Metaphors for God
The Plural "us" in Cultural Context
The Importance of Culture
It is easy to forget, or never to be aware, just how much our surroundings influence how we see, understand, and talk about the world. The time and place in which we live provides us with conceptual categories, a frame of reference, in which we make sense of our life and events in it. Our cultural and historical context provides us with the language or languages we speak, the symbols and metaphors we use, the kind of literature we read, a sense of place, identification with a racial or ethnic group, a nationality, an economic system, a political system (or lack of one), a set of religious beliefs, as well as a whole range of cultural and ethical customs that tell us how to interact with others and establish us within a social group.
For example, unless they have visited the Far East or had some other reason to encounter eastern culture, many in the western world remain unaware of the vast differences between eastern and western modes of thought. This can be most easily identified in the differences between individualistic and communal attitudes (see Community and Testimony). But this only hints at the larger issue in terms of biblical interpretation.
At the beginning, we need to affirm that cultural and historical distance, the barriers created by dealing with writings separated by 2,000+ years and half a world, do not render it impossible to understand Scripture or suggest that it is no longer relevant today. But it does mean that we must put forth deliberate and constant effort to keep in mind that reading the Bible is not the same as reading a modern history book or Streams in the Desert. We cannot let the historical distance prevent us from hearing the word of God for today. But then neither can we forget that the Bible was not written for us. To do so will almost guarantee that we will misunderstand it, or, at best, never hear its richness and depth as a means to facilitate our growth in grace or to proclaim a full-orbed message of grace.
There are many examples that we could examine to illustrate the importance of understanding these contexts in order to understand Scripture adequately. The unique aspects of various historical contexts, such as the Patriarchal roots in Aram-Naharaim, the dominance of the Egyptian Empire, the rise of Assyria and the subsequent invasions of Israel and Judah, the crisis of the Babylonian invasions and the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, the domination by the Persian Empire and later by the Greeks and Romans, the rule of the Hasmoneans and Herods, the destruction of Herod’s temple, and the setting of the larger Roman Empire all figure prominently into the biblical narrative. These contexts not only provide the background for the biblical text, they also provide the catalyst for much that happens throughout the Bible.
As important as these historical aspects are, of more immediate concern for many biblical texts are the ordinary elements of culture that are alien to the modern mind. These show up unobtrusively in the biblical texts yet often carry a significant amount of the meaning of the passage. These would include the symbolic use of numbers, dragons and serpent-like beasts, water, darkness, and fire. It would include things like inheritance and marriage customs, the significance of certain foods, and the details of life reflected in obscure laws. It would also include a range of cultural features that could be used a tools of communication, but which make little sense to us outside of that culture (several examples of this are given in the articles Speaking the Language of Canaan and Sons of God and Giants, such as the use of different kinds of "water" to symbolize both creation and destruction).
The Metaphor of "us"
For our purposes here, let me use one brief example from the Old Testament. There are four familiar Old Testament passages in which God speaks using a first person plural, "us".
Gen 1:26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 1:27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Gen 3:22 Then the LORD God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"-- 3:23 therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.
Gen 11:7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech." 11:8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
Isa 6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"
Since we are not used to thinking or hearing symbolic language, from our perspective we immediately hear these first person plurals as descriptive, even though we know that the Old Testament is fiercely monotheistic (Deut 6:4). As a result, in order for us to make easy sense of these passages, and without knowing how else a first person plural pronoun could be interpreted in these contexts, we assume that this must be some pre-Christian reference to the Trinity.
Not only does such a move invoke, or affirm, certain ideas about the nature of Scripture that are highly questionable, it destroys any meaning that the Old Testament had for a thousand years (or more) until the coming of Jesus. If these texts are a reference to the Trinity, then the people who heard them during those thousand years would have had no idea what they meant. That makes the Old Testament a secret book, which violates what it affirms itself to be as a witness to God!
So, how could an understanding of the cultural and historical background of the Old Testament help us understand these first person plurals? As explained in some detail in the article Sons of God and Giants, ancient Israelites used metaphors to talk about God drawn from the culture in which they lived (see also Speaking the Language of Canaan). While we sometimes want to make the Israelites radically different from the people surrounding them, the fact is that on the level of culture the Israelites were hardly distinguishable from the surrounding peoples. While they were different in terms of their conception of God, they shared the same general cultural pool with most Middle Eastern peoples even when the details differed.
As a result, there are many places preserved in Scripture where the Israelites used metaphors and symbols drawn from the cultural pool of other ancient peoples to talk about God. In some cases, the Israelites used the same titles that the Canaanites used for Baal to refer to YHVH. For example, in Psalm 68:4 :
68:4 Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds--his name is the LORD-- be exultant before him.
Here, God is called "Rider of the Clouds," an important Canaanite title for Baal (the Babylonian equivalent of Baal, Marduk, also rides on a chariot of clouds; see line 50 of Tablet IV of The Enuma Elish).
In virtually all cases the Israelites gave these metaphors a different content to refer to YHVH, the God of Abraham, rather than the gods of the Canaanites. That is, the similarity was on the level of poetic language and not in any ontology. Yet, the words, symbols, metaphors, and conceptual models that they used were often the same as those used by the Canaanites.
In that culture, the primary metaphor for power was that of a monarch or king, since in the ancient world monarchs held absolute power over their kingdoms. This symbol was so strong that most peoples in the Ancient Near East used the metaphor of king to talk about their gods. The gods were conceived in terms of a king who was attended by his royal court. In Canaanite mythology, the high King (El or El Elyon, a title used in the Old Testament for God, for example, in Gen 14:18-22) was attended by the lesser gods who comprised his royal council. In turn, the lesser gods had attendants, messengers, and servants that together comprised the royal court. All of these are metaphors drawn from the cultural and historical context with which the people were already familiar.
So, God is frequently portrayed in Scripture as a high king with attendants ("messengers" is the Hebrew term, not "angels") who carry out his wishes. He is referred to metaphorically as seated on a throne surround by a council of advisors with whom he converses. One example of this is 1 Kings 22:19-22:
22:19 And Micaiah said, "Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left;
We tend to romanticize the "host of heaven" into a picture of white robed angels without ever asking what the metaphor is really saying. Yet here is a rather clear example of the use of a metaphor drawn from ancient ideas of monarchy to describe God. We cannot attempt to rationalize this away by talking about lesser created beings as if this were a physical and ontological picture of what God really does. It is obviously metaphorical; otherwise it would be polytheistic, something that the Old Testament is careful to avoid.
A similar example occurs in Job 1-2, where the setting is once again God presiding over a heavenly council as the high king. There are other passages that use this same metaphor
Psa 82:1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
Psa 89:6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD, 89:7 a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him?
Jer 23:18 For who has stood in the council of the LORD so as to see and to hear his word? Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it?
Once again, we cannot immediately jump to the conclusions that this is a physical description and ask what other gods might be present in the heavenly council, or who the "sons of God" (heavenly beings) are. This is poetic metaphor, not physical or ontological description.
So, with some careful attention to cultural and historical context, the cultural and historical roots of this metaphorical description of God become more obvious. From this understanding, we have a means of understanding the use of the first person plurals in those four familiar passages. They are part of this same metaphorical way of speaking about God. They are not a reference to the Trinity in some ontological way, but are metaphorical references to God as the high king conversing with his heavenly council.
Note that the Isaiah passage is a vision, introduced by the metaphor of God as a king seated among his heavenly council:
Isa 6:1 I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 6:2 Seraphs were in attendance above him
In all four of those passages, it is God alone who acts, which is really the point of the passages.
Gen 1:27 So God created humankind . . .
So, the conclusion is that "us" used in Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:7, and Isaiah 6:8 is a culturally conditioned metaphor that we cannot understand without knowing something of the cultural and historical background of the text. If this fact is obvious in this text, it should remind us that the same need to understand such contexts is just as important in other places where it is not so obvious.