The earliest concept of God in the Bible was that He had a physical body.  When He walked through the Garden of Eden, His heavy footfall could be heard by Adam and Eve:  “And they heard the sound of Yahweh Elohim walking in the garden in the cool of the day...” (Genesis 3:8).


          The creation account (Gen. 1:27) said that man was made in the physical image of God (imago Dei).  The medieval scholar Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (known as “Rashi”) stated that being created in God’s “image” (tselem) means God’s physical “form” (defus).   Rashi said that the concept of God’s “likeness” (demut)  refers to God’s intellect.  This rabbi concluded that both man’s physical form and his intellectual ability were modelled on those of God.  Specifically, “the form that was established for him (man) is the form of the image of his Creator (tselem deyukan yotsro).”  The Talmud (Ketubot 8a) stated that man was fashioned in the “shape” (tavnit) of God.  The term tavnit means “the build, the aspect, or the shape.”  This term is used in a traditional blessing in Jewish weddings.


          The Talmud (Bereshit rabah 8:10) said that the resemblance between Adam and his Creator was so striking that the angels were confused about whom to worship: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, the ministering angels mistook him and wished to exclaim ‘Holy!’ before him.”


          Taking Scripture in its literal sense, the Jews were forced to accept the concept of a corporeal Deity - as with the anthropomorphic (“human-formed”) Greek gods.  The Talmud (Berakhot 6a) even said that God wears tefillin (“phylacteries:” leather boxes containing Scripture and bound upon the right arm with leather straps).  In a medieval liturgical poem (piyut), it was said that certain names of God are written upon His forehead, which is of gigantic size.  The text then said that “God resembles an old man, a handsome man, a Jew, and a sage.”


          The Talmud (Avot derabi natan 2:4) also maintained that God was circumcised.  This followed from the fact that Adam was made in His image, and that Adam was born circumcised.  (Adam’s name was on a list of individuals who were born circumcised.)


          The mighty hand of God was evidenced in Scriptures like Exodus 7:5, “And the Egyptians shall know that I am Yahweh when I stretch forth My hand.”  It is not surprising, therefore, that excavations of ancient synagogues show mosaic depictions of the hand of God extending from heaven.  One commentary (Midrash hagadol on Genesis, 159) described the hand and the fingers of God:


This is how you are to make it (Gen. 6:15) - it teaches that God pointed out to Noah with His finger, and told him “like this you shall make it.”  It has been taught: Rabbi Ishmael said: five fingers in the right hand of God - all are a great secret; the little finger - with it God showed Noah what to do...The second finger, next to the little, with it God smote the Egyptians...The third finger, the middle one, with it God wrote the tablets...The fourth finger, the index, with it God showed to Moses what Israel should give to save their souls...And the whole hand, with it the Lord will ruin the children of Esau that are His foes, and destroy the children of Ishmael that are His enemies, as it is written, Your hand shall be lifted up over your adversaries (Mic. 5:9), and it is written, In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time (Isa. 11:11).


          Among the Jewish commentaries is one (Pirkei derabi eliezer) that explained the blindness of Isaac in his old age as being caused by his lifting his eyes and seeing the brilliant form of God when, in his youth, he was bound by his father Abraham upon the altar.


          Josephus, the Jewish historian, accepted an anthropomorphic image of God, although maintaining that the divine form is beyond human comprehension: “By His works and bounties He is plainly seen, indeed more manifest than all else, but His form and magnitude surpass our powers of description.” (Contra apionem ii.23)


          Stating the common viewpoint of the Jews in his day (with which he did not agree), the medieval rabbi Maimonides said, “He is, in their view, bigger and more resplendent than they themselves, and the matter of which He is composed is not flesh and blood.”


          Some Scriptures describing a Visible God are as follows:


Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.       Genesis 5:24


Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.                                                                                                      Genesis 6:9


So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is spared.”                                          Genesis 32:30


Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel.  And there was under His feet something like a pavement of sapphire, like the very heaven for clearness.  And He did not lay His hand on the chief men of the people of Israel.  They beheld God, and ate and drank.                                                    Exodus 24:9-11


When Moses entered the Tabernacle, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the Tabernacle, and Yahweh would speak to Moses...Thus Yahweh used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.                                                                     Exodus 33:9,11a


And Yahweh came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the Tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam.  They both came forward, and He said, “Hear My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, Yahweh, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so with My servant Moses: he is entrusted with all My house.  With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech.  And he beholds the form of Yahweh...”                                                               Numbers 12:5-8a


Yahweh spoke with you (the people of Israel) face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between Yahweh and you at that time, to declare to you the word of Yahweh...                     Deuteronomy 5:4,5a


And Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of Yahweh: I saw Yahweh sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside Him on His right hand and on His left.”                                                         1 Kings 22:19


In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw Yahweh sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.  And His train filled the Temple...And I said,”Woe is me! for I am lost...for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Hosts.”                                                                                                          Isaiah 6:1,5


And above the firmament over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire.  And seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form...Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh...                              Ezekiel 1:26,28b




          In the Torah, God says to Moses, “Man shall not see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20b).


          The great Jewish theologian, Maimonides (1138-1204), explained that the Scripture had to use corporeal expressions to refer to God, because the masses first needed to accept God’s existence, even at a time when they could not conceive of an incorporeal Deity.  He acknowledged that the Torah taught a heretical doctrine at first and said it was necessary for men to be led to a better belief in a progressive fashion.  (Thus did Maimonides affirm a significant exegetical doctrine, that of the “progressive revelation” of truth in the Bible.)


          Orthodox Judaism is defined by the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides, and of these the Third Principle declares: “God is not physical, nor can His essence be grasped by the human imagination.”  In creedal form this is recited in Orthodox synagogues: “I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed is His Name, is not physical and is not affected by any physical phenomena, and that there is no comparison whatever to Him.”  According to Maimonides, corporealists are heretics, not deserving of heaven.


          The prophet Jeremiah envisioned an omnipresent Deity, rather than a Supreme Being confined to one body and one location.  He posed the question, “Do not I fill heaven and earth, saith Yahweh?” (23:24).  On this verse, one rabbi, Taku, took a middle position and commented, “Heaven forbid that the Holy One of all holiness should be found in a place of filth and in the midst of idols.”   According to Taku, God fills the world (except for the filthy places), but somehow He still only occupies one place.


          Philo of Alexandria was influenced by Greek philosophy to the point that he rejected the anthropomorphic-deity concept and stated that scriptural references to God’s body are for the benefit of those who “are very dull in their natures, so as to be utterly unable to form any conception whatever of God apart from a body.” (De somniis i.40:236)


          One enigmatic Scripture indicates that God has a face and a backside, but that man can never look upon the divine countenance:  Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your Glory”...But He said, “You cannot see My Face, for man cannot see My Face and live”...“you shall see My Back, but My Face shall not be seen.”                                                            Exodus 33:18,20, 23b


          Another passage may be interpreted to mean that God has no form, or just that man is not allowed to see it.  Then Yahweh spoke to you out of the midst of the fire.  You heard the sound of words but saw no form.  There was only a voice...Take good heed to yourselves, since you saw no form on the day that Yahweh spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female.                                                                                         Deuteronomy 4:12,15-16


          To counter numerous references to the body of God in the Bible, Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda, eleventh century, wrote: “The foolish and simple person will conceive of the Creator in accordance with the literal sense of the Scriptural phrase.”


          Some Jewish theologians believed that when God is described in human form, as in prophetic theophanies, such images are to be taken as allegorical narratives or visionary experiences.  This would make these accounts akin to the tales of the Trojan War, in which the gods were said to have come down and fought alongside the Greek and Trojan warriors.  With others who rejected the allegorical explanation, they imagined that the Deity had the ability to assume a bodily form at will.  This ability required an Element of God referred to as His ruach nifrad.  Evidently He could assume a concrete image during a theophanic appearance and then dissolve the body when the vision was ended.


          Siding with Maimonides against a tangible Body, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760) presented the idea of seeing the Creator  with “the mental eye” (ein sikhlo).  And a rabbi of more recent times, Israel Lipschuetz, stated that Moses, unlike the other prophets, saw, in reality, God’s “reflection.”


          Christian theology is based upon the definitive statement of Jesus to the woman at the well: “God is Spirit” (John 4:24).  Also at the beginning of the Gospel of John is the emphatic declaration: “No one has ever seen God” (1:18).  This means that the concept of the imago Dei in man must be taken in a spiritual sense, i.e., the soul or mind of man, not his body, is like that of God.


          So, what does a Christian do with Old Testament accounts of the physical appearances of God?  Since a follower of Christ believes that God did take on human form in the Incarnation, there is the possibility that the theophanies of the Hebrew Scriptures are all manifestations of the Second Person of the Trinity - Christ in the Old Testament.


          References to “the Throne of God” in the New Testament are not in keeping with divine omnipresence as stated by Jesus, and so, they must all be taken in a figurative, poetic, visionary, or allegorical sense.  Even in heaven, in the afterlife, it follows that God, the Holy Spirit, will be invisible - felt and experienced but not seen.


                                                                                       Richard L. Atkins