The Meanings of the Anthropomorphisms Applied to God

As noted in our first installment on Moreh Nevuchim, there are copious terms that can be understood in more than one sense and we must be careful in understanding the sense intended when these words are applied to God. One of the examples that we use there is:

The Hebrew noun ayin can mean the physical organ we call an eye, but it can also refer to one’s attention. [I, 44] An example of this occurs in Jeremiah 39:12. The verse says “take him and place your eyes on him….” Obviously, Nebuchadnezzar was not instructing the captain of his guards to pluck out his own eyes and to place them on Jeremiah. He was telling him to watch Jeremiah and “place your eyes” is a metaphor for “pay attention.” … In these and similar verses, body parts and the actions attributed to them are used metaphorically even when speaking of humans. It is this secondary, metaphorical use of such words that is always intended when speaking of God. So, when the Torah says, “the eyes of God are always upon it” (Deuteronomy 11:12), it doesn’t mean that God has eyes, just that He is paying attention.

Here, we share further examples. It should be noted that the Rambam explains terms beyond those we are including here; he also provides additional shades of meaning for some of the terms that are included. While not exhaustive, we feel that this representative sample is more than sufficient to illustrate the Rambam’s methodology in this matter:

* There are several words in Hebrew meaning to see. These include raah, hibit, and chazah. The primary meaning of these is to perceive with the sense of vision as in, “He looked and saw a well” (Genesis 29:2). But these words can also refer to perceiving something intellectually, as in “My heart has seen much wisdom and knowledge” (Koheles 1:16). It is this sense that is to be understood when these words are applied to God, as in “They saw the God of Israel” (Exodus 24:10) and “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10). [I, 4]

* Makom can mean a literal, physical place, but it can also mean a position. When one says that a person occupies his ancestors’ place, it is this second, figurative sense that is meant: the person in question occupies their previously-achieved level. This second, figurative sense must be understood when applied to God, as in “Blessed be the glory of God from His place.” God does not occupy a literal, physical space but He does hold an exalted position. [I, 8]

* Kisei means a seat; in Scripture, more specifically, a throne. But the word also refers to the rank and authority of the one who occupies it, i.e., the king. If you were told, “These orders come directly from the throne,” you would understand that it refers to the king’s position, not his chair. This is the sense that must be understood when referring to God, as in “A glorious throne on high…” (Jeremiah 17:12). The referent is God’s own inherent greatness. [I, 9]

* Alah means to go up and yarad means to go down; these commonly mean physically, in space. But these words can also be used in a figurative sense, meaning to ascend or descend in prestige or station, such as in “The stranger among you shall rise very high above you and you shall be brought down low” (Deuteronomy 28:43). It is also employed figuratively in the common Talmudic dictum that we should always “go up in matters of holiness and not go down.” Since mankind occupies a lowly station, and God is most exalted, when He speaks to a human prophetically, the Torah says that God descended; when the vision ends, it says that God ascended. Similar uses occur when God punishes a nation (as in Genesis 11:7). This is the understanding of these words when applied to God. [I, 10]

* Yashav means to be seated, as in “Eli the priest sat upon a chair” (I Samuel 1:9). Since a person is relatively stationary when seated, the word also refers to things that are permanently fixed, such as that Jerusalem “will rise and sit in her place” (Zechariah 14:10). By definition, nothing is more permanent than God. Therefore, this is how the word must be understood when applied to Him, in such verses as “He Who sits in the Heavens” (Psalms 2:4). [I, 11]

* Amad means to stand. It typically means in the physical sense, as in “When he stood before Pharaoh” (Genesis 41:46). But it also means to cease what one had been doing, as in “they stood and answered no more” (Job 32:16) and “she ceased bearing children” (Genesis 29:35). Finally, it means that something endures, as in “Then you shall be able to endure” (Exodus 18:23) and “His righteousness endures forever” (Psalms 111:3). (This is also the case in English, as in “I can’t stand it.”) This latter sense is how the verb is meant when applied to God Himself. [I, 13]

* Natzav also means to stand, as in “They came out and stood” (Numbers 16:27). But the word is also used to refer to something’s ability to endure, as in “Your word is established in Heaven” (Psalms 119:89). This is the sense that is meant when referring to God. For example, regarding Yaakov’s vision of a Heavenly ladder, we are told that “God stood over it” (Genesis 28:13), which the Rambam tells us refers to God’s permanence. [I, 15]

* Tzur means a rock, as in Exodus 17:6, “You shall strike the rock.” But it can also refer to the quarry from which rocks originate, as in Isaiah 51:1, “Look to the quarry from which you were cut, to the hole of the pit from which you were dug.” From this meaning we derive the figurative sense of tzur as something’s point of origin. This meaning of tzur becomes clear from that verse in Isaiah, as the chapter continues, “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (51:2). This is the sense intended when applied to God, Who is the ultimate source of everything in the universe as in such verses as Deuteronomy 32:4, “He is the Rock, His work is perfect,” [I, 16]

* In the physical sense, malei means that one thing enters another and fills it up, as in “She filled her pitcher” (Genesis 24:16). It also refers to the completion of a period of time, as in “When her time for delivery was fulfilled” (Genesis 25:24). One more meaning is that something has achieved the highest degree of excellence, as in “Full with the blessing of Hashem” (Deuteronomy 33:23). This is the meaning of the word in such verses as “The whole world is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:4) and “The glory of God filled the Tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34) because, as we have said, God does not occupy physical space. [I, 19]

* The word ram means that something is elevated, either physically (in space) or figuratively (in prestige or honor). The former is seen in such verses as “The ark was lifted up above the earth” (Genesis 7:17); the latter in verses like “I have exalted one chosen from among the people” (Psalms 89:20). This latter meaning is the one used when the word is applied to God, as in Psalms 57:12, “Be exalted, Hashem, above the Heavens,” and Psalms 94:2, “Raise Yourself up, Judge of the Earth.” [I, 20]

* The word avar means that one thing passes another in space, as in “Pass before the people” (Exodus 17:5). It can also refer to something incorporeal, as in “They caused a sound to pass through the camp” (Exodus 36:6). It is also used to refer to God revealing Himself prophetically, as in “Behold, a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passed between the pieces” (Genesis 25:17 – referring to Abraham’s prophetic vision) and “I will pass through the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12), meaning that God would reveal Himself. [I, 21]

* Ba means to come; it refers to a person arriving at his destination or drawing near as in “Your brother came with subtlety” (Genesis 27:35). It also means to enter a place, as in “When Joseph came into the house” (Genesis 43:26). Figuratively, the word can apply to an event, as in “When your words come to pass” (Judges 13:17), and even to the absence of things, as in “evil came” and “darkness came” (both in Job 30:26). (In section 32, we explain how darkness is the absence of light and evil is the absence of good, rather than being things in their own rights.) Since the word ba can apply to incorporeal things as well as concepts, this is how we mean it when it is used to refer to God. Specifically, when we say that God comes, it actually refers to His word (as in Zechariah 14:5, “Hashem, my God, will come”) or His Divine presence (as in Exodus 19:9, “I come to you in a thick cloud”). [I, 22]

* Yatza is the opposite of ba, and it means for an object to go out from its location to another place, as in “When they had gone out from the city” (Genesis 44:4). Figuratively, it refers to the appearance of incorporeal things, as in “The word went out of the king’s mouth” (Esther 7:8) and “For out of Zion the Torah will go forth” (Isaiah 2:3). This is the sense of yatza when applied to God. For example, “Behold Hashem comes out of His place” (Isaiah 26:21) means that the word of God – which until now has been withheld – has become actualized in the world. [I, 23]

* The word halach means to perambulate (to walk or to travel), as in “Jacob went on his way” (Genesis 32:1). It can also refer to non-solid items, such as water (Genesis 8:5) and fire (Exodus 9:23). The word can likewise apply to things that are completely incorporeal, as in “The voice of Hashem, God, traveling in the garden” (Genesis 3:8). (In this verse, it is the voice that was traveling through the garden, not God Himself.) When applied to God, the verb must be understood in the same sense as its use for incorporeal things, i.e., the appearance or removal of something non-physical, such as God’s protection. We see this in such verses as “God’s anger was kindled against them and He went” (Numbers 12:9). [I, 24]

* The word shachan means to dwell, as in “He dwelled in the plains of Mamre” (Genesis 14:13). To dwell means to remain in one place for a long time, so the word applies figuratively to things that remain fixed, even if they are not alive and the things upon which they remain are not places, as in “Let a cloud dwell upon it” (Job 3:5). A cloud is not alive and “it” in that verse refers to the day, which is not a physical location but a period of time. This latter, figurative sense is how the word is applied to God in such verses as “I will dwell among the children of Israel” (Exodus 29:45). It means to say that God’s presence or His providence manifested continuously in some place or on some object. [I, 25]

* Regel means a leg or a foot. Figuratively, it means a thing that follows another thing, as in “All the people who follow you” (Exodus 11:8 – literally, who are at your feet). Finally, it means a cause, as in “God has blessed you because of me” (Genesis 30:30) and “Because of the cattle that go before me and because of the children” (Genesis 33:14). Following this meaning of the word, the verse that reads “His feet shall stand that day upon the Mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:4) is understood as “The things caused by Him that day….” In such verses as “There was under His feet…” (Exodus 24:10), the Rambam understands it to mean “under that of which He is the cause.” [I, 28]

* The verb achal means to eat, as in food. This process results in two outcomes: (1) the thing being eaten is destroyed; and (2) the thing doing the eating is strengthened and sustained. The first consequence leads to achal being used to mean "destroy" as in "A land that destroys its inhabitants" (Numbers 13:32) and "You shall be destroyed by the sword" (Isaiah 1:6). The second consequence of eating leads to achal metaphorically meaning to acquire wisdom, as in such verses as "Come, buy and eat" (Isaiah 40:1) and "My son, eat honey because it is good..." (Proverbs 24:13). In fact, the Sages tell us that every instance of eating and drinking in the Book of Proverbs is a metaphor for wisdom. This metaphor is so widespread that famine and drought are frequently used as metaphors for an absence of wisdom. This is explicit in Amos 8:11, "Behold, days are coming, says Hashem, when I will send a famine in the land - not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of God." [I, 30]

* The word panim means a face, as in "Why are your faces so sad?" (Genesis 30:7). It also means anger, as in "Her anger was gone" (I Samuel 1:18). When applied to God, it often has the meaning of anger, as in "Then I will set My anger" (Leviticus 20:3). Panim can also mean "in the presence of," as in Leviticus 10:3, "In the presence of the nation I shall be glorified." This is its meaning in "God spoke with Moses face to face" (Exodus 33:11). God spoke to other prophets through intermediate means, like dreams and visions; it was only to Moshe that He spoke "in person." Nevertheless the nature of God's being cannot be understood, as He told Moshe, "My 'face' cannot be seen" (Exodus 33:23). [I, 37]

* The word achor can be a noun meaning the back of something as in "The back of the Tabernacle" (Exodus 26:12). It can also be a preposition (or a subordinating conjunction, but let's not go there) meaning after, as in "After these things..." (Genesis 15:1). It is inherent that achor refers to one thing following another, not only physically or chronologically, but morally. We see this in such verses as "You shall walk after Hashem, your God" (Deuteronomy 13:5). When God tells Moshe, "You shall see My back" (Exodus 33:20), it means "you will be able to understand the things that follow Me," i.e., the things that are the result of God's will. [I, 38]

* Lev means a heart, specifically the organ that pumps blood. Since the heart is in the center of the body, the word lev also comes to mean the middle of something, as in "the middle of the fire" (Exodus 3:2). The word can also refer to one's thoughts or plans as in "Do not seek after your own heart" (Numbers 15:39) and "The rest of Israel were of one heart to make David king" (I Chronicles 15:38). Finally, the word lev can mean one's will or his understanding. These are the senses in which the word is applied to God, as seen in such verses as I Samuel 2:35 ("That shall do according to My heart," meaning God's will) and, perhaps, Genesis 8:21 ("God said in His heart, 'I will never again curse the Earth because of man'"). (Surprisingly, the Rambam does not give an example of lev referring to God's understanding; he merely says that such usage is common. Accordingly, the selection of Genesis 8:21 as an example is my own, for good or bad.) [I, 39]

* The word ruach likewise has multiple meanings. It can mean air, which is how the Rambam understands it in Genesis 1:2, "the air of God moved...." It means wind, as in "the east wind brought the locusts" (Exodus 10:13). It means breath, as in "breath of life" (Genesis 7:15). Ruach also means the part of a person that remains after death, i.e., the spirit, as in "the spirit will return to God, Who gave it" (Koheles 12:7). Still another meaning is the Divine inspiration of prophecy, as in "The spirit of God spoke to me" (II Samuel 23:2). Finally, ruach can mean one's intention, as in "the spirit of Egypt will fail" (Isaiah 19:3), which means that their plans will be disrupted. When referring to God, the word frequently has this last meaning, though occurrences must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. [I, 40]

* The word nefesh likewise means the life-force of living things, as in “a living soul” (Genesis 1:30), but it also refers to blood as in “do not eat the nefesh (meaning blood) with the meat” (Deuteronomy 12:23). It can also refer to reason, the trait that is unique to man, as in “As Hashem lives, Who made us this nefesh” (Jeremiah 38:16). Nefesh also refers to the part of a person that remains after death, as in I Samuel 25:29, “The soul of my master will be bound in the bundle of life.” Finally, it means the will, as in “If it is your will that I bury my dead” (Genesis 23:8). This is the sense the word has when applied to God, as in “Then His will to trouble Israel ceased (Judges 10:16). [I, 41]

* Chai (life) means a sentient being, as in Genesis 9:3, “every moving thing that lives,” and it also refers to a return to health, as in Isaiah 38:9, “he recovered from his illness.” Similarly, maves (death) can mean to be severely ill, as in “his heart died within him and he became still as stone” (I Samuel 25:37). Chai is also used metaphorically in the sense of acquiring wisdom, as per Proverbs 3:22 (“they will be life to the soul”), 4:22 (“they are life to those who find them”), and many others. According to this metaphor, following the truth is life and following corruption is death, as in Deuteronomy 30:15, “I have set before you this day life and goodness, and death and evil.” [I, 43]

* Ayin, meaning an eye but also one’s attention, is detailed in the introduction to this appendix. [I, 44]

* Shema means to hear as in “Let it not be heard from your mouth” (Exodus 23:13). It also means to obey as in “They did not listen to Moshe” (Exodus 6:9). Examples of both of these usages are abundant. Shema also means to know or to comprehend something, as in “A nation whose language you will not understand” (Deuteronomy 28:49). This is the word’s meaning when applied to God, as in “God heard it” (Numbers 11:1). God does not have ears and does not hear as we do, through the vibration of sound waves; when applied to Him, “hear” can only mean to perceive and to understand. It also means for God to respond to the prayers of man as in “I will hear his cry” (Exodus 22:23) and “When you make many prayers, I will not hear” (Jeremiah 7:16). Instances of this use are likewise common. [I, 45]

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