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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
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
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
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
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 . . .
Gen 3:23 therefore the LORD God sent him. . .
Gen 11:8 So the LORD scattered them . . .
Isa 6:9 And he [God] said . . .
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.
Issues in Biblical Interpretation
Community and Testimony
Bible in the Church
Voice Bible Studies
Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture
The Modern Inerrancy Debate
The Development of the Bible