BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Review: An Anatomy of God

Book cover image for 'God: An Anatomy' by Francesca Stavrakopoulou

God: An Anatomy

By Francesca Stavrakopoulou
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022), 592 pp., 3 maps, 57 b/w figs., 33 color photos; $35.00 (hardback)
Reviewed by Erin Darby

Amazon.com button

What does God look like? Sound like? How does God smell, taste, or touch? These are the fundamental and, for some, controversial questions that frame Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s newest book. For those who have grown up in religious communities, Stavrakopoulou tells a story at once familiar and strange. Her masterful synthesis of ancient Near Eastern texts (including the Hebrew Bible and New Testament), archaeology, and the history of interpretation emboldens her reader to engage these fundamental human questions about the divine without fear of theological censure. In so doing, the reader embarks upon a journey to a time before the strictures of orthodoxy or modernity, to a place in human history where deities walk, talk, breathe, speak, touch, snort, and lust.

The pictures we humans draw of the divine dictate not just the way God(s) is/are conceptualized but also how we imagine our own place in the world and how we treat each other. Stavrakopoulou’s fresh take on these questions explores the physicality of divine-human interactions one body part at a time, moving from God’s legs and feet, to the genitals, the torso, the arms and hands, and finally the head. In so doing, the reader encounters familiar passages in the biblical text but with a new sensitivity to their literal rather than allegorical interpretation.

Although the book is written for a general audience, it is also teeming with scholarship ranging over miles and millennia. It describes the way biblical passages may have been understood during the time they were created as well as the changes in Jewish and Christian interpretation that have led to the way people tend to read these passages today. This attention to the history of interpretation is crucial. When we better understand why we read these texts in particular ways as a modern audience, our eyes are opened to the possibility that ancient authors, creators, and audiences understood descriptions of the divine in different, far more visceral terms.

Reading biblical texts within the context of ancient Near Eastern mythologies, ritual texts, and legends leads to a radical reevaluation of many descriptions of Yahweh that modern readers assume are metaphorical, helping the reader reconsider the accuracy of English translations that have rendered anatomical language figuratively (e.g., the face of Yahweh) or euphemistically (e.g., Yahweh’s phallus).

FREE ebook, Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life. Examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth.

* Indicates a required field.

In this way, Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible and Jesus of the New Testament come alive as fully embodied entities with a host of spiritual companions (including consorts) that populate the divine, earthly, and sub-earthly realms. These deities, at once, fit much more comfortably within the context of the larger artistic, cultural, and ritual spheres that constituted the fabric of human-divine interaction from the Bronze Age through the Roman period. The extensive examples of artifacts and artistic portrayals throughout the book further undergird this point. Most of the purported contrasts drawn between the biblical depictions of God’s body (or lack thereof) and the perceptions of the divine in contemporaneous cultures are not true to the time when they were written but are actually byproducts of later theologies anesthetizing the Bible and early Jewish and Christian practice.

By focusing on the physical body of the divine, we also gain a new appreciation for the sensory landscape of ancient human ritual life. From the clouds of sweet-smelling incense in temples to the expressions of awe experienced by worshipers encountering a cult image, to the realia of ejaculates, menstrual blood, and pus, we gain a deeper understanding of the holistic experiences through which humans understood themselves as encountering the divine. As a corollary, we also must consider which humans are allowed in which spaces and under what conditions, drawing our attention to the diversity of ancient ritual experiences and the power dynamics of who had access to deities and their physical presence.

Because this book covers a staggering amount of material and is written for a general audience, there are times when the reader is left wanting to know more details about a translation or interpretation. There is a rich history of scholarly debate over many topics covered in God: An Anatomy, including whether a statue of Yahweh existed in the Temple, whether Asherah served as Yahweh’s consort, the extent to which ancient authors portrayed God as lustful, how to understand images of Yahweh committing or condoning sexual violence, and which passages in the Bible include vestiges of a Canaanite pantheon. As a thought-provoking, thorough, and accessible introduction to the physicality of the divine in the biblical world, this book will serve as a starting point for deeper engagement and ongoing dialogue.

——

Erin Darby is Associate Professor of Early Judaism at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She is an expert in the archaeology of Israelite religion.


Related Reading in Bible History Daily:

Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol?

God and Sex

Is This the Face of God?

Face of the Greek God Pan

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel
When God Sleeps
Images of God in Western Art
Ways of Knowing God
Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

Related Posts


1 Responses

  1. Brianroy says:

    Another blasphemy book designed to target and destroy both Jewish and Christian faith deserving of a book burning. No thanks.
    Just 2 verses of the Bible are all that is needed to prove a Christian Judaism monotheism existed before all other religions, as all other religions are created imaginations. No religion except the one that preceded BREATHING and is directly tied to it, no religion but that of the NAME has any merit as the first and true religion. And whom is identified as the One who gave us that breath? Both names are known in the Old Testament for those who TRULY want to know the Truth or who EMeT is in Gematria’s art of explanation, will simply need only to look at and read Jesus.
    We don’t need the myths and lies of those like Erin Darby’s book to obfuscate and create intentional disbelief for those who don’t yet know better.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


1 Responses

  1. Brianroy says:

    Another blasphemy book designed to target and destroy both Jewish and Christian faith deserving of a book burning. No thanks.
    Just 2 verses of the Bible are all that is needed to prove a Christian Judaism monotheism existed before all other religions, as all other religions are created imaginations. No religion except the one that preceded BREATHING and is directly tied to it, no religion but that of the NAME has any merit as the first and true religion. And whom is identified as the One who gave us that breath? Both names are known in the Old Testament for those who TRULY want to know the Truth or who EMeT is in Gematria’s art of explanation, will simply need only to look at and read Jesus.
    We don’t need the myths and lies of those like Erin Darby’s book to obfuscate and create intentional disbelief for those who don’t yet know better.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Send this to a friend