Biblical Anthropomorphism (Tashbih) – OpEd


The Qur’an teaches: Say, [O believers], “We believed in Allah and what has been revealed to us [the Qur’an] and what has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Descendants [of Jacob] and what was given to Moses and Jesus and what was given to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him.” (2:136)

While Christians, Jews and Muslims should make no disrespectful distinction between any of their prophets or their sacred scriptures, we cannot help but notice that the circumstances and style of each of the three written revelations are very distinct. 

The Hebrew Sacred Scriptures are a vast collection (305,358 Hebrew words) of books written over a period of almost a thousand years, by more than two dozen different named Jewish Prophets, plus many more anonymous inspired Historians, Poets, and Philosophers.

The Greek New Testament is much shorter (a total of 138,162 Greek words); and was written over a period of less than 70 years, by four biographers plus maybe a half dozen other writers who all wrote in a language (Greek) that Prophet Jesus and Prophet John never spoke.

The Arabic Qur’an is still shorter (a total of 77,934 Arabic words) recited only by Prophet Muhammad during a period of less than two dozen years and written down by his own disciples.

The most shocking thing that a rabbi notices when reading the Qur’an is that Allah continually refers to himself as “We”. This reiteration of the pronoun ‘We’ referring to God; occurs over 2100 times in the Qur’an. 

In the Hebrew Scriptures the royal “we’ is very rarely used for God, except most noticeably in the creation narrative. All the Jewish Prophets declare God’s words using ‘I’. Of course, I know that ‘we’ in the Qur’an never means that God is plural or trinitarian. It is a matter of style that might also be meant as an important correction to the error that many of Prophet Jesus’ disciples entered into. 

Many disciples of Jesus took Prophet Jesus’ use of “my father in heaven” literally when it was of course meant metaphorically. They also misunderstood the statement of Prophet Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) The metaphor of a shepherd describes both God and a human ruler. Jesus was saying that a good leader puts the good of the flock ahead of his own good. John understood that “I” [God] will sacrifice [My Son] to save all humanity. 

In the same way, many Muslim readers of the Hebrew Bible are shocked by the frequent use of metaphors to describe the Divine One. The Jewish People were the only on-going monotheistic Ummah (nation) in the world for more than a thousand years; so using anthropomorphic descriptions of God were minor compared to the on-going religious struggle (Jihad) to eliminate the polytheism and idolatry that many Jews engaged in, from within the Jewish nation.

As the Qur’an states: “They are not all alike. Some of the People of the Book are firmly committed to the truth. They recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of night, and remain in the state of [prayer] prostration before their Lord.” (3:113)

God created Man in His own moral image meaning that He wished humanity to live a life marked by justice, equality, fair dealing, mutual respect, sympathy, love, compassion, and charity etc. Many humans on the other hand chose to violate some or even many basic moral commandments of God, including their creating God in Mankind’s own physical image.

The first three of the Ten Commandments state: (Verse 3) ‘Thou shalt have no other gods’…. (Verse 4) ‘Thou shalt not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness (picture) of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath’…. (Verse 5) ‘Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them’… (Torah Exodus 20:3‑5)

All Biblical Anthropomorphism (tashbih) are not to be taken literally. They are only metaphors or poetic expressions.  For example, the metaphor of stubborn uncaring people as having an uncircumcised heart can be found in several different Biblical verses: Deuteronomy 10:16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn; Leviticus 26:41 …if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity; Jeremiah 4:4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Jeremiah 6:10 To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen. 

These are all like the Qur’an’s statement: “And do not invoke Allah with another deity. There is no deity except Him. Everything will be destroyed except His Face. His is the judgement, and to Him you will be returned” (28:88). Face is a clear metaphor for God’s presence.

The rabbinic Tafsir/midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabba 1:16) actually gathers 50+ different metaphors of the heart that are implied by various verses in the Hebrew Bible. The list begins describing that the heart: sees (Ecclesiastes 1:16), hears (I Kings 3:9), speaks (Ecclesiastes 1:16), walks (2 Kings 5:26), falls (I Samuel 17:32), stands (Ezekiel 22:14), rejoices (Psalms 16:9), cries out (Lamentations 2:18), is consoled (Isaiah 40:2), is pained (Deuteronomy 15:10), is hardened (Exodus 9:12), fears (Deuteronomy 28:67), breaks (Psalms 51:19), is prideful (Deuteronomy 8:14), refuses (Jeremiah 5:12), imagines (Deuteronomy 29:18), feels (Psalms 45:2), thinks (Proverbs 19:21), desires (Psalms 21:3), strays (Proverbs 7:25), desires sin (Numbers 15:39), eats (Genesis 18:5), convinces (Genesis 34:3), and errs (Isaiah 21:4). All of these are clearly intended to be metaphors. 

The issues of anthropomorphism (tashbih) in Islam are over the very few anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Qur’an, or the more frequent  aḥadith al-ṣifat – traditions that depict God and His attributes in an anthropomorphic language (God’s hand, God’s laughter or God’s sitting on the heavenly throne) and are well known to Muslim scholars.

In the verse: ‘There is nothing like unto Him; and He is All-Hearing and All-Seeing.’ Allāh first negated that something could be like Him and then affirmed that He does have many attributes and that some of the creatures of creation also have these attributes. “And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned and Allah too planned and the best of planners is Allah.” (3:54) 

And “Send not away those who call on their Lord morning and evening seeking His Face.” (6:52) And on rare occasions the Qur’an does use physical metaphors for Allah: “O Iblīs! What prevented you from prostrating unto one [Adam] I created with My two Hands? Were you arrogant or were you haughty?” (38:75).

Also in the aḥadith al-ṣifat: “Narrated Anas ibn Malik Allah’s Messenger said: That his bier (that of Sa’d) and the Throne of the most Compassionate shook.” (Sahih Muslim Hadith 6035)

And Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith 5.147 Narrated Jabir: I heard the Prophet saying, “The Throne (of Allah) shook at the death of Sad bin Muadh.”

These few anthropomorphisms, like the much more frequent anthropomorphism in the Hebrew Bible are all to be understood as metaphors that should never be taken literally.

The Hebrew Bible uses frequent anthropomorphic descriptions of God because the Jewish minority that worshipped idols did it; not as a metaphor but in a disgusting reality. After the exile to Babylonia this party disappeared. 

Then came the Gospels using not just verbal anthropomorphisms, but the sad reality of a Divine embodied sonship and reintroducing human statues and paintings into places of prayer.

The Qur’an rebukes the Christian style of worship using pagan style art work and concepts of Divine incarnation; and since the Christians defended their actions by pointing to the frequent use of metaphors to describe the Divine One in the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an very rarely uses metaphors for God at all.  

Some biblical texts use metaphor imagery in condemning the rich and powerful within Israelite society for oppressing the poor: Ezekiel 22:27 “Her officials are like wolves rending prey in her midst; they shed blood and destroy lives to win ill-gotten gain.”

Those who use force to harm other human beings are compared to wolves and lions in Psalm  57:5 “My soul is among lions, I do lie down among them that are aflame; even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.” 

And blood-shedding weapons are linked to the blood-shedding teeth of predatory beasts in Proverbs 30:14: “There is a generation whose teeth are as swords, and their great teeth as knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men.” None of these metaphorical phrases should be taken literally. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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