether regions, we shouldn’t emasculate Yahweh just yet, Stavrakopoulou told me, “Yahweh certainly had a big penis — but this isn’t it.”

Does God Take Naps?

Candida Moss, Daily Beast: On the seventh day, the book of Genesis says, after creating the universe from scratch and in the dark, God rested. This model of self-care is the whole reason that Jews observe the Sabbath and there are reduced trading hours in many countries on Sundays. God’s rest implies that, like humanity, God needs to rest. But the idea of God having a body that requires downtime would strike many contemporary Christians as absurd if not outrageously heretical. Omnipotence and naps are unlikely bedfellows.[Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 12, 2021]

Beyond taking a personal day at the end of the first week, the Hebrew Bible refers to the sleeping arm of God. In Isaiah 51 the prophet begs God to wake up: “Awake, Awake, Put on Strength O Arm of the Lord.” In the aftermath of the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE, one psalmist cried “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Yahweh? Awake! Do not cast us off forever!” While God was sleeping his — and thus his people’s — defenses were down, and the city had been ransacked. Though modern Christians don’t think about God sleeping they do use these passages. The verse from Isaiah, for example, decorates the cover of Bible journaling notebooks. We know about this idea we just don’t think about it.

That Yahweh took naps wasn’t that unusual. As Stavrakopoulou details in her book, deities in ancient Southwest Asia often retreated to their beds to get away from it all. According to an Ancient Near Eastern lament, the Sumerian deity Enlil was known to do this. After causing a famine, he barricaded himself in his Temple and pretended to be asleep. It’s passive aggressive, to be sure, but at least he had boundaries. Divine sleep could also index other rhythms in the world: the changing seasons, famine, drought, and other events were all a sign that God was taking time off for himself. Most commonly, however, it was a symptom or cause of divine neglect. When the god Baal fails to respond to the petitions of his prophets in the Bible, explains Stavrakopoulou, Elijah suggests that Baal simply fell asleep.

Of course, the idea of the God-who-naps, Stavrakopoulou told me, has caused no shortage of anxieties both ancient and modern. In the ancient world, she said, the concern was practical: “a deity who is off duty; a deity who’s stopped watching out for his worshippers, who’s stopped listening to them, [has] stopped intervening in their lives.” That’s a problem. For those influenced by Plato and more abstract understandings of transcendent deities, the concern is more philosophical. The idea of a God “who needs to rest” is suggestive of limits, human frailty, and even disability: “we get the impression of a god who’s over-exerted himself, a god who’s exhausted. It emphasizes the enormity and impressive ‘wonder’ of his creative work, but still leaves us with a god who’s not all-powerful but has his limits.” For lots of people, a God with limits isn’t much of a God.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except maps and surveys, Pew Research Center

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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