Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

God, a general term for the deity (or, in the plural, deities). In the Bible, the word is used to refer both to the deity worshiped in the Judeo-Christian tradition (God) and to deities worshiped by other peoples (god or gods).

In the OT: In the ot, the word ‘God’ most often translates the Hebrew El (or the plural form, Elohim), the general Semitic term for deity which is probably derived from a root denoting power or strength. Although Israel’s faith apparently emerged from a polytheistic environment as a strong henotheism (i.e., worship of only one among a plurality of deities) and evolved into a highly developed ethical monotheism, the frequently used plural form should not be understood as a residue from an earlier period. The form is the plural of majesty (magnitude) and a sign of honor paid to the Deity.

The authors of the Bible do not concern themselves with abstract questions of definition (i.e., about the existence or nature of God) but rather portray God through a series of images or incidents in which God becomes the subject of the narrative rather than an object of thought. In the ot God is presented as the Creator and Sustainer of the world, who enters into covenantal relationship with a chosen people, Israel, and who guides the history of that people toward a redemptive goal. Although masculine images for God dominate (e.g., king, judge, father, brother, shepherd, etc.), it must be recognized that feminine images are also frequently used to describe God’s activity. Among these are images related to feminine anatomy (e.g., womb and breasts) and feminine function (e.g., conception, pregnancy, childbirth, maternal nurture, etc.).

It may be suggested, therefore, that any comprehensive understanding of the way in which God is portrayed in the ot must be grounded in an equally comprehensive understanding of Israel’s history, since history is seen as the primary locus of God’s self-revelation. In that history, the events surrounding the revelation of the divine name, the Exodus, and the establishment of the covenant at Sinai occupy a special place. In these incidents, many characteristics of God, more fully developed in other narratives, are illustrated. For example, the transcendent Deity, who controls both nature and history, draws near to Israel in a highly personal, even intimate, way. In the covenant, the past beneficence of God and a concern for all people are connected with an emphasis on the holiness, justice, righteousness, and wrath of a Deity who alone is to be worshiped. It is, indeed, the story of this Deity, first known only partially, then by name (Yahweh) as the God of Israel (henotheism), and ultimately as the one true God (radical monotheism), that unfolds in the pages of the ot.

In the NT: In the nt, the word ‘God’ translates the Greek theos, also a general term for deity and used in the Septuagint to translate El and Elohim. Since much has been written drawing sharp contrasts between ‘the God of the ot’ and ‘the God of the nt,’ it may be well to comment that in most respects there is a remarkable consistency in the portrayal of God throughout the Bible. Certainly, there is no solid ground for contrasting a God of wrath (ot) with a God of mercy (nt), for mercy and judgment are among the characteristics of God in both Testaments. The major difference is that the nt reflects the conceptual world of the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods (i.e., 100 b.c. to a.d. 100), a later stage in intellectual history than that of the ot. Further, belief in the incarnation substantially changes the understanding of God presented in the nt. For Christian thought, the primary locus of God’s self-revelation is not in the events of the history of a people but rather in the person of Jesus Christ (e.g., Matt. 1:23; John 14:9; 20:28-29). For this reason, the dominant image used to refer to God is the language of familial intimacy: Abba, Father.

Although reference to God as Father is not unique to Christianity (it is found in the ot, in late Judaism, and in other religions), it may be suggested that the doctrine of the incarnation brought new meaning to this familiar terminology. It seems likely that Christian use of this image originated in the teaching and practice of Jesus and was enriched as the first stages of trinitarian thought developed during the first century a.d. In the nt, although there are passages stressing the unity of Father and Son, a clear distinction is also drawn between the two. As in the ot, there is a balance between immanence and transcendence. While drawing near in the incarnation, God remains the Deity who alone is worshiped as Creator and Ruler of the world.

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