The takeaway: you should read this book.
The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. By Benjamin D. Sommer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 334 pp., $85 cloth.
What do we make of the numerous instances within the Old Testament that portray God as having a discrete form? Do we explain them away as mere anthropomorphisms and in the process “collect copious and convincing examples of God’s embodied nature, only to deny the corporeality of the biblical God on the basis of an unsupported assertion that the biblical authors didn’t really mean it at all” (8) or do we take these instances seriously and conclude that the biblical authors believed that God did have a body? Sommer takes the latter approach since “[t]he evidence for this simple thesis is overwhelming” (1).
In Bodies of God Benjamin Sommer, professor of Bible and ancient Semitic languages at Jewish Theological Seminary of America, attempts two tasks: to demonstrate that in the Hebrew Bible God has more than one body and to explore the implications of this for a religion or biblical theology of the Hebrew Bible (1). Sommer’s thesis will no doubt elicit strong initial reactions, however, his definition of a “body” is not as controversial as it first appears: something located in a particular place at a particular time, whatever its shape or substance (2).
Sommer begins by examining the perspectives of other ancient Near Eastern cultures and concludes that people had a fluid view of divine embodiment which included multiplicity of personhood and location. This is clearly seen in Mesopotamia in documents such as Enuma Elish in which various deities are equated with one another yet they simultaneously remain independent (17). Some ritual texts merge two gods together as implied in the name, dDagan-Ashur, which includes only one DINGER sign (a determinative that indicates the divine nature of the person; normally each object or person would have its own determinative) which indicates that the author apparently perceived Dagan-Ashur as one god even though Dagan and Ashur were also separate deities (18). Furthermore, Mesopotamian rituals, such as m?s pî “washing the mouth” and p?t pî “opening the mouth,” were performed to cause gods to inhabit idols. In addition to gods inhabiting one idol, there were often multiple statues of a deity in different locations, therefore, the deity was present in several places simultaneously (22). This is also seen in localized versions of divine names such as Ishtar of Arbela and Ishtar of Nineveh (35).
It is clear that Levantine cultures shared many religious perspectives with Mesopotamia. Most striking is the appearance of localized manifestations of Yahweh within inscriptional material: Yahweh of Samaria, Yahweh of Teman, etc. Also, Sommer draws a parallel between the divinely inhabited images, ?almu, in Mesopotamia and divinely inhabited houses, bêt, and pillars, ma??ebah, within ancient Israel (28-29).
Furthermore, biblical writers often portray Yahweh as embodied. Yahweh waited on top of Mt. Sinai for ten months until the tabernacle was finished which he then inhabited: “For P, the Israelites became a nation, truly deserved the name Israel, only when God arrived in their midst and they responded accordingly–that is, when the tabernacle was complete and they initiated their worship” (111). Later, Yahweh resided in the Temple and subsequently left during the “Templeless period.” Within Christian tradition divine fluidity is codified in the doctrine of the Trinity (133). Sommer states that the theological model that undergirds a Trinitarian perception of God is consistent with classical Jewish belief: “No Jew sensitive to Judaism’s own classical sources, however, can fault the theological model Christianity employs when it avows belief in a God who has an earthly body as well as a Holy Spirit manifestation, for that model, we have seen, is a perfectly Jewish one” (135). Sommer further states: “The only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects” (135-36). Sommer sees P as “the most Christian section of Hebrew Scripture” (136) and this fact “renders deeply ironic many Christians’ aversion to this part of their scripture” (137).
However, not every part of the Hebrew Bible embraces divine embodiment. Sommer points to the Decalogue found in Deuteronomy which “downplays the notion of divine embodiment by insisting that God’s body never came to the earth” while the Decalogue in P tells us that God rested on the seventh day which portrays God has having a body that can rest (138). According to the deuteronomists God never dwells on earth but remains in heaven (139). Even though one spot is authorized and set aside as more special so that the cult can take place there, according to D the location is symbolic in “pointing toward God rather than housing God” (139).
Lastly, Sommer includes a lengthy appendix (145-74) on monotheism and polytheism in ancient Israel. While Israel shared many religious perceptions with cognate cultures, biblical religion distinguished itself from its neighbors with its emphasis on God as the exclusive creator of the universe over which he has complete control (173).
Sommer’s discussion of divine embodiment and fluidity within Mesopotamia and his application of it to the biblical texts is deeply fascinating and enlightening. Given the historical dominance of Christian scholars, who should at least in theory embrace a form of divine embodiment, within biblical theology it is quite striking that divine embodiment and fluidity are either rejected outright or almost entirely ignored by Old Testament theologians. Now that Sommer’s book is available no responsible Old Testament theology can neglect a discussion of these elements. Within Christian theology divine embodiment finds its clearest expression in the incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity is an explicit adoption of a fluid view of divine personhood. However, as Sommer has ably shown these perspectives are already embedded within the Hebrew scriptures and we are indebted to him for reminding us of this and encouraging us to integrate these concepts into biblical theologies.