God: a giant with a human body … and unambiguously male

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By Rosie Dawson

God: An Anatomy is the book Francesca Stavrakopoulou says she wishes someone had written for her when she was a student. As an undergraduate reading theology at Oxford, Stavrakopoulou, now professor of the Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at Exeter University, says she was struck by the bodiliness of God, which she saw everywhere in the Bible. She was also struck by the fact that her teachers seemed to ignore it.

“To talk about God as having body was seen as somehow a primitive or unsophisticated interpretation of these texts,” she told a Religion Media Centre briefing. She was directed to read the texts as poetry, metaphor or literary artistry rather than as a reflection of people’s literal understanding of God. She argued that post-biblical understandings of God had been read back into the Bible, which meant that the similarities between the god of the ancient and the gods she read about in other ancient texts from Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt were glossed over.

“Everyone was very comfortable to talk about the body of Marduk [the chief god of the city of Babylon], for example, but no one was very comfortable talking about the body of the biblical God.

“The God of Christianity, and the God of Judaism today is not the same deity as the deity that we find in New Testament texts, or the Dead Sea Scrolls or Hebrew Bible,” she said.

The Hebrew Scriptures date from the eighth century through to the second century BCE. They reflect within themselves a debate about the nature of God and his relationship to Canaanite and Babylonian deities. Archaeological and textual evidence, as well as evidence from within the Bible itself, suggest that Yahweh, the god of the Israelites, originally sat within a pantheon presided over by the High God, El.

“The idea of having a solitary god who’s not networked into a broader heavenly household would have been extraordinary in the ancient world,” Stavrakopoulou says. Over time Yahweh is prioritised over and above other deities and becomes identified with El himself. He also takes on the roles and functions other deities as Israelite religion begins its gradual move towards Jewish monotheism.

In her book Stavrakopoulou takes the reader on a tour of God’s body.

“When God’s body is being spoken about it’s not being spoken about, metaphorically,” she says. “This is a God who’s got this gigantic, but largely human body.” The tour begins from the bottom-up, with his feet.

“Yahweh talks about his feet a lot in the Hebrew Bible; he describes Jerusalem as the place for the soles of his feet, the place where he will dwell. This is about his territory, his place where he is grounded. And that maps on to all sorts of other ideas about power. Kings and pharaohs and other deities use their feet in extraordinarily varied ways to demonstrate territorialism and political power.”

Other chapters in the book consider God’s genitals. The Israelite God is unambiguously male. Stavrakopoulou references a famous passage in which the prophet Isaiah has a vision of God. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” (Isaiah 6:1)

“Isaiah talks about the lower extremities of God filling the temple. We’re used to reading this language as referring to the edge of a garment, because that’s often how [the language] is used in some of the priestly writings of the Hebrew Bible. But in prophetic literature in which this text appears, it’s more usually used to index ideas about genitalia. This God is portrayed in many texts, particularly by the prophets, as not just a masculine God but a sexual God who is capable of having a sex life.”

Ancient Hebrew inscriptions dating from the eighth century BCE and discovered in the 1960s and 1970s show that Yahweh had a consort, Asherah. There are hints of this divine power-couple in the Bible, but by the time of the sixth century BCE, Asherah faces demotion and is portrayed as a toxic idol who lures Yahweh’s worshippers away from him and into idolatry.

However, as Stavrakopoulou writes, God’s most significant sexual relationship in the Bible is not with Asherah but with the people of Israel, personified as a faithless wife or whore. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea all portray God as the wronged and punishing partner.

Professor Katherine Southwood from Oxford University, said she was especially struck by the way Stavrakopoulou’s research uncovers ideas about gender and power embedded within the biblical texts. “So many of the texts in the Hebrew Bible quite problematically depict Israel as a woman using sexualised metaphors, for example, equating idolatry with adultery, or worship of other gods with prostitution. And I think these kinds of things can be damaging and problematic.” She said Biblical scholars had a responsibility to make sure that they engage with the public and curate the biblical texts carefully, and to read them ethically.

The Babylonian exile, which saw an elite class of Israelites removed from their homeland, was a watershed period in Israelite religion during which ideas about God were reframed. Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, director of leadership and learning at the Pears Foundation, said Stavrakopoulou’s book helped the reader to understand how worshippers of Yahweh were navigating their new social and religious environment.

The move away from understanding their god in a bodily way was to distance themselves from Babylonian cult statues and is reflected in what is known as Deutero-Isaiah. “[He is asking] how do you punch up when you’ve been downtrodden? A lot of the shifting theological ideas, from the period of the Babylonian exile onwards, very much reflect the attempt to disempower these colonial oppressors. by saying, ‘Our God is nothing like your God’.”

Adrian Thatcher, honorary professor in the department of theology and religion at Exeter University, said the ideas in Stavrakopoulou’s books were important for Christians.

“It gives is a unique insight into what the ancient Hebrews’ perceptions of God were. It also gives us a really remarkable understanding of the context in which ideas of God arose, which of course, the Christians inherited.”

Rabbi Jonathan Romain, from Maidenhead Synagogue, said the ideas in God: An Anatomy were challenging and call for a religious honesty.

“First, we really don’t know an awful lot about the Bible period,” he said. “We’ve only got the Bible’s word for it and not enough contemporary records. We assume a lot. Second, there’s an awful amount of back-reading that goes on which miscolours what the actual situation was …

“This applies not just academics, of course, but to religious leaders. It begs the question, ‘Is the Bible the final word? Or is it just one stage of a sort of religious evolution?’ And the Jewish answer I suppose to that question is yes to both!”

God: An Anatomy, by Francesca Stavrakopoulou, is published by Pan Macmillan

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