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Examining a Deity Made in Our Own Image

Stavrakopoulou insists on taking the authors of the Bible at their word when they depict God as possessing a human form.
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January 20, 2022

Jack Miles embraced an audacious literary device in his masterwork, “God: A Biography,” which presents the life story of the Almighty as if the authors of the Bible were telling the life story of a character in a book. The Pulitzer Prize Board endorsed his approach by awarding him the Pulitzer Prize in the category of biography in 1996. So what does Miles make of “God: An Anatomy” by Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Knopf)?  We find out in the blurb that appears on the back cover of her book: 

“Brilliant,” enthuses Miles. “Fascinating. A tour de force, a triumph. A stunning book.”

The truth that Stavrakopoulou tells in her book is perhaps best summed up in the old saying that “the emperor has no clothes” – and almost literally so. She recalls what she learned as an undergraduate when the gender of God was pondered: “[T]he way in which both feminist and traditionalist theologians proposed getting around this sticky issue was to insist that God couldn’t possibly have a sex or a gender, because God didn’t have a body.” But the Bible plainly “conjured a startling corporeal image of God as a human-shaped deity, who walked and talked and wept and laughed.”

So Stavrakopoulou insists on taking the authors of the Bible at their word when they depict God as possessing a human form.  She points out that “this potent figure had been somehow theorized away and replaced by the abstract being with whom we are more familiar today.” And, a real sense, she wrote “God: An Anatomy” for her younger self: “This is the book I’d have liked to read when I was at university.”

“By mapping God’s body, rather than the Bible itself,” she boldly announces, “[w]e can meet the real God of the Bible.

Stavrakopoulou is an authentic scholar who studied at Oxford and holds a chaired professorship in the Hebrew Bible at the University of Exeter.  As a featured presenter on the BBC and the History Channel, she knows how to address a lay audience without dumbing down her ideas or her information.  All of these skills are on display in “God: An Anatomy,” which is closely argued, deeply rooted in scholarship, richly illustrated, and yet both accessible and compelling.

“Anatomy,” as the word appears in the subtitle of her book, is used quite literally. The book divided into five sections: Feet and Legs, Genitals, Torso, Arms and Hands, and Head.  She points out how these body parts are attested in the biblical narrative, and she insists that the first readers of the Bible – if not the modern ones – were entirely comfortable with a deity with body resembled their own.

“In Genesis, Adam and Eve hear Yahweh’s footsteps approaching as he walks in the Garden of Eden,” she points out. “[L]ater in the same book, Abraham sees Yahweh standing with two other divine beings beneath a group of sacred trees, and subsequently goes for a walk with him.”  Nor are God’s feet merely a matter of happenstance: “In the Bible, God’s feet are crucial to his social existence – fundamental to his very being – and so they are the bodily features by which he often renders himself evident in the world.”

The author’s use of the male pronoun in reference to God is not merely a grammatical convention. “[T]he Biblical writers (and their later translators) have done their best to sanitizing the story by diluting Yahweh’s corporeal sexuality,” she points out. “Essentially, genitals were to be considered an aspect of the human condition, not the divine. And yet the body of the God of the Bible suggests otherwise.” When Ezekiel describes his glimpse of God, for example, he describes “God’s motnayim, a Hebrew word term traditionally (and politely) rendered ‘loins’ or ‘waist,’ but which more accurately refers to the groin and its genitals.”  Nor is Ezekiel “the only biblical figure to acknowledge God’s genitals,” writes Stavrakopoulou.

Such musings may be challenging to some readers, but Stavrakopoulou means only to inform and not to sensationalize.  Indeed, there is no part of the human body that she overlooks, but each organ is considered as way of understanding what the biblical authors intended to say about God and how their vision differs from our own.  At certain moments, her prose transcends her powers of analysis and explanation and approaches the sublime.

Consider, for example, a passage in Deuteronomy in which God beholds an infant named Jeshurun, a metaphorical reference to the people of Israel (Deut. 32:10). Conventional translations erase “an old Hebrew idiom…which refers to the eye’s pupil as ‘the little man’ – a vivid allusion to the tiny reflection that we can see of ourselves when we look closely into someone’s eye.”  For Stavrakopoulou, God’s utterance “goes beyond metaphor” and says something poignant about God himself. “His eyes were not simply seeing organs, but feeling organs,” she explains. “Translated more carefully, this ancient poem portrays the deity gazing at his baby so intently that the boy is imprinted onto God’s shiny black pupil.”

Throughout “God: An Anatomy,” Stavrakopoulou contrasts the differing perceptions of God in Jewish and Christian tradition.  If we use the Hebrew Bible as a benchmark, she insists, the Jewish tradition got it right.  

Throughout “God: An Anatomy,” Stavrakopoulou contrasts the differing perceptions of God in Jewish and Christian tradition.  If we use the Hebrew Bible as a benchmark, she insists, the Jewish tradition got it right. “The Christian construct of god as a transcendent, invisible and incorporeal being is a distorted refraction, not a reflection, of the biblical image of God.  The real God of the Bible was an ancient Levantine deity whose footsteps shook the earth, whose voice thundered through the skies and whose beauty and radiance dazzled his worshippers.”

That contrast is the single most illuminating achievement in her book precisely because it brings the reader so much closer to “a deity who crafted god-shaped humans from clay…[a] god who wept and talked and slept and sulked. A god who felt and fought and loved and lost.”  Above all, she insists that the deity she describes “was a god more like the best of us and the worst us. A god made in our own image.” n


Jonathan Kirsch is book editor of the Jewish Journal, and author of, among other books, “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.”

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