All A Horrible Mistake? The Bible’s Supposed Condemnation of Homosexuality

Human history, especially recently, has shown that we can be very wrong about some things, even ones we've believed for a long time. The sun doesn't revolve around the earth. Solid objects are actually mostly filled with space. And the Bible doesn't condemn homosexuality.


What? But don't most Jews and Christians, the people of the Book themselves, say it does? Don't they say the Bible condemns homosexuals even when they disagree with that condemnation? Doesn't the Bible say homosexuality is an “abomination”?


The answer to the first question is “Yes, that is what they say.” But the answer to the second question turns out to be “No, it was a misunderstanding.”


I myself was unhappily convinced, until recently, that the Hebrew Bible did condemn homosexuality. I thought this was disturbing because I myself don't agree. Homosexuality seems to me mostly a result of genetic predisposition and in itself ethically neutral.


I am aware of attempts, notably by Jay Michaelson as well as others, to interpret the texts in Leviticus apparently condemning homosexuality so that they do not. These attempts are usually either midrashic or speculative, by which I mean that they either find new meanings in the old words by playing with their etymology or speculate as to possible alternative intentions for the verses based on reasoning and imagination. Neither of these approaches satisfied me.


Then I read an amazing book, which I recommend to all fearless and intellectually honest Christians and Jews and anyone who has grown up in the Biblically based cultures of Europe and the modern Americas. The book is the “The Bible Now”, written by one of the world's great secular Bible scholars, Richard Elliot Friedman and his esteemed colleague Shawna Dolansky and published by Oxford University Press. This book bases itself solidly in the historical-critical approach, ie. in arguments based in textual criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and cross-cultural studies.


The book purports to use the immense riches of 20th century discoveries to take a look at what the literal text of the Bible has to say about several pressing moral issues in its original historical context. The authors address several hot button topics: abortion, women, ecology, capital punishment, and homosexuality. All of these topics represent areas where passionate, and often passionately biased people, use and abuse the Bible with very little knowledge of what scholars have to say about its original meaning and intentions.


The whole book was enlightening, but nowhere more than in its discussion of homosexuality.


The verses in question are: “You shall not lay with a male as you would with a woman, it is a repulsive thing.” (Lev 18:22) and “The two of them have done a repulsive thing. They shall be put to death.” (Lev 20:13). Friedman and Dolansky's translation of these verses will be discussed below.


When we say “homosexual” today we generally mean people who are primarily sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. By “homosexuality” we mean people of homosexual orientation who engage, homosexually, in all the same sexual and romantic behaviours that heterosexuals do: casual sex, affairs, committed monogamy, and now marriage.


First off, say Friedman and Dolansky, no one in the cultural sphere of the Bible thought of certain people as “homosexuals” or had a concept of “homosexuality” like the one I describe above. There is no word for homosexual or homosexuality in Hebrew. In fact, they argue, scholars assert that the category “homosexuality” did not occur in western culture until the 17th century. Before then, sex with another man was just seen as a “perverse desire”, a temptation that some people were more prone to than others.


What is at issue here in Leviticus is a certain act not a category of person. We need to understand exactly what “laying with a man as you would with a woman” means, and why that was considered “a repulsive thing”.


Friedman and Dolansky do assume that the verses refer to sexual intimacy between men, which is supported by the language used. How exactly does one man lay with another like the second man was a woman, though? Friedman and Dolansky note that the phrase used for the forbidden activity means literally “you shall not lay with a man the layings of a woman.” They argue that the plural “layings” suggests that the meaning is “any of the ways that one would have sexual intimacy with a woman”. In other words, it refers to any form of sexual intimacy between a man and a man. On this point I disagree. I think that if you wish to represent the plural in the translation the phrase is most coherently translated as “you shall not lay with a man in the way you would lie with a woman”. It is more natural to represent “that way you would lie with a woman” with a plural, since we are referring to a habitual, repetitive way of doing something.This point is important because Friedman and Dolansky will ground their understanding of why homosexual sex is forbidden in an Israelite aversion to one man being penetrated by another (the reason for the aversion will be explained below). They think that all “sex acts” are banned, seemingly in order to prevent the “repulsive act” of male anal sex.

I think that Israelites understood “sex (laying)” to refer to “sexual intercourse” specifically, and that the law only refers to sexual intercourse between men. Even more specifically, the law is addressed to the active partner- “you shall not lay with a man”. In other words, the intention of the law is to forbid a man having sexual intercourse with another man by penetrating him anally.

Now, you might think this is a law forbidding homosexual romance. But, Friedman and Dolansky explain, it appears you'd be wrong.


First off, they argue, homosexuality per se can't be the problem. Why not? Because female homosexuality is not against the law. Think that the misogynists just didn't bother to mention women? Au contraire: when bestiality is discussed, the authors specifically mention both men and women being forbidden to have sex with animals.


Further they argue ancient Israel was polygamous and men were not only familiar with female homosexual acts but had relatively easy opportunities to observe them and even to enjoy them, as they had multiple wives. The proof? There is a Biblical law in Leviticus making it illegal for a man who has married two sisters to have sex with both of them at the same time. Sisters just, not wives generally. If threesomes were not known and common enough, why would this law be neccesary? Yet there is no law in the Hebrew Bible forbidding sex between females. This supports their claim that it is only sex between men that is being condemned, and even more specifically, anal sex.


As an aside, a Christian pastor named Justin Cannon makes an additional argument that is relevant here in his book The Bible, Christiianity, and Homosexuality. It is in fact a very Jewish argument! He points out that in the Torah “to lie with” refers to sex. The verses in question could have just said ” it is forbidden for a man to lie with a man”. Why do they add “like a woman”? This seems to qualify and make more precise what is being discussed: not intimacy or love between men of just any kind, but specifically anal penetration, which supports my argument.


To understand why male homosexual acts would be repulsive to Israelites, Friedman and Dolansky look at mentions of anal sex in the surrounding cultures of Greece, Babylon, Assyria, and Mesopatamia. As I mentioned above, I feel that their argument is stronger when percieved as making sense of why anally penetrating another man is fobidden, as opposed to why male homosexual intimacy is forbidden. As I argued above, I don't think the law forbids any form of male homosexual intimacy as such, but is aimed at preventing anal sexual intercourse specifically.


To develop their argument Friedmana and Dolansky look at a series of texts. A Babylonian Divination text, the Summa Alu, discusses the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of different types of anal sex (not their morality or immorality). As Friedman and Dolansky write, it seems being the active part in homosexual intercourse with someone of high status (an equal, a cult prostitute, or a courtier) brought good luck, while penetrating someone of lower status (like a slave) or being the passive recipient of anal sex (outside of cretain religious rituals) brought bad luck. What we see here is that anal sex per se is not bad, but who penetrates and who is pentrated are of symbolic meaning and even bring good or bad luck. The key point is that to actively penetrate another equal is auspicious, to be penetrated by another man is inauspicious.


Two Assyrian laws also discuss anal penetration. The first states that someone who falsely accuses another man of often being a passive recipient of anal sex will be whipped, do forced labour, pay a fine, and be castrated. The next law states: if a man anally rapes a social equal than he will in turn be anally raped and then castrated.


There are two striking things here aside from the brutality of these laws: to be penetrated by another man is shameful, and to be anally raped by an equal is shameful. To be anally raped by a superior is acceptable in law- the concern here is not human rights but protecting the status of elite men. This law reinforces the values existing in the Babylonian law: to be the passive recipient of anal sex is shameful, and implies a lower status than that of the active partner.


Egypt provides similar evidence. Egyptian literature generally portrays the passive partner as “weak, cowardly and effeminate”. In the bizarre myth of Seth and Horus there is a competition between Seth and Horus, two gods, for higher divine status. Seth tries various stratagems to anally penetrate Horus, but is unsuccessful. Horus manages to catch Seth's semen in his hand and brings it to his mother Isis, who is enraged and cuts off Horus's hand, throwing it in the marshes. She then magically sprinkles some of Horus' semen on lettuce which Seth eats. When Seth claims before the divine assembly to have bested Horus, she asks them to call forth their semen as proof. Seth's semen comes forth from the marshes where it was thrown, not from within Horus. Horus's semen, however, is shown to be inside Seth and emerges as a disc surrounding his head, humiliating him. The cultural meaning of actively penetrating another man is pretty clear here, to say the least.


But what about Greece? It turns out the picture is more complicated then you might have heard. Greek literature does not know of a general category of men called “homosexuals”, but it does know of homosexual love and sex. And even in Greece, it turns out, to be the passive recipient of anal sex was considered shameful, effeminizing, and humiliating.


The most common and idealized form of homosexual relationship in Greece was called “paederastia” or “boy-love”. The relationship had a very specific, socially prescribed form. An older man from an aristocratic family was to select a younger man, not yet an adult, from another aristocratic family. The older man would penetrate the younger and enjoy him sexually while also acting as a mentor and sponsor. The young boy was not supposed to enjoy the act, but to “look on stone sober at the other drunk with lust”. When the boy reached adulthood it was required that the relationsip end so as to avoid the shame of one adult male being penetrated by a social equal. Great was the disdain shown to the passive male recipient of anal sex. Plato comments (with a strong note of misogyny):” Will not all men censure as a woman a man who acts womanly?”

Here we have, of course, a very clear parallel to the probable thinking of the Biblical law: the passive partner is considered “as a woman”.


Plutarch, a Roman inheritor of the Greek tradition wrotes, “We class those belonging to the passive part as being of the lowest vice and accord them neither confidence nor respect or friendship.”


What Friedman and Dolansky are arguing here is that it is more reaonable to assume that the Israelites thought like their neighbours in Assyria, Babylon, and the Mediterranean than that they think like us.


What Leviticus forbids is not homosexuality per se, but the degradation of another man's dignity and social status through an act which was widely regarded as humiliating and socially degrading. This is in keeping with the basic egalitarian intent of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, as also argued by Joshua Berman in his masterful book “Created Equal”.


Bearing this in mind we come to a shocking realization about the law against anally penetrating another man. Far from being a law about forbidding homosexuality, it turns out to be a law supporting male dignity and a classless state. The law existed to prevent one man from socially humiliating and degrading another man. Why, then, in Leviticus are both men stoned? The issue here is consensual sex not rape and the Bible holds both men responsible for entering into the degradation. This parallels the Bible's punishment of a freed slave who rejects their freedom and opts to stay with his master (Exodus 21:6 as understood by Rashi).


Now this doesn't mean that the laws in the Hebrew Bible are perfect in promoting equality. They still enshrine certain inequalities, most noteably between men and women. That does not change the fact that they were, in context, an attempt at building a new kind of Utopia, a rebellion against the stratified slave states of Egypt and Babylon. And it doesn't change our fundamental point, which is that the law is not about what we think it is about.


The New Testament


This interpretation of the laws of the Torah is actually supported by a proper reading of the oft-cited and apparently oft-misused comments of Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Here Paul condemns a number of types of human immorality and includes the set “pornoi, arsenokoitai, and andrapodistai”. These are often translated “fornicators, homosexuals, and kidnappers”. Cannon argues, in The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality that in context these Greek terms are best understood as “male prostitutes, those who use them, and their procurors (literally “slave-traders/kidnappers”). All of these characters were present in the Rome of Paul's time. This moral condemnation follows on the Hebrew scriptural idea of anal sex as fundamentally a degrading act for one of the partners.


A second text, Romans 1:24-7, condemns people who are oversome with lust breaking through all boundaries and having “unnatural” sexual relations. Cannon convincingly argues that in this text the referent is in fact Roman religious orgies and again cannot be taken refer to homosexual romances of the kind we know today.


The Consequences


We simply cannot take the Torah's condemnation of anal sex between men out of its original cultural context. The act was condemned because of its social meaning then. This is only reinforced by the word the Torah chooses to characterize one man anally penetrating another: “repulsive”. This word is first used in the Torah by Moses to describe the way Egyptians feel about certain Israelite practices- they are “repulsive” (toevah) to the Egyptians (Exodus 8:2). Later the word is used to refer to certain practices which are, or should be, repulsive to Israel. Famously this includes eating non-kosher food (Deuteronomy 14:3). Now eating bacon is surely not a universal moral scandal. My point is that anally penetrating another man is repulsive in terms of the culture that Israel is trying to build in the promised land, but that doesn't suggest a moral judgement true irrespective of time, place or people.


As an illustration, consider this: in Thailand it is considered incredibly insulting to touch another adults head. Now imagine certain men were in the habit of touching the heads of other men in a way which marked them as social inferiors and exerted power and status. If one wanted to create a society of equals one would need to outlaw one man touching the head of another man.


In our culture, however, touching another man's head simply does not have that meaning. To insist that all “head-touchers” are immoral and worthy of censure in our context would make no sense.


Similarly to insist that male homosexual love relationships are immoral in all cultural settings on the basis of the Levitical texts in incoherent. In our culture sexual love between men is simply seen as another type of morally neutral romantic love. You might object that not everyone sees it that way. The irony is, of course, that those who see it otherwise are usually inspired by their fidelity to the Bible's supposed condemnation of homosexual love! Their opinion, therefore, is not in need of respect but simply of correction.


In summary, the consequence of all of this is that centuries of religious interpretation aside, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. In fact it does not even discuss it. We are left to make up our own minds about what the Bible might have said about homosexuality today given its underlying mission to promote a political state where all people were free and equal before God.


Mista’peo: Inherent Conscience and The Inner Man

“In his lifelong solitude, the Naskapi hunter has to rely on his own inner voices and unconscious revelations; he has no religious teachers to tell him what he should believe, no rituals, festivals or customs to help him along. In his basic view of life, the soul of man is simply an “inner companion” who he calls “my friend”, or Mista'peo, meaning “Great Man”. Mista'peo dwells in the heart and is immortal……(CG Jung, MHS, p.161)


Mista'peo, the inner “great man”, seemingly corresponds to the neshama, the highest level of individual soul in Jewish thought. Rebbe Nachman zt”l says : “Neshama is an aspect of sechel (intelligence), which is an aspect of hochmah (wisdom), which gives life to all things, as it is said, 'You made all things with wisdom (Tehillim/Psalms 104).'Alll these are an aspect of Torah.”


The inner neshama, which is sechel, is spiritually inseperable from the wisdom which underlies and is the basis for all- the wisdom with which God created the world. Rebbe Nachman says elsewhere, “All things recieve their life from Torah. Avraham Avinu was able to recieve from this Torah before Israel recieved the Torah at Sinai, because of the high level of his soul (LM 2,78).” The Torah that all things recieve their life from is of course no other than Hashem's wisdom, with which he sported before creation (Mishlei/Proverbs 8).


All of this indicates that there is a inner wisdom accesible to all of us, and that this inner wisdom, as in the case of the Mistapeo, exists aside from revelation.


Some argue that this is not so, that without Biblical revelation we are lost- without wisdom or morality. But this cannot be the case. Yoram Hazony points out that the Tanakh in fact presents God as expecting righteous behaviour and wisdom from humans before the Torah was given. If human beings do not have an innate sense of these things than how could God's expectations be just? other examples abound. When the Torah itself is given to Israel God says that it will be “your wisdom before the nations”. If the Nations, being bereft of Torah, have no moral wisdom then how could they be expected to recognize the wisdom of the Torah's laws? (Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture).


Does this mean then that all we have to do is heed our inner voice? Far from it. First off, the ability to listen well to the voice fo the neshama depends on personal purity and the wisdom of experience. Both take time to aquire and are not always available. In the age of cultural confusion and barbarism it has become even harder to hear the “small, still voice.” We need to study the Torah and the words of our sages and connect with purer waters than those often available in our own cisterns and those of the public.


To indulge in a little iconoclasm and quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ” …'God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.' Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because 'He is created in the image of God.'….'yet there are many obstacles….the human mind is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also bydisordered appetites…'..This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation.” (CCC 36-38).


That does not mean, however, that we cannot rely at all on our own intelligence and sense of morality. That would represent the opposite extreme. Wisdom and conscience (yirat Hashem) are inherent, God-given potentials which need to be attended to and nurtured, not abandoned or repressed.


We stand in need of the middle way. To follow our intuition and intelligence alone is folly and waste- what a sea of human and revealed wisdom is available to us! Likewise to surrender our own wisdom and conscience is mistaken, as we will not grow through this misguided self-abnegation but rather become blunter and blunter instruments until we may very well find ourselves more vulnerable to delusion and “disordered appetites” then we were before. After all, as they say, even the Devil quotes scripture.


Some Fine Books

In the last six months or so I have read several books on Jewish topics which have been excellent- some of the best I've ever read. I want to briefly describe them here to encourage others who haven't read them to take a look.

1) The Philosophy of The Hebrew Scriptures by Yoram Hazony

Amazing. This book transformed my ideas of the essential vision of the Chumash. Among Hazony's fascinating excursions are a look at the “shepherd ethics” of Ancient Israel; a study of the phenomenology of the word “davar” (thing, word, idea); and an exploration of what God really wants from Israel- and its not unthinking obedience. Also interesting is Hazony's contribution to the theology of “vulnerability”- the growing number of Jewish and Christian theologians arguing for a vulnerable, personal, and evolving God (Schroeder, Levenson, Heschel, Brueggeman all develop this idea to come extent).


2) Created Equal by Joshua Berman

Masterful exploration of the laws of the Chumash in their context. This book brought my admiration for Tanakh to a new level. Clearly and compellingly sets out the revolutionary nature of early Israeli law.


3) The Bible Now by Richard Elliot Friedman

Fabulous discussion of the “pshat” (literal) level of the Chumash and what it does or doesn't say about homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, women and ecology. Truly excellent, and should be read by all lovers of Torah and, I would add, all the descendants of Abraham.


4) The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin

Think Judaism and Christianity are as far apart as the moon and the sun? Think again, they are as interconnected as the moon and the sun. Did you know some pre-Christian Jews were awaiting a semi-divine Messiah whose career would include suffering for their sins? Did you know Jesus kept kosher, wore Tzitzit, and told his Jewish followers to listen to the Rabbis? Or that Christians attended synagogue services for centuries after Jesus's death, and many Jews were followers of Jesus without leaving Judaism? This book tells the story of what it was like before the “great divorce” of the 4th-5th century CE when the Church Fathers and the Rabbis drew firm lines demanding you be either Christian or Jewish.


5) An Unsettling God by Walter Brueggeman

A good book on the character of God as revealed in the Tanakh, and the relationship between God, Israel, Nature and Humanity. Thought provoking work from a Christian theologian.


6) Not In Heaven by Eliezer Berkovitz.


This is a masterpiece. It explains the character of traditional Jewish law (not the modernist fundamentalist version). Beautiful, provocative, and inspiring.


7) God According To God by Gerald Schroeder


Thought provoking and engagingly written exploration of what the Tanakh says about the character of God. Along the way some other interesting cosmological and theological excursions, and some great science writing about Creation.

R’ Avigdor Miller- “What is Ruach HaKodesh?”

The Gemara states that “Esther b’ruach hakodesh neemra” means Megilas Esther was written with Divine Inspiration” means it was inspired, it was a form of Nevuah (prophecy). After the beginning of the second Temple, that Ruach Hakodesh no longer existed. The Divine Inspiration that’s said about the Sages of Israel is not the Ruach Hakodesh that is said about Megillas Esther. There’s absolutely no comparison.

Ours is a Torah of truth, not a Torah of propaganda.

Ruach Hakodesh as applied to our great men means Hashem gives them an inspiration, He gives them Siyata Dishmaya—help from heaven so they’re able to arrive at conclusions much more rapidly and much more correctly than ordinary people can.

But it does not mean that they cannot make mistakes. Absolutely not. They can make mistakes With Ruach Hakodesh. The Rambam says that when Hashem gave His spirit to the Shoftim (Judges, like Shimshon), “the spirit of Hashem began to beat in him,” it means a spirit of Siyata Dishmaya. Hashem helped him. It doesn’t mean a spirit of prophecy.

Daniel, the Rambam says, also had that, and yet the Gemara says Daniel made a mistake. So you can have Siyata Dishmaya and make a mistake. The truth is Moshe Rabbeinu made a mistake too. He made more than one mistake, and it’s openly mentioned in the Gemara. Isn’t that a tremendous statement to make? The Gemara didn’t have to say that. The Gemara could have said Moshe Rabbeinu is infallible. But the Gemara says he made a mistake.

The answer is this: When Hashem spoke to Moshe, naturally there was no mistake. But when Moshe spoke on his own, he could make a mistake. Because ours is a Torah of truth, not a Torah of propaganda, it says Moshe Rabbeinu made a mistake. Those are glorious words. These words are the honor of our nation. Moshe Rabbeinu made a mistake! That’s the greatness of the Jewish people.

R' Avigdor Miller, z”l; #114, Oral Law, from “Answers with R' Avigdor Miller” Newsletter

Yossi Katz on The Parsha (from

All’s Right in the End

I like this drash, and also find it interesteing because of R' Yaakov Breiter's comment quoted at the end. Alot is made in some circles of the Ishbitzer's controversial perspective on free will, but this seems to take the same view.

The Purpose of Humanity: Parshat Bereishit

The story of the creation of humanity, as presented in the opening verses of Genesis, is luminous and profound. Its profundity is sometimes overshadowed by cryptic elements, by the Torah's concise and understated manner of expression (by our standards), and by inherited cliches about its meaning. Studying the comments of the meforshim (traditional exegetes) goes along away to cure us of our assumptions, mistaken familiarity and inattention to subtle detail. For me another great curative has been the study of other near eastern creation narratives, as anthologized and/or discussed in such books as “Old Testament Parallels” (Matthews and Benjamin), “Created Equal” (Joshua Berman) and “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament” (Walton). Below I'll take a look at one aspect of the narrative of the creation of The human being from this perspective.


Why Was Humanity Created?


We are fortunate to possess records of the creation of humanity as conceived in the Egyptian Hymn to Atum (2500-2100 BCE in origin though our version dates from 400 BCE); the Enuma Elish cycle (compiled in Mesopatamia 1100 BCE from Sumerian and Amorite sources in order to glorify the rulers of Babylon, the Mesopotamian capital); and the Atrahasis Cycle (18th century BCE; Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian). The Genesis stories date from as old as 2300 BCE-1400 BCE and were likely written down in their current form around 400 BCE (these dates are hotly contested, of course).

My contention is that the narrative of anthrogenesis in Bereishit is a remarkably humanistic one (it is also remarkably earth-positive, or nature affirming, but that's a subject for another time). According to Genesis 1:26: “And Elokim said, “Let us make the human in our image, as our likeness. They shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, over the animals, the whole earth, and every thing that creeps upon it. And Elokim created the human in his image; in the image of Elokim he created them; male and female he created them. Elokim blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and rule…And Elokim saw all that he had made, and behold! It was very good.”

Later on we read (Genesis 2:7; 15): “Hashem Elokim formed the human of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living soul. Hashem Elokim planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and place there the human he had formed….Hashem Elokim took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to serve it/work it (l'avodah) and to look after it (l'shomrah).”

The vision here is of the human as a being independent from God, created to “rule the earth” and to tend and take care of God's garden. The strong implication here is that the human is created for its own sake. God does not say, “I will make me a servant”, or “one to glorify me”, or even “one to know me” (later Jewish and non-Jewish theistic traditions often envision God's purpose as one of these). The later Jewish idea that God created “because he needed to have someone to give to” comes closest to the vision of Edenic life. The Human is created for no other purpose then to enjoy the nourishment and beauty of God's creation, to grow in numbers (be fruitful and multiply) and exercise a benevolent sovereignty (“serve and look after”). In a sense the human is created as an ideal benevolent King below, ruling by the decree, grace, and beneficience of the true Ruler above.

The vision of Genesis, and its radical implications, are highlighted by comparison with other Near Eastern creation myths. Whereas Genesis pictures the human being as formed of earth and divine breath, the Hymn to Atum takes a much more existentialist position. Says Atum (after masturbating into his own mouth and spitting and sneezing out gods):

“I wept, and human beings arose from my tears….”

Surely we can hear the hardships and arbitrariness of poor Agrarian life in this Egyptian hymn (especially in a totalitarian state where most of the populace were worker-slaves). The hymn to Atum doesn't state a purpose for human life. It appears as a result of Atum's fervent desire to create, a desire which is presented as sexual, almost riotous, and without particular purpose.

The Enuma Elish, by contrast, does state a purpose for the creation of humanity: After a protracted battle for rulership of the Divine Assembly, Marduk, god of Babylon, wins. He dismembers his rival, Tiamat, and uses her corpse to create heaven and earth. Having won the fealty of the Divine Assemby by defeating her, he then creates human beings as slaves to work for the gods and “set the divine assembly free.” Marduk forms humans from the blood of another Divine rival, Kingu, after killing him. In contrast to the riotous creativity of the Hymn of Atum, the Enuma Elish conceives of the world as created out of death and conquest- military prowess- expressions of the power of Marduk.

The Atrahasis cycle posits a purpose for the creation of human beings similar to that of the Enuma Elish. When the Divine servant class refuses to work for the Divine Elders, the gods create human beings to work for the Gods as irrigators and farmers of the earth instead. Eventually they multiply too greatly for the gods comfort, and their noise disturbs the sleep of the great god Enlil, who thus conspires to have the Divine Assembly control their numbers with plagues and famines. When this doesn't reduce the numbers of their human slaves effectively enough the gods unleash the flood and eliminate them save for a Noah-like survivor, who is saved by a god who is partial to him for unstated reasons (because of his good service?). As is perhaps needless to point out, this flood narrative is also in meaningful contrast to the Genesis narrative, which has Hashem bringing the flood because human culture is filled with aggressive thievery and violence (“chamas”).

In both the Enuma Elish and the Atrahasis Cycle, then, humans exist to serve their divine masters. As Joshua Berman has masterfully argued (“Created Equal”), this narrative seems to echo the political structure of Mesopatamia, Egypt, and Assyria, structures the narratives and laws of the Torah were in rebellion against (also see Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”).

In Genesis the human being is not created to serve the Divine, and is not made of tears, semen, or a dismembered enemy. The human being is made of the good earth and the breath of God, and our proliferation is not a threat- it is an expression of divine blessing. Last but far from least, the human is made ” b'tselem Elokim”. The word “tselem”, when it occurs elsewhere in the Tanakh, is used most often to refer to idols used in the worship of false gods (Amos 5:26, 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:17, Numbers 33:52 ). This common usage should not be overlooked: as shocking as it may seem, the Genesis narrative goes so far as to imagine human beings as representations of God, formed in God's likeness and serving as the only legitimate clay idol. The leap in sensibility required to go from imagining human beings as slaves of the gods or random expressions of divine fecundity to imagining them as sacred images of God created to enjoy the divine garden of earth and to rule over it benevolently is surely an awe inspiring moment in the literature of humanity.


The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

I'm currently reading Yoram Hazony's recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. I am not done yet, but at the half-way point I think this is one of a handful of the most important Jewish books of the modern era. Even if the second half is tripe I'd say so. Anyone interested in in the true structure and message of the foundational text of Judaism, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) should read this book without delay. Whether you love the Tanakh or struggle with it, or even hate it, read this book.

Parshat Re’eh: Violence and Vision

This parsha has personal, sentimental significance for me. Several years ago when I begain studying Tanach seriously for the first time it was during this parsha, and it was consequently the first I earnestly struggled with and tried to understand. It is somewhat ironic that it was, because this parsha opens with a “command” from Hashem that I find  repulsive and morally indefensible. That mitzva is to destroy the temples, altars, and images of the resident Canaanites who we dispossessed, according to the story, when we entered Israel as freed slaves.

Utterly destroy, we are told. Burn their sacred trees. We are then told how to offer animal sacrifices to Hashem. We are not to be distracted by the practices of the survivors of the tribes we destroy. We are to be weary of false prophets from amongst our own ranks, and we to kill any Jew who takes up the practices of the tribes we have displaced.

The Parshah then goes on to discuss kosher laws, tzedakah (charity) and the mitzva of the Jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all slaves are set free. So on the positive side, in my view, this parsha teaches the essential Jewish mitzva of giving to the needy and the fascinating practice of remitting debts and freeing slaves every seven years (a big shabbat of sorts). As Joshua Berman has recently demonstrated so thoroughly and brilliantly (in Created Equal), these mitzvot were part of the radically egalitarian and utopian vision of Israel.

These teachings are pretty straightforward and worth contemplating personally and politically. The more difficult question is what there is to learn from the violent commandments of this parsha. When I studied this parsha for the first time I interpreted these mitzvot entirely symbolically: sacrifice your lower animal nature, and destroy those things you worship instead of God- the “strange god within you” as the Ba’al Shem Tov creatively interpreted the original commandment.

Reading it this cycle, years later, the way I look at Torah has changed. I have gone through the stages of initial romance, marked by hopefulness and blindness to my beloved’s faults; marriage, characterized mostly by trying to find a way to live together; divorce, characterized by seeing all the faults I had repressed in my awareness and the passionate embrace of others; and now rapprochement, in which I have a balanced view of my beloved’s faults and virtues and understand that she will always be a part of me.

In any case, when I read Tanakh now I still look at it symbolically and thoroughly enjoy the non-literal drashes of the Rabbis. I do not shrink from seeing the horrors and the madness of the text, however. The question I am left with now is, what can we learn from an unflinching reading?

First of all, why did the Jews want to eliminate the Canaanites and their practices? The Tanakh suggests that they wanted to eliminate them because they believed they had a divine dispensation to re-settle in Canaan, the land of their forefathers, and create what we would call an enlightened society. The fact that they believed that wholesale slaughter of the natives was justified towards this end I can’t forgive. The best we can say is that it was standard practice in their neighbourhood: the Assyrians or Babylonians did the same and much worse to those they conquered, things too horrifying to bear repeating here. “Standard practice” has never been enough for Jews, however, and I can understand, but not accept, their behaviour on that basis. Certain things are, and must be, forever unacceptable, even if commanded by God.

As for destroying the religious artifacts of the Canaanites, the text itself explains why: we believed they were morally abominable. They even sacrifice their children, the text says, and many historians agree. The Canaanites, in Jewish eyes, were guilty of the following: child sacrifice; ritual rape and cult orgies which involved ritual sex; a hierarchical society which lacked social justice; and of course, the cardinal Abrahamic sin: making images of the God beyond form and worshipping Him through man-made objects. The opposing virtues, as reflected throughout Torah law, were valuing all human beings as of inherent worth; the abandoning of human sacrifice; sexual restraint and purity; social justice; and the worship of a formless, morally demanding God who was the sole Divine reality.

I am not suggesting here that the Jewish displacement of the Canaanites was entirely motivated by moral and spiritual sentiment. I imagine that the desire for a homeland of their own was also a motivation, and to some degree we painted the Canaanites black to justify our violence against them. That said, while I don’t accept in any way killing people for the sake of ideology, I am interested in understanding the moral intuitions of our ancestors. Just as I assume that the Canaanites, as well as engaging in morally objectionable practices, also had beautiful aspects of their culture which were wiped out by emerging Israel, I also want to see the positive moral intuitions interwoven with our ancestors violence.

I would argue that the follwing lessons wait in the parsha. 1) The divine is to be found not in images and temples, but in life itself and in our actions. The God of Israel is everywhere- no where in particular. He is not bounded by form or location. Yes, the Jews had a central temple where they brought offerings, but this was extremely minimalistic compared to their neighbours. According to Maimonides it was a compromise. The locus of the sacred, then, is everywhere, and our expression of the sacred is in our actions: “seek justice practice kindness, and walk in humility with the sacred”, to paraphrase Micah.

2) On a psychological level we can relate this to what Chogyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism”: the transformation of spiritual life itself into an idol, an object of consumption, a servant of the ego. This is, as we all know, is as rampant today as ever, as a flip through Yoga Journal will testify. I don’t want to equate the Canaanite religion with spiritual materialism: my point here, rather, is that our ancestors may have viewed it that way.

3) Protest. Our journey through time and place has molded our culture. One way is through our persistent status as outsiders. The outsider possesses a special lens through which to view the dominant civilisation and is perfectly placed to become a socratic gadfly, provoking change and un-ease in the larger body of culture. Jews have played this role abundantly over time. This role seems to have begun with our enslavement in Egypt, and it is interesting to note that this event is traditionally viewed as the genesis of the Jewish people, divinely orchestrated and planned to such a degree that Hashem warned Abraham about it generations earlier.

Seeing The Aniconic God: An Exploration of YHVH’s Appearances in The Tanakh

And they heard the sound of YHWH moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day…”

Bereishit 3:8

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 downAnd the people turned from there and wentand 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.

Enclosed Fire

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.

1 Throughout this essay I will use the traditional Jewish names for the Hebrew Bible and its characters. This includes the unvowelized YHWH for God’s Name. ‘Tanakh’is a traditional acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, or Teaching, Prophets, and Writings

2 The Jewish name for the Pentateuch, literally “5”.

3 Kugel, James L. The God of Old. New York, The Free Press 2003.

4 See JPS translation: “you have striven with beings divine and human” (32:29); “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life was preserved” (32:31). This depart from the literal meaning, however. See Kugel p. 28-30.

5 Taken from the HarperCollins Study Bible New Standard Revised Edition. I’ve modified the proper names to transliterated Hebrew, and altered the translation on other parts where indicated.

6 I have modified the translation here to be more literal.

7 Here again, following Friedman and Kugel.

8 Kugel, James L. The God of Old. New York, The Free Press 2003.

9 Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Bible With Sources Revealed. New York, Harper Collins 2003.

10 Ibid.

11 It’s interesting to note that the mal’akh who visits Manoah in Shofetim does not eat.

12 All quotations from Shemot RE Friedman.

13 References to the mouth, hand, arm, etc of YHWH abound in the Tanakh, but are usually metaphors. Here the “feet” are clearly physical objects. Note also that they only survive the theophanydue to YHWH’s grace.


15 Note the Midrash to Shemot 15:2, “This is my God”, which asserts that all of Israel saw G-d at Sinai more clearly even the Ezekiel, so that they could point and say, ‘This is my G-d.’ Ezekiah’s vision, below, seems even clearer than Yeshayahu’s. Midrash quoted in Kugel, p.102.

16 The word “glory” (cavod) sometimes translated “Presence” was used by Onkelos, the early translator of the Torah into Aramaic, to deal with anthropomorphic language. He translated Bereishit 28:13, “And suddenly, God was standing over him” as “The glory of God is stationed over him”. “God came down” (11:5) is rendered “The glory of God was revealed”. The clear import here is that it was not God’ essential form that was revealed, but His glory. This is a conceptual clarification of the text, as pointed out by the medieval commentator R’ Bachya ben Joseph Ibn Paquda, Chovat HaLevavot (Duties of The Heart, Feldheim New York 1996.), p. 129.

17 Compare, for example, Gaudiya Vaishaivism, which sees icons of Krishna as representing his true form in Vaikuntha, his heavenly world, or Shaiva Siddhanta, which views Shiva iconography as being symbolically correspondent to real attributes, and in fact, a divinely willed self-representation in all its details.

18 The distinction between this world and the spiritual world (the heavens) is not as distinct in Biblical times as in post-Biblical cosmology.

19 This may be an attempt to avoid giving the impression that YHWH has been seen in his essential form, which would be problematic for reasons we will explore, or it may be an attempt to back off from suggesting that Ezekiel’s vision is comparable to Moshe, since “there never arose again a Prophet like Moshe in Israel, who saw YHWH face to face” (Dev)

20 The model of the Documentary Hypothesis expounded by Friedman seperates the Torah into 4 main sources, J, E, P and D, written in that order. J, written in Yehudah, and E, written in the northern kingdom of Israel, were combined by the redactor RJE. P was composed as a competing history to RJE shortly afterwards. D was composed in two steps, a pre-exilic version in the times of Yoshiahu (625 BCE) and a post exilic one, sometime after the return in 527 BCE. All the sources were combined by a further redactor, R, into the Torah we have now.

21 The New Supplementary Hypothesis posits that there were only three stages, and no separate source documents, in the composition of the Torah. These are D, J (approximately equivalent to J and E in Friedman’s hypothesis), and P. Each time new material was added to the growing document by a new author and editor.

22 Friedman, p.121.

23 And of course J’s mal’akh in Shemot is non-anthropomorphic.

24 Gods of India, Rome, and Babylon respectively. And no statue representing YHWH has yet been found. See Kugel p.106. It is interesting to compare Mosheh’s shielding of his eyes so as not to see YHWH in Shemot 3:6 with the reactions of characters in Hindu tales to the appearance of Krishna. There the text describes at length the pleasures of gazing at His form, and even the heavenly rewards of seeing it. This is consistent with a fiercely iconic religion like Hindism, in contradistinction to Judaism.

25“ Mishneh Torah, Book One: Knowledge, 1:8”. Twerski, Isadore. A Maimonides Reader. New Jersey, Behrman House 1972.

26 Phylacteries.

27 Prayer shawl.

28 The Tanya: Bilingual Edition, Kehot Publication Society, New York 1998.

29 See Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Shambhala, Boston 2000, p. 52-62 and elsewhere. Wilber argues that leading sages in different cultural epochs move human culture further, but can never break totally free of the dominant paradigms. This happens slowly and incrementally, the work of many hands. As paradigms change, human experience itself changes.

30 The Tanya, Hebrew-English Edition.