In an earlier post I described the Hebrew Universe. The so-called Bible believing Christians have argued that this is merely the language of appearances, that is, it’s merely figurative language, just like heaven is described as a city in Revelation 21-22, but neither of which are to be taken literally by educated Christians today. [Although, many Christians still believe heaven is exactly as described in Revelation, as is hell.] Are they correct?
The question for me is this one: How do Christians know that the Hebrews didn’t take these verses literally? With what we read in the Bible, the burden of proof is squarely on them.
What did early Christians think about heaven (remember, Jesus supposedly bodily ascended to sit at the right hand of God on a throne and to rule in a heavenly city, with mansions [John 14:1-4])? We must step back in time before the rise of modern astronomy to see the universe as they did. That’s all. Modern Christians try to avoid the conclusions of the literal Biblical statements because they read the Bible after the rise of science. It’s that simple, and it’s bad exegesis. Jesus could only have bodily ascended into heaven if heaven is in the sky, as the ancients believed.
In a like manner, a similar question arises when we ask what the ancient Hebrews thought about God.
The Bible states that man and woman are to have been created in the image/likeness of God in three passages in the early chapters of Genesis (Gen 1:26–28; 5:1–3; 9:6), for instance: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
About this listen to the Anchor Bible Dictionary (“Image of God’) which tells us: “It is clear that a certain ambiguity is associated with the meaning of the terms “image and likeness of God” in these passages in Genesis. It is difficult to know whether the author of the material used expressions from the tradition that his audience would immediately understand in their cultural context, but which we in a vastly different cultural setting lack the contextual clues to understand precisely, or whether the author deliberately presented these ideas in a somewhat ambiguous way. Gen 5:1–2 makes it clear that both male and female are included under the designation adam who was made in God’s image. Gen 5:3 reports that Adam fathered a son “in his likeness, according to his image,” and the verse employs the same nouns used in Gen 1:26–27, though the order of the nouns and the prepositions used with each are reversed in comparison to Gen 1:26. This suggests that the way in which a son resembles his father is in some sense analogous to the way in which the human is like God. Since this passage has made the point that it is both male and female who are in the image of God, it seems clear that the similarity, while not excluding the physical in the broadest sense, focuses on capacities such as personality, self-determination, and rational thought. It is probable that it is the whole person who is in the image of God rather than some specific aspect of that person to the exclusion of others, and this focus on the human being as a whole being is consistent with the way humanity is viewed throughout the Hebrew Bible.”
And read this from the Harper’s Bible Dictionary (“Image Of God”), which is more to the point: “To speak of human beings (‘Adam’) as created in the image of God apparently refers primarily to the bodily form (the Hebrew term for ‘image’ usually denotes a concrete likeness) but also to the spiritual attributes the physical body symbolizes.”
If we want to know just what that image is, we should consider some of these passages that describe God with a human form:
Genesis 2:2: "And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made."
But only a physical being needs to rest.
Genesis 3:8: "They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden."
Shouldn't this verse settle the whole debate?
God has arms: Ex. 6:6; Ex. 15:16; Deut. 4:34 Deut. 7:19; 9:29; 26:8; Acts 13:17. Deut. 5:15 Psa. 136:12. Deut. 11:2; Deut. 33:27; 1 Kin. 8:42 2 Chr. 6:32. 2 Kin. 17:36; Psa. 77:15; Psa. 89:10, 13, 21; Psa. 98:1; Song 2:6; Isa. 33:2; Isa. 40:10, 11; Isa. 51:5, 9; Isa. 52:10; Isa. 53:1; Isa. 59:16; Isa. 62:8; Isa. 63:5, 12; Jer. 21:5 Ezek. 20:33. Jer. 27:5 Jer. 32:17. Luke 1:51.
God has ears: Psa. 17:6; Psa. 39:12; Psa. 77:1; Psa. 80:1; Psa. 84:8.
God has eyes: Psa. 33:18, 19; Psa. 34:15 Amos 9:8; 1 Pet. 3:12. Psa. 121:3–5; Isa. 1:15; Isa. 3:8; Hab. 1:13; Matt. 6:22; Luke 11:34.
God has hands: Num. 11:23; is mighty, Josh. 4:24; was heavy, 1 Sam. 5:6; against the Philistines, 1 Sam. 7:13; on Elijah, 1 Kin. 18:46; not shortened, Isa. 59:1; was with the early Christians, Acts 11:21.
God has a footstool: The earth is God’s, Isa. 60:13; 66:1; Lam. 2:1; Acts 7:49.
God has a scepter: Gen. 49:10; Num. 24:17; Isa. 9:4.
God sits on a throne: 2 Chr. 18:18; Psa. 9:4, 7; 11:4; 47:8; 89:14; 97:2; 103:19; Isa. 6:1; 66:1; Matt. 5:34; 23:22; Heb. 8:1; 12:2; Rev. 14:3, 5; of Christ, Matt. 19:28; 25:31; Acts 2:30; Rev. 1:4; 3:21; 4:2–10; 7:9–17; 19:4; 21:5; 22:3.
God has a heavenly court: Gen. 1:26; 11;7; Job 1:6.
God even has nostrils: Ex 15:8; Job 4:9; Psalm 18:8, 15; Is. 65:5,
Listen to this passage from 2 Samuel 22:8:
Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations of the heavens trembled
and quaked, because he was angry.
Smoke went up from his nostrils,
and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.
He bowed the heavens, and came down;
thick darkness was under his feet.
He rode on a cherub, and flew;
he was seen upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness around him a canopy,
thick clouds, a gathering of water.
Out of the brightness before him
coals of fire flamed forth.
The Lord thundered from heaven;
the Most High uttered his voice.
He sent out arrows, and scattered them
—lightning, and routed them.
Then the channels of the sea were seen,
the foundations of the world were laid bare
at the rebuke of the Lord,
at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.
Can you picture this? Sounds like Zeus to me, and Zeus was pictured with a physical body.
The gods of surrounding cultures had human and physical characteristics. There is no reason to suppose the Hebrews thought differently about their God from what we read in the OT. The burden of proof is upon the conservative Christian to show why they don’t think of God in a human form. Mormons today take these statements literally and believe God has the shape of a human being, so if modern people like Mormons think this way, then it’s even more likely that ancient Hebrews did.
Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam [above] may actually reflect the ancient Hebrew view of God creating man.
What are some of the implications of these things? 1) The Bible reflects ancient views of God, the universe, and heaven/hell, which slowly evolved into the views Christians have today. 2) The Bible is misinterpreted by conservative Christians today because they do not understand the Bible as it was originally understood. 3) The Bible has nothing to say about how God created the universe (if he exists), and it makes no claim about creation that we should believe today merely because the Bible states it, since it's based upon ancient myths. 4) Christians cannot take every statement in the Bible about God, the universe, heaven/hell as the truth, if properly understood in its context, since those conceptions evolved inside the Bible itself. There are other implications.