Emil Heller Henning, author and principal investigator, professional architect and church elder

Dennis Prager on the Incorporeality of God

My June 15 post complimented the first two volumes—Exodus (2018) and Genesis (2019)—of American talk show host Dennis Prager’s Torah commentary series, which he calls The Rational Bible. Both beautifully produced books abound in practical wisdom relevant to today’s “culture wars.” Without agreeing with him on every issue, I applaud his holding up the Ten Commandments and “ethical monotheism” as necessary to any society that aspires to be “good.” For those reasons I heartily recommend his books and daily radio show. The more purely theological sections of his “rational” Bible are not overtly directed at converting non-Jews to Judaism, but he disagrees strongly enough (Genesis, p.420) with traditional Jewish disdain for such attempts to hint that he might be pleased if his books were incidentally to have that effect.

My earlier post noted two such areas where his books clash with views of this website. First was the claim that Judaism’s replacing the Torah’s blood sacrifices with sacrifices of repentance and mitzvot (“good works”) wasn’t just because of the Temple’s destruction in the first century—which ended the animal sacrifices—but also from a notion that the shedding of blood was never the key factor in atoning for sin that Christians claim in saying the death of Jesus fulfilled and completed the sacrificial system. I tried to respond to Prager on that in my June 15 blog.

My second theological issue with Prager was his formulation of the “incorporeality” of God—that He is not only “invisible,” but has no “bodily form” or “physical being.” The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204), to whom Prager often appeals for support, made God’s incorporeality one of his “Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith.” Prager says that in claiming that “God appeared in human form,” Christianity “compromised” this key principle. Ever kind, Prager says that despite this defect, Christianity has let many people “relate to the divine,” whereby Torah knowledge has been spread around the world.

Despite Prager’s gentle tone, if our Christian doctrine is ultimately incompatible with the Torah, the Jesus we worship is at best the “good example” of liberal theology, and to the extent He is a “god,” He is a false one.

I will take as representative of Christian orthodoxy regarding God and the Trinity the 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith, which says (II, 1) that “there is but one only, living, true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body…” This much sounds like Prager’s “incorporeality.” But the same Confession also affirms (VIII, 2) that the Son of God—the eternal second Person of the Trinity—is “of one substance” with the Father, yet did in time “take upon Him man’s nature” as “very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.”

For Christians, the reconciliation of these truths in one God, plus the further affirmation that He is “immutable” (never changes) is a mystery beyond human comprehension. Indeed, the Westminster Confession’s list of God’s attributes continues on after “immutable” to say He is “immense, eternal, and incomprehensible.” The impossibility of “wrapping our minds around God” in a “rational” manner (to use Prager’s word) is a given in Christian theology, though if God is incomprehensible (and cares about right belief regarding Him) then resisting that fact would be highly “irrational.” Prager’s Hebrew Bible acknowledges in Ps. 145.3 that God’s greatness “cannot be fathomed” (NJPS), but I’ve not yet noticed a place where he comments directly on that attribute of God.

My impression is that Maimonides held God to transcend all human efforts at understanding Him, but the Christian view of His “incomprehensibility” allows us to have true knowledge about Him through natural revelation and the careful use of analogy (since we are created “in His image,” and are thus in some partial ways “like” God with respect to His “communicable” attributes)—but most of all by what He shows us and tells us about Himself in the “God-breathed” Scriptures, whose truth is confirmed in our spirits by the Spirit of God (2 Tim. 3:16, Rom. 8:14-16, 1 John 2:27).

By incomprehensibility, we do not mean that God is chaotic or ir-rational, only that our finite (and fallen) minds can never achieve exhaustive knowledge of Him. As the Torah says in Deut. 29.29: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Koren Tanakh). We would say the mystery of the Trinity—exactly how the aspects that may seem paradoxical to our limited minds are fully reconciled in one God—is secret, while the existence of the three Persons themselves is revealed in the totality of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation.

If Prager is with Maimonides on the utter transcendence of God, then can he be sure that such an essentially unknowable God never assumes some material aspect? On the other hand, if he leans more toward our “incomprehensible” position, how certain can he be that some material aspect of God does not fall within His “unknowable,” or secret realm? Or does he perceive God as just being less incomprehensible (or more “knowable”) than Christians do? Again, I’ve not seen his position on that, but he does—perhaps suggesting the last possibility—say, in the “Reason, Torah, and God” sections of his books’ introductions, that “reason has always been my primary vehicle to God and religion,” with only a “very few” things in the Torah requiring his exercise of a “faith component” to accept. Of course, that is the opposite of the Christian’s “vehicle to God,” which is not reason but the supernatural work of the Spirit prophesied in Ezekiel 36.26-7 and explained by Jesus in John 3:1-10, where He takes a “teacher of the law” to task for not knowing that.

As suggested before, I do not know Prager’s ultimate reason for so often bringing up God’s incorporeality, but if indeed he hopes to persuade some readers that, in contrast to Christianity, God did not, and does not, and never can assume any material aspect, then I must ask, do the Torah examples he raises lead a “rational” person to that conclusion, or not?

Unless I missed something, in the first 177 pages of his Genesis volume, comprising his comments on the first fourteen chapters of Genesis, Prager never considers the manner in which God interacts with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, or with Abram except once, negatively, in a brief remark on page 169 that “of course, God is non-material.” Then on page 177, well into the account of Abram and Lot, when he gets to Gen. 15—“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision”—Prager suddenly announces that “God did not speak to Abram directly,” but through “visions” or “dreams.” But what about Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, and Noah? Had their interactions with God just been through dreams or visions?

Could it be that for Prager, Abraham is the first biblical person whose historicity must be decisively affirmed and believed? No one analyzes the corporeality of characters in moral “stories.” Or maybe he has some other reason why this issue did not come up from the beginning, with Adam and Eve.

On that same page 177, Prager states for the first of a number of times an argument for God’s incorporeality based on Deuteronomy 4.12-15. In that passage, Moses reminds the Israelites that at Sinai they heard God’s voice but saw no “shape” (NJPS), proving (for Prager) that God can never assume “physical form.” Based on that conclusion, Prager says that in Gen. 18, God “speaks” to Abraham not directly, but through three visitors that Prager calls “men,” adding that Abraham soon perceives them not (presumably) as a manifestation of God, but as “messengers from God (angels)” (Genesis, p.211, italics added, as in following). Similarly, in Gen. 32, Jacob wrestles with what Prager calls “a mysterious being” who Jacob comes to realize is “of divine origin” (Genesis, p.386). Jacob called that place “Peniel”—which most literally means “the face of God (El)”—but Prager says that cannot really mean the face of “God,” but of a “divine being” (the NJPS Tanakh agreeably translating it that way.)

Prager’s Exodus volume repeats at least four times his Deuteronomy 4 argument about the Israelites’ seeing “no form” at Sinai (pp. 238, 360, 458, 463). With regard to Exodus 24.10, where the biblical text says Moses—together with Aaron and two of his sons, and the seventy elders of Israel—all “saw the God of Israel” (NJPS), Prager adds to his standard argument (seeing “no form”) a claim that in Deuteronomy 4, Moses was “specifically” reminding Israel “about this very moment” (Exodus, p.360).

But Moses was not talking about that “very moment.” The Deut. 4 passage Prager cites so often concerns Israel’s hearing but not seeing God when they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, trembling as He descended on the mountaintop in fire and smoke (Ex. 19.10-25). On that occasion God told Moses to restrain the people, lest they break through to “gaze” at Him and “many die” (19.21). When Moses and the seventy-three leaders of Israel later, at God’s explicit instruction, went up higher on the mountain, it was then that they “beheld God” and He “did not raise His hand against” them (Ex. 24.10-11), as He said He would do to their overly inquisitive fellows below.

I am not arguing against the incorporeality of God as the Westminster Confession affirms it, or against Deut. 4 as a general principle concerning God (the Confession itself citing that against God having a “body.”) I am only saying Prager needs more convincing biblical proof that Deut. 4 is the only principle regulating God’s appearing to man, and that the Westminster Confession’s further affirmation about God assuming in time a material body (albeit in a miraculous, humanly “incomprehensible” manner) is untenable.

Judaism does not speak with a single voice in this matter of God’s incorporeality. A first millennium “C.E.” mystical book, the Shi’ur Qomah, “calculated” God’s physical height from the soles of His feet up just to His heel to be some 86 million miles—just slightly less than the distance from the earth to the sun (though that is miniscule compared to the universe-filling “immensity” contemplated by the Westminster Confession—and the Tanakh.) And in our day, a 1999 book published by the Temple Institute in Jerusalem asserts that the celebrated ten sefirot (emanations) of God (in the “garb” of the partzufim) all have the “same essential structure of ‘head, body, arms and legs,’” and one of the ten is the “son” of two others. (That book is metaphysical, of course, but claims it will all be realized materially when the Future Temple prophesied by Ezekiel stands on earth.)

Those are extreme examples, and would probably have been abhorrent to Maimonides, but in regard to Moses and the seventy-three others “beholding” God on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24) and not dying, the mainstream Jewish Study Bible (pp.162-3) says that “for this unique occasion the people’s leaders and representatives are granted a visual experience of God. Later Jewish writers,” it continues, “believed that God is not visible”—specifically Maimonides and Ibn Ezra who, the Study Bible says, thought what Ex. 24 records had to have been some sort of collective, group vision, though the biblical text “does not deny that God is visible.”

As in my earlier post on Prager’s view of the sacrificial system, we see interpretations he presents as standard Jewish doctrine coming largely from medieval rabbis who, again, lived only one quarter of the way from today back to Sinai, after the Mishnah and Talmuds—and over a thousand years into the “Christian Era.” I know Maimonides is said to have learned his Greek philosophy through Arabic translations, but shouldn’t he have at least heard of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation (ca. 335), if only through derogatory remarks by his Greek-reading Muslim friends? By then it had only been exerting influence across Europe and North Africa for eight centuries.

Be that as it may, all that can be said from the Hebrew Bible about how God appeared to people from Adam to Abraham is that we do not know. Matthew Henry’s 1708 (Christian) Bible commentary said, in connection with a later appearance (Lev. 9) of God’s glory to the Israelites at the inauguration of the Tabernacle sacrifices, that “what the appearance of it was we are not told; no doubt it was such as carried its own evidence along with it.” Nothing more than Matthew Henry’s wise comment could be said about God’s appearances to Adam and Eve, except perhaps that Gen. 3.8—saying Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God moving about in the garden” (NJPS)—might pose some difficulty for a view holding that God appeared to them through “dreams” or “visions” devoid of any material aspect.

In Genesis 18, where Abraham interacts with Prager’s three “men” that Abraham comes to regard as “messengers from God (angels),” the Jewish Study Bible (p.39) says these three visitors’ “relationship” to God—i.e., “the LORD” (YHVH)—is “unclear,” and that “perhaps, as in some Canaanite literature,” the picture is one of “a deity accompanied by his two attendants.” Bottom line, however: the Torah text attributes speeches in this encounter to “the LORD” (YHVH), and Abraham served these men or angels (or YHVH) a meal of real, physical food which they (or He) physically consumed. If God is incorporeal in Prager’s strict sense, this is hardly a passage to prove it.

And then there is Jacob’s wrestling with what Prager calls “a mysterious being…of divine origin,” while downplaying the “El” (God) part of Jacob’s name for the place (Peni-El). The Jewish Study Bible (p.67) says that in the Hebrew Bible, “God and angels can appear in human form” (emphasis added.) Of course the name “Israel” comes from this encounter. The study Bible (p.68), agreeing here with Prager, says the name comes from Jacob’s prevailing with “beings divine and human,” and the ArtScroll Tanach says Jacob contended with “the Divine” (italics added). But the Koren Tanakh says he “contended with God,” and records Jacob saying, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Why would the preservation of his life be an issue if he’d only wrestled with a man or angel? (And if Jacob indeed “saw” God in his wrestling match, he also touched and felt Him.)

I hope the preceding paragraphs have shown that a “rational” argument for the incorporeality of God that precludes His ever taking on a material aspect or “form” has difficulties with the Torah itself as understood from a range of Jewish viewpoints.

Although there’s a major theophany, or “appearance” of God coming up in Leviticus chapter 9 that will no doubt be treated in Prager’s next volume, the last such incident he discusses in his first two books is enigmatic. Almost as if he had read Matthew Henry’s comment on Lev. 9, in discussing Moses’ seeing God’s “back” but not His “face” in Exodus 33.20-23, Prager says that “whatever it was Moses experienced is…something that cannot be understood in terms understandable to us” (Exodus, pp.462-3). Amen. In regard to the “face” that God withholds showing Moses, Prager suggests that if God indeed in any sense has one, perhaps humans could have knowledge of it only “after death.” He calls these speculative ideas “consistent” with God’s incorporeality as he has presented it, but it strikes me rather as a much relaxed version of it—one that appears to be moving away from Maimonides’ strict rationalism, away from “dreams” and “visions” into the incomprehensible mystery that the Bible presents it as being.

Acknowledging God’s incomprehensibility allows Him to have the (humanly) paradoxical attributes ascribed to God in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Consider the appearances of what is variously translated as “the Presence” or “the Glory” of the LORD (YHVH). Are these manifestations of His kabod actually “God,” or are they “not God”—i.e., part of the created order, like angels? If they are God, isn’t that conceding that He can have a visible aspect? If they are part of the created order, how can they carry the weight of God’s holiness and command worship as God does, but no angel can?

The Jewish philosopher Philo, who was born two decades before Jesus and died two decades after Him, proposed what amounts to an answer to this question in his Logos (Aramaic: Memra)—the divine “Word”—which may or may not have influenced John’s use of the term in the first chapter of his Gospel. A section in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia is called “Personification of the Word” (under “Memra” [= “Logos”]). As the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (2nd Ed., p.452) says, the appearance of this idea in Christianity “possibly contributed to [its] disappearance…from Jewish thought.” Whatever its source, the answer the Logos provides to my “God” or “not God” question is the Trinity. As John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”that is, He (the “Personification of the Word” or Logos, the pre-Incarnate Son) is both distinguished from (“was with”) God and identified with Him (“was God”) in the Tri-unity of the Godhead.

Part 4 of my “Christian midrash” articles presents a biblical case for many of the Torah’s visible and even tactile manifestations of God being pre-Incarnate visitations of the eternal second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah—the “only Mediator between God and man” (also see my Dec. 24, 2018 post, “Hanukkah, Christmas, and Ezekiel.”) I know God in the Torah also used dreams and visions and angels, but identifying at least those manifestations that involved the name of YHVH, such as Gen. 18, Ex. 24, Lev. 9, and beyond the Torah in Josh. 5, Judg. 6, Isa. 6, and Ezek. 1 with the pre-Incarnate Son solves many of these difficulties. (Presumably the appearance to Ezekiel, and probably Isaiah as well, was a vision, but within it God manifested in visible form while speaking as “YHVH.”) And more generally, nothing has being, or visible appearance, or tactile corporeality apart from Jesus, who is not only God Incarnate, but the Incarnat-or of all that exists (Rom. 11:36, Col. 1:15-17, Heb. 1:2-3).

For those of us who have been supernaturally “born from above,” as Jesus says in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, this is no abstract theological issue, but a reality in our lives. None of us “reasoned” this out in advance, or even desired it before God came to us. Our experiences of receiving God’s grace in Jesus differ, some of us believing from our mothers’ laps, others knowing long years of silent despair while struggling against the gentle promptings of the Spirit. For some, it was a sudden spiritual paroxysm—dead to things of the Spirit one day, full of joy and life the next. (For my story, having aspects of the last two, see Part 1 of my “Christian midrash” articles on the Free Articles page.) The testimony of millions of “rational” people is that the three Persons of the one true, living God can be known from divine revelation in the Christian Scriptures (in the “Old Testament” as well as the New) and experienced personally through the power of the Holy Spirit, who bears witness to our spirits of their truth.

Consider what those Scriptures say—that the resurrected Jesus was seen by over 500 persons at one time, many of whom were still living when the Apostle Paul recounted that twenty years later (1 Cor. 15:6). What other religion makes a claim like that? What other religion would base a resurrection story on the testimony of women—given their legal status in the ancient world—and on cowardly disciples who did not believe them, or understand what Jesus had prophesied concerning His rising from the dead, and hid behind locked doors? Yet within a very few years, after receiving power from God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, their enemies were declaring they had “turned the world upside down” (Acts 7:6).

Did the early believers, many of whom died for proclaiming Jesus, know Him through “dreams” or “visions”? Jesus made the ultimate statement on the corporeality of His resurrected body: “Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). He is alive today in heaven in His resurrection body. Repent and trust the living Jesus today, and ask His heavenly Father to show you “the exceeding greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power, which He wrought in [Jesus] when He raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19-20).

Prager (Exodus, p.389) says that all people, as “physical beings,” need “some sort of physical connection to God,” without which religion becomes too “abstract.” Christianity has fewer rituals than Judaism, he says, because Christians believe “God has taken on a physical form that lets them connect with God,” while for Jews that connection is “through ritual.” The Tabernacle and its ritual was given so Israel, as it moved from its great moment of revelation at Mount Sinai, might have a “visible, tangible symbol of God’s ever abiding presence in their midst” (Prager quoting Prof. Nahum Sarna in Exodus, p.511). The ritual of the Tabernacle presented God in a tangible way. Physical contact with the cereal offering “communicated holiness…as a contagious, dynamic effervescence of the Deity’s Presence” that made anything that touched it holy (Jewish Study Bible, p.218). And as alluded to above, when the Tabernacle sacrifices were instituted (Leviticus 9) the “Presence of YHVH” made a dramatic visible appearance to the people.

Dear Jewish reader, the Tabernacle and Temple are gone. Moses was a faithful mediator between God and Israel, but he has been dead and gone for a long time. Doesn’t the departure of the more “visible” and “tangible” Presence of God that the Torah shows to have been experienced as real by the Patriarchs and the Tabernacle’s priests trouble you? The ritual of your Temple or Synagogue may be beautiful, but is it really alive for you? If you ever found ritual no longer to be working for you, could you be open to a more living way to God?

Jews today do not agree about the possibility of a future Messiah (another of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles) and what He would be like or do, but if we choose to accept the possibility of a Mediator between God and man, to warrant the use of the term “Mediator,” He must somehow possess the natures of both sides—truly God and truly man. The mystery of the Trinity, although we cannot “comprehend” it “rationally,” accounts for Jesus being both a true man and “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The testimony of Ezekiel presented on this website is that Jesus the God-man is the ultimate, living Temple of God who came to dwell (Lit., tabernacle) with us (John 1:14). If you think a Mediator between God and man is possible, why can He not be Jesus? Isn’t the possibility provocative enough to merit your prayerful investigation in the Christian Bible?

Kudos to the Koren Tanakh's Temple Diagram