A painting from artist Jill Nathanson’s Seeing Sinai suite, an exploration of Exodus 33-34, in which Moses asks to see the face of God.
The title of The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, the ingenious new book by Benjamin D. Sommer, sounds like a paradox, and a provocative one. After all, if there’s one thing everyone knows about Judaism, it is that the Jewish God does not have even one body, much less bodies in the plural. The gods of Greece and Egypt may have had bodies, but wasn’t the great innovation of Jewish monotheism its insistence that the divine is wholly transcendent? Doesn’t Judaism—like Islam, but markedly unlike Christianity—ban depictions of God from its places of worship? Just remember the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.”
As Sommer shows, however, it is the things everyone knows, especially when it comes to religion and the Bible, that usually turn out to be myths. That is why the very first sentences of the book insist, “The God of the Hebrew Bible has a body. This must be stated at the outset, because so many people, including many scholars, assume otherwise.” A professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Sommer begins his closely argued study by reminding us of all the instances in the Bible where it is taken for granted that God has not just a body, but a specifically human or human-like one.
In Genesis, God creates Adam “in our form, according to our shape”; He walks in the Garden of Eden in the cool of evening; He visits Abraham in the form of a traveler. In Exodus, He speaks to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” The prophets, too, often claim to have seen God in the flesh: “I saw my Lord, sitting on a throne high and lifted up; His clothing filled the palace,” says Isaiah. “I saw God standing at the altar,” says Amos. In each of these cases, Sommer writes, God’s body is like “any other body (human or nonhuman, animate or inert): The divine body portrayed in these texts was located in a particular place at a particular time. It was possible to say that God’s body was here (near Abraham’s tent, for example) and not there (inside the tent itself), even if God’s knowledge and influence went far beyond that particular place.”
True, the Bible does sometimes say that human beings are forbidden to see God’s body. But as Sommer points out, when God tells Moses, “A man cannot see Me and live,” this does not mean that God has no body to see, but just the reverse; otherwise the warning would be unnecessary. “Similarly,” he writes in one of the book’s many touches of dry humor, “the statement ‘one cannot touch a high-voltage wire and live,’ does not mean that there is no such thing as a high-voltage wire; on the contrary, high-voltage wires are dismayingly, dangerously real. So is the embodied deity of the Hebrew Bible.”
That the biblical God has a body is, then, not the thesis of Sommer’s book, but its premise. What interests him is the various understandings of this body that can be found in the Bible, and in particular, the ongoing intra-biblical debate over whether God’s body is one or multiple, and whether it resides on earth or only in heaven. Because the very notion of a plural body is hard for modern minds to grasp, Sommer begins the book by examining several ancient Near Eastern texts that show how natural it seemed to the peoples of that place and time.
Babylonian deities like Ishtar and Canaanite ones like Baal regularly appear in the plural, and seem to reside in several cities at once. The practice of idolatry, of course, depends on the idea that the same God can inhabit many idols simultaneously. We tend to think of idol-worship as a primitive and even rather stupid practice—how could people really believe that the work of their own hands was divine? But as Sommer shows, the Babylonians used a sophisticated technology of prayers and rituals transform the wood and stone of the idol into an actual god. One such ritual involved the (symbolic) amputation of the idol-maker’s hands, as if to demonstrate that the idol had in fact made itself.
The Israelites were by no means immune to such ideas. Both archeological and biblical evidence, skillfully marshaled by Sommer, plainly shows that the early Israelites also worshipped God in stone and wood idols. Traces of these practices survive the attempts of later biblical editors to scour them out of the text. Thus in 2 Kings, we read that King Jehoahaz of the Northern Israelite kingdom used an asherah, a wooden pole or tree, as part of his worship of Yhwh (as Sommer transliterates the divine name). More famously, Jacob, after dreaming of a stairway to heaven, “took the stone he had set beneath his head, and set it up as a massebah”—that is, a stone idol. Sommer suggests that when Jacob poured oil on this stone, he was performing an equivalent of the Babylonian rituals that transformed idols into living gods.
The notion that God can have multiple bodies, then, is present in the earliest strata of the Bible. What concerns Sommer is the way this understanding of God—“the fluidity model,” as he calls it—does battle with the later and more influential “anti-fluidity model,” which restricts God’s presence to a single place. The Book of Deuteronomy gives canonical expression to the latter view in the Shema, which reads, in Sommer’s suggestive translation, “Yhwh our God is one Yhwh.” Deuteronomy further insists that this one body of God lives exclusively in Heaven and never comes down to Earth, as it seems to in Genesis and Exodus.
For other biblical authors, however, God’s body does dwell on the earth, though they disagree about precisely where. In Sommer’s central and most exciting chapters, he traces the Bible’s curiously self-contradictory account of the way God spoke with Moses during the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. According to one strand of the text, the one Bible scholars call “E” (because it refers to God as Elohim), Moses would summon God by pitching a tent outside the Israelites’ camp, whereupon “a pillar of cloud would come down and … God would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” But according to another strand, “P” (the priestly tradition), God dwelled in a tabernacle at the center of the camp—built according to a blueprint given in Numbers—and stayed there constantly, as witnessed by the fact that a pillar of cloud was always hanging above it.
Because Sommer is the rare scholar who combines knowledge of Akkadian with knowledge of Derrida, he goes on to develop a brilliant deconstructive reading of these rival models of divine presence. Is God at the center of the world, as P suggests, or at the fringe, as E would have it? A historian or textual critic, Sommer concedes, would read P and E as motivated by rival political and religious ideas that reflect their origins in specific moments of Israelite history. But Sommer takes a different and more creative, or fanciful, approach, arguing for “the possibility that we can understand a religious text as manifesting religious intuitions that are essentially timeless.” A God who stays in one place is experienced differently than a God who roams, just as a God who can inhabit many bodies or sacred spaces is different from a God who remains always in Heaven.
Indeed, as Sommer goes on to show, the questions about God’s body that are raised in the Hebrew Bible resonate throughout the later history of Judaism, down to the medieval kabbalists, and also in Christianity, with its doctrine of incarnation. They are not settled even today, and Sommer hopes that his “fluidity model” of God’s embodiment might present a stimulating challenge to contemporary Judaism: it “renders God an unfathomable being, but nevertheless one with whom we can enter into dialogue.” The Bodies of God is a formidably complex and technical book, but Sommer’s mission is as much theological as scholarly, and he succeeds in creatively unsettling the reader’s view of what the Jewish God is and might be.
Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.