“ And they heard the sound of YHWH moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day…”
“That the holy one, blessed be He, is not a physical body, is explicitly set forth in the Pentateuch and the Prophets.”
-Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Yesod Ha Da’at 1:8
Despite Maimonides’ assertion above, The Tanakh1does not shy away from representing G-d as appearing in some kind of form. G-d walks in the garden, sews clothing for Adam and Chava, and even seems to appear as a mal’akh, a human-like apparition, to Avraham , Ya’akov, and others. G-d also appears in a more abstract but no less intense form in the three middle books of the Chumash2, as a burning bush, a pillar of cloud or flame, a “cloud of glory”, a shofar blast, and as disturbances, seemingly of the fabric of reality itself. In Yeshayahu (Isaiah) and Yehezkel (Ezekiel) G-d is pictured as an awesome, surreal presence which although humanoid, seems to dance just at the edges of being confined to form. Perhaps, as some have argued3, this is because for ancient Israel G-d was an entity who once confined to specific form could no longer be experienced the way Israelites experienced their God. Aniconism- a ban on fixed images of G-d– is at the very heart of Israelite religion, as distinct from surrounding cultures.
In the following pages we will explore G-d’s appearances, by which I mean His experienced or conceptualized presence or manifestation in the physical world, in the Tanakh, and what we can learn from this about Israelite religion. There are three aspects to appearance- form, location, and physicality (or lack thereof). We will explore all three with regard to YHWH. We will discuss the texts we examine from a historical-critical point of view but focus predominantly on a conceptual, literary exploration of the text. We will then reflect on the possible theological implications of our journey.
Among The Fathers and Mothers
Ya’akov was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Ya’akov, he struck him on the hip socket; and Ya’akov’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Ya’akov said “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Ya’akov.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Ya’akov, but Israel. For you have struggled with God and with humans and prevailed.” Then Ya’akov asked him, “What is your name? But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Ya’akov called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Ber 32:25-31)
In this famous passage the identitiy of the “man” Ya’akov struggles with is mysterious. Tradition views him as a mal’akh – an “angel, or more literally, a “messenger” of God. Most translations reflect this, attempting to present him as such4. A literal translation suggests that the “man” Ya’akov struggles with is in fact God. Why else would Ya’kov celebrate his survival after seeing God “face to face”, unless he had in fact seen Him, not merely a representative? In another mysterious text, Ya’akov’s father Avraham has a meeting with not one mal’akh, but three. Again the text is ambiguous.
“YHWH5 appeared to him (Avraham) by the oaks of Mamre; as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lords6, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought and wash your feet and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on- since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, There in the tent.” And He said7, I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The LORD said to Avraham, Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a child.”
Who are the three men in this passage? Traditionally they are viewed as mal’akhim, angels, or more literally, “messengers” of God. The literal meaning of mal’akh is a messenger, one who is sent. What seems to be described is a meeting between a human being and three mal’akhim.
The odd thing about the passage is the way the three mal’akhim seem to fade into YHWH, and then back into three mal’akhim again. As James L. Kugel has pointed out8, the existential distinction between the mal’akhim and YHVH seems blurred. This is further shown by a passage a little later in the story, when Avraham accompanies the three men on their way, and YHWH is said to be contemplating whether to share with Avraham his plans for Sodom and Amorrah. He then apparently decides to find out if things there as bad as the cries of distress issuing from it indicate. In Friedman’s translation9:
And YHWH said, “The cry of Sodom and Amorrah: how great it is. And their sin: how very heavy it is. Let me go down, and I’ll see if they’ve done, all told, like the cry that has come to me. And if not, let me know.” And the people turned from there and went to Sodom.10 And Avraham was still standing before YHWH, and Avraham came over and said… (Ber 18:20-23)
It seems here like both the speaker, YHWH, and the three men, are the same “person”. The mal’akh, singular or plural, do not appear to be a distinct, stable being sent as a representative of YHWH, but rather an appearance of YHWH Himself. Amazingly YHWH as mal’akh appears to be able to be in two places at once (“Let me go down…And the people turned from there and went…and Avraham was still standing before YHWH…). Nevertheless, the physicality of the mal’akhim is noteworthy. In the Ya’akov text the mal’akh physically wrestles with Ya’akov; in the Avraham narrative Avraham obviously has no idea of the divine nature of his visitors at first, and they even eat in his presence11.
Later in the narrative, and perhaps composition, time of the Torah, the mal’akhim appear to be increasingly replaced by less anthropomorphic manifestations of YHWH.
Fire and Cloud
The first divine appearance in Shemot12 (SH) is a “mal’akh of YHWH in a fire’s flame from inside a bush.” As the text tells us, “And he (Mosheh) looked, and here: the bush was burning in the fire, and the bush was not consumed!” (SH 3:2) The text further says, “And YHWH saw that he (Mosheh) turned to see. And G-d called to him from inside the bush, and He said, “Mosheh, Mosheh.”(SH 3:4) Here is an important difference from the earlier narratives. The mal’akh of YHWH, which again is not entirely made distinct from YHWH, is never described as a man. The text only mentions the supernatural flame and the voice. This suggests that mal’akh may indeed be considered to be an appearance, or manifestation, of YHWH, as opposed to an entity with any degree of existential independence.
For most of the rest of Shemot, YHWH appears as a guiding and commanding voice to Mosheh. On their way out of Egypt, however he appears in a more abstract although still physical form: “And YHWH was going in front of them by day in a column of cloud to show them the way, and by night in a column of fire to shed light for them…”(SH 13:21) Later on, at Horev/Sinai, YHWH appears as “a mass of cloud” (SH 19:9), then as “thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and a sound of a horn, very strong….and Mount Sinai was all smoke because YHWH came down on it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And the sound of the horn was getting much stronger….”(SH 19:16-19) After YHWH speaks to the people, he says to Mosheh, “ You shall say this to the children of Israel: You have seen that I have spoken with you from the skies…”(SH 20:22)
Later Mosheh is commanded to come up the mountain with Nadav, Avihu, Aharon, and seventy of Israel’s elders. They go up, and: “They saw the God of Israel. And below His feet it was like a structure of sapphire brick and like the essence of the skies for clarity. And He did not put out His hand to the chiefs of the children of Israel. And they envisioned God. And they ate and drank.” (SH 24:9-11) The passage is striking both for its loftiness and vagueness relative to the earlier passages, and for how that loftiness is mixed with the reference to “His feet”!13 We see a new type of appearance here, what seems to be a majestic, personal vision of YHWH. This foreshadows in some respects the way YHWH appears in the Prophets.
In the year that King Uzziyah died I saw YHWH, sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance above Him; each had six wings; with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is YHWH Tzevakot; the whole world is full of His glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. (Yeshayahu 6:1-4)
Here we have a later text, from Nevi’im (Prophets) which scholars identify with the original prophet of the Yeshayahu school of prophets who spanned 738 BCE to 515 BCE14. King Uzziyah dies in 738 BCE, the year Yeshayahu started prophesying according to the above text. This text suggests two interesting things about the Prophet’s understanding of God. The first is the return here to a physical image- even to visible clothing! The figure is not clearly defined though, and we can assume not clearly seen either, or else Yeshayahu would supply more detail15. The mysterious figure is seated on a throne and wearing a robe. Seraphim, traditionally understood to be angels of fire, are in attendance. The Seraphim call to each other, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Is YHWH of Hosts, the whole world is full of His glory!” This last is interesting. The “glory” of YHWH is understood (SH) to be some kind of ethereal radiance or cloud that surrounds Him. His glory, significantly, both reveals and conceals.16The glory is paradigmatic of all appearances of YHWH. His appearances are inconsistent, unstable, ambiguous, a form yet not a true or essential form17.
Yehezkel’s vision is even more stunning:
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chevar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God Elohim. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Yehoyakin) the word of YHWH came to the priest Yehezkel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chevar; and the hand of YHWH was on him there.
As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continuously, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings….Over the heads of the living creatures there was something like a dome, shining like crystal, spread out above their heads…And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of the throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendour all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of YHWH. When I saw it, I fell on my face and I heard the voice of someone speaking. (Yehezkel 1:1-6; 22, 26-28)
This passage has a number of interesting features. The vision of YHWH occurs outside of Israel, “among the community of exiles”. As in Yeshayahu, it seems more un-worldly.18 It is magisterial and awe-inspiring. The surreal “hayyot”, a type of ministering “angel”, whose appearance is more fully elaborated in the unquoted section of the passage, appear clearly distinct from YHWH. The text seems to be suggesting that YHWH himself is being seen, as in Shemot, even if it is only an “appearance of the likeness of the glory of YHWH.”19 YHWH does have some degree of corporeality, but just barely. He is “enclosed fire” “gleaming amber” “radiance”, which appeared “like” a human form.
In this passage then, YHWH appears from the heavens, not on earth, in a magisterial form. Importantly Yehezkel (or his editor) is at pains to stress that this seemingly full theophany by Biblical standards is not as full as it seems- it is merely a manifestation of an approximation of a self-emanation of YHWH.
We have traced the appearances of YHWH throughout the Tanakh. In the Avraham and Ya’akov narratives we saw YHWH manifesting as mal’akhim– a human seeming man or men who turn out to be appearances of YHWH. We saw how Israelites considered a run-in with the mal’akhim to be tantamount to an encounter with YHWH Himself. We saw how although the mal’akhim narratives depict YHWH as possessing physicality, it is not simple physicality. If YHWH possesses a body it can having three bodies at once, or two in one place while one is in another. We noted the way the Mal’akhim and YHWH seem interchangeable, fading into one another. We argue that this suggests that the mal’akhim were not seen as independent beings at this point in Israelite thought.
We explored how in Shemot YHWH appears as a flame, a pillar of cloud or flame, a cloud of glory, or a magisterial and lofty , but not clearly defined, figure. We noted how the flame appearance is referred to as a mal’akh, supporting the idea that the fundamental idea of a mal’akh is an emanation of YHWH, not what we normally understand of as an angel. The text in Shemot does not clearly differentiate between the flame mal’akh and YHWH, supporting our argument. Finally we explored how YHWH appears in the Prophets as a surreal, overwhelming, and magisterial presence in the Heavens flanked by surreal ministering creatures, the seraphim, chayyot and ophanot.
Can we explain these different manifestations of YHWH in the texts? Why does YHWH appear in such different ways? What does it tell us about Israelite religion and its development?
Can source criticism explain these texts? Perhaps the composition time of these texts can shed some light on their meaning. When the texts we quoted from Bereishit and Shemot were written is a matter of considerable controversy. Richard Eliott Friedman, a leading proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis20, places these texts in the source documents J and E, composed between 922 BCE and 722 BCE and combined by a redactor, RJE, shortly after the reunification of Judah and Israel in 722 BCE. A competing theory is put forward by John Van Seters, a proponent of the New Supplementary Hypothesis.21He also assigns them to J, but in his scheme this is the last, post-exilic stage (after 527 BCE) in the supplementation of a document that became the Torah.
One who follows Friedman’s timeline is free to suggest that the malakh’im narratives belong to the earlier J source. This fits with his assignment of the flame mal’akh in SH 3:2-3 to J22. The appearances of YHWH in Shemot as a mass of cloud, on the mountain as fire and smoke, and as a voice from the skies Friedman assigns to E, a source contemporaneous to J but generally viewed as more disposed to abstraction. Not all abstract, non-anthropomorphic appearances are assigned to E, however. The pillar of cloud or fire that leads the Israelites is assigned to J, putting a hole in the hypothesis that appearances though abstract supernatural phenomena are a trademark of E and mal’akhim a trademark of J23. If we follow Van Seters we have more problems, since if the mal’akhim in Bereishit and Shemot are contemporaneous to, or later, then, the Prophets, then the differences are not explained. It seems like we will have to rely on literary explanations. They are readily available.
In the Avraham and Ya’akov narratives it is imperative to the storyline that they not know who the mal’akhim are at first. Both appear to be tests. The Avraham narrative is a test of generosity and hospitality, the Ya’akov narrative a test of endurance and will. Obviously Avraham would not offer hospitality to YHWH, nor would Ya’akov wrestle with Him. In the Moshe narrative in Shemot what is key is that Mosheh be drawn to Horev, the sacred mountain, and know that YHWH is speaking to him, as demonstrated by the miracle of the bush that burns and is not consumed. There would be no point in the mal’akh appearing in human form. In the other Shemot narrative featuring fire, smoke, pillars of cloud and flame, etc, what is true is the opposite of what is true in Bereishit. The Israelites must know that it is YHWH that is leading them. The subterfuge of appearing in human form would not only be unnecessary, but damaging to the aniconic nature of Israelite religion. In the theophany to the 70 elders, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, YHWH appears in the form of a King sealing a covenant. That is why the representatives of the people come in to His presence and symbolically break bread with Him, although it is unclear how direct a vision they have of Him, and I would argue not very. Finally, in the Prophetic narratives the majesty of YHWH’s appearance is predicated by the need to strongly inspire and strengthen the Prophets for their incredibly difficult and long term tasks, as well as to give them legitimacy in the eyes of the people. This is particularly true of Yehezkel, who was prophesying among the shattered community of exiles. By the time of Yeshayahu the image of YHWH as true King of Israel is well established. Yeshayahu’s vision may stress that “the true King”, ensconced in the Temple, is calling him to address his sinful representatives, the Kings of Judah, on earth.
The key connecting thread which shows conceptual continuity, not discontinuity, in these narratives, is their connection to the aniconic spirituality of ancient Israel. In none of the narratives does YHWH appear in a definitive or essential form. The essential features of God’s physicality throughout the Tanakh are that it can not be pinned down and that it is dangerous to behold. These features are consistent with the aniconic nature of Israelite religion, with its taboos on concrete or definite representation of the Deity. The descriptions of YHWH in the text are easily seen as consistent throughout the Tanakh- YHWH is a God who appears as mal’akhim, in strange natural phenomena, and in majestic, surreal visions. No texts depict him as having a certain physical form like Krishna, Zeus, or Marduk24. Only in surreal, arbitrary, or symbolic forms can an aniconic God be seen.
Another aspect of physicality besides form is location. In the early texts YHWH’s appearances are on earth. In Shemot they are on earth and on the higher earth, i.e. Horev/Sinai. In the Prophets the appearances are in the Temple and in the Heavens. There seems to be a general movement here from earth to the threshold between heaven and earth- Sinai or the Temple and then to the Heavens entirely in Ezekiel.
This makes sense. In Bereishit YHWH appears anywhere, as he is yet to create His “headquarters” in Jerusalem as it were. In Shemot, YHWH appears first at the base of Horev to Moshe, and then on earth leading Israel to Horev. Once at Horev He appears at its summit, as befits a God whose home, like all Gods, is of course in the Heavens. After Horev YHWH appears in the Mishkan, the wilderness temple, and then eventually in Jerusalem at the Temple proper. This becomes the new threshold of Heaven and Earth for Israel. After the exile His appearance to Yehezkel follows this same logic. The Temple is destroyed, so He appears directly from the Heavens.
We can sum up the way YHWH appears in the Tanakh as follows: YHWH appears either on earth or in the heavens, in forms which match the rhetorical intent of the context. Consistent with the fierce Aniconism of Israelite religion his appearances are never completely described- His appearances dance on the edge of form, unstable, indefinite, semblances and emanations, never an essential or definitive image. The physicality of YHWH is never denied in the Tanakh, however. While it is true that in the Prophets, or in Melachim (M 22:19) He appears in the Heavens, in Biblical thought the heavens are part of the created world- physical. The denial of physicality to YHWH seems to have arisen out of the contact of Judaism with Hellenistic thought. This can be seen at its most stringent in Maimonides, the master reconciler of Torah and Aristotle, who made the non-corporeality of God one of his 13 cardinal principles of Jewish Thought, the denial of which made one a heretic25.
Behind this discussion there is a lurking question. Do the changing appearances of YHWH reflect only narrative elements, or do they also reflect changing understandings of His nature? On a superficial analysis, some might conclude that the movements from more to less anthropomorphic, and from earth based to heaven based appearances, represents a transition to a more universal, and more powerful deity. The texts do not support this view. This is a much debated question. I argue that within the Chumash itself there are many references throughout which suggest that YHWH was understood as the Creator God who ruled the universe, and all peoples ( B 1-11 in its entirety, all alleged J, E, and P sources; B 14:19-22, 18, 21:33, B 41:1-36, SH 19:5; and many references in Devarim. The many references in Devarim are explained by the doctrinal emphasis of that book.)
Final Thoughts: Is their a contradiction between the conception of YHWH in the Tanakh and the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God of later Judaism?
In the Talmud and Midrash, texts which were formed between 300 BCE and 500 CE, after the Jews absorbed a strong dose of Hellenistic thought, God appears both as corporeal and as the formless omnipresent. In many texts the anthropomorphisms are outright shocking. God is said to wear tefillin26 (Ber 6a) and to wrap Himself in a talit27 (RH 17b); to pray to Himself and to study the Torah three hours a day (AZ 3b). He weeps over his creatures sins (Chag 5b), plaits Chavah’s hair before her wedding (Ber 61a) and buries Moses (Gen R 8.13). Despite this, He is said to fill the whole world as the soul fills the body (Ber 10a) and to not possess simple location (Midrash to Psalm 25. 5; 103a). In fact, it is said, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, is the place of his universe, but the universe is not His place (Gen R.LXViii.9).” Despite that, it is also affirmed that the Holy One lives in a transcendent heaven a distance of 3,500 years away (Midrash to Psalm ciii.i;217a). These different depictions seem to have different purposes- some are poetic, some pedagogical- for instance describing God as doing good deeds to encourage imitatio dei (see Exodus Rabbah 30.9). Some seem to be earnest attempts at cosmology, some ontological. Nevertheless they demonstrate the ability of the human text and the human mind to hold seemingly contradictory beliefs. The world of early Israel is not the sophisticated ultra-literate culture of the Pharisees. The texts of the Bible represent understandings more then doctrines, but the same ability to hold contradictory concepts applies in terms of understandings, as most moderns who enjoy watching the sun rise over the horizon, as opposed to the earth rising over the sun, can attest.
A full discussion of whether YHWH is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient in the Tanakh or not is beyond the scope of this essay. Scholars have argued both sides of the debate well. We will limit this closing piece to arguing that the facts we have discussed in this essay do not make render impossible the viewing of the YHWH of the Tanakh as omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipresent.
Theologically, it seems to me, these problems are not hard to resolve. Rabbeinu Bachya, the great medieval Rabbi, said, “Had they (the Prophets) described God in strictly spiritual terms and concepts, we would have understood neither the terms nor the concepts; and it would have been impossible for us to worship a being Whom we did not know…”28 It’s not hard to apply this insight from the world of language to the world of experience. If God has no form, then how would he have appeared to ancient Israelites in such a way as to be apprehended and understood by them without causing a nervous breakdown at worst or mere incomprehension at best? R’ Bachya here is speaking in terms of the writings of the Prophets, but what he says may also apply to the direct experience of God. What would have been the effect if God appeared in such a way that in the process He disrupted the entire conceptual worldview of the poor victim of his theophany? Has this, in fact, ever happened? Has any pre-modern mystic come back from an experience of God explaining quantum physics? An experience of God in line with later developments in human thought are similarly unlikely29. Of course, these matters can all be given a secular, psychological explanation as well. My point here is just that they do not pose insurmountable theological problems for those who read the Bible through the eyes of faith. As far as philosophical scruples about the absolute unity or infinitude of God, R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, said it well in his Tanya30 when he explained that a truly infinite being would not be limited by their infinitude. That would, in fact, render them finite!
_Benamozegh, Elijah. Israel and Humanity. Paulist Press, New York, 1995.
_Ben Joseph Ibn Paquda, R’ Bachya. Chovat Ha-Levavot (The Duties of The Heart). Feldheim. New York, 1996.
_Brettler, Marc Zvi. How To Read the Bible. Philadelphia, PA. The Jewish Publication Society 2005.
_Cassuto, Umberto. The Documentary Hypothesis and The Composition of The Pentateuch. Jerusalem, Shalem Press, 2006.
_Cohen, Abraham . Everyman’s Talmud. New York, Shocken, 1975.
_Frick, Frank s. “The Land of The Hebrew Bible.” A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. Forth Worth, TX: Harcour Brace, 2000.
_Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Bible With Sources Revealed. New York, Harper Collins 2003.
_Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “The Biblical View of Reality”. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. New York, 1996.
_The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. New York, Harper Collins 1993.
_JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society 2003/5764.
_The Keter Crown Bible. Jerusalem, Horev Publishing House, 2004.
_Kugel, James L. The God of Old. New York, The Free Press 2003.
_Mackenzie, Steven L; Graham, Patrick M. ed., The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, 1998.
_Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Shambhala Publications, Boston 2000.
_Zalman of Liadi, Rabbi Schneur. Likkutei Amarim: Tanya; Bilingual Edition. Kehot Publication Society, New York 1998.