The title is definitely confusing, but the concept is very simple. Why does God part the Red Sea before Moses with a strong "east wind" (Ex. 14:21), instead of perhaps directly with his hands the way he composes the writing on the wall in Daniel (Dan. 5:5)? Numerous miracles in the Bible are nothing more than circumstantial evidence by physical phenomena: what I call semi-Deism because it's not complete Deism where God creates the world and completely removes Himself from it.
Semi-deistic miracles alone would not pose much of a problem. These are still very convenient coincidences, true, but combined with the descriptions of direct miracles, that wouldn't matter. However, many other anthropomorphic features of God or presumed inspiration may suggest a naturalistic origin and development to a casual reading: in other words, details may come across as having a purely human origin implying the Bible and its stories are products of its time.
For example, the Mosaic Law has now been known for over a century and a half to have been modelled on the centuries-older Hammurabi Law. God is frequently called "El" in the Torah, which was a pre-Israelite Near Eastern deity. In Job 19:27, Job talks about longing to see God by literally saying, "my reins [kidneys] grow faint." Similarly in other verses like Psalm 73:21: "Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins." (KJV) This isn't just the KJV translation, that's the original language. It strikes one on a similar note to the Hippocratic medical theory where various organs are the origin of various emotions, though nothing medicinal like this or his humor theory is humored in the Bible as serious medicine.
So what's going on? I explore the above and many other examples and attempt to give an explanation that fits not only logically with these observations, but with a bigger picture on the whole.
I. Theory and Expression
A whole discipline in Semantic Philosophy is dedicated to symbols and their meaning - "Semiotics" - so it would be a little fruitless to try and prove or disprove the human possible ranges of expression. But it can't be denied that these expressions do exist because of that. We still talk about "sunsets", "heartaches", and "time flying" even though none of those are technically accurate. Rounding, estimates, and just plain generalization (calling peanuts "nuts" even though they're legumes, whatever that is) are acceptable, depending on the relevance.
Yet, to what degree or in what area should this be acceptable? When is it a mistake, no matter the intent of the author or intended audience? And when is it so unverifiable that it becomes unscientific to presume this explanation, making it nothing more than an excuse?
These questions are always subjective, and since not only are none of us mind-readers, but we're talking about texts written thousands of years ago, in a culture that could vary widely with a history that's not always known in every detail, there's a reason why a lot of the more specific questions in ancient history, such as who actually murdered Alexander the Great's father, can remain in nothing more than pure speculation.
Nevertheless, this topic specifically, is general enough and spans sufficient time to allow some kind of concrete judgment. So I will present some issues that I know would come up or have personally caught my attention, and aside from an explanation I will try to counter-balance them with clear, indisputable examples from where I'm coming on this topic.
Frequently an author can express a general, timeless theme, by using familiar, culture-dependent objects and concepts. For example, the advice not to count your chickens before they hatch is sound even in an era long after their theoretical extinction. Obviously an audience who never saw chickens would need a different example. This is why I've been told by missionaries to tropical islands whose inhabitants had never seen snow that they translate the parts of the Bible talking about cleansing someone from their sin and making them as "white as snow" into "white as seafoam".
Even beyond expressions, concepts such as God or a righteous leader depicted as a "good shepherd" come from the Ancient Near Eastern expression that existed in Mesopotamia millenia before the Israelites. But this concept is nothing ephemeral. Just as a legal precedent in law starts with logic and a foundation based on reasonable ("self-evident") human rights, so also truth is eternal.
This reasoning is nothing new. For example, John W. Flight writes:
It is clear, therefore, that the prophets of the seventh and
eighth centuries held the nomadic ideal. At a certain point in
their preaching, however, it seems that each perceived that the
nation had remained obdurate too long to permit the working-
out of this ideal in the exact way in which they had first
presented it. Consequently they introduced a new and sterner
note into their preaching, and predicted, not a reduction of
the land, but speedy destruction and banishment from the land.
Always, however, there remained hope of the ultimate saving
of a remnant.
This is how Paul can allow himself to interpret Israel in the Old Testament as referring to all believers - ethnically Jewish or not (Luke 3:8; Rom. 11:1-5), though he uses systematic theology to defend the logic (Rom. 11:5). Because in the end, technicality and legalism are not the true spirit of righteousness (1 Sam. 15:22; Rom. 11:6; 14:17) any more than the Pharisees' rules that only ended up (intentionally by them) creating the opposite (Mark 7:6-9).
Even with this change of emphasis, the essential element
in the nomadic ideal did not disappear. The prophets now saw
that the return to nomadic life was only incidental to the
fundamental message which they proclaimed. They had been
trained to think of the nomadic life of the fathers as the golden
age of Israel's history, and consequently their minds turned
naturally toward a return of that happy state as the only
possible hopeful explanation of the doom that seemed inevitable
on account of the nation's sin; but now they began to see
that Yahweh had other purposes, and accordingly, their con-
ception of the nomadic ideal became broader. It became so
broad indeed that it seems almost arbitrary to persist in calling
it a "nomadic" ideal. The essential element, however, in the
prophets' later hope was identical with the hope which they
had previously embodied under the form of the nomadic ideal,
i. e., that Israel would be brought back to the simple and
uncorrupted faith of the fathers; only now they saw the deeper
meaning of their hope and could still cling to it though they
were certain of the exile and of the destruction of the holy
city and the temple. In this sense we may say that the nomadic
ideal was never lost by the prophets.
It was a long process through which the nomadic ideal
passed from its first narrow form in the practice of the Rechabites
to its purification and transformation by the prophets!
But the highest reaches of this ideal were not apprehended
even by the prophets. It remained for Jesus to spiritualize it
completely. When He came "in the fulness of time", His mission
was to discover for men the deep underlying spiritual realities
of life, to relate them to the Father who is the giver of life
and all its blessings, and to win the loyalty of men to eternal
values, that they might not lose themselves amid the allurements
of a world that is dead to higher truths. He raised the nomadic
ideal to its sublimest heights by pointing men to the glorious
simplicities of faith and love. [John W. Flight (1923). "The Nomadic Idea and Ideal in the Old Testament" Journal of Biblical Literature 42.3/4, pp.222-3]"
And this "intent behind the technicality," like works which are a necessary result since that's how we express ourselves (James 2:18), but are themselves useless (since God created them so how can they do anything for Him? And how can they undo a sin?), is why the biblical authors sometimes allow themselves a freer range of expression, especially in interpreting the older Scriptures. For example, Jeremiah 7:22 flatly states that sacrifice wasn't required in the Exodus, which he clearly acknowledges elsewhere as a reality (John W. Flight). The same point is made in Psalm 50:8-23). Paul interprets the promise to Abraham's "seed" (singular) in Genesis 15 as if to mean Jesus, even though he's well aware that the intent is the Israelites where a plural would be just as unnecessary as in English, and grammatically improper in Hebrew (which as a trained Pharisee he would've known). Matthew goes even further and interprets Zechariah 9:9 as if Jesus sat on two donkeys, but honestly that's just Matthew's peculiarity (other examples include his theological interpretation of the name "Akeldama" in Matt. 27).
When Jesus debates the Sadducees in Mark 12:18ff he uses a somewhat deniable argument against their theological denial of the afterlife, by noting that God identified Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Mark 12:26). To us this sounds extremely unconvincing because I could say the same thing about a cartoon character. However, the Sadducees firmly accepted the existence of God and the inspiration of the Torah, and the ancient pagan theology of Mesopotamia considered the life of a deity to be sustained by sacrifice (food) and an oblation of blood soaked in the ground (drink), without which the deity would die. Even the Gauls had this belief which was one reason Vercingetorix and his men sacrificed their women and children when besieged by Caesar - because otherwise there would be no one left to feed their gods, whereas they could get new wives and children.
Hence, God is identified by different Patriarchs under different epithets as was the custom of the time (Shield of Abraham (Gen. 15:1), Fear of Isaac (Gen. 31:42), Mighty One of Jacob (Gen. 49:24) [E.A. Leslie, Old Testament Religion in the Light of its Canaanite Background (1936), p.68]). It's absurd to go as far as Leslie and maintain these were different deities because aside from the fact these are clearly descriptive titles, they would have had names. These weaknesses were unascribed to God (Psalm 50:12-14). He is not a legalist: the Passover in Hezekiah's day can be celebrated a month later due to delays (2 Chron. 30:2-3) - the very "inconsistencies" Jesus points out to the Pharisees and their pedantic dogmatism (Matt. 12:5), "straining at gnats while swallowing camels". God's jealousy is an expression of His desire for men, especially the Israelites, to follow His righteous statues (Deut. 32:16; Ezekiel 16:38 and v.42 God turning his jealousy away = ending His righteous anger and judgment), because otherwise neither Moses nor Jesus had a problem with competition (Num. 11:26-29; Mark 9:38-40); hence righteous pagans are mentioned throughout (Melchizedek; Naaman allowed to help his (pagan) lord worship at the temple of Rimmon (2 Ki 5:18-19); Acts 17 where Paul calls the pagan philosophers very religious men (because they were genuinely concerned about philosophical truths all day)). He was more powerful than anything else (Deut. 32:12) to the point where He symbolically chose the Israelites, fewest of people on Earth. He could be forgotten but that did not physically affect Him (Ex. 3:6; Rom. 1:23), has power over all (1 Ki 20:28), even though He chooses not to always exercise it.
For example, in Judges 1:19 Judah is stopped by Canaanite iron chariots, even though, like in other episodes, this was probably due to their personal sins (cf. also Joshua 15:63). Like Akeldama's different origin interpreted theologically by Matt. 27:8, historically by Acts 1:19. Another example is Jehoshaphat's rescue by God after his prayer even though it was by the enemy soldiers recognizing he wasn't their target - 2 Chron. 18:31f. God is also completely fine physically after His disappearance from Israel between Joseph and Moses (between Abraham and Moses really, as He doesn't appear directly to anyone inbetween). Similarly Adam and Eve alone with the serpent in Eden, or when God leaves Israel at various times (Exile). His disappearance may seem a foregone conclusion (2 Peter 3:8-9), but His return has consequences (missing Passovers since Joshua paid for by the 70 years of Exile, even though David and others (Hezekiah, Josiah) were righteous). Also see Judges 6:12-13 where clearly there were no miracles in Israel for centuries after Moses and Joshua. John 9:32 and the reason why not many miracles sometimes Matt. 12:40; Mark 6:5-6//Luke 4:24-27. Yet sacrifices were so integral in the ancient mindset that God mandated rules for them. Hence why the Tyrian temple could serve as a model for God's house when Solomon built it, with no objection. So his origin from "Seir" means nothing more than the fact that He's called El, or the fact that Moses can see His back (but not face?), yet no one can pronounce an angel's name (Judges 13:5).
This can help with some confusing and seemingly contradictory courses of action. For example, while Jehu is instructed and supported by Elisha in wiping out the Israelite House of Judah (1 Ki 16:1ff; 19:16-17), elsewhere his actions are condemned (Hosea 1:4). Similarly, the Assyrians and Babylonians are led by God, yet condemned for their actions. The reason is the same: like in Job, God allows the wicked to carry out their plans for their own reasons when it suits His purposes. This is why 2 Samuel 24 can talk about God stirring David to do the census, while 1 Chron. 21 can say it was "Satan" as if it's another name for the same. In this context, exposing a sin rather than placating the sinner is the only way to justice: you don't surround a bike thief with a fence to prevent him from stealing, you put an unchained bicycle and catch him in the act.
Jehu either went too far, or more likely, did it for his own purposes and didn't act as a righteous ruler after. Perhaps unnecessary cruelty was involved, which would explain why the Psalmist is more than willing to exclaim that those who dash the Babylonian babies' heads against rocks should be happy (Psalm 137:9) - an issue under the Problem of Evil discussed elsewhere, but also probably a metaphor for the Lex Talionis because that's what the Babylonians did to them, and it always pains the parent much more than the child (2 Sam. 12:18).
Some other examples that come to mind are the command to not blaspheme: neither anyone knows God's name, nor do they have power over Him with it. But the disrespect is like knowing anything personal about someone and misusing it: if you should feel bad that you betrayed a friend's confidence, how much more God's? Of course, this is more of a symbolic-oriented command, one for discipline (it's not exactly necessary for survival to use God's name in vain, though it may seem like it for some!).
Perhaps a better example is the Old Testament requirements for sacrifice: these were all modeled based on what the Israelites already understood. Nothing wrong with that: Solomon was free to model the Temple based on the one in Tyre. It's just a building, it's just a rite. The significance comes in how this is used, because intent is real. Clearly God does not need sacrificies (Psalm 50:4), yet demands them - the reason is exactly what's been discussed: symbol of a person's inner devotion, expressed outwardly in a physical act. In a way, it's like the debate of faith vs works: faith vs sacrifices: they weren't necessary, but an ancient righteous man would've liked to perform them purely because of his culture. And God had no problem, so He instituted some rules for them. These were of course intended to be followed literally, but that doesn't mean the legalism should replace the inner attitude, instead of being, again like the criteria against blasphemy, an expression of restraint by an individual who understood. Like a dress code when going to court - you can't wear shorts or sandals as if the law is a joke (even traffic law).
This explains why some Old Testament verses talk about the Temple as God's dwelling, yet others deride the idea that God would actually inhabit something not only composed of what He Himself created (stone, wood, etc), but man-made (2 Chron. 2:6)! As if God depended on man, or could owe Him anything, even something He requested for Himself.
II. Examples of "Acceptable" Anthropomorphism
Another confusing title, but what this means is details of religion that either necessitate or at least understandably employ human-like features for things with a divine source. For example, the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek - all of which are ultimately man-made languages. But no one will think this implies that the Bible must therefore be man-made: clearly its authors thought and spoke those languages and that's how God communicated information through them.
The question of "why" becomes irrelevant, because "why not" Hebrew, or Aramaic, or Greek - and how else would God communicate? Deeper philosophical questions such as, e.g., "Why can't God implant us all with indisputable knowledge/instinct of His existence, etc?" legitimate as they are, are dealt with elsewhere (see Modern Miracles). This article aims to explain aspects biblical history that may seem to be the product of natural as opposed to divine religion.
With that understood, why should God reinvent the wheel and not make the Mosaic Law similar to Hammurabi's, which had been famous and widespread in one form or another for centuries after the eponymous king who made it? If I build the perfect city why can't I use traffic lights where green = "Go" and red = "Stop"? It's pure practicality, and reminds one of similar pointless objections that Matthew and Luke couldn't use Mark for much of their material, much like every historian in the world has done, and is expected to do with reliable sources (e.g. Froissart with Jean Lebel, changing Jean's first person singular ("I") to third person plural ("they")). Obviously all of this works only if there is real power behind it. And if God weren't omnipotent, omniscient, and just, this would be either impossible or untrue in any relevant or perhaps fair way.
Here are two big examples of anthropomorphism, that illustrate the point I try to make above.
- El - Although neither God's name, nor that of the angels (Judges 13:5), nor even the believers' (Revelation 2:17) can be known or pronounced by any sound on Earth, God is colloquially called "El" in the first books. And in spite of this and the metaphorical name in Exodus 3:14-15, God still insists that blasphemy is possible exactly because He's working within a system where intent and not technicality matter
- God shows His back - in Exodus 33:23 God tells Moses that he can see His back, but not His face, because Moses would die. The theme of death upon sight is a common, recurrent fear of the Israelites apparently from even before Moses' day for them to know and believe it (Exodus 20:19), as well as the incidents with the Ark of the Covenant. It's not like God is powerless to not show His face. So this mixture of legalism (Moses can't see God's face) and metaphor (God has a back on Earth) may seem strange. But given the above point of blasphemy even though it's technically not God's name, we again see how God is working within a system where technicality frequently supercedes intent with respect to physical results (e.g. I didn't intend to fail that test, but despite studying hard I did). This is seen from the fact that when the Philistines stole the Ark, they didn't die when looking in it - they even placed things inside it that represented the sympathetic magic in Philistine religion! Yet Uzziah died when he instinctively touched the Ark as it was about to fall while going uphill! So we see that the Problem of Evil is merely a technicality, whereas salvation isn't, and Moses is most likely not viewing God's actual back anymore than he ever said His actual name.
Paul comes tantalizingly close to discussing this event when he mentions the radiance from Moses' veil after the encounter (2 Cor. 13:13-19). But he only develops his pesher in that the veil represented the undisclosed nature of the Old Covenant compared to the New. Yet he's aware of the story and still can call God invisible (Rom. 1:20), so clearly he also did not believe God's physical body was hidden in some cave here on Earth (esp. c.f. Isaiah 66:1-2; Acts 7:49-51; Acts 17:24).
IV. Some counter-examples
Here are some very impressive (at least to me) theological parts of the Bible. I don't hold these as proof of any kind of inspiration, because I always remember Xenophanes of Colophon's systematic theological observations when comparing Greek gods to Thracian ones. Certainly there were smart and educated men like him in Israel at some point. But I still find these pieces very impressive, and sometimes they're not isolated but it's a theme that runs unchallenged throughout (Jer7-22/Ps50; )
It's easy to confuse this as a list of unique and convincing of Israelite religion's divine origin points. The main difference between that and this list is that these points reveal the above are euphemisms where God worked within a system. Some repetition of points made in Section I is inevitable.
- No legalism - Many examples of the seemingly legalistic nature of the Old Covenant can be shown. Jesus himself notes a few examples, such as feeding your cattle (Luke 13:15; 14:5), David eating holy bread (Mark 2:25-6), and circumcision on the Sabbath (John 7:23). These are, however, debatable. After all, David (and Ahimelech who gave him the bread) could've been wrong, and it's debatable that feeding your cattle or circumcision violates the no work rule of the Sabbath.
However, when Jeremiah 7:22 says that God didn't ask for sacrifice in the desert in the days of Moses, he's clearly trying to imply that the Covenant was not meant to be an indiscriminate law with blinders like gravity. Similarly the infamous text Jesus cites against the Pharisees - "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" - Hosea 6:6: "...and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." The same idea is found in 1 Samuel 15:22:
"Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams."
- No Monolatry/Henotheism - Idols are acknowledged only as references, not as actual entities. Yet in Exodus, Moses and Aaron battle Egyptian priests who also use the supernatural. This is elucidated in Job and how God permits Satan to use his power. Hence, the subtle jab at the Syrian gods who were supposed to be "gods of the plain" vs the Israelite "hill deity", yet they still lose (1 Kings 20:23). Also, Elijah mocks Baal's prophets when they couldn't perform the sacrifice, implying their gods didn't exist (1 Kings 18:27). Other early references are the universal prayer of Solomon: although he says there's "no god like Yahweh in heaven or earth" (1 Kings 8:23), he clearly acknowledges that God is Lord everywhere, not just Israel (1 Kings 8:43, 60). Similarly, Paul refers to Satan as "the god of this age" - 2 Cor. 4:4 - though this is merely an expression. Malachi 1:11 is another example, but this is a later prophet.
Another example is God's permission in 2 Chron. 30:2ff. for the Passover to be celebrated on the second month in Hezekiah's day. Similarly, the punishment for working on the Sabbath was meted out to the generation of the 6th century BC, even though this was something that went on for centuries before. These types of "sins/blessings of the fathers" (e.g. Achan's sin) are clearly expressions as opposed to strict justice, because for example Eli's male descendants were cursed for all time, making it part of the Problem of Evil, as opposed to any direct cause and effect like in Moses' Law. Similarly, the exclusion of eunuchs (whether intentional or not) and Moabites from the Assembly of the Lord (likely some form of gathering of tribal leaders with an executive function? you wouldn't want Moabites there in the early days), yet David's ancestor, Ruth, is a Moabitess.
V. Wider Implications
Whether it is God's personality, or simply the way He chooses to expose unrighteousness, He is very fond of metaphorics, both with words and actions. To the point where He chooses one man (Abraham) to make Him a holy nation. This wasn't a particularly Ancient Mesopotamian theme, this was simply the God of the Israelites.
Whatever one's personal preference for success, be it direct like acing a school test, or talent, or luck, it cannot be denied that the most poignant way to highlight an error is by letting it collapse on itself. So when Socrates humors a flawed argument by running with it, he exposes its weaknesses by continually asking questions and letting his dialogue partner draw his own conclusions that lead him to a contradiction.
Similarly, when God allows the wicked to think their ideas are working and are clear from danger (2 Thess. 2:11-12), He does nothing except to expose their true nature and like Nathan's trick on David (2 Sam. 12:1ff), allow them to condemn themselves. For this reason, miracles are not so much a "giveaway" that God is watching, as they are ineffective (Luke 16): a person's true choice should have no effective influence (1 Cor. 10:13). Hence why the crowd with earthly desires leaves Jesus (John 6), and there's no point in trying to convince them: miracles or otherwise. It's like insisting for a guest to stay: if they made up their mind to leave, you're just embarrassing yourself. Factoring in God's metaphorical nature, we can understand Jesus' reluctance and downright inability to perform miracles (Mark 6:1-6; Matt. 12:40; no pearls before swine). In that sense, the Problem of Evil is nothing more than a subset of what we all deserve, but don't get immediately.
And with all this theology and God's symbolism, He works within a system, one that exists already from man's own invention, be it language, cultic expression, legal customs, national culture. God sets up Earthly laws, yes, but these are mainly legalistic precepts that either match the understanding of the people, or are in some ways "legalism fighting legalism": like a law that allows right turns on a red light. And in the case of the Mosaic Law, the contradictions become irrelevant, which is why the peshers and midrash of the New Testament, e.g. Matthew citing various prophecies, are taken only as the meaning and not the historical situation of the Old Testament. Which is why Hebrews 10:1-4 says the Law foreshadowed Christ.
Moses sees God's back - clearly connected with instruction and that was his proof: so it was a cultural legalism, mixed with the need for technical proof, for the intent; just as God's jealousy is usually connected with the strongest point in the religion - His name vs the images of idols and their detestable practices.
The whole idea here is that legalism is used bankruptly to show the bankruptcy of legalism". Ultimately this is done due to God's metaphorical nature, giving rise to the world in the first place rather than casting out the wicked like Satan and the demons.