Conflicting portraits of Israel’s deity

The use or non-use of the name of Israel’s god, Yahweh, is not the only distinguishing 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 (#1), Yahweh is depicted in stark anthropomorphic terms. Yahweh forms man from the dust of the earth, presumably with his hands,1 breaths into the man’s nostrils, plants a garden, takes and puts the man in the garden, commands the man, forms animals from the ground, builds a woman from the man’s rib, walks in the garden, calls and speaks to his creation, makes skins of garments for the human pair, and finally puts the human pair outside the garden. This type of anthropomorphism, that is presenting a deity in human terms, is only found in the Yahwist source and for the most part attests to its antiquity. Yet the anthropomorphic portrait of the deity in the Yahwist tradition goes even further than this. The Yahwist depicts his god repenting, relenting, grieving, and raging with anger on numerable incidences. He often talks face-to-face with the patriarchs, walks side-by-side with them, and even eats with Abraham on one occasion. More surprisingly, the Yahwist shows no indication that this conception of the god is problematic. The anthropomorphic Yahweh is merely one god, Israel’s god, among a vast sea of other anthropomorphic deities from the ancient world. 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 (Deut 32:8-9).

Indeed, the anthropomorphism of the Yahwist becomes extremely problematic for later scribes, who either blatantly disagreed with the Yahwist’s portrait of the god or understood the godhead on a higher theological plane. The Deuteronomist for example, puts forth a conception of Yahweh that is without form; no image can be formed of him, and he only communicates to mortals as a formless voice from the heavens (#306). In the Deuteronomic tradition such anthropomorphic conceptions as found in the Yahwist text become a polemic used against the other gods of the ancient Near Eastern world to denigrate them and claim that they are no gods at all. Yahweh is thus heralded as the God of gods for the Deuteronomist precisely because he has no form. In fact, one of the religious innovations accredited to the Deuteronomist is monotheism, which only emerged in the exilic period, and which was part and parcel to the Deuteronomist’s program of claiming Yahweh as the only non-anthropomorphic god of the ancient Palestinian landscape (see the section title ‘the Yahweh alone movement’). So in this case the Deuteronomist stands in complete opposition to the portrait of Israel’s deity found in the Yahiwst 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 appellations of the deity, using El Shaddai before the revelation to Moses in Exodus 6:2 and Yahweh afterwards (#11). Lastly, the Elohist tradition is also considerably less anthropomorphic in its portrait of the deity than the Yahwist tradition. One feature of the Elohist tradition that we will repeatedly encounter is that when God communicates to the patriarchs it is not done face-to-face as in the Yahwist tradition but through dreams.

To a large extant, the Yahwist’s anthropomorphic presentation of his god and the fact that this is not a problem for him has led many biblical scholars to see this as one more element that supports the tradition’s ancientness. The gods in the literature of other ancient Near Eastern cultures were depicted in similar anthropomorphic terms. As modern readers of these ancient texts, we must keep in mind that our culture’s conception of God, along with highbrow theological tenets such as omniscience and omnipotence, are later modifications and conceptualizations of the biblical god which were adopted from the Greek philosophical tradition and brought to bear on the biblical texts in the theological debates of the early Christian period. 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. 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 modern reader. These earliest portraits have indeed been softened by later non-anthropomorphic portraits of Yahweh. But part of this website’s aim is to approach these ancient texts on their own terms rather than through the terms of later theological interpretive frameworks. And to this extent, these ancient texts and their variant depictions of Israel’s god hold even more surprises for the modern reader. We will look at specific differences and contradictions in the biblical authors’ conception of Israel’s godhead in forthcoming entries.

Footnotes    
  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. Cf. image of Yahweh as a potter fashioning man with his hands (Is 64:7). See #1.

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9 Responses to Conflicting portraits of Israel’s deity

  1. dgsinclair says:

    SOLUTION: Since even the Yahweyist view actually NEVER describes a physical entity, we can safely assume that all such references are metaphors to explain God’s presence and interaction with mankind, not a contradiction.

  2. dgsinclair says:

    SOLUTION 2: God speaks most of creation into existence, but forms man specially, not from nothing, but from the earth. No contradiction. Scripture never mentions God using his ‘hands,’ though the phrase ‘hand of the Lord’ is used elsewhere in scripture to metaphorically represent his actions, but again, not physical hands. No non-metaphoric anatomical descriptions of God exist in these passages, so again, no contradiction.

  3. Steven DiMattei says:

    You seem to come at these texts from your own premises, and therefore are not really reading the texts nor understanding the authors who wrote them or why. And you certainly have read the commentary that I’ve provided that attempts, rather successfully I might say, to represent to the best of my abilities each one of these authors’ views, compositional techniques, and historical circumstances—all of which you seem to take as secondary or irrelevant. Your “SOLUTION” is a clear indicator that you are discussing your own presuppositions and agendas, not those of the texts. If the Yahwist text has Yahweh talking, walking, making, and building, then this author, like many authors of the ancient Near East, is presenting his deity in anthropomorphic terms, and furthermore seems to have no problem with this. You can’t change what the author has presented, only understand why.

    Similar to your strong reaction against this anthropomorphic presentation of God, the Priestly writer also shared the same concern and disagreed, and even suppressed, the Yahwist’s anthropomorphic view of Yahweh when ever he had the chance. When we get to the book of Exodus for example, you will see that the Yahwist has in fact left his own version of the crossing of the Red sea there, and it recounts how Yahweh “blew back” the sea all night to separate it. The Priestly writer was offended, as you yourself may be, by this presentation of God who seeming must blow back the sea like a superhero in order to separate it, so he interjected his own story, the one most remember: Moses separating the sea with his rod. For the Priestly writer, as well as the Deuteronomist, Yahweh remains transcendent and non-anthropomorphic. Yet the earlier Yahwist comes out of a different cultural era where anthropomorphic views of god were only natural. In the end your confrontation is not with me, but the texts themselves. Rather than trying to squeeze the Yahwist’s conception to fit your conception of God, why not try to understand why the Yahwist presented the deity in these terms, or try to find out more about his cultural context, his beliefs, etc. Start here, the Yahwist.

  4. Steven DiMattei says:

    I see you were commenting on Conflicting portraits of Israel’s deity. I thought it was contradictions #1. Try reading this (#1) and seeing if the text, and my commentary, are more clear.

  5. ibanezerscrooge says:

    You don’t seem to be getting Dr. DiMattei’s point. He is looking at the actual text of the scriptures using our earliest sources and analyzing the actual words being used and their denotations and connotations in the context of the author, audience, culture, language and time period in which they were written. Doing this shows a clear difference between the creation stories. For instance the verb for “to form” has a very specific meaning of physical activity in that context whereas the verb for “create” is much more metaphysical in it’s meaning. The translation with which you are likely familiar filters these differences through time, language, very likely an agenda, etc. so that the text with which you are familiar is, at best, a watered down, falsely homogenous narrative.

  6. Steven DiMattei says:

    Well said!

  7. Ryan Hofer says:

    Wow! That Deuteronomy 32 reference is incredible! You’re saying that “the Most High” refers to another deity who assigned/gave Yahweh to the people of Jacob? Can you explain that more?

  8. Steven DiMattei says:

    Ryan,

    I spend more time covering this and noting my sources in contradiction #27. Basically, there are a couple of passages on the Bible that would seem to preserve this older Canaanite lore, that Yahweh, like Baal, was originally conceived of as a god underneath El, the high god of the Canaanite/proto-Israelite pantheon. See Psalm 82:1, 29:1, 89:6-8. Having said that, there is also evidence in the Biblical texts that Yahweh eventually came to be assimilated with El—discussed also in #27. If interested in this subject, I’d recommend Mark Smith’s scholarly treatment, The Early History of God: Yahweh and other deities in ancient Israel, and Dever’s more colorful, Did God have a wife?

  9. KW says:

    I agree with Ryan, this is an amazing verse and I’ve been thinking about it since I first read this post. It makes a lot of sense that the early Israelites (and other ANE groups) would have acknowledged that each tribe or people around them had their own God. When the Israelites won a battle, their “assigned” god YHWH was stronger; when they lost, the other people’s god was stronger, say, HDD (Hadad). The early Israelites also had household gods (teraphim) according to Gen. 31:19 and other verses, so it’s obvious that there is more to the history of their beliefs than simply worshiping One True God without the use of idols since the very first Jew lived, as a standard Judeo-Christian interpretation would have us believe.

    More recently I’ve become interested in Gen. 9:26 where Noah refers to Yahweh as “Shem’s God”. Shem is perhaps the “very first Jew” in the sense that his name was lent to the Semites, so from that standpoint it would make sense that Shem worshipped Yahweh, the Hebrews’ god… but wait a minute! What about Ham and Japheth, and Noah, for that matter?! Aren’t they all worshippers of the true God? Isn’t that why they were preserved? But then you consider that the story is probably an adaptation of the Gilgamesh Epic and that Noah is thus based off a pagan figure from a foreign myth, as well as the fact that only Shem is the ancestor of the Jews, not Ham and Japheth, and you realize that there’s a weird “plot hole” in the claim that everyone back to Abel was worshipping the same One True God Yahweh.

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