WHAT IS IDOLATRY? - God is not Physical

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God is not Physical

Error regarding God's nature often begins by attributing some type of physical existence to God. Such error is often the result of misunderstandings of passages in the Torah such as God sees or stands, or knows.

At times the teachers of Israel have had to correct these misunderstandings. The Rambam in "The Guide for the Perplexed" covers this issue in great detail. According to the Rambam,

"We have stated, in one of the chapters of this treatise, that there is a great difference between bringing to view the existence of a thing and demonstrating its true essence"
--The Guide for the Perplexed, 59

Demonstrating that God exists is different from explaining what God is. Human beings are limited to describing God in ways that make sense to us. We cannot talk about God except for in human terms. Because we can only use human terms to describe God sometimes we forget that these terms are really analogous to God's actions and do not describe God's essence (essence meaning what God is).

"That God exists was therefore shown to ordinary men by means of similes taken from physical bodies; that He is living, by a simile taken from motion, because ordinary men consider only the body as fully, truly, and undoubtedly existing; that which is connected with a body but is itself not a body, although believed to exist, has a lower degree of existence on account of its dependence on the body for existence. That, however, which is neither itself a body, nor a force within a body, is not existent according to man's first notions, and is above all excluded from the range of imaginations."

and he goes on to say,

"...The perception by the senses, especially by hearing and seeing, is best known to us; we have no idea or notion of any other mode of communication between the soul of one person and that of another than by means of speaking, i.e., by the sound produced by lips, tongue, and the other organs of speech. When, therefore, we are to be informed that God has a knowledge of things, and that communication is made by Him to the Prophets who convey it to us, they represent Him to us as seeing and hearing, i.e., as perceiving and knowing those things which can be seen or heard. They represent Him to us as speaking, i.e., that communications from Him reach the Prophets; that is to be understood by the term "prophecy," as will be fully explained."
--Guide for the Perplexed, 60

Human beings use terminology that makes sense to them to discuss God, a being beyond our experience. To talk about God at all means that we must use terms to communicate analogous ideas. Thus terms found in the Tanach that ascribe human qualities such as emotion, physical attributes such as eyes, a body, and limbs, or cognitive functions such as memory, knowledge, and wisdom are meant to be understood to describe God's actions, or inform of God's greatness but creating imagery that instills in us a sense of awe.

Not everyone understands the figurative nature of human attributes to God and thus such individuals mistakenly fall into idolatry. Understanding the simple truth that God is nothing like anything in creation can help us avoid idolatry.

We have already seen from scripture that God is alone, and we have also seen that God is not physical. To put it another way, so far what we have come to understand is that God is unique. His existence is unlike any other existence.

There is another thing that we can say, just as God is unique and has no equal within or beside him, God's essence is unique from every other kind of essence. In other words, God is a unique being. Since we know this it is fitting that the Hebrew Scriptures go on to teach us that not only is God unique, but God's identity is also unique.

In the next section we will discuss God's unique identity.



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