Thursday, July 12, 2018

Anthropomorphism in Jeremiah 31:20

I recently stumbled upon a passage in Jeremiah that makes for a great discussion on the nature of a kind of figure of speech called anthropomorphism.
Jeremiah 31:20
Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the LORD.
An anthropomorphism is "an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics: HUMANIZATION" (Merriam-Webster software dictionary © 2018).

The statement "The breeze through the trees moaned in deep grief" is an anthropomorphism because a breeze is not something that can literally experience grief.

Is God really "deeply moved" or is that description of God an anthropomorphism?

The vast majority of English translations translate the clause to express deep emotions on God's part. The English Standard Version is typical.
Therefore my heart yearns for him.
There are many in Christianity who will teach that, since God does not really feel emotions, the whole notion that God is "deeply moved" has to be an anthropomorphism. Indeed, a Christian might argue that being deeply moved by anything is undignified for a being such as God. There is a word for this theory of theology.
Impassibility: The characteristic, usually associated with God, of being unaffected by earthly, temporal circumstances, particularly the experience of suffering and its effects (Grenze, Guretzki, Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, IVP, OliveTree version).
We must remember that an important aspect of symbolism is that the symbol has real meaning. When somebody says that something in the Bible is a figure of speech, then the figure must carry with it an evident meaning. The symbol needs to denote something. For example:
John 15:1
​ “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
Jesus is not literally a vine nor is the Father a vinegrower (well, maybe the Father is a vinegrower; but that is not the point of this passage). Jesus being a vine is a figure of speech. It is not an anthropomorphism in this case but it is nevertheless a metaphor. The meaning becomes apparent with further reading of John 15. It means that Jesus provides a kind of spiritual nourishment to the branches (his disciples) so that they can thrive and bear fruit. His point is that the disciples should draw from Christ their spiritual nourishment and they are thus expected to use that energy to bless the world.

Do you see how a figure of speech denotes meaning? If there is no evident meaning to a speech figure, then one must reject that a description of something is a figure at all without real strong evidence.

What is the meaning in Jeremiah 31:20 when God says "I am deeply moved?" The clause denotes no meaning relative to the figure; so we strongly come out in favor of the clause not being a figure at all but rather, it is a literal description of God having grievous emotions!

But it gets better!

Jeremiah 31:20 has a hidden anthropomorphism that most translations do not translate literally. They instead translate the obvious meaning that is denoted by the figure.

Here are a few translations that are more literal at Jeremiah 31:20 (italics mine).
Is Ephraim a dear son unto me? is he a child of delights? For whilst I have been speaking against him, I do constantly remember him still. Therefore my bowels are troubled for him: I will certainly have mercy upon him, saith Jehovah (Darby).
Surely Ephraim is an honourable son to me, surely he is a tender child: for since I spoke of him, I will still remember him. Therefore are my bowels troubled for him: pitying I will pity him, saith the Lord (Douay-Rheims).
A precious son is Ephraim to Me? A child of delights? For since My speaking against him, I do thoroughly remember him still, Therefore have My bowels been moved for him, I do greatly love him, An affirmation of Jehovah (Young's).
The New Beacon Bible Commentary on Jeremiah 26-52 reports "The Hebrew phrase literally means, therefore, my bowels moan for him" (Alex Varughese, Mitchel Modine, Beacon Hill Press, 2010, print 140).

What we have in this verbiage is an anthropomorphism! The description of God's bowels making noise is a figure of speech. It denotes something. It describes God's real deep emotions about the trouble Ephraim suffered for the people's (nation's) sin.

The figure (growling bowels) denotes the meaning of deep emotional grief.

Let me draw a picture:

Growling bowels ⸻> deep emotion

Theologians that promote the doctrine of impassibility tend to prefer to call God's deep emotion here a figure of speech and then to move quickly along. More often, they see the weakness in their position and just avoid comment.

The NIV Study Bible provides only crossreferences to the verse.

The Reformation Study Bible (2015) completely avoids any comment on the verse.

Those who resist the notion that God has emotions are indeed forced to try to explain that this passage describes God having growling bowels (anthropomorphism) which denotes deep emotion which is itself an anthropomorphism which denotes... well, they don't know. It must be a mystery; but surely we should not accept that God is ever grieved about anything, right? A figure of speech denotes another figure of speech which denotes some mysterious meaning.

Growling bowels ⸺> deep emotion ⸺> unknown meaning

Just how gullible are we supposed to be?

I think this passage really helps us to appreciate the application of anthropomorphism. We don't just call it an anthropomorphism and quickly move on to something else. If we cannot discern an intended application of the figure, then we are strongly reluctant to accept the description as a figure at all.

John Calvin provides a good explanation of the meaning in this passage in his commentary on Jeremiah:
So also when God expresses the feelings of a tender father, he says that his bowels made a noise, because he wished to receive his people again into favor. This, indeed, does not properly belong to God; but as he could not otherwise express the greatness of his love towards us, he thus speaks in condescension to our capacities. (OliveTree version)
God wishes for things that do not ever come to be realized. God feels strong unrequited love. Exactly!

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