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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Charles Halton joins Pete and Jared to discuss how the Bible portrays God as being humanlike, the origin of resistance to seeing humanlike characteristics of God, and the implications of embracing this perspective. Join them as they explore the following questions:

  • What does it mean to see God portrayed as humanlike? What examples do we find in the Bible?
  • Do we have similar kinds of portrayals happening in the New Testament as well? Or is it not as prevalent? How does that work?
  • Why is it helpful or unhelpful to see God as humanlike?
  • What are some challenges of seeing God as embodied?
  • What is anthropomorphism and how is the human portrayal of God not an anthropomorphism?
  • How do we talk about the gendered language that we find in the Hebrew Bible?
  • Is there metaphorical God-talk in the Bible?
  • We have to take the humanlike portrayals of God seriously. Does that mean taking it literally?
  • What are some practical implications for embracing this, to recognize what the Bible is actually saying about God and God’s embodiment?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • There’s all of these portrayals of God that make it seem like God is a human, has a body, has thoughts, emotions, reactions, limitations, just as humans do. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • Traditionally Christianity has seen God as a person. However, God can’t really be a true person if God has no limits, if God never changes, if God has no emotions. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • Traditional Western Christianity has turned God into a form of an algorithm or an abstract idea. And the thing with an algorithm is if we know the rules on how it operates, we’re now in control. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • I think this protection mechanism against what the Bible is saying is deeply rooted in the Western Christian tradition. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • There’s this long deep tradition both in Judaism and Christianity of seeing God as embodying the entire reality that humans experience in sex and gender. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • I really try to remind folks that God is this gender inclusive being. Not the genderless, as a lot of theologians try to say, but gender inclusive. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • People have come up with so many different ways to explain away what the image of God is to avoid this idea that God would look like us physically. They’ve come up with everything you can imagine because the last thing they want to believe is God looks like us. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • I say embodiment is being located in a particular place at a particular time, whatever the material construction of God is. But the key points are location and then embedded in time. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • What we find in the Bible, it seems to me, God goes through a process of God’s own self-development and self-realization as God interacts with creation and specifically humanity. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np
  • If God is on this process of transformation to a more expansive, loving self, then we have to join God in that task as well. — @CharlesHalton @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Intro music plays]

Jared: It’s time to tell you about our May class, the last installment of our three-part Spring Semester in the Old Testament.

This one is called “The Bible and Multivocality: Respecting and Embracing the Many Voices within the Bible.” Not only will you learn how to use the word multivocality in context, but it might be one of the key concepts for you to learn about the Bible. It can be hard to take the Bible seriously once you start to recognize that it says different things in different parts. 

It’s varied, distinct, and even contradictory voices all within the one book. In this class, our very own Pete Enns argues that multivocality, which is to say many voices, is actually a central component of the Biblical text, not something to be embarrassed about but something to embrace.

If you’ve been wanting to know why the Bible has multiple voices and how these voices shape our understanding of the text, this class is for you. What’s exciting is that as part of our Spring Semester in the Old Testament, the class is actually pre-recorded and comes with a study guide, meaning you can purchase it and watch it on the same day regardless of your schedule.

Plus there’s going to be a live Q&A with Pete in May to talk about all three of our Old Testament classes.

If you’re a member of our online community The Society of Normal People, you’ll get automatic access to the class and study guide on May 1st, PLUS for our SoNP members only there’s a bonus roundtable video featuring our amazing Nerds in Residence. For more info and to sign up for the class, head to 

Jared: Hey everyone! We’re creating an illustrated storybook Bible for children — and their adults! — called God’s Stories as told by God’s Children. It’s a Bible that takes its scholarship as seriously as its storytelling.

Pete: That’s right folks, we’re bringing the best in biblical scholarship to everyday kids. 

Jared: To get it started we’ve launched a Kickstarter, and the Kickstarter has been supported by a lot of people so far. We’re actually quite surprised—well, we shouldn’t be.

Pete: It’s just amazing the response we’ve gotten.

Jared: Right, and we’re so grateful for everyone who has supported it so far. 

Pete: So folks, to secure your copy before even bookstores do, and to help us meet our stretch goals to unlock even more exciting projects like an e-book version, an adult’s version, and maybe even if we reach that last goal, an audiobook version, head over to 

Jared: We would be so honored to have you join our mission to bring the best in biblical scholarship to the next generation.  One children’s Bible won’t change the world, but the children who read it just might. So head over to to help support the project.

[Transitional music plays]

Jared: Okay, on today’s episode, we’re talking about the question, Is God more humanlike than we thought? And we’re talking with Charles Halton. 

Pete: Charles is a theologian, a biblical scholar, and Episcopal priest, as well as the author of, just folks, a wonderful book, A Human Shaped God: Theology of an Embodied God, which won the very prestigious 2024 Grawemeyer Prize in Religion. 

Jared: Let’s get into the episode.

[Music plays over teaser clip of Charles speaking]

Charles Halton: “A metaphor is trying to teach something. You’re trying to open a window into who God is and describe God in some way. And so, even if we’re not gonna like, say, okay, “100 percent of the metaphor is literal truth”, some part of it needs to be. Otherwise, the writers of the Hebrew Bible were terrible at what they were doing because they got across something that was completely false.”

[Ad break]

Jared: Well, welcome to the podcast, Charles. It’s really good to have you here.

Charles Halton: Thanks! It’s great to be here. 

Jared: We want to maybe dive into some, uh, an interesting conversation around God and how God is portrayed in the Bible. And you talk a lot about how there’s these human-like portrayals of God in the Bible, but before we get into depth, could you just give us a couple of examples so people can imagine what you’re talking about when we talk about the human-like portrayal of God?

Charles Halton: Sure. I think that there are so many examples. It’s almost on every page of the Hebrew Bible that has an interaction between God and humanity or the world. At almost every point, God is portrayed in human-like ways. So this includes things like God getting angry, getting mad. Or God acting in caring, loving ways. So this expression of emotion. 

There are pictures of God changing God’s mind, where God regrets an action that God did and pledges to humanity to never do that again. So Noah’s Flood is an example of that. There are pictures of God and descriptions of God that include human-like figures. God comes to the Garden of Eden to meet with the first human pair of Adam and Eve, and God chooses the cool part of the day in which to make the visit.

And you have several human-like characteristics of God, even in that one passage in some of the very first pages of the Bible. You have God having to move, go from one place to another. God has to actually visit the Garden of Eden. God isn’t this Disembodied spirit that’s everywhere but nowhere. God has a location.

But then God chooses a temperate time of day. And we’re talking about the ancient Mediterranean, which is a pretty hot environment. So God goes in the evening. And why would God pick the evening? Why would the author of Genesis spell that out and mention that detail? Well, it’s because it’s a more pleasant time to visit.

So there’s all of these portrayals of God and so many more that make it seem like God is a human, has a body, has thoughts, emotions, reactions, limitations, just as humans do. 

Pete: I mean, not to jump ahead too quickly here, and let, can we avoid talking about Jesus here for a second? But do we have similar kinds of things happening in the New Testament as well? Or is it not as prevalent? How does that work? 

Charles Halton: I do think we have similar ideas like that in the New Testament. I think the New Testament is under a greater influence of Neoplatonic thought, which does have a very pronounced disembodied character to the divine. 

Pete: Could you just lay that out a little bit, Neoplatonic thought? [Charles laughs] Because that’s, like, I’m trying to remember what that means.

Charles Halton: Plato was this very famous philosopher in ancient Greece. And he had this idea that the true nature of reality is in these, like, ideas that reside in heaven that don’t have a physical form. And so all the things on earth, whether it’s a chair or a person or a house, they reflect these abstract ideas that are kind of stored in heaven, and they’re the material representations of them.

So that idea and some other of Plato’s thoughts spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean and became very common, and some of the early Christians were influenced by that. And so they had this idea that God was really more of an idea than a person. God was disembodied, not a material thing. And God was perfect.

So the absolute ideal of anything you could imagine, that’s God. God doesn’t have limits. God can do anything, knows everything, and that eventually won out a few centuries after the New Testament was written as kind of official Christian doctrine. But as the New Testament is forming, those ideas are percolating, but they’re not universal yet. And so we do get hints of God’s humanness in the New Testament, and most specifically in Jesus. 

Jared: I’m glad that you brought up the neoplatonic or the platonic influence here, because as you’re describing these human-like portrayals of God, and you say they’re almost on every page, I think for some listeners that may be a revelation.

It may be new to them because of the traditions, you know—I know for me growing up there was this distancing ourselves from or explaining away the humanlike portrayal of God because we’re still so steeped in this platonic idea where we get all the omnis. God is, you know, omnipresent and omnipotent in terms of all powerful and all knowing, and then he’s so all these things that it gets very abstract, and like you said, there’s an idealized version and humanness is bad, and God’s spiritness is good. And that sort of is the world that I would have grown up in. So it’s interesting to have you pull us back into these human-like portrayals of God. Can you say more about how you think we should interpret these, and tell us why we should interpret them that way, maybe rather than distinguishing that from that platonic, disembodied portrayal of God that I think a lot of us grew up with?

Charles Halton: Sure. And I grew up with that too. I grew up with the God of the Omnis. You know, God’s everywhere, but nowhere, you know, all powerful, all that kind of stuff. And when I read so much of the Bible, I didn’t see these human-like pictures of God because I wasn’t even aware that was an option. And then when I got into seminary and more advanced studies, I then found out that there’s entire science of studying the Bible that is almost exclusively designed to produce a set of rules to prevent people from embracing this human-like portrayal of God. And the history of that goes way back. 

But what’s so fascinating to me is they have all these rules where every time they identify a human-like characteristic of God—so maybe it’s God doesn’t know the future, or God is testing a person like Abraham because God doesn’t know the future choice that Abraham is going to make, they have all these rules that say, well, we’re going to flag that passage, and we’re going to flag is as anthropomorphic, or an instance of accommodation, those are technical terms they use, but they’re in a sense to say these are abnormal, they’re weird, we’re going to put them to the side, we’re not going to deal with them right now, and we’re going to continue reading.

And then when we get to passages that agree with our preconceived idea of who God is, then we say, okay, those passages are really clear, and so that’s going to be my benchmark. And I will reinterpret all these other passages I’ve set aside to match these other passages that I like. And you end up with these contortions of interpretation that make people read the Bible very poorly because you end up reading the 180 degree opposite idea in these biblical accounts than what is presented straightforwardly. And so I think one reason why I care about this is I want people to read the Bible well and not be throwing out, in essence, half of the stories that are received in, in scripture.

But I think for me it goes even deeper than that, is what I’ve noticed is that I think an underlying reason why people are resistant to embracing these very clear passages that talk about God in human-like ways is because they ultimately do not want to see God as a person. Now, I know that it’s popular for Christians to say that God’s a person, and that’s one of the things that differentiates Western religions from, say, Eastern religions like Buddhism, where Buddhism is a impersonal deity idea.

It may be like energy or these other kinds of things, but traditionally Christianity has seen God as a person. However, God can’t really be a true person if God has no limits, if God never changes, if God has no emotions. If God is everywhere, you know, if God is omnipresent, there is nothing, no place where God is not, well then how could God have consciousness?

Consciousness is an idea where one mind is able to differentiate itself from another entity and know that I’m not that. But if God is coterminous with everything that is, if God is absolutely everywhere and there’s no limit. Then how could God have any kind of self reference point because God is everything.

And so I think the reason why people don’t want to see God as a person is because people are unpredictable and you actually have to trust a person because that person can do things that you may not like, that you may not expect. And so I think what’s happened over the years is traditional Western Christianity has turned God into a form of like an algorithm or an abstract idea.

And the thing with an algorithm is if we know the rules on how it operates, we’re now in control because if we know that if I do A, B, and C, I get D as a result and I want D as a result, then all I have to do is A, B, and C and I get what I want. But with a person, it’s different. The person can come to us and we have to deal with that person, you know, we have to like negotiate with that person, sometimes the person does things we don’t like, we’re no longer in control. For me, that’s the underlying reason why for so long Christianity institutionally has been resistant to a human like God. 

Jared: It’s safer, right? 

Pete: It is safer. 

Jared: Let’s treat God like a vending machine, where if I just put in the money and I push these buttons, I know exactly what I’m going to get out.

Pete: Yeah. Prayer too, Charles, right? I mean, it’s like, that’s why, oh Lord, do your will, but you know, your will is perfect anyway, but I’m going to ask you to do something that maybe you’re not thinking of right now, but you know. It makes prayer really difficult to have this omniscient being who won’t change, I guess.

Charles Halton: Yeah. And you know, you have these examples in the Hebrew Bible of individuals like Abraham negotiating with God and saying, Hey God, please, please don’t do this. You know? And then God considers that and says, okay, I won’t do it if there’s this thing that happens. And then Abraham kind of keeps negotiating them down. And you have the Psalms, which have these very deep relational components to them that seem like they’re designed to persuade God to do something. But if God doesn’t change God’s mind, why are you trying to persuade God to do something?

[Ad break]

Jared: Can you say more about, because there’s a reason why we ended up with this more abstract, distant, perfect God than maybe the God we find in the Hebrew Bible, you know, we run into some problems with a God who can feel capricious or can, can seem like God isn’t in control. So what are the benefits or how do we work around maybe some of these challenges of an embodied God?

Charles Halton: Yeah, let me quickly address something in the very first part of your question. You started asking about why people have been so resistant to it, and I think there are a couple of reasons, you know, one of them is a charitable interpretation that says, this is a chaotic world, it can be scary, and it’s really nice to have something dependable, reliable, that doesn’t change, and that’s true of me too, you know, most humans, I think, You know, at times get a little bit overwhelmed with the seeming chaos and randomness of what happens.

So I think that’s a legitimate response. There’s another response though, for institutional Christianity for so long, when it was adopted by empires and kings and princes, Christianity was used to support a hierarchical structure of power within the societies. And it’s really convenient to go to people and say, you know what? You were born a peasant and we can’t really change that, I’m sorry, because God really doesn’t change and God has made the world and this is the way it is. And so you just got to like put your head down and work hard. And I think for a long time. This disembodied view of God was used to support these types of power structures, and that I think was one of the reasons why the Christian church branded the stuff that I think is clear in the Hebrew Bible as heresy, and they physically killed people who tried to talk about God in those ways, because it was a direct threat to their own power, and the pyramid structure of the societies that they had made.

Pete: Can you give an example, Charles, of that, the threats that people were considered heretics for saying what exactly about God? 

Charles Halton: Well, I mean, the idea that God would change God’s mind, you know? 

Pete: That’s a big one. 

Charles Halton: I mean, that’s a pretty big one. God doesn’t know the future. God is not omnipotent. God has limits and God’s not infinite. You know, you go pretty much down the list and they’ve killed somebody for something, you know, in that list of omnis. 

Pete: Yeah. I know that, you know, you know, Jared and I, we both have a Calvinist background as well, at least academically and what is the Westminster confession of faith, right? God has no passions.

Charles Halton: Right. Exactly. 

Pete: That leads us, which is a later example. This has been going on for a lot longer than just that. But that leads people, I guess, as you’re saying, to denigrate that human portrayal and to sort of categorize it in a safe way that doesn’t affect their theology. And I think you mentioned something that caught my attention before.

You said that calling them anthropomorphisms, which maybe you can define what that is, but calling them anthropomorphisms is one of those attempts, I think, to sort of marginalize this and almost explain it away. 

Charles Halton: Yeah. 

Pete: Okay, so what is an anthropomorphism and then how is the human portrayal of God not an anthropomorphism?

Charles Halton: So an anthropomorphism, in my understanding, is sort of a sub unit of metaphor. So when you say something is an anthropomorphism, you’re saying it’s appearing like a human, and then you would say, well, that’s only a metaphor. It has no material correspondence to reality. It’s like a spiritual saying, it’s just like a teaching aphorism.

It’s not meant to be taken literally, you know, it’s representing a spiritual truth is how I think a lot of people would address the anthropomorphism kind of thing. So let me give you an example. We have the idea of God changing God’s mind. So John Calvin came to that, and there’s the Noah’s Flood, where God brought this catastrophic flood on the earth, killed almost every person and every animal that wasn’t in Noah’s Ark.

Afterward, God expresses regret and says, man, I shouldn’t have done that. And so Calvin said, okay, when we read that God had grieved or had regret, that really doesn’t mean that God actually regretted something. He came up with a term, uh, accommodation and said, it’s these authors of scripture accommodating God’s self to human ears.

So, since we’re finite and mortal, we cannot understand something that’s infinite and divine. And so, we have to use, in a sense, false language to make sense for us what’s going on with God. And so, Calvin even explicitly said, we’re the ones who grieve as humans. But God doesn’t, and the funny expression he uses, God always remains reclined in his happy repose.

Pete: That’s awesome. 

Charles Halton: Where God never gets upset. 

Pete: That is awesome, Charles. 

Charles Halton: It’s really awesome. 

Pete: Yeah. And that, I mean, just to throw a, I mean, a tidbit in here, that, that’s very old, that, that’s in the Septuagint. 

Charles Halton: Yeah. 

Pete: In the Greek translation of the flood story, it changes it to, uh, God thought and pondered. Rather than regretted because they couldn’t handle it back then, which gets to your point.

It’s the Greek philosophical influence, not to make this too simplistic, but this is an old issue. And you wonder how the writers of the Hebrew Bible would have felt about that. 

Charles Halton: Yeah, it’s a very old issue. And, you know, I think the writers of the Hebrew Bible would have had trouble with it. I mean, they wrote what they wrote.

And I guess my point was, is, yeah, maybe there’s some kind of metaphorical component to some of these descriptions of God, but at the end of the day, a metaphor is trying to teach something. That’s why people use it. You’re trying to open a window into who God is and describe God in some way. And so even if we’re not going to like say, okay, a hundred percent of the metaphor is literal truth, some part of it needs to be, otherwise the writers of the Hebrew Bible were terrible at what they were doing because they got across something that was completely false. And so why would a good writer do that? 

Jared: Yeah, what I’m hearing you say is, is there’s a sense we’re almost like embarrassed as modern people, embarrassed by the miracles of the Bible or the way God’s portrayed. And so there’s an impulse to, to spiritualize everything so that we can do away with some of the things that we might feel are kind of embarrassing. And not to put words in your mouth, but I kind of think of that as an extreme example of this impulse to do that. And then when you do it, the challenge becomes like, well, what are they trying to actually communicate here?

When God regrets something, what’s the lesson here? And how do you get there without really having to take some, some big leaps in terms of, how language is understood, you know, when it’s talking about how God interacts with the world. It’s hard to see how you can spiritualize that without completely kind of neutering what the authors are trying to say.

Charles Halton: Yeah, and you end up not being able to read the story at all. Nothing makes sense anymore, especially in this Noah story that we were talking about. When God regrets it, and God makes a promise to the world that God won’t do that destructive act again, and then God places God’s battle bow, in a sense, in the sky, and it’s this origin story of the rainbow.

And what’s really fascinating is that for years I had heard that story in Sunday school and I thought, Oh, that’s so nice. Every time I look at the rainbow, I can be reminded of how good God is. But the actual story of Genesis says God made the rainbow to remind God to not get this mad again and do this destructive act again. The rainbow is there for God. So God remembers. And so, like, I don’t know how you read those stories to have any kind of coherence if you don’t admit that God has some kind of human-like qualities. 

Jared: And I just thought of the irony of Calvin’s explanation, and I think I’m drawing this out because I still think this is the logic of a lot of Christian traditions, which is, “No, we actually, we know better than what the Bible actually says.”

Pete: Yeah, right. [Laughing]

Charles Halton: Right. 

Jared: “Um, so that has to be God just accommodating to us and kind of almost lying to us so that we can understand it because what we really know is not what the Bible says and so we have to have some kind of mechanism to dismiss what it’s actually saying, to posit a theology that we’ve developed since then that makes more sense to us.”

Charles Halton: Yeah, you know, we have to protect ourselves against the Bible. That’s really what it is. 

Pete: Well, yeah, there you go. [Pete and Jared laugh]

Charles Halton: But look, it’s, you know, it’s a very recent phenomenon, you know, historically speaking, that people are able to read the Bible in their own language. There was a reason why the Roman church prevented the Bible from being translated into vernacular languages, because once people start reading this stuff, they find out things like this.

And so I think this protection mechanism against what the Bible is saying is deeply rooted in the Western Christian tradition.

[Ad break]

Jared: You know, we talk about the human-like portrayal of God in the Bible. And in the text, it’s considered to be male, right? There’s gendered language, God’s a male, at least in the grammar of the Hebrew Bible. So how would you talk about it if it’s not, when we’re talking about God and we’re talking about the embodied nature of God, how do we talk about the gendered language that we find in the Hebrew Bible?

Charles Halton: So, I talk about God as representing the entire gender spectrum. So you could say God is intersex maybe, but in some way I think God encapsulates all of the varieties of gender that exist. And it’s true that grammatically speaking, most of the verbs that are used, or almost all the verbs in the Hebrew Bible that refer to God are in the masculine.

And most of the examples, comparisons with God are male centric. There are a couple exceptions to that. For instance, Hosea describes God as a mother bear. In the book of Deuteronomy, God is described as a mother bird. There are some other examples we could point to. However, I think that when we talk about embodiment, one of the facets that I think is interesting is this idea that humans are created in God’s image.

And we read about that in some of the first pages of the book of Genesis. And very early interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, noticed something really interesting about that description of humans created in God’s image. Because in a couple accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 5, it says that God created humanity in God’s image.

Uh, he created A-dam. And male and female, he created him. And these early Jewish interpreters who, and then Christians, follow this approach later. They were really close readers of scripture, and so they noticed that Adam, this first person created by God, was created both male and female according to the text Genesis.

And so you have a guy like Rabbi Ben Eliazar, who’s one of the hugest, most influential early commentators on the Bible. He said, well, this has to mean that Adam was created as an androgynous person who had both genders. And other rabbis caught on to that as well. You have other people expand this out and say, well, when Eve was created, Eve wasn’t actually taken from Adam’s rib, as stereotypically people have thought about it.

That word in Hebrew for rib means like the side, like a wall or a side of a box. And so they said that what God did is God split the androgynous Adam in two parts and then healed up both of those sides to create a male and a female from that one original person. You know, there were other Christians like Gregory of Nyssa who helped form the Uh, what later became the Nicene Creed, which is central to many Christian expressions of worship.

And Gregory thought that sex difference, where you have male, female, eunuch, other, you know? That happened after the fall. Before the fall, the humans God created embodied the entire gender spectrum. And then Gregory also thought that after we die and go to heaven, we’ll reclaim that gender inclusiveness of ourselves and we won’t be a sex differentiated beings anymore.

And so I think there’s this long deep tradition of both in Judaism and Christianity for seeing God as embodying the entire reality that humans experience in sex and gender. So that’s why I like, you know, there’s some scholars who have really great motivation and they say, we want to call God a “she” to like right the imbalance that has been happening for thousands of years.

I think that’s a good motive. I prefer to just remind folks that, you know, humans don’t appear in two different genders. We appear in, you know, all kinds of constructions. And we don’t want to leave people out and think that they don’t represent the image of God because they don’t fit into a gender binary situation.

And so I really try to remind folks that God is this gender inclusive being. Not the genderless, as a lot of theologians try to say, but gender inclusive. 

Pete: Like Adam? 

Charles Halton: Like Adam, absolutely. 

Pete: Right, right. Exactly. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Well, in this, I mean, what really strikes me, Charles, about what you just said is, I think a really good thing for all of us to remember, and that is I think the Bible is worthy of close attention and reading it carefully and trying to understand and to recognize the dynamic intellectual energy put into this close reading of texts throughout Christian and Jewish history.

And I need to be reminded of that myself, and I know a lot of people I deal with on social media really need to be attentive to the fact that, you know, this is, um, I mean, people can agree or disagree, but the Bible is not a stupid book, and people who read it aren’t stupid either, and there are things in there that we all miss because we have our own, in this case, our theological bias is that all that human stuff is, is not really real and there’s something else that’s real. Or we know better than the biblical writers. They, I mean, I think we’re all limited, aren’t we, in our perspectives, but there’s a lot of depth there. 

Charles Halton: Absolutely. 

Pete: As well. So, yeah. 

Charles Halton: And, you know, you go back in history and some of these interpreters are brilliant people. And they come up with some fascinating stuff that, you know, you, you look back and you’re like, man, people 2000 years ago were talking about gender difference and God embodying all of these genders and what happens with human sexuality and different exceptional ways? I mean, all this stuff, you know, they were thinking about it, talking about it way before we were. 

Pete: Yeah. I have two questions I think tie together. Is there any sort of metaphorical God talk in the Bible, in your opinion? I’m not trying to trap you. I’m legitimately asking how you think through this process. The related, the second question is, whatever it is, we have to take the human-like portrayals of God seriously. Does that mean taking it literally? Because that’s, that is, I mean, it’s been so much a part of us to not think that way. 

Charles Halton: Yeah. 

Pete: Right? 

Charles Halton: Well, so the long short answer is I don’t know. So it might be. People have come up with so many different ways to explain away what the image of God is to avoid this idea that God would look like us physically.

They’ve come up with everything you can imagine because the last thing they want to believe is God looks like us. But if you go to Genesis 5, the same expressions of made in likeness and image are used. Where Adam has a son Seth and it says that his son Seth was in the image and likeness of his father Adam. And like the most natural way to interpret that is to say he’s a chip off the old block, he looks like his dad. But no one wants to say that about Genesis 1. And so I just think like why not? We’re spending so much energy to explain this away. That said, I certainly think there can be metaphorical usage of God, I don’t know what the proportion of that would be.

But at the end of the day, I think it has to represent a true reality of who God is if we want to take it seriously. And so my working definition of embodiment is a little bit a step back from that ledge. And so what I say embodiment is, is being located in a particular place, at a particular time, whatever the material construction of God is, but the key points are location and then embedded in time.

And it could be that God has arms and legs and stuff like this because God is pictured that way. in several parts of the Bible. It could be that God appears differently. However, even if it’s a metaphor, I think it still shows that God is embedded in the world, not outside of it. And that God has a particular location in the world and God is not everywhere at the same time.

Jared: You come to that conclusion because this is how the Bible itself portrays God, particularly in, in the Hebrew Bible. Is that the source that you’re drawing from primarily? 

Charles Halton: Absolutely. And like, this makes complete sense. And the Bible makes zero sense if we do not follow that. So for instance, one of the most central features of Hebrew religion is the temple in Jerusalem.

You would go to the temple, and that’s where God was. That was God’s house. That’s where God’s presence resided in the Holy of Holies. And so you would make your sacrifice there in Jerusalem at the temple, and then you would go back home. You did not sacrifice to Yahweh, to God, in your house. You didn’t do that at home. You had to go to God’s house in Jerusalem to sacrifice. To me, that’s just so blatantly obvious of God’s embodiment that I legitimately don’t know how you deal with Old Testament religion without that concept. 

Jared: Well, maybe, can we bring it—just because we’re running out of time here, but I want to make sure that we maybe bring it up to the present. What are some practical implications for embracing this, to recognize what the Bible is actually saying about God and God’s embodiment? 

Charles Halton: I think there are a lot. I’ll start with two. I think what it does is it shifts an idea of religious folks from believing in God to trusting in God. So it shifts an idea from, I can believe these facts or propositions about who God is and then I’m good with God—to saying, I embrace God as a person and I trust God at the end of the day. Even though it’s difficult, I don’t quite know what God’s going to maybe ask me to do. But I’m at a deep trust instead of just a cerebral mental ascent to certain ideas. I think that’s one. 

I think that what we find in the Bible, it seems to me, God goes through a process of God’s own self development and self realization as God interacts with creation and specifically humanity. And so you have things like this flood episode where God gets mad, flies off the handle and kills a bunch of people, but then regrets it and realizes it’s a mistake. And commits to not doing it again. You have things like in Deuteronomy, it’s pictured as from the mouth of God, you will never let a Moabite into the assembly of the worshiping community, because the Moabites were a group of people who did not come to the aid of the Hebrews as they were fleeing from Egypt.

And so God said, you got to punish these people forever. But then we have the book of Ruth, where Ruth is a Moabite. And exhibits better, more robust faith than any of the other Hebrew people. And she eventually gives birth to the king of Israel, David. And so you don’t get much more included into a people than being the great grandmother of their king. But you had God’s prohibition against that. 

And then, in the New Testament, you have the Gospel of Matthew that links in Jesus’s genealogy to Jesse, grandson of David. And so, in one sense, Jesus is saying, I’m the Moabite that was forever banned from being in the presence of God. But God has now realized that one of the tasks for us is to embrace all of the people that we traditionally exclude.

So our enemies become our friends. Is the trajectory that the Bible is on. So I think that you see a lot of these trajectories all throughout scripture. So my interpretation of this is in, in Christian tradition, at Pentecost, God gives God’s breath, God’s spirit to the world, because God’s presence is no longer here. And so Christian people are to be God’s presence. That’s why they’re even called Christians. It’s Christ with the diminutive. It’s little Christs, is what Christian means. 

So we are supposed to carry those trajectories forward. We notice them in the story of God’s people in Scripture, and then God comes to us and says, take this forward. Look at all the people who the community is excluding or mistreating or whatever, and you heal that. And you heal that by bringing them in, making them part of you. And so I think God is in that process as well. And so there’s this ancient concept of divine imitation. It’s common in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, where one of our tasks as human beings is to imitate God. And so if God is, is on this process of transformation to a more expansive, loving self, then we have to join God in that task as well. 

Pete: Boy, Charles, you’ve given us a lot to think about. I don’t appreciate, I don’t appreciate that at all, actually. I was all settled. I knew everything about God. I’m sure our listeners did too, and here you go, messing with things. [Charles chuckles]

But, you know, that’s what it is when we ponder God. I think we’re going to need to be ready to think outside of our boxes, I think. And the irony here is that the Bible has various boxes that we’re maybe not really that familiar with. So, but thank you so much for being here and taking the time and for having written this beautiful book, The Human Shaped God.

Charles Halton: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to

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Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget you can catch our other show, Faith for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Hodge, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Lauren O’Connell, Jessica Shao, and Naiomi Gonzalez.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.