Envisioning a God with a body

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Contrary to popular opinion, God in the earliest books of the Bible didn’t know all things.

Nor did He exist everywhere, all at once, James Kugel says.

Instead, the God of Israel was a walking, talking deity who needed to seek clarification from time to time, the world-renowned Jewish scholar observed during a recent public lecture at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo.

God is described as having eyes, fingers hands and ears, Kugel added.

So despite the longstanding and widespread view that God is omniscient and omnipresent, “God does indeed have a body in these ancient texts,” he said.

Kugel doesn’t believe authors of the Hebrew Bible employed references to God in human forms simply as metaphors.

Kugel, who recently retired from Harvard University, was the recipient of the 2001 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, which carried a $200,000 prize.

His Waterloo lecture was organized by the Jewish Studies department at the University of Waterloo.

The Book of Genesis describes God walking through the Garden of Eden, Kugel said.

“Walking is not something you do when you’re omnipresent,” he quipped.

And at one point, God asks Cain the whereabouts of his brother Abel.

The verse implies that God didn’t know Cain had killed his brother, Kugel said.

God also says, in Genesis 18, that He heard rumours about things happening in Sodom and Gomorrah and that He must go and see if they are true.

“That not only implies that He’s not everywhere all at once, but He doesn’t necessarily know everything — he’s going to go down and check,” Kugel said.

And during one of God’s encounters with Moses, God stood beside the prophet and passed by him as though He were a man with a body — not a deity which is everywhere at once.

In the past, some have argued that characters in the Bible couldn’t look God in the eyes because God was an immense, disembodied deity who was present everywhere.

But Kugel said the reason people in the Bible couldn’t see God was not because God was invisible.

According to the texts, it was because no one could see God’s face and live to tell about it.

“It’s hazardous to your health,” Kugel quipped.

In his research, Kugel looked closely at examples in the Bible where God encounters humans.

Kugel noticed a pattern where men and women don’t realize, at first, they are conversing with God or an angel.

For example, the elderly patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah, are visited by three male travellers.

The biblical account was written in a way that the reader knows the travellers are actually messengers from God. But Abraham and Sarah don’t realize this right away.

When one of the men hears Sarah laugh to herself, after the man foretells she would have a child, Sarah realizes the visitors are no ordinary men.

At that point, the narrator no longer indicates the men are speaking.

Instead, the text says The Lord is speaking.

Kugel also pointed to the story of Samson’s mother and father who are visited by a strange man who prophesies Samson’s upcoming birth.

Scripture says the strange man is an angel of the Lord.

And despite clues that should have been obvious to the couple, Kugel said they don’t realize they are speaking with a messenger from God.

“They’re in some kind of a fog,” Kugel said. “They just can’t seem to figure out this obvious thing that they’re really encountering an angel.”

Eventually, they snap out of it and figure out the prophet is actually either God or an angel.

And in the seminal story of Jacob struggling with another man (Genesis 32). After wrestling all night, Jacob discovers he has not been wrestling with a man — but actually with God.

“In other words, there really is no angel here at all,” Kugel said. “Only an optical illusion — a man who actually turns out to be God.”

The pattern — of visitation, confusion and recognition — is repeated a number of times in various stories.

So for some reason, the pattern must have been essential for those who wrote the Bible, Kugel said.

What emerges from the early texts is not a God who is everywhere all at once, Kugel said.

Rather, it’s a God who is human in size and shape and travels from place to place.

“He stands just behind the curtain of the everyday world,” Kugel said.

“Normally that is where He stays, but sometimes He crosses over to our side. And when He does, human beings are at first unaware of what they are perceiving — they are in a fog.”

But when the person being visited realizes he or she isn’t talking to an ordinary man, God speaks to him or her directly.

The more familiar image of God, an all-knowing God who is present everywhere, emerges in later biblical writing, Kugel said.

“There really isn’t any flat-out assertion in the Hebrew Bible that God is omniscient. Nor for that matter is He specifically said to be omnipresent.

The picture that begins to emerge in the sixth century BCE (Before Common Era, an alternate way of referring to years before Christ, used by Jews and other non-Christians) is the picture of a cosmic deity who is immense.

“So big that probably human eyes can’t take Him in,” Kugel said. “That’s a little bit different than omnipresent.”

The image begins to appear in later chapters of the Book of Isaiah.

Most scholars believe later chapters of the book were not written by the historical Isaiah (who lived in the eighth century BCE) but by someone during or after the Babylonian exile two centuries later.

There are many reasons why the different picture of God emerged, Kugel said.

“If you (ancient Israelites) believe that, in fact, you had been conquered as an act of punishment for your lack of faithfulness to God’s covenant, then your God had to be essentially using the Babylonians as . . . the stick of His wrath,” Kugel said.

“So He must be a much bigger god than any of theirs (gods). In fact, if He controls what the Babylonians do and what the Persians do . . . (God) becomes a kind of powerful and somewhat remote emperor.”

Also, throughout biblical times peoples’ notions about God were shaped by kings and kingship, Kugel said.

“God was the heavenly king.”

After the Babylonian exile, Jews were ruled by a faraway king.

The earlier view of God is not simply a poor version of the later model, Kugel argues.

Rather, it’s a completely different way of conceiving God’s being, he said.

By the time of Jesus, Jewish writing reflected the dominant view that God was omniscient and omnipresent.

Later, medieval Jewish scholars argued the earlier anthropomorphic descriptions of God were either metaphors, or the early writers simply couldn’t convey the concepts of an all-knowing and all-present God.

“I never really bought that explanation,” Kugel said.

Kugel added that it would be difficult to summarize what effects his observations might have on contemporary Jews and their religious practices.

But he isn’t in favour of rejecting the contemporary view of God in favour of the earlier version of a corporeal God, he said.

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig, spiritual leader of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Kitchener, said he is struggling with Kugel’s observations.

“It really shook me up,” Rosenzweig said in an interview last week. “But I think that’s very, very good and very healthy because we get complacent in our beliefs.”

Rosenzweig said that it never dawned on him that early biblical references to God’s human physical features might not have simply been metaphors.

If those descriptions were not in the Bible, the notion of a God with physical form would be heretical, he said.

“That would be idolatry.”

So, he struggles with the notion of a God in human form who doesn’t know everything and isn’t everywhere all at once.

“Maybe that’s what it means to be Israel,” he said. “To be a God-struggler.”

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This post was last updated: Apr. 2, 2007