(Fluid Bodies) God in Ancient Israel (Swooning & Skeptical)

Dov Feigin, Pesel Bamidbar

I just finished reading Benjamin (Ben) Sommer’s remarkable The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. The quick upshot of the book is to locate the earliest strata of the Bible (J but especially E) in line with Mesopotamian and Canaanite religions. In these polytheist systems, the gods overlap one into the other and into images and idols, whose physical shape they inhabit and animate. Ben argues that these ancient near Eastern conceptions inform the monotheism of ancient Israel. Not only does the God of ancient Israel have a body. God has multiple bodies. In the earliest textual sources, the God of Israel is a fluid immaterial, bright, shape-shifting presence. Neither simply here nor simply there, in the heavens and on earth, God morphs into angelic avatars, takes up residence in wood, trees, asherot, stones, stelae, and sacred ritual spaces (Tabernacle and Temple).

The religio-cultural and historical stakes raised by Ben are intriguing. They relate to questions concerning the similarities and difference between ancient Israelite religion and other Near Easter religious cultures,  questions concerning monotheism and polytheism, iconicism and aniconisism, internal tensions within  ancient Israelite religious culture as reflected within the textual strata of the Hebrew Bible.

The reviews that I’ve read so far by scholars in the field of Biblical Studies have been positive. It would seem that there are very many colleagues out there who think that Ben has got things pretty much on the money regarding his reading of the ancient sources and their Near Eastern contexts.  I’m struck by the sheer amount of quibbling that goes on in academic Bible Studies. I’m really not qualified to say anything regarding the technical details about historical and literary contexts in ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, Israel, or Greece. These I will leave to the biblical critics and other ancient historians.

As pictured in Ben’s book, the bodies of God look more like Ghostbusters than the Iliad. Ben argues that a Greek god has only one, discrete body, and more confined to single set of conditions in time and space. They are here or there, but never both at once. They don’t tend to inhabit ritual space or objects like a Temple or statue. (

Is this another way to say that the Greek conception is more “rational”?

The philosophical stakes here are immense. Just for starters, the concepts at work here include selfhood, substance, time and space, action, objecthood, iconicity, representation, and language.

What we learn from Ben’s book,  is that the identity of subjects (e.g. God) and objects (ritual objects) is what philosopher Thomas Carlson would call “indiscrete.” In the Bible, fluid subjects and objects fragment and overlap with each other. (I think there’s a mixed metaphor in here.) The identity of a god or God is not so much a “substance” as an open or potential set of qualities and functions, and acts, which hold together in tandem and in parallel. “Personality” is but only one aspect of identity. Space, especially sacred space, is simultaneously conceived of as locative and trans-locative, centripetal and centrifugal.

This is very cool. In particular, this perspective on the Hebrew Bible adds a corrective to the new move towards immanence in contemporary continental philosophy of religion; and also in contemporary Jewish philosophy and thought, the move to form or frame a Jewish kenosis in which God’s transcendence pours out completely into some immanent frame (such as Levinasian ethics, rabbinic law, or Straussian politics). Too “Greek,”  kenosis presumes a model according to which God’s body can only inhabit one space only, one space at a time, either up there or down here, and that it makes sense to locate God down here and not up there behind “the partition” (as per the rabbis). The alternative to kenosis might be a near Eastern theological model according to which divinity can locate itself both here and there simultaneously. Why insist on a single locus? According to the Mesopotamian model, a god or God pours out back and forth between spaces all at once.

Ben has clearly privileged the theological-philosophical voice of “E,” a voice  which he considers to have been suppressed in ancient Israel by the authors of Deuteronomy (D) and of the Deuteronomistic school (Dtr) responsible for writing the “historical” books such Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, etc. Ben suggests that as much as they wanted to suppress polytheism, D and Dtr were as (if not more) interested in stamping out E, in which which the fluid conception of divinity is most pronounced. For D and Dtr, as Ben reads them, the God of Israel still has a body, but only one body, whose place is heavenly and transcendent. The God of Israel is now fixed in place, in heaven. On earth, “His” place is fixed at one site and one site only, the Temple in Jerusalem. But it’s not really “His” place, as much as the place of “His” symbolic name.

My only major criticism concerns the following.

Ben’s book is a scholarly, historical study of ancient Israelite texts and conceptions. It is also intended to contribute to contemporary currents in Jewish thought and philosophy. And these contributions are remarkable. Ben argues that contemporary Jews should be free to embrace an open, fluid theological constructs since polytheism no longer threatens Jewish monotheism as it did in ancient times. And maybe he’s right, if only up to a point, which is where I’d like to weigh in, not to trash the model that Ben wants to advance as much as to check it, critically.

What I don’t think Ben does is consider adequately why D and Dtr would have wanted so desperately to suppress fluidity, iconicity, and embodiment. When he acknowledges that they might have had good reason to do so, he seems to understate it. As he sees it, the danger of fluid models is basically about polytheism and the fear of polytheism, which to me grossly understates the problem posed by authors like E, if Ben has read them correctly.

I’m not ready to sign on completely to this part of the argument, the part about D, because I think Ben has actually understated the problem with open, fluid, embodied, immanent theological models. To me the abiding problem is not polytheism per se. The real problem is the serious, more general abuse these models lend themselves to.

A little deconstruction of Ben’s text is perhaps in order. I don’t think Ben does D and Dtr non-fluid, transcendent model sufficient justice. Indeed, his own description of D and Dtr unintentionally undermines his own programmatic intention. This struck me first when I read on p. 107 how “The Deuteronomistc editors attempt to deflate the ark’s pretensions…D tempers its locative stance by informs us that God really is not in the center of any event” (emphasis added).

Consider the importance of D’s contribution, the way D puts the brake on wild theological and political claims made by religious fanatics. I jumped back to the previous section. What Ben says there is that D rejects all kinds of large claims about God, God’s nature, and God’s place in the world. God never came down to earth. A physical ark is no longer God’s “footstool.” The cult’s function is “nothing more” than pedagogical. The conception of a physical thing like a Temple is anthropocentric. Holy space is “just” temporary and contingent. The holy status of the City is diminished since God doesn’t really live there. Ritual spaces are set apart, but not the site of some otherworldly theophany. Sacred place is “sheared” of supernatural connotations (99-101, 107).

I found D appealing. I’m not sure Ben does.

But what Ben does do, I suspect unintentionally, is to let us see in D the skeptical and cautious side of religious institutional authority. Religious authority and establishment theology tend to get bad raps in our secular and post-secular age. Viewed more coolly, however, I think it’s fair to say that very often religious authority tends to be rational. It seeks to keep a lid on all kinds of genuinely nasty things. It demands evidence, proof, argument before jumping to theological conclusions. Think about how the rabbis sought to check the phenomenon of prophecy and miracle. Think about how the Vatican carefully vets (most) claims to sainthood. This caution has its place in a rational world, assuming you are not going to accept every claim made by fanatics and lunatics who proclaim that this place or this body or object is touched directly by or manifests the gods or God or this or that attribute of power or grace. By restricting God’s place in the heavens, a more critical space is opened up for the rational exercise of religion. This does not free religion from power, as if anything ever does or can. In this, I have a soft spot for D, Caiaphas, the rabbis, and Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

One other thing I like about Ben’s book is how it revisits old claims about disenchantment made by Max Weber. Franz Rosenzweig also argued (in a letter or in “the New Thinking”?) that Hebrew monotheism allowed nature to be natural. Also, I forget where, Amos Funkenstein wrote about the sources of secularism in monotheism. They all make a similar point. The concept of a transcendent God puts less strain on critical credulity. Does God really inhabit this tree, or that stone, or this place?? yeah, yeah, right!

The missing voice is Heschel, because what Ben has done is to reprise the tension in Heschel’s Torah min ha’Shamayim (translated as Heavenly Torah) between the mysticism of Rabbi Akiva, for whom God’s presence is immanent in the world of things and historical events, and the rationalism of Rabbi Ishmael, for whom God’s presence is external to that world of things and events. Ben has clearly taken Akiva’s side, whereas Heschel seemed to express at least some if not a lot of sympathy with Rabbi Ishmael. I think that’s not a bad idea, to try to occupy a place between enthusiasm and skepticism.

In my own thinking about art, religion, and the spiritual in art as well as Buber and Rosenzweig, I’m very close to the description of E that Ben has given us. It fits very neatly into the new immanence, and it does so in a non-dogmatic way. But the skeptical side of me wants to see it D’s way, if not simultaneously, then at least in a tight sequence or circuit.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to (Fluid Bodies) God in Ancient Israel (Swooning & Skeptical)

  1. Pingback: Anthropocentric Gnosticism and the Grand Inquisitor « Ironical Coincidings

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    I don’t see either side as any more or less prone to religious fanaticism. true the “D” position allows for a certain rationalization of religion, proposing a notion of divinity as lending itself to definiteness can just as well lead to the claim: our notion of the divine is the correct – and the only correct – determination of the god. thus, the D position allows for fundamentalism, which can quickly become fanaticism. likewise, while the fluid bodies notion can lend itself to the wildest and most fanatic claims, it also does not lend itself to determination and, so, resists fundamentalism.

    religion is, in general, a dangerous wager. no matter what direction one goes, the end is violent and the key, in my view, is not in choosing the right direction but in choosing the right constraints. how will religion check its own development so that it does not reach its logical ends? this is how i think halacha ought to function.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    i dont know how committed i am to the assertion in the second paragraph. but i’ll go with it for now

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