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.
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’.
Re-posted on homepage: 21 December 2016
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.