(Gk. anthropos [ἄνθρωπος] [human] + morphe [μορφή] [form]). Assignment of human attributes to nonhuman things. Biblical anthropomorphisms are used primarily in reference to God, who is neither visible (John 1:18) nor human (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29). They are also used to assign human characteristics to angels (Gen 16:7; 18:1-19:1), Satan (1 Chron 21:1; Luke 13:16), and demons (Luke 8:32). Evil is also personified, depicted as slaying (Psalm 34:21) and pursuing (Pr 13:21). Infrequently, human qualities are attributed to animals (Nu 22:28-30) or vegetation (Jud 9:7-15).
The use of human terminology to talk about God is necessary when we, in our limitations, wish to express truths about the Deity who by his very nature cannot be described or known. From biblical times to the present, people have felt compelled to explain what God is like, and no expressions other than human terms are able to convey any semblance of meaning to the indescribable. Thus, in Genesis alone God creates (1:1), moves (1:2), speaks (1:3), sees (1:4), divides (1:4), places (1:17), blesses (1:22), plants (2:8), walks (3:8), shuts (7:16), smells (8:21), descends (11:5), scatters (11:8), hears (21:17), tests (22:1), and judges (30:6).
Perhaps the most profound anthropomorphism is the depiction of God establishing a covenant, for the making of covenants is a very human activity. God enters into an agreement (covenant) with Israel at Sinai (Exod 19:5-6), an outgrowth of an earlier covenant he had made with Abraham (Gen 17:1-18). Later, this agreement is transformed into a new covenant through Jesus Christ (Matt 26:26-29). Theologically, the legal compact initiated by God becomes the instrument through which he established an intimate and personal relationship with the people, both collectively and individually. Without anthropomorphic expressions, this theological reality would remain virtually inexplicable.
Anthropomorphisms also attribute human form and shape to God. God redeems Israel from Egyptian bondage with an outstretched arm (Exod 6:6). Moses and his companions see God, and they eat and drink with him (Exod 24:10-11). Other texts refer to the back, face, mouth, lips, ears, eyes, hand, and finger of God. The expression, "the Lord's anger burned" (Exod 4:14) is interesting. A literal translation of the Hebrew is "the nose of the Lord burned."
Indirect anthropomorphic expressions also appear, such as the sword and arrows of the Lord and the throne and footstool of God.
Akin to anthropomorphisms are anthropopathisms (Gk. anthropos [ἄνθρωπος] + pathos [πάθος] [passion]), used to refer to God's emotions. God is a jealous God (Exod 20:5) who hates (Am 5:21) and becomes angry (Jer 7:20), but he also loves (Exod 20:6) and is pleased (Deu 28:63).
Anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms are figures of speech that transmit theological truths about God to humankind. Only when taken literally are they misconstrued. Taken as metaphorical expressions, they provide by analogy a conceptual framework by which the God who is beyond our comprehension becomes a persona person whom we can love. In the New Testament the analogy becomes reality in the mystery of the incarnation (John 1:1-18).
Keith N. Schoville
Bibliography. J. Barr, HBD, p. 32; E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible; M. Eliade, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 1; W. E. Miles, ed., Mercer Dictionary of the Bible.