Thomas Staubli and Silvia Schroer, Body Symbolism in the Bible, Translated by Linda M. Maloney.
(Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2001), xvi, 249 pp.
Reviewed by Mayer I. Gruber
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

On some very rare occasions a specific text from the ancient Near East mentioning a specific symbolic act or gesture can be correlated with a specific pictorial illustration from the ancient Near East. The parade example of such a correlation is discussed in my “Akkadian laban appi in the Light of Art and Literature,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 7 (1975), 73–83, subsequently republished in my The Motherhood of God and Other Studies (University of South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, 57; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), pp. 133–147. In general, however, teachers and scholars must undertake painstaking work to make proper use of the pictorial art and other material remains from the biblical world in order to shed light on the biblical text. Tragically, to this day it is not uncommon for students in colleges, universities, and seminaries of every denomination to earn a degree in biblical studies and never to have seen a picture of the Behistun Inscription and its accompanying pictorial illustrations; the Rosetta Stone; the Merneptah Stele; the Moabite Stone; or the pictorial illustration of King Yahu mar Humri, possibly King Jehu or King Jehoram of Israel, on the black obelisk of Assyrian Emperor Shalmaneser III now located in the British Museum.

Biblical scholars still need to learn from their archaeological colleagues to utilize in their classroom presentations color slides, transparencies and the rare biblical commentaries such as those in the Hebrew Olam ha-Tanakh (Tel Aviv: Davidson-Ittai, 1995) series, which employ relevant full color pictorial illustrations of realia, persons, and events on virtually every page. Unfortunately, the monumental work of James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (2d ed.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) contains only barely legible black and white photographs. Moreover, an increasing number of biblical scholars with virtually no training in the languages, literatures, and civilizations of the ancient Near East, cannot be expected to properly to utilize the wealth of pictorial art and objects of daily life from the biblical world in order to shed light on figures of speech employed by the Old Testament prophets and psalmists and the evangelists and apostles of the New Testament.

Precisely at this critical moment, reflecting, as it were, King Solomon’s “how good is something at its appointed time!” (Prov. 16:23), appears the fantastic English version of Staubli’s and Schroer’s Der Körpersymbolik der Bibel, the original of which was published by Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft at Darmstadt in 1998. In one handy, highly readable, and reasonably priced volume the authors supply 110 illustrations, slightly less than half of them in vivid color. Moreover, this set of illustrations is no mere repetition of the illustrations of monuments and persons available, for example, in the monumental work of Geoffrey Wigoder, Shalom Paul, Benedict T. Viviano and Ephraim Stern, eds., Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible (New York: Macmillan, 1986). On the contrary, Staubli and Schroer limit themsevles to illustrating figures of speech related to body parts. They gently guide their readers—scholars, clergypersons, students, and curious laypersons—to plausible answers to important questions which they may never have thought to ask. For example, in the 8th century bce, Isaiah son of Amoz castigates the haughty women of Judah for their high held necks. “What,” one might ask, “is the appearance of a high held ancient Near Eastern neck?” Staubli and Schroer not only discuss numerous parallels to Isa 3:16–24 in Scripture and in the ancient Near East but also provide a picture of a terracotta figurine of a goddess with a high held neck from North Syria from the period 2200–1500 bce.

Who would have expected to find an ancient pictorial illustration of God’s promise to King David that the king’s enemies will become his footstool? (Ps 110:2). Staubli and Schroer provide a drawing from the 15th century bce tomb of Kenamun in which the Pharaoh Amenophis II is seated in his mother’s lap with the nine proverbial enemies of Egypt serving as the future king’s footstool (p. 188).

The authors bring to bear upon their highly original contribution to the discipline of theological anthropology, heretefore fostered primarily by Hans Walter Wolff, the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas; the theology of Franz Rosenzweig and the latter’s famous friend, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessey; the disciplined philology of James Barr; and the groundbreaking work of the dean of feminist biblical exegesis, Phyllis Trible. It should not be surprising that two authors who have read so widely and so deeply in a variety of disciplines, which can shed light upon biblical anthropology would also make equally judicious use of appropriate pictorial illustrations from a variety of sources. These sources include 1) artifacts from the biblical world; 2) ancient Jewish and Christian art; 3) medieval Christian art; and 4) modern and contemporary art be it Jewish, Christian or secular.

Body Symbolism in the Biblical World would make an ideal addition to the required reading list for introductory college and university courses in “the English Bible,” “The Bible as Literature,” or “The Bible and Civilization” as well as for seminary courses and graduate courses in biblical prophecy and psalmody. Unquestionably, the handy and lucid illustrations will inspire some worthwhile graduate seminar papers, masters essays and doctoral dissertations. For example, the bold illustration on p. 205 of a terracotta figurine from 8th century bce Judah of a postmenopausal woman clutching her sagging breasts, simply cries out for an essay or dissertation entitled “The ancient postfertility figurine in postmodern perspective.” Staubli and Schroer are to be commended for not obfuscating matters by mentioning, God help us, the scholarly tradition that refers to these statuettes of postmenopausal women as “fertility goddesses”. Their adoption of this daring strategy compensates in some measure for the authors’ failure to refer to the standard studies on anatomical expressions in the ancient Near East by Holma, Dhorme, McCurley, and Gruber.1


[1] Harri Holma, Die Namen der Körperteile im Assyrisch-babylonischen (Leipzig: A. Pries, 1911); Edouard Dhorme, L’emploi métaphorique des noms de parties du corps en hébreu et en akkadien (Paris: Geuthner, 1923); Foster R. McCurley, Jr., A Semantic Study of Anatomical Terms in Akkadian, Ugaritic and Biblical Literature (Ph.D. dissertation, Dropsie College, 1968); Mayer I. Gruber, Aspects of Nonverbal Communication in the Ancient Near East (Studia Pohl 12/I-II; 2 vols. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1980).