A Story of Relationship: Biblical Anthropomorphism

I love mythology. Like religion, it speaks in the language of “as if.” It is the human story, telling us who we are, where we fit in, our purpose. And our ability to create stories and engage others in them is our unique human capability, the one thing that sets us apart from all other animals. Over and over again, I find that myths, ancient intuited wisdom, embody fundamental truths.

Science arrives at these truths through a different process and presents the results of the process differently from story. We could say that science and story are like different means of locomotion, all taking you to the same place, but in different ways. We risk losing the opportunity for deeper understanding and even our own humanity if we embrace one and ignore or diminish the significance of the other.

Today, some mathematicians think the universe may be conscious. Is this what the ancients intuited when they spoke of Elohim (Biblical Hebrew translated “God” — or literally “gods”) — or any of the many other names used by spiritual seekers over the centuries to refer to an essential unity of all being?

The ancients also intuited that creation is a process that involves organization and creates greater complexity as it continues to unfold: “The elaborate universe we observe today – dazzling in its richness, diversity and complexity – didn’t spring into being ready-made. Rather, it emerged gradually, over billions of years, through a long succession of self-organising and self-complexifying processes.” In the biblical story, each stage of God’s process of creation involves separating or differentiating (הבדל). God separates night from day, dry land from water. As God separates and organizes, the world becomes increasingly complex and diverse.

But what about the biblical text’s assertion that creation occurred in six days with a seventh day for rest? Science tells us creation “emerged gradually, over billions of years.”

When we approach the text as a story, we recognize that creating in six days and resting on the seventh is a narrative technique. The number seven recurs throughout the biblical text. Stories are structured with seven narrative units, certain words appear seven times in a narrative sequence, holidays and life cycle events like circumcision are presented in seven-plus-one formulations. Seven days serves a narrative purpose. That becomes even more clear when we look at the deeper structure of the first creation story, Gen. 1:1-2:4a:

Day 1: Light, separated light from dark (Gen. 1:3-5)

Day 4: Two great lights, one dominates day, one night (Gen. 1:15-19

Day 2: Expanse, sky, separates waters above from waters below (Gen. 1:6-8)

Day 5: Birds, fish emerge from waters below – fish fill the seas, birds the sky (Gen. 1:20-23)

Day 3: Dry land, earth, emerges when waters are gathered into seas (Gen. 1:9-11)

Day 6: Land animals, including humans (Gen. 1:24-31)

Day 7: God rests and blesses the 7th day (Gen. 2:1-4a)

There is a lot that could be said here about creation including that it is clearly visualized as a process of organizing, separating, and increasing complexity. But the main point is the careful organization of the narrative itself, the story. Three environments created on Days 1-3. Those environments filled on Days 4-6. Then a day of rest to regenerate and appreciate the results of six days of creative activity.

I’ll leave the extended meaning of this to your own creative imagination. My point is that stories convey truth and meaning differently than science. As story, the biblical text conveys its meaning through literary devices like structure, carefully chosen vocabulary, imagery, allusion, simile.

And this brings me to anthropomorphisms in the Hebrew Bible. Anthropomorphisms describe non-human entities in human terms. They are like similes in that they compare one thing to another. Unlike similes, anthropomorphisms don’t explicitly announce that they are comparing one thing to another. They simply and directly assign human qualities to non-human entities.

Recognizing human qualities, qualities we ourselves possess, in “the other,” whoever that other may be, is what allows relationship. How can there be a relationship where there is absolutely no commonality? If a being is wholly other from us, or appears to us as wholly other, we cannot relate to that being.

The biblical story tells us again and again in a variety of ways that God is wholly other from God’s creation, that God is beyond our comprehension — but paradoxically that we can have a relationship with God. One of the ways this story affirms the latter is through anthropomorphisms.

The biblical story also uses anthropomorphisms to tell us that we are like our fellow creatures in significant ways. A snake that stands upright, strategizes, manipulates and speaks is so much more than “mere folklore,” to be dismissed. So is a talking donkey that “sees” better than a seer and has a sense of justice. These are stories bearing important truths, the truth of relationship.

Finally, the biblical story speaks of the land with anthropomorphisms. Acting as God’s agent, the land “vomits” out those who live on it if they fail to care for the vulnerable in society. It can be called to witness in a trial. It nurtures and it punishes. In this way, we are drawn into a relationship not only to God, not only to our fellow creatures, but to the land and air and water that offer habitats for us all, as Gen. 1:1-2:4a tells us.

We all know that God doesn’t literally and physically walk in the garden in the heat of the day. We also know that snakes don’t speak in Hebrew or any other human language and that land doesn’t “vomit” out those who live on it if they fail to care for the vulnerable in society. It doesn’t act as a witness in a trial. The biblical “Author,” whether it was God or a human being or a group of human beings knew those things as well as we do.

But the Hebrew Bible brings us an eternal truth, one that science is beginning to tell us through its own process: there is an essential unity behind the diversity of creation. Our beautiful diversity combined with our unity of being, our commonality, is what allows relationship, the kind of relationship that happens when you recognize some part of yourself in the other.

Anthropomorphisms are a shorthand way of recognizing commonality in the midst of a vast diversity of being. It is the combination of diversity and shared traits that makes a space in which human beings can be in a relationship with God, with nonhuman animals, with the heavens and the earth, with everything that is. Even in a profusion of diversity, there is the potential to glimpse ourselves in the other.

What a profound idea that is! Where might we be in our history on this planet if the primary objective of our lives, our reason for being, were to cultivate an awareness of our relationship to everything that is, to nurture it, and to serve those relationships lovingly.

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