Can God Appear in Human Form? Or, The Problem of "Anthropomorphism"


I recently read an article in an Orthodox Jewish magazine, called “The Problem of Anthropomorphism.”  This word has a Greek root, taken from words used in the New Covenant as well.  Anthropos is human or man.  Morph is form.

So, the word literally means “in the form of a man.” The question is a theological one: How do we understand the many passages in the Tanakh (Law and Prophets) which describe God in human terms or appearing in a human form?

The equivalent Hebrew term is the hiph’il form of the word for human, taken from the name Enos, אנוש. Anthropomorphism is Ha’anashah, האנשה.

This is a key question in biblical interpretation.  It is the reason behind the book I wrote, “Who Ate Lunch with Abraham?”

The challenge is that the traditional rabbinic viewpoint and some modern biblical scholarship hold that the God of the Tanakh does not have any human-like form; cannot have a human-like form; and any inference to such would be idolatrous or ignorant, pagan or primitive, because it would reduce God to a human level.

I suggest a two-fold response to the challenge.

The first response is that despite the theological denials, the Law and the Prophets are filled with these divine appearances in human form (epiphanies). So how can one “describe away” so many passages?

The discussion I read offered two streams of explanation in rabbinic writings to “describe away” anthropomorphic passages:

  • Symbolic literary parable explanation
  • Personal psychological experience explanation

The first rabbinic explanation is that all descriptions of divine anthropomorphism in the Tanakh must be understood as poetic symbolism; only words. It is a word picture that is not meant to imply any substantive reality behind it.

The second rabbinic explanation is that the descriptions of the Prophets were not merely symbolic but also describing a real mystic experience.  They explained that the Prophets had a real internal experience of a divine epiphany, but it was only internal, only psychological.  This would also rule out any actual appearance of God in a human form.

The other response has to do with the view of the New Covenant scriptures that Yeshua (Jesus) is divine. There are many prophecies in the Tanakh that seem to refer to Yeshua.

One traditional Jewish view holds that Yeshua committed blasphemy by referring to Himself as the “Son of God.”  Therefore, even if there are Messianic prophecies that do refer to Yeshua, they would say the claim of His Messiahship is cancelled by the claim of His divinity. It is an a priori objection to the very concept of God appearing as a man.

In contrast, if the God of Abraham, according to the Tanakh, can indeed appear in the form of a man, it would not be totally impossible for the Messiah to be a divine Man.  If that possibility is accepted, then the objections to Yeshua’s Messiahship become open to discussion, and one is left with dealing with the objective issue of whether Yeshua is the Messiah or not.

If a person were to read all the descriptions of divine epiphanies in the Tanakh, without any Jewish/Christian polemic or a priori assumptions, the rather unavoidable conclusion is that the writers described what they believed to be a real event, a real experience, with a real figure, who appeared in a human form and spoke as God, or at least “as if” he were God.  There are some streams of Jewish and secular scholars who do accept that textual interpretation.

That would leave only two other possibilities. Either those biblical authors were deceived or God does appear in the form of a man.

On the first possibility: could they be deceived? Of course, it is theoretically possible.  Any “non-faith” viewpoint would hold to that position. There is no God. All the biblical writings and faith experiences are invalid. They are some form of self-deception or wishful thinking.

That would be my view concerning texts that I believe to be untrue: the supposed epiphany to Joseph Smith in Mormonism; Mohammed rising to heaven in Islam; various Greek, Roman, Hindu myths as well. One has to read the texts and make a discernment for himself.

However, for the Judeo-Christian worldview, the God of Abraham and the Holy Scriptures are true, reliable and reasonable, moral and authoritative.

In the book “Who Ate Lunch with Abraham?”, I cite some thirty passages of divine epiphany in human form. I believe that the experiences of the biblical authors were real and verifiable.

In most of the passages, other people were present during the experience.  That would eliminate the possibility of the experiences being only psychological and internal.  (Unless one would try to make the case for repeated group hypnotic experiences.)

Some of the examples analyzed were:

  1. YHVH appearing to Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18.
  2. Jacob wrestling with a “man” all night at Peniel, and then limping away in the morning (Genesis 32).
  3. Moses ascending Mt. Sinai with 70 elders of Israel and seeing the God of Israel (Exodus 24).
  4. Joshua taking his shoes off in front of the commander of the hosts of YHVH before the battle of Jericho (Joshua 5).
  5. Angel YHVH appearing to Samson’s parents in Judges 13.
  6. Isaiah seeing the divine, glorified and holy king sitting on His throne (Isaiah 6).
  7. Ezekiel seeing YHVH as a man sitting on the throne above the glory cloud and cherubim (Ezekiel 1).

This special Person is called by many names in the Tanakh. The most common is malach YHVH, מלאך יהוה. This is usually translated as “the angel of the LORD.” However, there are only two words: Angel, Yehovah.  They are in smichut form, which means the words are “joined” together.  Smichut form is like a hyphen in English, making one word out of two (like door-post, mail-box, book-end).

A literal translation of this name would be: Yehovah-Angel or Angel-Yehovah.  The appearance of this figure is beyond any simple description.  In Christian theology it is sometimes referred to as a “Christophany,” which would conclude that the figure was not only real, but that the divine anthropomorphism is an appearance of the eternal Son of God, Christ, in a “pre-birth” form.

Anthropomorphism means that God desires to be with us

There are some profound implications of such anthropomorphic passages, which would point to God’s desire for intimacy, to the divinity of the Messiah, and to our glorious destiny in Him.

Colossians 2:8-10 (NKJ):

 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.

Behind the anthropomorphism discussion is a beautiful truth about the nature of God.  God is a loving Father.  He is holy and awesome, but He is also near and personal.  God wants to be involved in our lives in a real way; He desires a relationship with us; to be with us.  He also has a desire to raise us up to be children of God in His image.