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“Human” Appearances of God in the Old Testament

So far in my posts on Christology I have talked a bit about pagan views of the divine realm and its relationship to the human. I have a lot more to say about that – in particular with the various ways that humans could be thought of as in some sense divine in the pagan world. But more than a few people have asked me what any of this has to do with Christianity since obviously the original followers of Jesus were Jewish, not Gentile, and their views of divinity in relationship to humanity would have been guided by Jewish traditions, such as those of the Old Testament.

Fair enough! So before going any further, I thought I should make some posts about divinity in relationship to humanity in the Christian Old Testament.

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Biblical Views of Suffering
The Divine Pyramid

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Comments

  1. toddfrederick  March 6, 2013

    You mentioned the Harper Collins Study Bible in your essay. What do you recommend to your students as a reliable study bible that takes contemporary critical scholarship seriously?

    I currently have The Student Bible (NIV), Yancey and Stafford, and the EVS Study Bible (Crossway Bibles), various commentators.

    Any suggestions for serious study?

    • toddfrederick  March 6, 2013

      PS…I just read the description of the Harper collins Study Bible on Amazon…Looks good.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

      Yes, I prefer the HarperCollins Study Bible with the NRSV translation; the scholarly introductions and notes are more mainstream scholarship than the NIV editions, which tend to be consistently evangelical in their orientation.

      • toddfrederick  March 8, 2013

        Yes…the EVS articles and commentary are very evangelical and some are a real turn-off…very preachy. I will buy a copy of the Harper Collins NRSV…Thank you.

  2. hwl  March 6, 2013

    With careful reading, there are traces of residual polytheism in the OT – the Israelite deity Yahweh is the son of the Canaanite head deity, El Elyon. In Deuteronomy 32:39-43, Yahweh is portrayed as a blood-thirsty up-and-coming young deity on the ascent against the pantheon of gods. But surely the crucial issue isn’t the OT’s portrayals of Yahweh per se, but how 1st century Jews read the OT texts? If 1st century Jews read and understood the Hebrew Bible with a historical-critical lens, they cannot be said in any meaningful sense to be monotheistic.
    It is interesting many of the passages you discussed above are often cited by evangelical apologists as evidence of the Trinity in the OT – God the Son and God the Father were both involved in Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, the Son appeared to Hagar. What do you have to say to apologists who claim the Trinity is in the OT?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

      I’d say they’re engaged in apologetic theology rather than historical interpretation.

  3. James Dowden  March 6, 2013

    “the anthropomorphic portrayal of Gen. 2-3 from the P source (possibly 5th c BCE) and Gen 1 from the J source (possibly 10th c. BCE)”

    Cough, other way round, cough. And the date of P is a nice debate in itself…

  4. billgraham1961  March 6, 2013

    Bart,

    Perhaps this is a bit off topic, but I would love to see a complete etymology of the word “God.” I’ve tried to look up various books and web sites, all to surprisingly little avail. For a word that is so loaded with meaning, you’d think there would be much more written on its etymology. I think this is also an important area of exploration, because we assume “God” means the Almighty person to whom we attribute the creation of the world in the book of Genesis when, in fact, it does not have to mean that at all.

    As far back as I’ve been able to explore, this word came down to us through German and earlier from Indo-European roots. Various sources I’ve explored say that it originally meant “to invoke.” In the Hebrew canon, the person we identify as God is named Elohim, which I understand means “mighty ones,” YHWH and Adonai to cite just a few names. In the first two chapter of Genesis alone, we have two names for the Almighty: Elohim. in 1:1 – 2:3 and YHWH from 2:3 to the end of the second chapter.

    The reason I find this so critical today is that we have “In God we trust” stamped on our coins. Some of our founding documents identify “God” as the originator of our freedoms. We flippantly use “one nation under God” in our pledge of allegiance, a phrase that was not in the original words penned by Francis Bellamy at the close of the 19th Century. Yet, for all of our apparent devotion to “God,” we barely know who that person is. We have the Hebrew canon and the New Testament, but I believe our modern understanding of the Almighty is influenced not so much by the Bible as it is by our culture and evolving language.

    I think this exercise may be of some importance to your project. If we are to understand the early Christian concept of exaltation or Jesus’ pre-existence as “God” or the Greek Θεός, we also have to bridge our understanding from Hebrew through its progression through the ancient biblical languages, the Indo-European languages down to modern-day English. Just a thought I hope will help. Thank you for posting your thoughts. I always find them refreshing.

  5. Robertus  March 6, 2013

    “the anthropomorphic portrayal of Gen. 2-3 from the P source (possibly 5th c BCE) and Gen 1 from the J source (possibly 10th c. BCE)”

    Gen 2-3 is J, the Yahwist, and Gen 1 ia P.

  6. timber84  March 6, 2013

    What do you think of the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4. Were they offspring between angels and humans?

  7. Wilusa  March 6, 2013

    All this is new to me! Just wondering…in some cases, could the thought have been that an “angel” (literally, a “messenger”) physically appeared to someone, but God was speaking *through* the angel?

  8. wisemenwatch  March 6, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, I am curious if you have ever done any research on the term “exaltation” and where it originated.

    I do not know the answer to this, but once again I am finding an astrological term. Keeping in mind your mention of the Greek and Roman gods…

    Exaltation in astrology is when a planet that is not in “rulership” i.e. the sign that it rules, actually functions better, more pleasingly and perfectly in another sign.

    An example of this would be the Sun in Leo. The sun is in rulership in Leo. Think of the powerful summer sun, how strong it is, functioning to its fullest potential, to the point where it can be harsh and unpleasant, with the potential of killing life if you can’t get away from it.

    Now think of the sun in springtime, as it begins to grow stronger, yet so pleasant after the long winter. The sun is “exalted” in Aries, the sign of the vernal equinox In March and April. Not as strong as the sun in summer (Leo) in rulership, yet strong enough, less harsh, and more pleasant and more appreciated in the spring (Aries) when it spurs new growth and new life.

    When I see these terms used, from an ancient Greek text, I am thinking, so they are saying that Jesus is actually more refined than God the Father, he is “exalted”, knowing that the practice of astrology pre-dates Christianity.

    Also, I am bothered by the real lesson for me here: that a good and perfect God demands a blood sacrifice, a human sacrifice as the end to the Jewish sacrifices. That is also an avenue that needs to be explored, I think, the history of human sacrifice in Judaism. Hope I am not totally off the wall here, but these are questions that I ponder and see connections between – angels as messengers of God who is the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of the stars.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

      Do you mean the English word “exaltation”? Yes, I do know the etymology of the term, but I’m not sure knowing what the English word means helps explain what is going on in ancient Greek texts….

    • Ron  March 8, 2013

      With respect to astrological correlations, the Arian Age can be shown to have began in 2028 BCE with the Offering of Isaac on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:2; 2 Chr. 3:1). This instituted the cult of the sacrificial lamb. It can also be shown that this cult was officially over at the Crucifixion of Jesus (“lamb of God”) on Apr. 3, 33 CE, the end of the 10th Jubilee (490 yrs. – Lev. 25:8) and “Day of Atonement.” So, if you read between the lines here, the history of the Jews shows us a definite correlation between, on the one hand, the 25,826.4 precessional cycle and the Zodiacal Ages that comprise it and, on the other, the implementation by their Patriarchs of how true history is to unfold. As you probably know, the Piscean Age (the “fishes”) that followed was Neptune-ruled, where self-sacrifice is the over-arching message. So, the real lesson, I think, is that we have an example in Jesus of how we are to evolve in compliance with the heavens, ultimately to “die and be reborn” (John 3:7) in order to end the cycle of transmigration and to claim the seat next to your Father.

      That’s my condensed view of it anyways.

  9. Christian  March 6, 2013

    Great post.

  10. Xeronimo74  March 6, 2013

    Let’s also not forget that The Lord supposedly wrestled Jacob in the form of an angel or that he murdered all the firstborns in Egypt as the ‘Angel of Death’ (Ex 11: This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt.’)

    It’s interesting indeed that ‘Lord’ and ‘angel of the Lord’ seem to be synonymous.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

      Yup!

      • Xeronimo74  March 11, 2013

        Yet most Christians would probably hesitate to admit though that this angel of death was actually their god (and thus also Jesus?). Meaning it actually was God himself who murdered the first-borns, babies included. On the other hand that same god, according to Genesis, had murdered scores of people (and animals) before via The Flood … so it’s not like God murdering people would be unheard of …

  11. ZachET  March 6, 2013

    any updates on Wallaces’ first century manuscripts? They were meant to be out in February

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

      No, a disappointing silence. But publication of books is often delayed for a variety of reasons. But we’re all eager to learn what is in these scraps that can make them more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls!!!

  12. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  March 6, 2013

    As to the J, E, P, D sources, could you recommend a book on them please? I have read Richard E. Friedman’s book “Who Wrote the Bible.” But certainly there has to be more (maybe better or recent). Thanks in advance.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

      Most of what is written is serious scholarship and not easily accessible. Maybe you should look at a Hebrew Bible textbook, such as that by Michael Coogan, and then use his bibliography?

  13. RonaldTaska  March 6, 2013

    Minor point: If the anthromorphic view is dated from the fifth century BCE and the J source from the 10th century than the anthromorphic view must be younger not older than the J source. Is there a typo with the dates?

  14. Scott F  March 6, 2013

    Well, they certainly let those bits slip past in Sunday school!

    I am re-reading Jesus Interrupted and am reminded of all the things my pew-mates just insist they know is true – such as Luke’s genealogy being for Mary! Sometimes I want to grab them by the labels and force their noses into their red-letter bibles to read the actual text. Of course, I don’t. I have to fume quietly because this is my wife’s church and causing a fuss would embarrass everyone. May be next Sunday … :O

  15. bobnaumann  March 6, 2013

    I’m a little confused. You say “the anthropomorphic deity is much the older view.” But in the previous sentence you say that the anthromorphic portrail of Genisis 2 and 3 from the P-source was from about 5 BCE whereas the J-source of Genisis 1 was dated around 10 BCE. Did you really to say that the anthromorphic deity was the oldest concept?

  16. pawel  March 6, 2013

    I was not aware of this passage about Lord walking threesome and eating, terrific.
    Much more popular reading (Lot’s family incidents) begins right afterwards.

    And here is a nice human appearence, I was surprised you had skipped it:
    11. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (…) 21 Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Exod 33,11n)

  17. wgmccollum  March 7, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, what is your view of the argument that many (most/all?) fundamentalists make regarding these anthropomorphic appearances of God in the OT which says these god-men are not actually God the Father, but Jesus the Son? Since there are verses that appear in the NT which state that no man has seen the face of God, many Fundys will argue that that’s true. They were looking upon the face of Jesus! Eureka!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

      I’d say they’re reading their theology *into* the text rather than reading the meaning *out* of the text. (they are doing eisegesis instead of exegesis)

  18. tcc  March 7, 2013

    Which god is supposed to be in Genesis, anyway? Yahweh or El, the most high god in the Canaanite pantheon? I know Yahweh started out as primarily a storm and warrior god, and it seems like he was supposed to be anthropomorphic throughout most of the OT (if he wasn’t supposed to have a body, how’d he ride on chariots and put a hook into the mouth of the Leviathan monster in Job?), so it’s a little weird that they went from (pretty primitive) ideas about their national gods fighting sea monsters to an “immortal spirit that lives beyond time and space” that stays behind the curtain in the NT.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2013

      God has numerous names in Genesis! And they each have a meaning and a separate history! It is one of the things that first alerted scholars to the fact that there are different sources lying behind the Pentateuch.

  19. Ron  March 7, 2013

    Jesus, in fact, believed in many gods, not in one God only, which was the contemporary mindset of those Jews who were challenging him (stoning him, in fact), as recorded in John 10:30-38. If he were here today, he would be similarly challenged, not only by devout Christians but by agnostics-atheists as well, since this “One God” mindset appears to have survived – even today in this blog. There can be no dispute of this fact. Jesus spoke, as did the prophets of old, of many gods, to whom the “word of God came” (v. 35). They’ve been described as the “assembly of the gods,” the “council of the gods,” the “sons of the mighty,” “hosts” … (Ps. 19:1-4; 89:6-7, and on and on). The constitutions or energies of these gods can take many shapes, as described in myth and scripture. Since they are part of us, each and everyone of us (Gen. 1:28), they are usually projected onto others who exhibit their energies or else identified with by the individuals who are truly manifestations of those energies. Every psychonanalyst has an inkling of how this works within the psyche. These unconscious projections are the mechanism by which we envision gods or angels as humans.

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