To the Biblical teaching regarding the spirituality and invisibility of God (discussed in "The Character of God, Part II"), it is sometimes countered, "What about the verses in the bible that speak of God's body parts?" Those asking the question often cite verses that refer to God's face (Deut. 32:20; Ps. 24:6), God's heart (Hos 11:8), God's hands (John 10:29; Acts 7:55), or even other so-called "body parts." They then proceed to presume that God must therefore have body parts. What is to be said for or against these claims? How can these verses be reasonably reconciled with the spirituality and invisibility (the non-corporeality) of God taught in the rest of the scriptures?
A General Response
As discussed in "The Knowability of God," the language of scripture is often non-literal and anthropomorphic, as it uses human expressions to help us understand God better. The scriptures, however, regularly use affirmative statements about God, balanced by negative (and other affirmative) statements to prevent a wrong rendering of meaning. To arrive at correct doctrine it is best to start with the plainest, clearest, and most didactic teachings on a matter, and then proceed to understand and draw conclusions from the more difficult specific or situational portions of scripture. The doctrine of God's spirituality and invisibility (that He is not composed of physical body parts) is presented clearly in The Character of God, Part II.
This principle of biblical interpretation, moving from the simplest and most explicit teachings of scripture and then into the more "open" verses, can be shown most reasonable by reducing the alternate approach to absurdity. For, not only are the scriptures anthropomorphic in using human expressions to reveal knowledge about God, but they also are zoonopomorphic (a word the author constructed for illustrative purposes from the Greek word for animal, zoon, instead of man, anthropos), as they use animal expressions to reveal knowledge about God. A primary example of this is found in Ps. 91:4, where God's "feathers" and "wings" are used to describe the shelter and protection God provides to His people. What a comfort the reader can take in this analogous description and the subsequent understanding of God's protection and care for His people! Yet, no reasonable being would then proceed to teach that God also has wings and feathers. Those that forward the notion that God has human body parts from the anthropomorphic verses of scripture make a similarly foolish error as ascribing to God animal body parts1.
Some Specific Considerations
God's Face appears in multiple places of scripture. The two Hebrew words for face, paniym and 'ayin) are used both literally and metaphorically2 of man and God. In some cases God's face is the object of seeking, indicating the favor of God (Ps. 24:6; 27:8; Prov. 7:15; Hos. 5:15). Both Prov. 29:26 and Eccl. 7:26 specifically demonstrate the non-literal use of the Hebrew word for face, paniym, where it is explicitly translated "favor" in most English Bibles. In other instances of scripture, the hiding of God's face is frequently used NOT to reveal that God's face is normally physically visible yet disappears and is hidden at His will; but, rather, it indicates the withdrawing of God's blessings from the presence of disobedience (Deut 32:20; Job 34:29; Ps 13:1; 30:7; 143:7; Isa 54:8; Jer 33:5; Ezek 39:23-24; Mic 3:4). In yet another expression or form of use, God's people will ask that God hide His face and overlook their sinfulness (Ps. 10:11; Ps. 51:9), which is made possible by the blood of Christ. Ultimately, the face of God refers to the spiritual presence of God. When God takes action to show or hide His face, He is either intimately revealing His love and compassion or expressing His displeasure; when man seeks or hides from the face of God, he is either seeking God's comfort and favor or requesting pardon from God's wrath.
God's Heart is no more a reference to a literal bodily part of God than is God's face. This can easily be proven by referring to Judges 5:9, where God's heart is said to be "with the rulers of Israel," as surely God did not lend a bodily organ to Israel's rulers3. Even the scriptural allusions to man's heart fall short of across-the-board literal references to man's bodily organ (one need only consult the expression of "circumcision of the heart," Rom. 2:29, to realize this point). God's heart refers to His compassion for His people, His personal love and care of them.
God's Hands are denoted by several words in the Hebrew and Greek, none of which demand that God has literal and physical hands. God had declared that He would stretch out His "hand" against Edom (Ezek. 25:13; cf. Zeph. 2:13 on Assyria). Indeed, the Edomites were conquered by the Maccabees, but not by the literal crushing of God's physical hand. Instead, the stretching out of God's hand in these passages refers to the sweeping judgment of God against sin.
Another significant use of the word "hand" in the scriptures is to indicate power and strength. Judges 1:35 is an appropriate example here, not only because of the translation of the word for hand as "strength," but also because it assigns the singular noun to a group of people, the house of Joseph4. The hand of God, particularly His "right hand" is symbolic of His strength and power (Ex. 15:6; Ps 60:5; 63:8; 108:6; 118:15-16).
Finally, an equally important concept behind the hand of God in scripture is the explicit difference between the right and left hands. They do not differ because they are on opposite physical sides of God, but because they indicate a difference of God's disposition toward the object at either side (Matt. 25:33; Eccl. 10:2). God's right hand regularly is used in scripture to reveal God's favor (Ps. 80:17), the left to express God's disfavor. Therefore, when used of God, the terms "right hand" or "left hand" have nothing to do with spatial location; but, rather, they indicate God's level of pleasure.
None of the anthropomorphisms found of God in scripture require a literal translation. In fact, in light of the article on The Character of God, Part II, these scriptures cannot refer to a physical form of God5. Therefore, the anthropomorphisms noted above all must be revealing something different to man about God. Again, this is the value of analogous language balanced with negation (good hermeneutics), where scripture interprets scripture and reveals to us the depth of the personal and intimate character of God.
1Also take note of the eyes of God that "run to and fro throughout the whole earth" (2 Chron. 16:9). Just how literally should the anthropomorphisms of scripture be taken given verses like this, as eyes surely do not run?
2See Num. 22:5, Deut 6:15, and Acts 17:26, where the earth is given a "face." Clearly the earth does not have a literal face. Acts 7:45 is also relevant, as it refers to a non-literal "face" (singular form of the Greek word for face, prosopon) of "our fathers" (plural form of the Greek word for father, pater). Clearly, a literal face is not a necessary understanding of the original passages that refer to the "face" of God. In fact, it is a forbidden reading by virtue of what the rest of scriptures teach about the character of God.
3The same could be said for Job 7:17, as again the Lord does not put His physical heart upon people's heads; so too, Jer. 48:36 demonstrates the same in that a heart does not literally "wail like flutes," although perhaps it does literally beat like a drum.
4If Judges 1:35 were literally, than it would be hard to see how a group of people can share a single hand. See also Ps. 89:48, where "hand" is translated "power" and a grave attributed a "hand" if taken literally.
5Interestingly, Bavinck notes that "we are never told that digestive and reproductive organs pertain to him. Sight, hearing, and smell are ascribed to him, not taste and touch. Nowhere do we read that God possesses a body" (Doctrine of God, p. 175). If the scriptural use of anthropomorphisms was intended to teach that God has a body, one would expect to find a more thorough description of God's body. In fact, there is NO verse in the Bible that explicitly teaches that God has a body.
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