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Why Yahweh isn’t a spirit

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Image and likeness
Yahweh is often treated as being a spirit in the Tanakh. Among Abrahamic faiths, Yahweh is a spirit, or more commonly admitted today as a disembodied mind. He lacks flesh and bone, viz., a physical body. He is incorporeal and non-spatio-temporal. The reason Yahweh must be so is because if he’s corporeal and spatio-temporal, then he is subject to physics. If he is subject to physics, then he cannot be omnipotent. Not only that, matter is treated as a creation and Yahweh isn’t created.

My observation of what’s in the Tanakh tells me otherwise. It begins in Genesis 1:26 where Yahweh tells his divine council, “Let’s make humans in our image, after our likeness.” The image of God isn’t understood as if Yahweh has human-like features to those of the Abrahamic faiths. Technically, the appropriate understanding would be to say that humans have divine-like features, having been created by Yahweh. Instead, the image of God refers to something metaphoric.

If one looks at the Hebrew word צֶלֶם, translated as “image”, one will find oftentimes that it’s used in a context of idols.1 Cult images (often called idols) are physical objects, which represent deities. There are two instances I’m aware of where צֶלֶם doesn’t refer to physical objects, but these ironically are in poetic literature.2 In Genesis 5:3, it is said that Adam “fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” To put it another way, Seth was the spitting image of Adam.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that two verses earlier, the author writes that Yahweh made Adam in his likeness.3 I don’t see any reason to assume there’s a difference in understanding the language. Since likeness and sameness aren’t the same, I am not saying that when Adam was created that he had the exact features that Yahweh had. What I mean is that Adam wouldn’t be an exact replica, just like Seth wouldn’t be an exact replica of Adam.

A possible objection to the notion that Yahweh has some kind form might be that צֶלֶם refers to function, not a literal image. How then, does one get around this when Seth shares this image of Adam? Where is it defined that צֶלֶם refers to function? The conflict isn’t within the Tanakh. It’s that Abrahamic faiths believe Yahweh is a spirit who is without any form. When John wrote in his gospel that Yahweh is a spirit, he likely used this belief from what he was taught.

Walking with God
In order to walk, you needs legs. In the story of the fall, Yahweh walks in the garden some time later in the day. Adam and Eve hear Yahweh approaching, so they hide because they’re naked. Yahweh calls out to Adam and asks where he’s at. I used to think that when Yahweh asked, “Where are you?”, he was simply asking a rhetorical question. After all, an all-knowing god wouldn’t need to ask this question. Yet, what I think is most telling in this story is that Adam and Eve hid.

Why I think this is so telling is because if Adam and Eve knew Yahweh, they probably would have known him better than any Jew, Christian, or Muslim today. Why would they hide, unless they were unaware of the fact that Yahweh was all-knowing? This might be a reason given to preserve the notion that Yahweh lacks a physical body. I don’t think one needs to even suggest omniscience, since if Yahweh is omnipresent, Adam and Eve couldn’t hide if they even tried.

What the author tells us is that Adam and Eve hid themselves from Yahweh’s presence.4 Once again, one who believes Yahweh is a spirit would need to explain how Adam and Eve weren’t in Yahweh’s presence if he was omnipresent. It would be like trying to explain how Cain was still in Yahweh’s presence, even after Cain left Yahweh’s presence and went to dwell in the land of Nod.5 This language would be contradictory if it gave the impression that one wasn’t in Yahweh’s presence, even if one was.

Once Adam told Yahweh the reason he hid was because he was naked, Yahweh asks him who told him he was naked. Neither an omniscient, nor omnipresent god would have to ask this question. It’s easy to dismiss this by asserting the question was rhetorical. However, a rhetorical question isn’t meant to receive an answer. It’s meant to make a point. Adam answered Yahweh and gave his reason why he hid and even blamed Eve, whom Yahweh made.

The appearance of God
Going back to Yahweh walking in the garden, this might be treated as a theophany. I find this to be unwarranted. I suspect the reason why events where Yahweh performs actions that would otherwise only be possible as a human is because Abrahamic faiths believe Yahweh is a spirit.6 It’s unusual that if Yahweh is a spirit that there would be phrases, such as “spirit of Yahweh” or “spirit of God”. I understand trinitarians will say this is the Holy Spirit, but I think “spirit” has a lot of baggage.

I don’t understand the spirit of Yahweh in a literal sense. I would agree that this is part of Yahweh and that there is more than one meaning. The spirit of Yahweh is associated with prophesying or inspiration. Having once been a Christian myself, the understanding I get from this is feeling great joy or awe. It’s quite an emotional experience, which is often associated with the belief that such an event could only have come from God. Isaiah says of the coming messiah:7

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

I suspect a theological bias is present in this verse, only because the first letter in “spirit” is capitalized. What I want to show here is that no one thinks there are multiple spirits. The spirit of Yahweh needn’t refer to a person any more than the spirit of jealousy,8 or the spirit of Elijah.9 The spirit of God is also considered to be the wind.10 In the creation narrative, it is often translated that the spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep, but Josephus, for example, didn’t understand it this way. He wrote:11

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. But when the earth did not come into sight, but was covered with thick darkness, and a wind moved upon its surface, God commanded that there should be light: and when that was made, he considered the whole mass, and separated the light and the darkness; and the name he gave to one was Night, and the other he called Day: and he named the beginning of light, and the time of rest, The Evening and The Morning, and this was indeed the first day.

Another example of the spirit of God being wind can be found in 2 Kings 2:16 where the sons of the prophets who tell Elisha that there are with his servants fifty strong men. They tell him to let them please seek Elijah. It is often translated that the “Spirit of the Lord” might have caught up Elijah and cast him to some mountain or valley. Within this context, it would make more sense if it was translated “wind of the Lord” because it lifted up Elijah and cast him to some mountain or valley.

The whirlwind was most likely a tornado. The first verse of this chapter states that Yahweh was going to take Elijah up into heaven by a whirlwind, viz., taken up into the sky by a tornado. Chances are Elijah didn’t survive when this event is understood this way. Since there is no single meaning for “spirit”, it should be understood within the context one is provided with.

I could see someone object to the idea that Yahweh has a physical body because he speaks from the burning bush in Exodus 3. There are two things worth noting. The first is that it is the messenger of Yahweh, not Yahweh himself. Second, the messenger of Yahweh appears to Moses in a flame, which I would understand this to actually be saying that the messenger appeared as a flame. This doesn’t say anything about Yahweh or his messenger being a theophany, that is, a manifestation of God.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be a popular view, but shapeshifting would be equally a possible explanation. After all, if Yahweh was the burning bush, and if Yahweh could appear as a man,12 or even a pillar of cloud and fire,13 then it’s just as valid as the belief in theophanies. I don’t expect any Jew, Christian, or Muslim to suddenly agree with this, likely due to both tradition and because their scriptures support the belief that Yahweh is a spirit. Jews would be an exception if they accepted the Tanakh alone.

I could continue searching through the Tanakh to present more examples of Yahweh possessing a form of some kind, experience physical attributes such as the use of senses, emotion, and actions, but I think all of this should suffice. If there is a verse or more that I have forgotten about where Yahweh is clearly demonstrated to be a spirit, then I’d be more than happy to see it. Otherwise, there isn’t much else to be said.

References

  1. Numbers 33:52; 1 Samuel 6:5, 11; 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17; Ezekiel 7:20; 16:17; 23:14; Amos 5:26
  2. Psalm 39:6; 73:20
  3. Genesis 5:1
  4. ibid. 3:8
  5. ibid. 4:16
  6. Christians have a reason to believe this because of John 4:24. Perhaps Muslims do, too. As for Jews, I’m not so certain.
  7. Isaiah 11:2
  8. Numbers 5:14
  9. 2 Kings 2:9, 15; cf. Luke 1:17
  10. Genesis 1:2
  11. Antiquities, Book 1, Chapter 1
  12. Genesis 18:1-21
  13. Exodus 13:21, 22; These phrases have been thought to be referring to an active volcano producing volcanic ash (“pillar of cloud”) and lava (“pillar of fire”).
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