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The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel.

THE BODIES OF GOD AND THE WORLD OF ANCIENT ISRAEL. By Benjamin D. Sommer. New York: Cambridge University, 2009. Pp. xv + 334. $85.

This complex book about biblical and postbiblical perceptions of God's "physicality" and presence is unusual in many regards. The text occupies only pages 1-174, and a full 100 pages, 175-275, are devoted to endnotes. Sommer's approach is, by his own design, simultaneously scholarly and popular, and he attempts to address widely diverse interests: Jewish mysticism, Jewish and Christian theology, comparative literature, religious education, classics, Assyriology, Ugaritology, and, in general, biblical studies. Finally, his methodologies for understanding biblical texts are sometimes unusually jarring.

S., a professor of biblical and Semitic language studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, tries to do too much and attempts to bridge too many disciplines, with the result that, despite his impressive erudition and command of the literature, he ultimately fails to bring clarity to a difficult concatenation of ideas. Nonetheless, even though one may disagree with his conclusions and even his methodology, what he has to say provocatively forces a rethinking of commonly understood biblical categories and a reexamination of concepts of the presence of God. This challenge to examine our own ways of thinking about how God is present to us makes the book well worth reading.

The study's theme and purpose--and perhaps a clue to its complexity--are summarized in a note preceding the table of contents: "Sommer investigates the notion of God's body and God's self in ancient Israel, Canaan, and Mesopotamia. He uncovers a lost ancient Near Eastern perception of divinity according to which an essential difference between gods and humans was that gods had more than one body and fluid, unbounded selves." Further, in his own introduction S. asserts "the God of the Hebrew Bible has a body. This must be stated at the outset.... God has many bodies located in sundry places in the world that God created" (1).

The problem with this thinking is that S. fails to distinguish between the physical repercussions of a theophany and the theophany itself. The OT frequently attributes dramatic disruptions in the natural order of things (see, e.g., Hab 3:3) when God is present, but these physical manifestations do not necessarily imply a corporeality in God. In chapter 3, "The Rejection of the Fluidity Model in Ancient Israel," S. describes kavod, "glory," as a shining body of God (58-62), whereas it is much more likely a description of the physical result of God's noncorporeal presence. Similarly, he interprets those references to Near Eastern gods (including, as he idiosyncratically renders it, "Yhwh") who are mentioned as gods of various places or are given a variety of epithets, as suggesting a fragmentation or "multiple embodiment" of the divinities (24-30), whereas the more usual interpretation is that the god, say Baal, is at one time active in Sidon, at another time in Tyre or elsewhere, or acting now in this manner, now that.

When the Bible mentions the angel or messenger of YHWH (ml'k yhwh), such as in Genesis 32 where such a figure wrestles with Jacob, S. sees this "angel" as God's fragmented self in a "small-scale manifestation," reflecting "the belief that the selves of an angel and the God Yhwh could overlap" (41). It is at least as likely that the authors in this and similar passages (e.g., in Gen 18 and 19) wished to express the physical repercussions of God's presence but avoid excessive anthropomorphism and thus being compromised by a representative of God.

Although S. discusses Adam and Eve as "exiles" in the garden (109-18), surprisingly he does not analyze the varied modalities of God's presence in the Priestly and Yahwist creation stories of Genesis 1-3, modalities that clearly bespeak an effort to assert God's immanence while preserving his transcendence. Even God's "walking in the cool of the evening" does not necessarily bespeak a belief in God's having a body; rather it functions as a poetic way of expressing how intimate God is with his new creation.

S. briefly pursues later Jewish thought, especially the Kabbalah, offering an interesting discussion of "sexual descriptions of interactions among aspects of God" (130). In his brief foray into Christian perspectives, S. surprisingly observes that "J and E are Catholic in an even more significant way: Just as the Israelite God became present in many bodies on earth as Israelites anointed stelae and sacred poles, so too the Christian God's body is present in many locations at once whenever Catholics or Orthodox Christians gather for the Eucharist" (135).

In addition to the extensive notes, there are a large bibliography and scriptural and subject indexes. Throughout, wherever there are citations in Hebrew script, either a transcription or a translation is provided.


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Author:Fulco, William J.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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