Review of Hamori, "When Gods Were Men"

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Hamori, Esther J., “When Gods Were Men”: The Embodied God in Biblical and Near Eastern Literature (BZAW 384; Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008). Pp. xvi+185, Hardcover, US$81.00. ISBN 978 3 11 020348 6.

This monograph revises a dissertation completed at New York University in 2004. (It includes no biblical scholarship after 2002.) Its title, “When Gods Were Men,” renders the start of a Mesopotamian classic mythic poem. Esther Hamori plays on that line's purported meaning by devoting this book to documenting “when [Israel's] God became two men.”

Our author focuses on Gen 18:1-15 and 32:23-33 (per the Hebrew verse numbering), which each relate crucial encounters in the lives of the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, respectively. She presents her case like a district attorney telling the jury what really happened. From the opening sentence in Chapter 1, she declares her interpretive thesis as fact, identifying an enigmatic figure in each narrative as being none other than Yahweh—with a mien so human as to hinder recognition as deity.

Three common aspects, says Hamori, warrant her studying the two Genesis stories together: 1) A character who appears “in person” is referred to as Yahweh/God; 2) The narrator designates him “as a ‘man’ . . . by the Hebrew word ’îš” (p. 1) or its functional plural, ’ănāšîm; 3) This figure engages in human physical activity – sitting and eating a meal, or participating in a wrestling match.

Based on those features, Hamori construes the two stories as depicting a theophany in fully human form. She points out that both cases deviate from other visual theophanies in two respects: 1) The figures are by outward appearance unremarkable: “nothing out of the ordinary for any human being” (p. 11); and 2) they are recognized as theophanies only “verbally” (pp. 12, 24).

Also in Chapter 1, Hamori finds that prior interpretations are inadequate. She dispatches some of them handily and insightfully. Thus she skewers those source-critical speculations that fragment our texts. She demolishes the notion that Jacob's assailant is the numen of the nearby stream. And certain views that perceive an intentional sense of mystery or “pregnant ambiguity” she sends packing. Against still other interpretations, however, her arguments are weaker, sometimes resembling circular reasoning. Take, for example, the view that Gen 18:1-15 spotlights Abraham's hospitality: she dismisses that theme as negligible because “surely if a text were to relate an event so striking as the appearance of Yahweh as an ’îš, this theophany itself would be the chief concern of the story” (p. 9). Hamori does not engage the Christian doctrine that God can become incarnate, nor the patristic opinions that he did so already in Genesis narratives. She acknowledges some modern scholars who have held that God appears in our Genesis stories in human form. However – she hastens to add – no one else has recognized that only here does God appear so human as to be visually unrecognizable as deity!

Hamori's representations of other scholars' views should be used with caution. Checking three citations on my bookshelf, I found that in two of those cases – E. Speiser and W. Miller – she attributes to them a claim that they did not propound.[1]

Chapter 2, “Varieties of Anthropomorphism,” presents a “taxonomy” of such portrayals of deity. Hamori deploys this schema to distinguish “concrete anthropomorphism” from other types. After laying out five graded types, Hamori finds that concrete anthropomorphism occupies a logical spot on the “spectrum” of portrayals of God. She brandishes this finding to dispute “the internal logic of the position that Genesis 18 and 32 cannot represent instances of concrete anthropomorphism” (p. 34). Most of this chapter's discussion ranges beyond the book's stated topic: the depiction of theophany. Regardless, I wonder why Hamori's new typology is needed to defend against supposed claims of impossibility. Already seventy years ago, the philosopher of science Karl Popper famously established that “no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced.”

Chapter 3, “Philosophical Approaches to Anthropomorphism,” strives to account for why scholars “seem disinclined to interpret these texts literally as portraying anthropomorphic theophany” (p. 52). Hamori speculates that their apparent unwillingness (i.e., silence) must be a matter of philosophy. So she traces the thread of philosophical opposition to anthropomorphism and divine corporeality. She cites an impressive roster of ancient Greek, rabbinic, Islamic, and Christian authors who either object to anthropomorphism or employ circumlocutions to avoid it or accompany it with disclaimers. Citing mostly tertiary sources, this chapter unfortunately misrepresents its Jewish material. For example, it distorts Maimonides' interpretations of our two Genesis passages by quoting them out of context. He was discussing revelation, not anthropomorphism or corporeality. Worse, Hamori conflates the concepts of anthropomorphism and corporeality. In fact, one is a mode of expression; the other, a doctrine. Yes, Maimonides condemned the belief in divine corporeality, but he tolerated anthropomorphic language per se. Indeed, in interpreting divine depictions in Genesis metaphorically, Maimonides first granted them their literal meaning.[2] Consequently, the chapter's argument collapses. Although Hamori maintains that philosophical doubts about anthropomorphism have impeded her preferred literal interpretation, she fails to demonstrate this.

The chapter's final subsection, “Interpretation,” introduces the question of what the biblical text meant to convey by depicting “human theophany.” Hamori suggests a theological message, namely, that this device expresses “God's freedom [of action]” (p. 64). To me, that explanation seems too generic to be helpful.

Chapter 4, “Anthropomorphic Realism,” translates and annotates our two passages. Also the author surveys Ugaritic literature and other “known Canaanite or Syrian material,” looking for depictions of a deity who both assumes human form and is indistinguishable from human beings. She finds no such attestations. She dates the stories as pre-exilic, on linguistic grounds. Further, they reflect “early” and “archaic” Israelite views, on the grounds that “we have no basis” for considering them to be late (p. 81). Thus armed, Hamori challenges the historian Mark Smith's hypothesis of evolutionary “convergence” in the development of Israelite religion. According to Smith, Israel's theology initially emerged within the framework of existing Canaanite theology. Hamori asserts, however, that given the absence of evidence that Canaanites conceived of “human theophany,” Smith's view “should be qualified” (p. 81). (That is an argument from silence. Worse, it compares proverbial apples and oranges: she is talking about a literary device - a particular depiction of theophany - whereas Smith focuses on the national pantheon's number or configuration of deities.) Scholars have cited the Aqhat epic, found at Ugarit, as evidence that Gen 18:1-15 indeed reflects Canaanite ideas. So Hamori transcribes, translates, and annotates the Aqhat scene of a god's visit to the hero Danil. She spells out eight “extremely significant” differences between the two narratives (p. 88). She then ignores seven of them (which are indeed irrelevant), seizing just one argument: Danil clearly identifies the approaching figure, whereas Abraham—according to Hamori—does not. Thus, Hamori concludes, the Abraham story presents a distinctly more “anthropomorphically realistic” deity. At chapter's end, Hamori again attempts to explain why Genesis would (twice) depict God as unrecognizably human. Here she proffers literary reasons: to highlight when God confirms a crucial promise made earlier to each patriarch; and to “demonstrate a[n unusual] degree of intimacy and favor” (p. 103).

Chapter 5, “The ’îš Theophany and Divine Society,” contrasts “the ’îš phenomenon” with how the Bible portrays divine beings aside from God. She compares the forms and functions of an angel (mal’āk) with those of the ’îš in Genesis 18 and 32. The latter's function, we learn in passing, is to bestow blessing in person via human form. The author also catalogs a dozen other designations for the various beings depicted within Yahweh's divine assembly. As she proceeds, Hamori makes one mal’āk disappear (via textual emendation), dismisses another mal’āk whose (merely implied) embodiment is “unclear,” and rejects a sword-wielding ’îš as not “graphically human.” After such scrutiny, no candidates remain standing. She then declares that the Bible depicts no divine being other than God in “realistic” human terms.

Chapter 6, “Anthropomorphic Realism and the Ancient Near East,” surveys Near Eastern mythological texts, largely via anthologized translations. Hamori looks for anthropomorphic realism in the theophanies. She finds no analogue to the “’îš theophany” in extant Mesopotamian literature, nor in Ugaritic, Egyptian, or Hittite mythology. Rather, deities are recognizable as such. Consequently, we are told, “the ’îš theophany remains distinct” (p. 149). This chapter, when taken together with chapter 4, conveniently collates the surrounding cultures' literary depictions of deities who communicate “in person” with humans. Ancient Greece is also treated twice in passing.

Chapter 7, “Conclusions: The Embodied God,” mostly reiterates earlier statements. Hamori now attributes further theological meaning to the “’îš theophany,” namely, that God is essentially communicative: “We see . . . that it is in fact within God's essence to transcend the noumenal and enter the human realm” (p. 153). This point seems rather trivial, for such meaning inheres in all theophanies.

On the surface, this book solidly supports its thesis: “’îš theophanies” surely exist in Genesis. Yet a closer look reveals deep faults that thoroughly undercut the argument. Foremost among the flaws in argumentation is that Hamori never poses a basic question of compositional tactics: How can the plain sense of any narrative convincingly depict an ordinary man as a vehicle for a deity's manifestation? One way is if a reliable narrator or character states outright that God is appearing in human form (e.g., John 1:14, 18). That is not the case in our Genesis stories.

There is only one other way: if a “human theophany” motif is already so conventional that the audience can take it for granted. That was hardly true with the ancient audience of Genesis. For according to Hamori's own findings, this motif is unattested anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible or the ancient Near East.

Ultimately, Hamori defends her interpretation as “the most straightforward reading” of both texts (25). In other words, these passages do not provide explicit cues for distinguishing a theophany from its near-twin: an emissary (divine or human) who carries out a mission that includes delivery of a message. We cannot tease apart those two interpretations from the text alone. So Hamori resorts to the simplest explanation: eliminate the middleman.

In so doing, however, Hamori analyzes the text as if its meaning were entirely contained within it. Semioticians call this the fallacy of literalism. This stance ignores a linguistic fact: every utterance takes certain things for granted, including conventions that establish meaning. Thus Hamori overlooks the audience's frame of reference, which conditions their construction of the biblical text.

Hamori nowhere displays awareness that the ancients would construe our biblical texts in light of familiar lore. Yet arguably, their frame of reference would readily accept the interpretation of each ’îš as an agent. In both the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East, the receipt of dispatched agents was commonplace. It was conventional to refer to an agent by the principal's name – even when both parties were human beings. Human agency protocols were also maintained in literary depictions of deities.[3]

Regarding the textual details (treated in Chapters 1 and 4), Hamori's typical analysis is likewise simplistic. Consider how she textually supports two sample particulars of her thesis. First, the author claims that the assailant in Genesis 32 is not superhuman but realistically human. She knows this because the narrator tells us (v. 26) that the assailant cannot prevail against Jacob; indeed, he “loses the fight” (pp. 23, 102). However, this reasoning is too sure that subduing Jacob was the intent. The Bible's divine beings often modulate their supernatural powers; arguably this figure, too, meant to show restraint.

Another telling example is the author's claim that the patriarchs' respective interlocutors took the form of men (adult male human beings). She knows this because the narrator designates each one as an ’îš (pp. 1, 65, 96). However, this reasoning is too sure of that pivotal noun's denotation. It gives no consideration to lexical semantics. Yet the Bible employs ’îš in several senses. Which sense is evoked in this context? Is human maleness what is at stake? (In 2008, as Hamori's book was in preparation, my article in this journal argued that not only is ’îš a term of affiliation, but also it can denote an agent, either human or divine.)

Terminological problems further erode the book's argument. Hamori painstakingly defines the term “Canaanite” (pp. 78-79), though her findings are insensitive to its scope. In contrast, she never defines the key terms “anthropomorphism,” “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “theophany.” She uses some of them in inconsistent ways (e.g., “anthropomorphic” on pp. 30, 49, 102; “metaphor” on pp. 10, 54-56, 66).

Meanwhile, Hamori confuses linguistic sense and reference, splitting her attention between two entangled phenomena of interest: depiction of deity, and manifestation of deity. This confusion is most apparent in the book's five overlapping designations of her subject: “anthropomorphic realism” (that is, depiction as ostensibly human), “concrete anthropomorphism” (depiction with physical embodiment), “’îš theophany” (which is apparently Hamori's coinage), “human theophany,” and “anthropomorphic theophany.”

According to Hamori, the two characters who bless Abraham/Jacob are only ostensibly human. Ironically, this book itself resembles her depiction of those figures: it grants scholars a degree of enlightenment, especially by prompting us to sharpen the questions that we ask of these Genesis narratives; yet it only appears to make the case that it claims to have established.

Reading When Gods Were Men will challenge you to think. Its thesis will suddenly seize you, enveloping you in a dust cloud of doubtful claims, digressions, and insistently reiterated assertions posing as reasoning. If you then marshal your critical faculties and persevere, you will succeed in wresting from Hamori's “’îš theophany” – before it vanishes in the dawning light – a blessing of increased clarity about the Bible. I know that I did. Although I walked away limping, I am truly grateful.

Rabbi David E. S. Stein, http://davidesstein.name

[1]On page 3, Hamori claims that E. A. Speiser (Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes [3d ed.; AB 1; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979], 139) is among the scholars who “interpreted the term ’îš metaphorically, placing the words ‘man’ and ‘men’ in quotes repeatedly throughout their discussions.” However, in Speiser's discussions of Gen 18:1-15 and 32:23-33, I cannot locate even one instance of “man” or “men” in quotation marks—and certainly not on the cited page (which deals with 19:3-11). True, in his note on “The two angels” (19:1), Speiser did put “men” in quotes, in accounting for why the biblical author refers to those same characters also as ’ănāšîm. Such usage he treated as literal, explaining that it conveys how those characters appear to Lot: “It is only in light of the sanwērīm (11), that the ‘men’ (5, 8, 10) are revealed as angels (15). By thus viewing the action through the eyes of the actors, the spectator also is caught up in the unfolding drama. . . .” (p. 138). On page 8, Hamori claims with regard to Genesis 18 that William T. Miller (Mysterious Encounters at Mamre and Jabbok [BJS 50; Chicago: Scholars Press, 1984] 28) “questions ‘whether or not the angels actually consumed the meal,’ and emphasizes that the point made is their acceptance of Abraham's hospitality ‘in some way.’” However, the sentence quoted is Miller's paraphrase of early Jewish interpretations of the story (which is the topic of the chapter in which it appears); he is not stating his own opinion. reference

[2]Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (trans. by Shlomo Pines with introduction by Leo Strauss [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963], 27-31) I:4-5 reads: “Every mention of seeing, when referring to God, . . . refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eye's seeing . . . , as God . . . is not an existent that can be apprehended with the eyes. If, however, an individual of insufficient capacity . . . consider[s] that all the words [figuring in the Bible] concerning this subject are indicative of sensual perception of created lights . . . , there is no harm in his thinking this.” Hamori does not deal with this passage. reference

[3]See, e.g., Samuel A. Meier, The Messenger in the Ancient Semitic World (HSM 45; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988). In form and style, Abraham's conversations with an interlocutor in Genesis 18 resemble those in which a human messenger extemporizes in the first person on behalf of a sender (Gen 44:10; 2 Sam 11:18-24; 2 Kgs 3:8), and in which recipients reply to a human messenger as if speaking directly to the sender (Judg 11:13; 1 Sam 25:41; 2 Sam 3:13; 1 Kgs 20:4; 2 Kgs 3:7; cf. Qoh 5:5). reference