B.D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Sommer, Benjamin D., The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge, 2009). Pp. xv+334. Hardcover. £45.00. ISBN 9780521518727.

Benjamin D. Sommer, Professor of Bible at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, has set himself the assignment of re-envisioning the nature of divinity in ancient Israel. Given the contentious nature of differing conceptions of the divine, this is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Fortunately for the reader, Sommer is up to the task.

Sommer's thesis is, as the title of the book implies, not that the God of Israel has a body—this Sommer assumes—but that he has several bodies which have various locations. Hence, the two tasks he sets for himself are, first, demonstrating God's multi-corporeality and, second, exploring its implications for religion associated with the Hebrew Bible (which is not to say only ancient Israelite, but modern religion as well). By way of introduction he lays out simply and effectively that the Hebrew Bible's depiction of God is as a bodily being; the number of texts that casually make this point are too numerous to allow the reader any other conclusion. Additionally, he demonstrates that these depictions are likely more than mere metaphors for the authors: they really believed that YHWH was a physical being.

Based on this starting point, Sommer lays out three goals for the book. First, he seeks to present the idea of God's fluidity and multiplicity, both of which were asserted and denied by various authors in the biblical tradition. The contours of the “debate” about these issues in the biblical text are what Sommer attempts to uncover. Second, after uncovering this lost debate, he seeks to explore some implications concerning sacred space and divine embodiment. Finally, he examines some aspects of postbiblical Judaism (and Christianity) in light of these notions.

In Chapter 1 Sommer examines conceptions of divine fluidity broadly in the ancient Near East (he points out that no such notion apparently existed among the Greeks). The idea was based on a radical contrast in the ANE between humans and gods. The divine self was fluid in two ways: first, through the fragmentation of divine beings (e.g., Ishtar); and second, through the overlap of divine beings (e.g., Asshur). He points out that it was also the case that some gods possessed the ability to be embodied in multiple objects in the ANE. For example, in the pīt pî and mīs pî rituals one can see how idols or ṣalmu were established as embodiments of a god. These were not simply representations of the god, but incarnations of the divine. These embodiments did not mean, however, that the god's body ceased to exist in heaven nor that other earthly embodiments were impossible. In the Northwest Semitic tradition, the betyl presents a similar picture: it is both a god and an animated stone with life (not just a house). Canaanite texts reveal similar notions of multiple embodiment centered on a multiplicity of Baals (and, to a lesser extent, El): “[T]hey, too, have shifting and overlapping selves” (p. 28). Interestingly, however, archaic and classical Greece (as well as Virgil) does not evince similar portrayals. This suggests that the idea Sommer is pursuing is not characteristic of all polytheistic religions.

Sommer's task in Chapter 2 is to address how the fluidity model outlined in the previous chapter was manifest in ancient Israel. In support of the idea he notes the multiple geographical manifestations of YHWH found in inscriptions (e.g., YHWH of Teman and YHWH of Samaria in the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions). In addition to geographical multiplicity, Sommer argues that YHWH fragments himself (think avatar) such that he takes on multiple embodiments. Two such cases include malāʾkh, which he argues is an example of YHWH's self-fragmentation, and YHWH's multiplicity in divine wood such as the asherim. On the basis of the latter, he argues that the much-discussed Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions are not references to a goddess, but rather to wooden cultic objects that are repositories of YHWH's fragmented self. He also argues that YHWH's multiplicity is present in stone such as maṣṣēbôt and stelae, embodiments that render YHWH's presence on a scale safely accessible for human beings. In Sommer's view, the two notions of divine fluidity and multiple embodiment reinforce each other and appear together. He concludes the chapter by noting that these twin conceptions appear to have been especially present in the northern kingdom.

Having laid out the model and evidence supporting it in the previous chapters, Sommer explains how Deuteronomic and Priestly (including Ezekiel) texts reject the model in Chapter 3. Key to their rejection is D's emphasis on the shēm (name) and the prominence given the kābôd (glory) in P as alternative ways of referring to the divine presence. YHWH is not bodily present in either the temple or the Sinai revelation in D's view. Rather, it is through YHWH's shēm, here understood simply as a “token of divine attention” (p. 63) that YHWH makes both significant. D emphasizes transcendence while also maintaining an anthropomorphic view of God; these two are held together by D's insistence that YHWH resides in heaven. Sommer also explains how the Deuteronomic authors reject divine fluidity, focusing especially on Deut 6:4, the Shema and its insistence that YHWH is one (i.e., no YHWH of Samaria, YHWH of Teman, etc.). A different approach is taken in Priestly texts and Ezekiel where the kābôd of YHWH is his body, allowing God to achieve immanence among the people (though at the cost of abandoning his heavenly abode). Unlike the notions of divine embodiment described in Chapter 2, the Priestly texts reject multiple embodiments of YHWH and insist instead on YHWH's uni-bodiedness and, therefore, his location in a single place.

Chapters 4 and 5 address the complex issue of sacred space and God's bodies. In the first of these Sommer explores how ancient Israel's conceptions of divine embodiment are reflected in texts dealing with the sacred tent, the ark of the covenant, and the temple. After explaining the differences in the Pentateuch between P's and E's conceptions of the sacred tent, he appropriates J. Z. Smith's categories of locative and centripetal as well as the opposite, utopian (Sommer also calls this centrifugal), to explain the tent's function. Widening his analytic lens beyond the Pentateuch to the Hebrew Bible as a whole, Sommer contrasts the locative nature of Zion-Sabaoth theology with a locomotive conception of P's tent. From this perspective the sanctity of the central and immovable temple is contrasted with the mobile tent. The priestly tabernacle, then, can be read as modeling both locative and locomotive conceptions of the divine presence depending on the context in which the texts are read (Pentateuch or Hebrew Bible). Additionally, in contrast to D's insistence that sacrifice be limited to a singular place chosen by God (thus anticipating the temple in Jerusalem), P's notion of central sacrifice is not tethered to one place only. Indeed, Sommer argues stridently against the tendency to locate the Priestly material, and by extension its conception of divine presence, in the aftermath of Jerusalem's destruction as well. He protests that the common tendency to explain P's particular theology of divine presence simply as a response to the destruction of the temple misunderstands the timeless quality of P's theological position. Rather, he sees it as a variant of Zion-Sabaoth theology, differing from the latter “only in regard to questions of location, duration, and fluidity” (p. 98).

Sommer goes on to note how the priestly conception differs even more from D, a tradition, for example, in which there is no tent of meeting or tabernacle. Additionally, D does contain material about the ark, but it is significantly re-envisioned: it is no longer a divine footstool but is rather a box containing the tablets of the covenant. Likewise, the temple in D does not house the divine body but only the divine name. D's true revisionist understanding of the ark is on display most thoroughly in 1 Samuel 4–6, the ark narrative. In this text, Sommer argues, the older view of the ark in the priestly kābôd theology is abandoned in favor of the view more standard in D.

In the fifth chapter Sommer examines how notions of sacred space are manifest in narratives of origins, and especially how these narratives display ambivalent attitudes toward origins. He is particularly concerned with the manner in which the enigmatic priestly narrative of the tabernacle's dedication in the opening chapters of Leviticus reveals “doubts regarding the constancy of divine presence” (p. 109). His reading of this material is set against JE's narratives of beginnings, Adam and Eve (Genesis 2–3), Abram (Genesis 12) and Moses (Exodus 2), which reveal different attitudes toward sacred time and space. The priestly texts should express a locative notion valorizing the sacred center, but the disaster involving Nadab and Abihu at the foundation of the tabernacle suggests something else is going on. Sommer suggests that P is suspicious of its own ideology of sacred space. The place of divine presence is always a dangerous place, because the divine kābôd may erupt in unpredictable ways. Consequently, even as the Torah expresses notions of divine presence (be it in P or JE) it simultaneously deconstructs them. The tabernacle is a home for God, but one in which he does not belong.

The final chapter finds Sommer donning his theologian hat in order to answer the question, “What do the Hebrew Bible's fluidity traditions teach a modern religious Jew?” (p. 126). After noting that the antifluidity traditions in P and D dominate the final form of the Hebrew Bible, he notes that fluidity traditions found elsewhere (notably in JE) are still present. He briefly explores the development of these traditions in the postbiblical rabbinic literature, the kabbalah and early Christianity. With respect to the latter, Sommer insists that core Christian assertions—the trinity and incarnation—are not theologically impermissible within the world of Judaism, but rather are faithful to the fluidity model of divinity found in ancient Israel. For modern Jews, Sommer demonstrates how biblical notions of fluidity and antifluidity pose challenges for both liberal and conservative Jews, though not in the same way. He concludes by insisting that, contrary to customary positions, it is the fluidity model that offers the strongest statement of monotheism consistent with the personhood of God.

The volume concludes with a lengthy Appendix on monotheism and polytheism in biblical Israel. Sommer includes this because the tendency in recent years is to define the debate about Israelite religion as monotheism v. polytheism. This book proceeds from the position that the Hebrew Bible is monotheistic, and Israelite religion was not unusually monotheistic in the biblical period. That said, Sommer also recognizes that much of the recent discussion about these two concepts fails to capture the complexities of the divine portrait in the Hebrew Bible. He begins, therefore, with a (not altogether satisfying) discussion of the proper definition of monotheism. He investigates the question in two ways: monotheism in the religion of ancient Israelite religion and monotheism in the Hebrew Bible. In both cases he argues that the overwhelming evidence supports the idea that Israel was predominantly monotheist (though not exclusively so). He points out, correctly, that the evidence for monotheism is clearer in the case of the Hebrew Bible than in the archaeological, epigraphic and iconographic evidence. He concludes by re-asserting Y. Kaufmann's argument about monotheism based on the different attitude toward and portrayals of, on the one hand, the gods in the ANE and Greek worlds and, on the other, YHWH. In this reviewer's view, however, Sommer's argument is undercut by his failure to include at any point a discussion about the Hebrew Bible's strident anti-Baal polemic.

This short review cannot do evaluative justice to all that is found in the monograph. Suffice it to say that this book is important in the sense that it challenges conventional wisdom by offering a replacement model that is both cogent and largely convincing. The volume is full of insights that will offer scholars much to think about. That is not to say that all will agree with Sommer's arguments, however. For example, in this reviewer's opinion, his position that P's narrative of origins in the early chapters of Leviticus simultaneously expresses and deconstructs its own view is not entirely convincing. Additionally, the discussion of monotheism in the Appendix proceeds from a broad definition of monotheism that not all will share. Other readers will undoubtedly find other issues in the book with which to quibble, since the book contains so many novel and important arguments. Even where disagreements arise, readers will appreciate Sommer's rigorous arguments and engaging writing style. Indeed, future considerations of Israelite religion will be forced to contend with this work.

J. Todd Hibbard, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga