Portrayals of God in the Bible—Fr. Charles Allen


Sometimes the Bible presents God as a person like you and me, with much more power and knowledge, but not quite omnipotent or omniscient, subject to extreme mood-swings. God might not be the only person like this, but God demands exclusive loyalty. That's one recurrent portrayal.

At other times the Bible presents God as sheer Existence or Being, the beginning, way and end of all things, including all persons and beings. God is portrayed as ever-present, yet so beyond every thing, person and being that it's not clear how to speak of God at all. That's another recurrent portrayal.

But no writer assumes that God cannot be addressed in prayer and worship, and every writer seems to assume that God responds to prayer in some way, often unspecified. Even if God is sheer Existence or Being, there's something somewhat "dialogical" in worshipers' interactions with ever-present Being.

God is repeatedly assumed to have the ability and wisdom to respond accordingly to every being. This is the Biblical origin of terms like omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, etc., but those "omni" words can be misleading when divorced from their Biblical origins.

Through the centuries, popular notions of God start with the first ("biggest guy") version of God and then try to combine it with the second ("ever-present Being") version. This can look pretty incoherent and is subject to quite a bit of ridicule. This is the notion of God attacked by the most outspoken atheists.

But more contemplative notions of God have been influential over the centuries too. They start with the second ("ever-present Being") version, considering the first ("biggest guy") version to be a symbolic way of portraying the second version. This does not look incoherent, but it's rarely discussed in popular debates.

Key Passages

Genesis 1:1-3:24
Things to notice:

*In Genesis 1:1-2:3 Elohim (God/s) orders chaos in a systematic manner by speaking, also calls upon the creativity of the waters and the earth to "bring forth" all sorts of species. Elohim apparently orders all that exists. Genesis does not say that there was absolutely nothing before Elohim began to create, only that everything was a huge mess (Hebrew: tohu wabhohu).
*In Genesis 2:4-3:24 YHWH (the One-Who-Is) does not appear to be all-powerful or all-knowing. YHWH brings life to an already existing earth, somewhat haphazardly, focusing on Adam, then eventually figuring out that Adam needs another like him (though perhaps Adam was not a "he" until there was a "she"). This name change (from Elohim to YHWH) plus the difference in character have been taken by most scholars to mean that two earlier stories (Priestly and Yahwist) were combined by a later editor.
*The serpent is not identified as Satan or the Devil (that's a much later interpretation). What the serpent predicts is literally true: Adam and Eve don't literally die (as YHWH threatened) but instead become like God, knowing good and evil. YHWH later admits that the serpent's prediction was literally true: Adam and Eve did become like "one of us."
*YHWH seems a bit limited, to say the least—small enough to walk in the garden, appearing not to know where Adam and Eve are or what they have done, feeling threatened that Adam and Eve had become like God.

Genesis 4:25-26
Things to notice:

*In this passage, the name YHWH goes all the way back to the first family, contrary to Exodus 6:2-8. This is one reason that most scholars conclude that several different narratives, written at different times, were combined into one huge narrative. This one is the Yahwist version. Others are the Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly versions.

Genesis 18
Things to notice:

*YHWH is said to appear to Abraham, but what Abraham sees is three men (maybe two are men—18:22—or angels—19:1).
*YHWH appears to know about Sarah's laughter, although she thought she was out of hearing.
*YHWH has heard rumors about Sodom and Gomorrah, but apparently "must go down and see" if the rumors are true. This doesn't look like omniscience.
*YHWH appears uncertain about whether to let Abraham know YHWH's plans, but finally decides to do so.
*Abraham asks YHWH to be consistently just and forgiving, not to punish the innocent along with the guilty. He actually haggles with YHWH over the number of innocent people, and YHWH concedes. (Why did Abraham stop at 10 innocent people? Isn't one person enough? And why does YHWH seem to need convincing about this?)

Genesis 32:24-33
Things to notice:

*Jacob ("Heel-Grabber") wrestles with a man who is later said to be El or Elohim. The man can't win without hitting below the belt—literally!
*The man apparently can't get away until he meets Jacob's demand.
*The man declares Jacob the winner, renames him Israel ("God-Wrestler") but won't give his own “wonderful” name.
*Jacob says he has seen Elohim face to face and lived. Exodus 33:20 says this isn't possible.
*This doesn't look like omnipotence.

Exodus 3:1-15
Things to notice:

*This is one of the most important passages. The divine name, YHWH, is left undefined, but associated with sheer existence. Later theologians conclude that God is not a being, but simply Being, or the Ground of Being who can nevertheless be addressed the way we address another human being.
*Fire is considered a sign of YHWH's presence (not just any fire, but fire that burns without destroying). What might make this exceptional sort of fire an apt symbol?
*According to this passage, this is where the name YHWH was first revealed, contrary to The Yahwist version in Genesis 4:25-26. This passage is considered to be from the Elohist narrative.

Exodus 6:2-8
Things to notice:

*Here YHWH explicitly denies that Moses' ancestors knew the name YHWH, contradicting Genesis 4:26. This is considered to be from the Priestly narrative.

Exodus 32:1-34:7
Things to notice:

*YHWH appears to throw a temper tantrum, while Moses is the model of sanity.  Moses changes YHWH's mind by reminding YHWH of past promises. What sort of God throws tantrums and can be talked out of them?
*Although Moses is said to speak face to face with YHWH in Exodus 33:11, YHWH says no one can see YHWH's face and live in v. 20. Both of these statements occur in the Elohist narrative. Instead of YHWH's face, Moses sees the behind!
*“YHWH, YHWH, Elohim merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). So is God more merciful than punitive, or vice versa? Love lasts 1,000 generations, while punishment lasts only 4. Jonah 4:2 drops the punitive part: "you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing."

Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Things to notice:

*This is the core affirmation of Judaism.
*Jesus combines this with Leviticus 19:18 to sum up the teaching of Torah.
*Later Jews and Christians, under the influence of Greek culture, read this more contemplatively: "Being (YHWH) is divine (Elohim), only Being."

Deuteronomy 32:8-9
Things to notice:

*Is the Most High the same as YHWH (the One-Who-Is), or is YHWH assigned to Israel by the Most High? If the latter, then who is the Most High?

Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6
Things to notice:

*This is not the Devil. Hasatan is YHWH's prosecutor, a member of the divine council.
*YHWH acknowledges that the prosecutor already has the power to carry out his cruel experiment.

Job 23
Things to notice:

*Compare this to Psalm 139.

Job 38:1-42:7
Things to notice:

*YHWH overwhelms Job by describing the vastness of creation, but this doesn't answer any questions.
*Job may not have repented. The translation here is difficult. NRSV translation: "therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Alternate translation: "therefore I withdraw my words and have changed my mind about the human condition."
*YHWH prefers Job's protests over his friends' explanations.

Psalm 82
Things to notice:

*This psalm seems to take for granted that there have been other Gods besides Elohim (God/s).
*Elohim demands respect and dignity for the weak, and accuses other gods of neglecting this.
*Again, it's not clear if the Most High is the same as Elohim or not.

Psalm 139
Things to notice:

*YHWH appears here to be all-knowing and omnipresent. The psalmist's hatefulness, toward the end of the psalm, seems jarring to today's readers.

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Things to notice:

*Another example of changing God's mind.
*Jonah's description of God's mercy echoes Exodus 34:6-7 but drops the part about punishment.

Isaiah 44-46
Things to notice:

*Written in 545-539 BCE, these are considered the clearest expressions of monotheism (belief in only one God) more or less as we know it today. There simply are no other gods. Everything that exists comes from El/YHWH (the names are used interchangeably).
*"To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, as though we were alike?" This raises a dilemma: God can't be compared with anything else. But all the terms used to describe God were originally used to describe other things. How, then, can they describe God? To say that God is literally personal would be to compare God to a creature, which is forbidden. (But the same problem arises if God were said to be literally impersonal; impersonal things are creatures too.) God can't be literally anything we otherwise know.
*This gave rise to what is called apophatic theology (or negative theology), where God is said to be experienced as utterly incomprehensible (note the tension—experienced, yes, yet experienced as utterly incomprehensible!). St. Thomas Aquinas: "by the revelation of grace in this life we cannot know of God 'what he is', and thus are united to God as to one unknown" (Summa Theologiae I-I, Q. xii, a. 13).
*It also gave rise to the idea that any description of God must be non-literal. It must be considered analogical, symbolic, metaphorical, etc. An official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that we cannot speak of God at all without using analogies where "there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater" (Fourth Lateran Council, Canon 2, 1215 CE). "A term is predicated analogically of creatures and of God when we know from creatures that it must be true of God too, but also know that how it is true of God must be beyond our comprehension" [Denys Turner, Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 211].
*This still doesn't answer how we can decide which analogies, symbols, metaphors, etc. are to be preferred to others (if they're all equally preferable, we seem to be saying nothing).
*Paul Tillich suggests that non-literal language is truest when 1) we find it to have "the power of expressing an ultimate concern in such a way that it creates reply, action, communication," and 2) it "expresses not only the ultimate but also its own lack of ultimacy" [Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1957), pp. 110, 112].

Acts 17:16-34
Things to notice:

*The technical term for Paul's view of God here is panentheism—God is not everything (that would be pantheism), but everything is in God and God is in everything. Notice the difference in spelling between pantheism and panentheism. The "en" part is crucial.

Romans 11:36
Things to notice:

*This can be read as another version of panentheism. God is the beginning (from), way (through), and end (to) of all things. God is not literally another thing, not an extra being like the other beings, only bigger. Almost every early Christian writer quotes this passage when introducing the idea of God.

1 Corinthians 8:5-6
Things to notice:

*Paul is beginning to associate Jesus with at least an aspect of God, before any of the Gospels were written. This really complicates things! Are Christians still monotheists? Is God now interpersonal instead of personal?

John 4:24
Things to notice:

*This is one of only three sentences in the New Testament that begin with "God is..." God is spirit (or breath or wind).

1 John 1:5
Things to notice:

*This is the second of three sentences in the New Testament that begin with "God is..." God is light.

1 John 4:7-21
Things to notice:

*This is the third of three sentences in the New Testament that begin with "God is..." God is love—not "God is loving," or "God loves," but "God is love," not exactly a single person but an interpersonal, mutual relation.
*Notice that all three NT occurrences of "God is..." use non-personal analogies (or symbols or metaphors): God is breath/wind/spirit, God is light, God is love.
*All who live in love live in God, and vice versa (a majorly inclusive statement!). And those who do not live in love do not even know God, even if they insist that every word of the Nicene Creed is true (of course the writer knew nothing of that creed).
*This later became a popular way to speak of the Trinity: "God is love. Why should we go running round the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth looking for him who is with us if only we should wish to be with him? Let no one say 'I don’t know what to love.' Let him love his brother, and love that love … Embrace love which is God, and embrace God with love … And if a man is full of love, what is he full of but God? … Love means someone loving and something loved with love. There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love. And what is love but a kind of life coupling or trying to couple together two things, namely lover and what is being loved? This is true even in the most fleshly kinds of love … So here again there are three, lover and what is being loved, and love." Augustine, On the Trinity, trans. by Edmund Hill, O.P. (Brooklyn: New City Press, 1991), pp. 252-255 (8.5.11-14).

Summing Up
So—What's the Biblical definition of God?
It's complicated!
There are several approaches.
Some make more sense today than others.

If God is ever-present Being, symbolized and addressed interpersonally, then it's not easy to say what would count against affirming God's reality or presence.

If God is the temperamental "biggest guy" with lots of extra powers, like a comic book superhero, then it's easy to make believing in this biggest guy look silly.