Conflicting views of God in the Bible

The God of the Bible has changed over time

 

Image on pithos sherd found at Kuntillet Ajrud (a 9th/early 8th centuries BCE site in the northeast part of the Sinai peninsula) with the inscription “Yahweh and his Asherah”” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuntillet_Ajrud

The use or non-use of the name of Israel’s god, Jehovah or Yahweh, is not the only distinctive feature between the Yahwist and Elohist traditions when it comes to how they portray and conceptualize the deity. Right from the Yahwist’s opening creation account in Genesis 2:4b-3:24, Yahweh is depicted in simple anthropomorphic language.

Yahweh forms Adam from the dust of the earth, presumably with his hands, 1 breaths into Adam’s nostrils, plants a garden, takes and puts Adam in the Garden of Eden, commands Adam, forms animals from the ground, builds Eve from Adam’s rib, walks in the garden, calls and speaks to his creation, makes skins of garments for Adam and Eve, and finally puts Adam and Eve outside the garden. This type of anthropomorphism, that is presenting a deity in human terms, is, according to most scholars, only found in the Yahwist source and for the most part attests to its ancient date. Yet the anthropomorphic picture of the Jehovah in this old tradition goes even further than this. The Yahwist depicts his god repenting, relenting, grieving, and raging with anger on numerable incidences (see Genesis 6:6 for example). He often talks face-to-face with the patriarchs (Exodus 33:11, Genesis 32:20), walks side-by-side with them, and even eats with Abraham on one occasion (see Genesis 18). More surprisingly, the Yahwist shows no indication that this concept of god is challenging. The anthropomorphic Yahweh is merely one god, Israel’s god, among a vast array of other anthropomorphic deities from the ancient Near East (ANE). In fact there is an old tradition now preserved in Deuteronomy that states that the high god of the ancient world, El, assigned to each nation a god of its own. Yahweh was assigned to Israel (see Deuteronomy 32:8-9).

Indeed, the anthropomorphism of the Yahwist author becomes really tricky for later scribes, who either patently opposed the Yahwist’s concept of god or understood the godhead differently. The Deuteronomist for example, says that Yahweh is without form (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15); no image can be formed of him, and he only communicates to mortals as a formless voice from the heavens. In the Deuteronomic tradition such anthropomorphic conceptions as found in the Yahwist text become a passionate argument against the other gods of the A.N.E. world to belittle them and claim that they are no gods at all. Yahweh is thus proclaimed as the God of gods for the Deuteronomist precisely because he has no form! Where the god of the Yahwist comes and visits, indeed, even resides in the temple, for the Deuteronomist, only “his name” resides there! (Compare 1 Kings 8:12-13 to Deuteronomy 12:11) 2  In fact, one of the religious inventions attributed to the Deuteronomist is monotheism, the idea that there is only one supreme god. Some scholars say monotheism emerged in the exilic period, others that monotheism was a revolt against the polytheism among the Israelites and other A.N.E. peoples. Other scholars insist that monotheism evolved from the polytheism of the Bible. 3

With the monotheism of Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomist author stands in opposition to the picture of Israel’s deity found in the Yahwistic tradition. The Priestly writer will also depict Yahweh in non-anthropomorphic terms contrary to the Yahwist. The only visible feature of the deity according to the Priestly text is his glory or radiance (kabod). The Priestly writer additionally makes a distinction between two different names of the deity, using El Shaddai before the revelation to Moses in Exodus 6:2 and Yahweh afterwards. Lastly, the Elohist tradition is also considerably less anthropomorphic in its depiction of the deity than the Yahwist. One feature of the Elohist tradition that we see throughout his work is that when God communicates to the patriarchs it is not done face-to-face as in the Yahwist tradition but through dreams. 4

To a large extent, the Yahwist’s anthropomorphic presentation of his god and the fact that this is not difficult for him has led many scholars to see this as one more element that supports these views of god as very ancient. The gods in the literature of other A.N.E. cultures were depicted in similar anthropomorphic terms. As modern readers of these ancient texts, we must keep in mind that for many Western Christian readers, God is not anthropomorphic. As Latter-day Saint readers of these texts, we have no problem with a god with a body, as we have prophets who have seen him. He is embodied. He is an exalted man. 5 The Western view of a god without a body comes from later modifications and conceptualizations which were adopted from the Greek philosophical tradition as peoples of the first few centuries after Jesus Christ mixed the philosophies of Greek philosophy with the simple embodied god of the biblical text. Through the many debates of the first few centuries, Christians began to believe in a god without a body. Part of these debates centered on how a god with a body could be omnipotent if he had a body. An anthropomorphic god, the logic went, would have to be everywhere yet nowhere at the same time!

Nowhere does the Yahwist attempt to present Yahweh as omniscient or omnipotent. Indeed he would not even have been familiar with such ideas. In the biblical traditions, such notions do not emerge until the literature of the exilic period and even there only in the exilic Deuteronomic tradition and deutero-Isaiah (Second and Third Isaiah). But the oldest traditions preserved in the corpus of ancient texts we call “the Bible” presents Israel’s god in terms that would be shocking, even offensive, to the non-LDS modern reader. As Latter-day Saints, we are not shocked by many of these references to a god with a body, or one that shapes man, etc. These earliest portraits have probably been softened by later non-anthropomorphic portraits of Yahweh. Indeed, if we had them in the original, I suppose that we would see more anthropomorphic references (See Ether 3).

 

J – JAHWIST E – ELOHIST P – PRIESTLY D – DEUTERONIMIC
stress on Judah stress on northern Israel stress on Judah stress on central shrine
stresses leaders stresses the prophetic stresses the cultic stresses fidelity to Jerusalem
anthropomorphic speech about God refined speech about God majestic speech about God speech recalling God’s work
God walks and talks with us God speaks in dreams cultic approach to God moralistic approach
God is YHWH God is Elohim (till Ex 3) God is Elohim (till Ex 3) God is YHWH
uses “Sinai” Sinai is “Horeb” has genealogies and lists has long sermons

Notes

  1. The two creation accounts use different Hebrew verbs to describe the act of creation. In the Priestly account (Gen 1:1-2:4a) God creates (bara’) with his word; in the Yahwist, Yahweh forms/fashions (yeser) with his hands.
  2. Moseh Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, p. 193. He says, “There is not one example in the deuteronomic literature of God’s dwelling in the temple of the building of a house for God. The temple is always the dwelling of his name and the house is always built for his name.
  3. Christine Hayes, Introduction to the Bible, p. 107-109. She writes, “What are we to make of the remarkable similarity between the deity and cult of Israel and the deities and cults of her neighbors? How are we to understand the rise of Israel’s god and cultic practices? First, the classic evolutionary model: From the polytheism’s worship of many gods, there is a natural evolution to henotheism’s elevation of one god to a supreme position, to monotheism’s denial of all gods but one. Second, Kaufmann’s model: Monotheism and polytheism are so radically distinct that the former could not have evolved from the latter. There is surely an element of truth in both models. The evolutionary model responds to the fact that in many respects, Yahweh resembles the gods of Israel’s neighbors. To be blunt, the patriarchs appear to have worshipped El, the Canaanite god. But the evolutionary model doesn’t account for the fiercely polemical relationship that would develop between Israel’s religion and that of her neighbors. By contrast, Kaufmann’s revolutionary model focuses almost exclusively on the dissimilarities and polemical relationship between Yahwism and Canaanite polytheism. But the revolutionary model fails to fully acknowledge the many areas of contact and similarity. A third model for understanding the rise of biblical monotheism has emerged recently, one that seeks to avoid the polytheism-monotheism dichotomy. Instead of viewing Israelite religion as an evolution from and refinement of Canaanite religion or as a radical break with Canaanite religion, biblical scholar Mark Smith examines the cultural and ideological negotiations that gave rise to Israelite monotheism. He describes the origin and development of Israelite religion as a process of convergence and differentiation. He writes: “Convergence involved the coalescence of various deities and/or some of their features into the figure of Yahweh.” By contrast, differentiation is the process whereby Israel came to reject its Canaanite roots and create a separate identity.
  4. Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, p. 5
  5. Joseph Smith, The King Follett Sermon, April 7, 1844. See April 1971 Ensign: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/04/the-king-follett-sermon?lang=eng Joseph Smith said, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with Him, as one man talks and communes with another.”
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About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives: LDSScriptureTeachings.org
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