Who is God?
(c) 2006 Excerpt from True Islam's upcoming new book, 'The Bible, the Qur'an, and the Secret of the Black God'
The God of normative Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition is wholly spiritual, commonly described as "a perfect, pure spirit," "a nonembodied mind". According to this tradition, God's spirituality, affirmed in Isaiah 31:3 and John 4:24 ("God is Spirit"), necessarily implies that he is immaterial and formless. But as is well-known now, such an understanding of spirituality and of the divine is thoroughly Hellenistic; that is to say, it is Greek philosophic tradition that bequeathed to the world, and to the monotheistic religions in particular, this divine, immaterial and formless spirit. The very notion of immateriality is the brainchild of Plato. Semitic tradition, however, even Semitic revelatory tradition (i.e. the "Religions of the Book") possessed no such understanding prior to contact with Hellens or carriers of Hellenistic culture. The ancient Near Eastern (ANE) and Semitic 'God of Religion' was always anthropomorphic (Greek, anthropos='man', morphe= 'form'): that is to say he/they possessed human form. While representation of the divine in animal form (theriomorohism, Greek therion, 'animal' and morphe 'form') is met with in all periods of religious history in the ANE, it is not the case that anthropomorphism succeeded an earlier theriomorphism. The gods of the ANE were transcendently anthropomorphic: they possessed bodies human in form, but supreme in holiness, substance, and sublimity. The theriomorphs were so-called 'attribute animals', meaning they represented particular characteristics of the otherwise anthropomorphic deities.
This is true as well of the God of the scriptures, Bible and Qur'an. Israel stood in linguistic, cultural and religious continuity with her neighbors in the Levant. And as Morton Smith pointed out in a classic article, Israel participated in "the common theology of the ancient Near East." This means that the god(s) of Israel and the gods of the ANE actually differed less than has been supposed. Like the gods of the ANE, the god(s) of Israel and biblical tradition was anthropomorphic. The single most important effect of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim intercourse in Late Antiquity with Greek philosophic tradition was the total eclipsing of the anthropomorphic God of Religion by the formless God of Philosophy. In all three religions, the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad was supplanted by the God of Xenophanes, Plato, Aristotle and Cleanthes.
1.1. Is the biblical God a formless, immaterial Spirit?
Rev. Fred Price argued:
Mr. Muhammad goes on to state...: 'Did God say that He was a Mystery God, or did someone say it of Him? If He were a spirit and not a man, we would all be spirits and not human beings!' It appears Mr. Muhammad has not accurately read the Bible (emphasis mine-TI), which clearly states that God is a Spirit, and so is man...In John 4:24 (KJV), it records the fact that Jesus, speaking to the woman at the well in Samaria, referred to God as follows: '...God is a Spirit...' (emphasis original) John also says, in Chapter 1, Verse 1, 'In the Beginning was the Word (Jesus) and the word was with God...' If the word, Jesus, was 'with God,' the Word should know who, or what, God was or wasn't. In John 4:24...Jesus Himself said, '...God is a Spirit...' But Mr. Muhammad says, 'God is a man and not a spirit'...Somebody is confused here.
In fairness to Rev. Price, the average reader of John 4:24 also assumes that, as a spirit, God is here described as formless and immaterial. Again, spirituality is commonly thought to necessitate incorporeality (lacking a body). They also assume that, since God is spirit, he can't be a man. But, as we shall demonstrate, these assumptions betray an unfamiliarity on the part of these readers with the scriptures in their original Hebrew and Greek contexts.
1.2. Not 'A' Spirit
Firstly,the King James translation of John 4:24, used by Rev. Price, is wrong. The Greek p?e?Âµa ? ?e?? (Latin spiritus est deus) is not "God is a Spirit" but simply "God is spirit." The absence of the indefinite article is grammatically small but theologically significant as it indicates that John 4:24 is not attempting an ontological definition of God, i.e. God is a spirit as opposed, for instance, to a man. This is confirmed by 1 John 1:5, "God is Light", and 1 John 4:8, "God is Love," where the same constructions are used: God is certainly not actually a light, i.e. a natural luminary or a human emotion. God is spiritual, but not a spirit. This is confirmed by the Hebrew Bible (HB, i.e. Old Testament) background to this passage, Isa. 31:3, "The Egyptians are human ('adam) and not divine ('el); and their horses are flesh (basar), and not spirit (rÃ»ah)." Here the two contrasting sets, human ('adam) vs. divine ('el) and flesh (basar) vs. spirit (rÃ»ah) are parallel and therefore 'adam is synonymous with basar and 'el with rÃ»ah. These terms are used adjectivally to contrast the corruptible, mortal sphere with the eternal, powerful, and creative divine sphere. But they do not describe God as a spirit:
The Spirit is not identical with God but is the agency of his historical activity in the world...(T)he doctrine of the spirituality of God has no place in the OT. The apparent exception is Isa. 31:3...Even here, however, the issue is not the spirituality of God in opposition to anything material, but that of his vitality as opposed to the creaturely weakness upon which an alliance with Egypt rests (cf. vs. 1). Yahweh is not pure spirit, for his Spirit, like his Word, is the agency of his activity."
Shailer Mathews notes also:
Even among the prophets Jahweh was described with such vivid anthropomorphism as to enable persons to form a mental picture of his appearance. Not only was he portrayed as an old man with white hair, but he had passions and policies like those of the rulers of his time...The conception of God as spirit DID NOT APPEAR IN THE OLD TESTAMENT. To the theologizing historians who in the eighth century (B.C.) unified and expanded the literary data of their religion, GOD WAS NOT A SPIRIT BUT POSSESSED A SPIRIT (emphasis mine-TI).
The contrast in Isa. 31:3 between divine spirit and mortal flesh, and the denial to God of the latter, is significant. The broader context of John 4:24 implies the same contrast. We will look further at this opposition below. But for now it is important to point out that the contrast does not mean spirit is immaterial. "(S)pirit in the biblical tradition is not simply an abstraction, but a fairly concrete image." Both the Hebrew rÃ»ah and Greek p?e?Âµa, pneuma literally mean "wind, breath, air in motion" and thus contain a definite, if subtle and rarified materiality. "The constitutive factor of p?e?Âµa in the Greek world is always its subtle and powerful corporeality." Herman Gunkel, in his groundbreaking religio-historical study on the Holy Spirit, noted that the Hebrew rÃ»ah in Jewish tradition, even when applied to Yahweh, was materially conceived, a kind of Lichtstoff (light-particles). Thus we see that Louis Berkhof's statement, "The idea of spirituality of necessity excludes the ascription of anything like corporeity to God," is simply unbiblical. 
Flesh (basar/ sarx), in both the HB and NT, was characterized by weakness, corruption, and mortality, all that is antithetical to God, who therefore had no relation to it. But this does not mean he is incorporeal, as H. Wheeler Robinson points out:
Isaiah 31:3, "the Egyptians are men ('adam) and not God ('el), and their horses flesh and not spirit." The whole realm of spiritual energies belong to Yahweh, here identified with ruach, and over against Him stands all material existence, including man himself, here virtually identified with bÃ¢shar, flesh. But to speak of God as 'spirit' does not mean that Yahweh is formless...The majestic figure seen by Isaiah in the temple is in human form, though endowed with superhuman qualities. If we ask for further definition, we shall find that the 'glory' of Yahweh, His full visible manifestation, is conceived in terms of dazzling and unbearable light. Yahweh's body is shaped like man's, but its substance is not flesh but 'spirit,' and spirit seen as a blaze of light. It is true that the imageless worship of prophetic religion repudiates the making of any likeness of God, and no form was seen in the storm-theophany of Sinai (Deut. iv. 12). But it is one thing to shrink from the vision of the form, and another to deny that a form exists, though a form wrought out of ruach-substance."
1.3. The Greek Philosophic Origins of Divine Incorporeality
Hebrew as well as NT Greek spirituality, even divine spirituality, was therefore corporeal. It is in Greek philosophic tradition that such ideas as divine incorporeality begin: in fact, it is to this tradition that we owe the very concept of "immateriality." As R. Renehan notes in his important study, "On the Greek Origins of the Concepts Incorporeality and Immateriality":
Few concepts have been more influential, for better or worse, in the history of Western philosophy and theology than those of incorporeal beings and immaterial essences. Their importance for the particular directions which European thought long took pondering such problems as the nature of deity, soul, intellect, in short, of ultimate reality, is not easily exaggerated...Such concepts are the creation of Greek philosophy. Prior to that even 'spirit' was material, in Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere
A number of Presocratics (i.e. Greek philosophers before the time of Socrates) laid 'stepping stones' leading to a fully explicit notion of incorporeality/immateriality. The Ionian philosopher of Colophon Xenophanes (570-475 BCE) posited an abstract and non-anthropomorphic deity that would be highly influential to the development of the Christian doctrine of divine transcendence with its characteristic notion of divine incorporeality/immateriality. But for all its abstraction Xenophanes' deity was still corporeal. "When all is said and done, it must be recognized that one man was responsible for the creation of an ontology which culminates in incorporeal Being as the truest and highest reality. That man was Plato." Renehan suggests that it was Plato who coined the term as?Âµat??, asomatos (incorporeal). Plato's incorporeal Form (e?d??/?dea) of the Good, however, was not God. It seems to have been his student Aristotle (384-322 BCE) who, understanding the full implications of the term as?Âµat??, first used it of the deity, his Unmoved Mover (Cael. 279a17ff, Metaph. 1073a5ff). This novel Platonic/Aristotelian notion of divine incorporeality/immateriality will be taken up and elaborated in Hellenistic Judaism, Patristic Christianity, and heterodox Islam.
1.4. 'Yahweh is a Man'
This incorporeal, non-anthropomorphic deity of the Greeks is in stark contrast to the God of biblical tradition. The God of the Hebrew Bible is without question a man. He is anthropomorphic: he has a human form. He is anthropopathic: he has human feelings. And, importantly, he is called a man repeatedly in the HB, a fact lost in the various English translations. Hebrew has five words (plus their derivatives) for man: "Ã®Ã , geber, 'adham, 'enÃ´Å¡ and mt. The last three terms connote human frailty and as such are never applied to God. It is a different story, however, with "Ã®Ã and geber. These two terms connote strength, kingship, and spirituality and the HB declares that God is this sort of man: Yahweh is an "Ã®Ã and geber, or rather gibbÃ´r, mighty man. The Book of Exodus states emphatically YHWH "Ã®Ã milhamah, "Yahweh is a man of war (15:3)." This is not a metaphor, but a divine title and, according to rabbinic tradition, a description of how Yahweh physically appeared to the Hebrews at the Red Sea. Thus, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai: "Another interpretation: 'YHWH is a man of war, YHWH is His name.' Because when the Holy One, blessed be He, was revealed at the sea He appeared as a young man making war. 'YHWH is His name.'
Ex. 15:3 is not the only time Yahweh is referred to as an "Ã®Ã . God speaks to Moses face to face, "as a man ("Ã®Ã ) speaketh to his friend (Ex. 33:11)." He appears to Abraham as one of three 'anasÃ®m (plural of "Ã®Ã ). Jacob wrestles with a man ("Ã®Ã ) at Penuel whom he would later identify as Elohim/God (Gen. 32:31). In both Hosea (2:18) and Isaiah (54:4) God even uses it as a self-designation. God is also a gibbÃ´r "mighty man," which is the intensive form of geber. He is called a gibbÃ´r milhamah, "mighty man of war" (Ps. 24:7-10; also Isa. 42:13). In the Dead Sea Scrolls God is called a "mighty man of war (gibbÃ´r hamilhamah)" and "man of glory" ("Ã®Ã kabÃ´d) (1QM, xii, 9-10; 1QM, xix, 2). Thus, even Marjo Korpel, in her extensive study A Rift in the Clouds, Ugaritic and Hebrew Descriptions of the Divine, concedes that "in the Bible God appears as a man ["Ã®Ã ]." Walter Eichrodt, in his Old Testament Theology, notes also that "God is, without doubt, thought of also in human form, more specifically as a man."