What Did Yahweh Look Like? by Izaak J. de Hulster

For many, the question of how Yahweh (God) might have looked is irrelevant. In Deut 4:12, Yahweh’s physical appearance is left unspecified: “Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (italics added). The verse implies that Yahweh has an unseen form or has no appearance at all.

Historians of religion, however, find abundant evidence that Yahweh was commonly imagined using attributes of other ancient Near Eastern gods, especially weather and solar deities. In the tradition of the exodus, for example, Yahweh is depicted as both a storm god and a warrior (see Exod 15)—features that are also present in the Egyptian Baal-Seth. Traditions about Yahweh since the early monarchy have parallels in ancient Near Eastern solar deities and deities associated with vegetation (see Mal 3:10, Ps 72). Moreover, the Bible provides a rich spectrum of metaphors for God (e.g., father, lover). Although these images are not meant to provide information about God’s actual appearance, they clearly show that God was understood anthropomorphically.

Archaeological sources also seem to provide visual depictions of Yahweh. One image and inscription from Kuntillet Ajrud may depict Yahweh with a female companion (“his Asherah”). A small statue representing a chair with a bigger and smaller seat may also be explained in this way—a seat each for the divine pair. One finds a similar combination of a bigger and a smaller upright stones in two masseboth (stone pillars) in Arad, albeit without any specific image. Finally, an Achaemenid period coin inscribed with the word Yehud depicts a supreme deity as a seated figure with a wing, a wheel, and a falcon ready to fly. This was possibly intended, and probably understood, as a reference to Yahweh. It is important to note that while the individuals who used these images may have accepted them as appropriate visual depictions of Yahweh, other segments of society would have held different opinions.

It is possible, as many scholars have argued, that the Jerusalem temple held a statue of Yahweh. Nothing is known about its possible appearance, however, and this statue would possibly have been inaccessible to most people in the Holy of Holies. The temple itself may have become one of the symbols of God’s presence, especially after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 B.C.E. (see, for example, Ezek 40-42).

In the centuries around the exile (roughly the 7th to 4th centuries BCE), there was a general trend in the Near East toward abstract or symbolic representations of the divine: for example, fire (see Gen 15:17, Exod 3), light (see Exod 25, Exod 37), and an empty throne (compare 1Sam 4:4, Isa 37:16, Ezek 10:18). God’s glorious radiance (Exod 16:10) and name (Deut 12:10-11) are further symbolic expressions of God’s appearance or presence, which may have had visual antecedents (see Lewis 2016).

Historically, there is precedent for this shift in the scarcity or absence of cultic images for Yahweh during Israel’s early nomadism, where natural features of the landscape—including trees and unhewn stones—were more amenable. The lack of images, however, became a programmatic cultic aniconism (the giving up or banning of cultic material images) in Babylon, as the exiles had to come to terms with the destruction of the temple and its attributes. The rejection of cultic imagery (in material form) led to an emphasis on the “word”—the Torah. Ironically, this emphasis on the Torah, which grew out of aniconism, later became a material veneration of the “iconic book,” with ritual practices developing around scrolls of sacred Scripture.

Izaak J. de Hulster , "What Did Yahweh Look Like?", n.p. [cited 28 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/related-articles/what-did-yahweh-look-like

Contributors

de-hulster-izaak

Izaak J. de Hulster
Researcher, University of Helsinki

Izaak J. de Hulster is university researcher and docent at the University of Helsinki. One of his specializations is the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible through its contemporary visual culture. He is founding cochair of the SBL Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Bible program units. He is the author of—among others—Iconographic Exegesis and Third Isaiah (Mohr Siebeck, 2009) and editor (with Brent Strawn and Ryan Bonfiglio) of Iconographic Exegesis of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: An Introduction to Its Method and Practice (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015). 

Founded circa 550 BC by Cyrus II. It was the largest empire of its era, extended from Anatolia and Egypt to northern India.

A northern Negev archaeological site. A citadel and sanctuary were found.

Canaanite mother goddess

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

An Israelite oasis in the Negev Desert, probably used as a way-station on Arabian trade routes during the period of the divided monarchy. The site is significant for an inscription found there dedicated to "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" and depicting a bull-like figure and a tree that many take to be representations of Yahweh and Asherah, respectively.

Sacred megalithic monuments

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

The Persian name for the province including the territory of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem.

Deut 4:12

12Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.

Exod 15

The Song of Moses
1Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has t ... View more

Mal 3:10

10Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open t ... View more

Ps 72

Prayer for Guidance and Support for the King
Of Solomon.
1Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king's son.2May he judge your people wi ... View more

Ezek 40-42

The Vision of the New Temple
1In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after t ... View more

Gen 15:17

17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.

Exod 3

Moses at the Burning Bush
1Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Ho ... View more

Exod 25

Offerings for the Tabernacle
1The Lord said to Moses:2Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receiv ... View more

Exod 37

Making the Ark of the Covenant
1Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood; it was two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.2He ... View more

1Sam 4:4

4So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophn ... View more

Isa 37:16

16“O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and eart ... View more

Ezek 10:18

18Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim.

Exod 16:10

10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.

Deut 12:10-11

10When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so tha ... View more

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