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What Did Yahweh Look Like?

fourth century Judean coin

For many, the question of how Yahweh (God) might have looked is irrelevant. In Deut 4:12, Yahweh’s physical appearance is left unspecified: “Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (italics added). The verse implies that Yahweh has an unseen form or has no appearance at all.

Historians of religion, however, find abundant evidence that Yahweh was commonly imagined using attributes of other ancient Near Eastern gods, especially weather and solar deities. In the tradition of the exodus, for example, Yahweh is depicted as both a storm god and a warrior (see Exod 15)—features that are also present in the Egyptian Baal-Seth. Traditions about Yahweh since the early monarchy have parallels in ancient Near Eastern solar deities and deities associated with vegetation (see Mal 3:10, Ps 72). Moreover, the Bible provides a rich spectrum of metaphors for God (e.g., father, lover). Although these images are not meant to provide information about God’s actual appearance, they clearly show that God was understood anthropomorphically.

Archaeological sources also seem to provide visual depictions of Yahweh. One image and inscription from Kuntillet Ajrud may depict Yahweh with a female companion (“his Asherah”). A small statue representing a chair with a bigger and smaller seat may also be explained in this way—a seat each for the divine pair. One finds a similar combination of a bigger and a smaller upright stones in two masseboth (stone pillars) in Arad, albeit without any specific image. Finally, an Achaemenid period coin inscribed with the word Yehud depicts a supreme deity as a seated figure with a wing, a wheel, and a falcon ready to fly. This was possibly intended, and probably understood, as a reference to Yahweh. It is important to note that while the individuals who used these images may have accepted them as appropriate visual depictions of Yahweh, other segments of society would have held different opinions.

It is possible, as many scholars have argued, that the Jerusalem temple held a statue of Yahweh. Nothing is known about its possible appearance, however, and this statue would possibly have been inaccessible to most people in the Holy of Holies. The temple itself may have become one of the symbols of God’s presence, especially after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 B.C.E. (see, for example, Ezek 40-42).

In the centuries around the exile (roughly the 7th to 4th centuries BCE), there was a general trend in the Near East toward abstract or symbolic representations of the divine: for example, fire (see Gen 15:17, Exod 3), light (see Exod 25, Exod 37), and an empty throne (compare 1Sam 4:4, Isa 37:16, Ezek 10:18). God’s glorious radiance (Exod 16:10) and name (Deut 12:10-11) are further symbolic expressions of God’s appearance or presence, which may have had visual antecedents (see Lewis 2016).

Historically, there is precedent for this shift in the scarcity or absence of cultic images for Yahweh during Israel’s early nomadism, where natural features of the landscape—including trees and unhewn stones—were more amenable. The lack of images, however, became a programmatic cultic aniconism (the giving up or banning of cultic material images) in Babylon, as the exiles had to come to terms with the destruction of the temple and its attributes. The rejection of cultic imagery (in material form) led to an emphasis on the “word”—the Torah. Ironically, this emphasis on the Torah, which grew out of aniconism, later became a material veneration of the “iconic book,” with ritual practices developing around scrolls of sacred Scripture.

  • de-hulster-izaak

    Izaak J. de Hulster is university researcher and docent at the University of Helsinki. One of his specializations is the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible through its contemporary visual culture. He is founding cochair of the SBL Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Bible program units. He is the author of—among others—Iconographic Exegesis and Third Isaiah (Mohr Siebeck, 2009) and editor (with Brent Strawn and Ryan Bonfiglio) of Iconographic Exegesis of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: An Introduction to Its Method and Practice (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015).