Does God have body parts?
If Genesis is meant to be taken literally …
Michelangelo took biblical anthropomorhism to extremes when he depicted God as a patriarchal figure in his Creation of Adam, part of which is shown above. It is the centrepiece of 33 paintings Michelangelo did on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome, from 1508 to 1512. Christians would generally question whether God should be represented in this way.
Recently I was talking to a Bible Society translator and happened to mention the concept of a literal Genesis. He immediately challenged me with, ‘What about the anthropomorphisms?’
So what are anthropomorphisms? And what do they have to do with a literal Genesis?
God and human characteristics
Anthropomorphisms (from Greek ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos) = man/human + μορφή (morphē) = form) are figures of speech which represent God as having human characteristics, form or personality. They are symbolic descriptions, which help to make God’s attributes, powers and activities real to us.
For example, Genesis talks about:
- God speaking (e.g. Genesis 1:3). But does this mean that God has vocal cords?
- God seeing (Genesis 1:4). Does God have eyes with pupils and retinas?
- God walking (Genesis 3:8). Does God have legs?
- God making clothes for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). Does God have hands?
- God smelling a sweet savour from Noah’s sacrifice (Genesis 8:21). Does God have a nose and olfactory receptors?
If we say we take Genesis ‘literally’, doesn’t that mean insisting that these descriptions are literal, too? And if not, doesn’t this undermine our claim that Genesis is meant to be taken literally?
The author’s intention
To answer these questions we must first consider the intention of the author—in this case Moses, under the direction of God’s Holy Spirit.1 It is clear that Moses’ purpose is to tell us what God did on these occasions in a way that we can understand, and not to give us any physical pen-pictures of God. Moses does this, in the examples above, by portraying God’s actions in terms of their human counterparts; namely voice, sight, companionship, work and satisfaction.
On the subject of God speaking the creation into existence (e.g. ‘And God said, “Let there be light”’, on Day 1, with a similar form of words on each of Days 2 to 6), God was expressing His will that the creation events happen. He chose to do this by way of commands which expressed and illuminated the fact that it was at His initiative that creation occurred, and not, for example, as the result of chance random processes.
Throughout history, mankind has sought to depict its false deities with human (as in this statue of Zeus) or animal-like attributes. This is in contrast to the true Creator God who has told us He is spirit and has no form as we know it.
The repeated phrase ‘and it was so’ tells us that there was an immediate fulfillment of each creation command. Also, there was God’s objective assessment, ‘and God saw that it was good’, before the relevant day closed. This clearly refutes long-age/progressive creation and theistic evolution theories. It is also obviously more emphatic than if the record had merely stated, ‘And it was good’. The extra words ‘God saw’ suggest a careful assessment by a competent authority, who brings down a reliable verdict. Moses’ intention in describing God’s activity in this way is clear.
In chapters 2 and 3, Genesis tells us about God’s interaction with Adam and then with Eve. God walks in the garden in the cool of the day, He has personal conversation with Adam, and then an interview with Adam and Eve. What should we make of all this? How could human beings see God, especially after they had sinned, but also even in their non-fallen state?
God is free to manifest Himself in any locality, in apparent human appearance, and in less-than-plenary form, if He so chooses. Such a temporary visitation is called a theophany (from Greek theos = god + phainō = shine). This is what happened in the Garden of Eden.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the person appearing in this way is sometimes referred to as ‘the angel of the Lord’.2 This is often taken to refer to the second person of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Indeed, such manifestations prefigured the coming of the Son of God in full bodily form at the Incarnation.
Historically true and accurate
So how does this affect our understanding of the literalness of Genesis?
Answer: In Genesis, God has given us a record of events and details which actually occurred. The events described are not allegories, theological poetry, or camp-fire stories composed many centuries later, but are historically true and accurate.3 The Lord Jesus Christ and all the New Testament writers always took them thus.
Moses’ purpose is to record these historical events and details. In doing this he uses, where appropriate, figures of speech about God—as though He were a man—which help us understand better what he means to convey.
Interestingly, the church leaders dealt with this matter as early as the 4th century ad, and said that such statements should be understood in a ‘God-befitting’ manner. Thus, St John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) states: ‘When you hear that “God planted Paradise in Eden in the East,” understand the word “planted” befittingly of God: that is, that He commanded; but concerning the words that follow, believe precisely that Paradise was created and in that very place where the Scripture has assigned it.’4 That is, for created things, take the plain sense, as his rough contemporary St Basil the Great (329–379) said:
‘There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense.’5
It is clear that Moses’ use of anthropomorphisms in Genesis is no obstacle to taking the account to be what the author so obviously intended, namely straightforward history. That is why the church took it that way for most of its history, until the erroneously perceived need to compromise with long-age ‘science’.6
God is spirit
In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ tells us that ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24). This indicates that God is not material and does not have a body, so He is not visible to, or discernible by, our bodily senses. Nevertheless, He is personal, and has transcendent life and being. This means that God is independent of the limitations of the material universe.
All this is beyond the grasp of human reason and so defies human depiction, because man has no words to describe such a transcendent deity, other than in terms of our own human characteristics. Hence, the Bible uses anthropomorphisms to help make God real to us and to express His various powers, interests and activities. Such use is justifiable, because God speaks about Himself in this way in the Bible, i.e. He authorizes and uses it. And also because God has made man in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26–27), so that between God and man there is some similarity — as well as, of course, a huge dissimilarity.
In view of the above, when Christians talk about Genesis, rather than using the term ‘literal’ (without some clarification), it is probably better to use the terms ‘plain’ or ‘grammatical-historical’.
References and notes
- Concerning the authorship of Genesis, see Grigg, R., Did Moses really write Genesis?, Creation 20(4):43–46, 1998. Return to text.
- E.g. Genesis 22:11; Judges 6:11; 2 Kings 1:3; Isaiah 37:36, etc. Return to text.
- See Grigg, R., Should Genesis be taken literally?, Creation 16(1):38–41, 1993. Return to text.
- John Chrysostom, Homilies in Genesis 13(3):106, quoted from Rose, S., Genesis, Creation and Early Man, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, pp. 87–88, 2000. Return to text.
- Basil the Great, Hexaëmeron (= ‘Six Days’) Homily IX. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise, ch. 3, 2004. Return to text.
I must respectfully admit that I find this a very strange subject. To me it's pretty clear that whenever the Bible speaks about God, it's in abstractions, because He is too big and too different for us to understand otherwise. And every abstraction is aimed at a specific purpose. When God tells us He's a rock, he wants to tell us how reliable, trustworthy and determined He is, not that He consists of rocky material. When He tells us He will catch us on His wings when we fall, He tells us something about His care for us, not that He actually has wings. When someone sees Him sitting on His throne, He wants to show He is in total control, but is He really sitting on a throne, wish Jesus sitting at His right hand? Probably not, because what throne could possibly be large enough for an infinite being to sit on? And how can Jesus sit next to Someone who is infinite? This logically can't be done because there is no "next to" an infinite being, so this too is an abstraction from a very real but for us incomprehensible reality. And His infinity also makes it impossible to have a specific form: He is simply too big to fit in ANY form.
Insisting that God really has hands and feet and eyes and ears sounds rather limiting to me; eyes detect photons, ears detect sound waves. Would God really need soundwaves to be able to hear, or photons to be able to see? And if we are made in God's "physical" image, aren't chimpanzees as well, since they also have legs and feet and eyes and ears? I don't think anyone would want to defend that. To me, that only leaves one conclusion: being created in God's image must be about our abilities, tasks and responsibilities, not our physical appearance.
Forgive me for not reading everything here, it looks good but my time is short. The perspective I find frequently missing in the body parts discussion (although I think I saw a hint that someone may have approached it) is that,Man, made in the image of God, will have aspects which compare to realities about God, and aspects which are concessions to the medium Man is formed in. From the heavenly viewpoint of the angels, the real question might have been, "How can these 'deo-morphs' speak? And they think? How can a thought depend on that grey matter? Those are hands? well, I guess there is a little resemblance to the REAL hands of our Lord." The scripture seems to speak clearly of a few body parts of God. The seventy elders dined before Him and there was an appearance as of a pavement of sapphire beneath his feet. Exo.24:9 If God has no hand, no face, no back, what did He mean by saying He would cover Moses with the first, so he wouldn't see the second, but only the last? Exo 33:23 What body parts which exist without needing created material might appear to created eyes, I don't know. But 1 Co 15:44 tells me, "There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body." For me, the question remains, "What parts are reflections of the Original, and which are concessions to the created material medium?
The comments on this article are interesting to me. Obviously it is getting people to think and address the logical consequences of the arguments.
When Christians define God, they usually define Him relative to the Trinity. God=God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. Three in one and one in three. So when we talk about "God" we need to be a little more specific sometimes.
From the scriptures God the Father and the Holy Spirit are described as immaterial beings with "person"alities. It is the written descriptions of the personalities which yield the anthropomorphisms. Other commentators are correct in saying that God can "see" literally without physical eyes. But He must have a mind. Everyone of us see things in our minds (dreams for example) and it doesn't require physical eyes etc. So once we accept the truthful premise that the mind is not physical, then the logic follows well.
So now the focus turns to Jesus. After Jesus' conception, we can conclude that God was physical and He had a physical image on this earth. That image looks like us! (human, or man). And we can also conclude that Jesus resurrected physically (bodily) with the same image. He also ascended in to the heavenly realm bodily where He was glorified. So now His body is eternal, unlike our current bodies, yet He is physical. And He is God. And He clearly has a physical image.
So what about before the conception of Jesus? I believe this can only be speculation. However, it is clear for the scriptures in Genesis that God does have an image. And Adam was created in that image. This is analogous to Seth being created in Adams image. God created Adam and Eve in His image. He conceived of them in His mind. This image was God's. It was a part of His person. He owned the image.
This "anthropomorphism" question is very common, and everyone I have read or heard on the subject has tried to distance themselves from God having any form at all.
In Genesis 1:26, He said "let us make man in our image and likeness". As before, everyone tries to fob this off as some kind of condescention to our limited understanding.
But just because God is spirit, doesn't mean that He doesn't have a form, it just means that with human eyes, we can't see that form. If we had a spiritual body, I believe that we COULD see Him, and in New Jerusalem, we SHALL see Him as He is.
The point of the Genesis passage is that God DOES have a form and that He made us in that form and to be like Him, but obviously in our corrupt fallen state, all the resplendence and "God-likeness" is veiled.
I take Genesis to be literal, and have no problem in defending that position.
One of the replies and your answer covered my comment which is that God does have a body now, Jesus' body, even if he didn't when Moses wrote.
I'm with Douglas B. Just because God is spirit doesn't mean that he must be some kind of wispy cloud with blinking lights. I suspect when we get to heaven, we will recognize him in similar form since we are made in his image.
Now, I can't possibly explain how a spirit being that is omnipresent could also have form, but for now I see only through a glass darkly. One day we will understand. I'm certainly not going to get hung up on it. Genesis is still a history book.
Someone made a comment today on Facebook that it is so frustrating that skeptics take the metaphorical bits literally and the literal bits metaphorically.
But then I was reminded that the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
You really have to expose the inconsistencies in their literal use of anthropomorphic language i.e. reduce to absurdity their views. The question we must ask is:
If God had eyes like man and legs to walk like man, then how long did it take God to see that everything in the world and universe was good?
Taken to its logical conclusion the answer should be that God is still walking and looking! Which is a contradiction because the world at present is clearly not good. They should also understand that it is impossible to be omnipresent (everywhere) and only have legs to walk!
So logically their views fall apart because of its inconsistency and contradiction. It's a similar error when atheists asks for material evidence for a non-material God, they are committing a logic error called a Category Mistake since immateriality (God) and materiality are different categories. You look for God in the category that God is in.
God literally making heaven and earth is not inconsistent with God's transcendental, immaterial properties.
I am a bit partial to the views of Douglas B. as Moses seems to make a significant point that Adam was made in God’s image. I would gratefully appreciate your thoughtful reply as this is something our local creation group remains divided over. I think a stronger argument can be made than the brief words offered by DB, so it is only fair you should have a chance to engage it.
Dr Sarfati is very familiar with Genesis 1:26–27.
He can also confirm that the same Hebrew words are used in Genesis 5:1-3. Verse 3 reads:
When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.
So Seth was like Adam as Adam was like God.
The same Hebrew Word ‘Image’ is used when the Philistine Kings made images of their tumours and mice. By contrast, in the commands about idol worship in Exodus 20:4, different Hebrew words for 'image' and 'likeness' are used.
Russell has often referenced John 4:24 about God is Spirit, but I would offer three replies. It does not say ‘God is only Spirit’ but that is what Russell is implying. This one reference is insufficient to overturn the clear statements of Genesis 1 and 5. And finally, Jesus said twice on this same occasion that those who worship God must worship in Spirit and truth, yet they obviously had bodies. Jesus main point here is that the hour had arrived for true worship since He, the Messiah has come and that this worship is not external but comes from within.
Jesus answers this whole question in His discussion with the apostles, but many will find His answer unsatisfactory (John 14:7–9).
It is a funny twist that we think of Jesus as made like a man (which He is), when Man is made like Jesus. Perhaps the question should be, did Jesus have the pre-existing form like that of a man?
Indeed I am familiar, having discussed these passages in depth in my commentary The Genesis Account. E.g. when it comes to Seth, I wrote as follows (references deleted):
Adam’s son Seth was “in his own likeness, after his image.” This passage is not denying that Seth, like all mankind, bears God’s image. Similarly, 1 Corinthians 11:7 says, for “a man … is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” Once again, this is not denying that women are made in God’s image, but is emphasizing that the first woman was made from the first man.
McKeown’s explanation is:
[G]iven that the main message of this passage is that the line of Adam’s frstborn son Cain has been rejected in favor of his younger brother Seth, the most likely interpretation is that Adam, who is made in the image of God, passes this image on to Seth.
Another teaching here seems to be that even the Seed son, Seth, also inherits Adam’s fallen nature—a broken image of God. The same applies to all Adam’s descendants, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:47–49:
The first man was from the earth, a man of dust … we have borne the image of the man of dust.
However, Paul also teaches that believers “shall also bear the image of the man of heaven”, Jesus, “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:46).
I think a lot of people would reason… because we don’t take God in a literal sense therefore we don’t have to take Genesis that way, particularly in relation to the created order. It seems a popular position seeing there is so much confusion sown regarding long ages, deep time vs the young & unique earth.
I like how God describes His created order like bits of furniture to explain to us His greatness in ways that we may grasp, earth as a footstool, similar to the animal kingdom as you say, His feathers regarding His comfort. Ps 91:4. And He calls us into partnership & relationship with Him on so many levels.
We do know that God is Spirit & created all the order we see about us & He stoops to our level, we who often kick ourselves & slap our mamma’s (not literally though I would hope). We live & find our being in a literal temporal physical sense but also in a spiritual eternal sense as well as a symbolic/ anthropomorphic sense but day still means day & night & night. God gave us a work rest pattern that mirrors creation.
Jesus said man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Luke 3:21-38, with all its dedication reveals a historical Adam that has been born of God as a man from the dust. Death was nowhere to be found, it was to come later. And because of that, in a fatal, sudden & catastrophic way we have become our own type of gods.
The Bible, therefore God, says death came into the world at a very specific time & it came through a rebel act, not a long drawn out thoughtless process of chance vs chance vs chance that miraculously gave us life also.
I wonder whether you are unnecessarily conceding ground to the person who asked you the question in the first place. I don’t think the examples given are anthropomorphisms at all. For example, I don't see why "God saw" is an anthropomorphism. There is a distinction between having the ability to see and possessing certain means by which one sees. If one reads "God saw" and concludes that God has "eyes with pupils and retinas", the reader has clearly gone wrong somewhere, but where? One might say that he's reading the text too literally and that the text is using human things to describe what God does (anthropomorphism). However, all that the text actually says is that God can "see". The error of the reader is in using reasoning along the lines of:
1. God can see
2. Humans see with eyes
3. God has eyes
The problem with this is that it assumes that the human way of doing things is the only way. "Seeing" is about being able to perceive what is around you. The way humans do this uses eyes, but the way bats do this is with their ears. We don’t know exactly how God perceives things, but I don't see any problem with the idea that God is able to perceive what is around him. Whether he does this with an eye or not doesn't seem to be very relevant; he can do it somehow. The text shows that God is able to do something, but says nothing about the means by which he does it. Therefore all we can get from the text is that God is able to "see", but we aren't told how he does this.
The other examples given from Genesis are similar (apart from “walking”, though this can be translated as “moving about” (NET)). In one of the examples, God “speaks”. No, he doesn’t have vocal cords, but he can speak. He has audible conversations with various people in the Bible.
I’m not saying there are no anthropomorphisms in the Bible. Proper anthropomorphisms seem to me to be when God is said to have a physical attribute. For example, 1 Peter 3:12 says:
“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
This is clearly an anthropomorphism. It should be interpreted as “the means by which God sees are on the righteous”, etc. The presence of anthropomorphisms therefore can’t be used to question the interpretation of these passages, as there actually aren’t any.
Regarding “God is spirit”—Angels are spirits, as well, yet they have a distinct form in Heaven that can be manifested to the sight of men. In one instance, God allowed Moses to see part of His form, but did not allow His face to be seen. In another instance, Moses, Joshua, and 70 elders of Israel saw the lower half of God seated on His throne, come down upon Mount Sinai.
Jesus is God, and is in Heaven. He has an actual, physical (albeit resurrected and glorified) human body. Man was made in God’s image and likeness. It seems to me that, yes, God the Father also has a form, like that of a man.
Dear Mr B.
Thank you for your comments. You raise interesting and important issues.
I must admit that I doubt that God the Father has any physical form, e.g.
God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? Numbers 23:19
There are some anthropomorphisms, as the article said, but they no more prove that God has a physical form like a man than biblical ornithomorphisms prove that he’s like a bird:
“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” Psalm 91:4
When people saw God in the Old Testament, it was either the Shekinah glory or a Christophany, rather than an appearance of God the Father (a patriphany?). (See also The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?.)
The “image of God” also has connotations of being God’s representative. E.g. consider Jesus’ famous command, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This was in reference to a coin bearing Caesar’s image, thus belonging to him, and representing him. This is a contrast with man, made in God’s image, thus representing God and belonging to Him. (See also The use of Genesis in the New Testament.)
Another idea is based on the fact that Christ predated creation, as did the book of Life. Thus the Incarnation was pre-ordained before creation. This meant that God would take on human nature, becoming a descendant of Adam. Yet because of the fore-ordination, God decreed that His Son would take on a certain nature, and it was Adam who was made in the image that the future Incarnate Christ would possess.