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13 October 2021updated 26 Oct 2022 3:31pm

When God was an alpha male

How the Hebrew deity evolved from predatory strongman to a friend to human frailty.

By Rowan Williams

A classical 16th-century statement of the doctrine of the Church of England declares that God is “without body, parts or passions”. This is a standard summary of the mainstream Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) understanding of divine transcendence, but one that, as Francesca Stavrakopoulou, professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at the University of Exeter, insists, is a very long way from the language of much of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Her book God: An Anatomy – consistently lively, despite its considerable length – takes us back behind the biblical texts to the world of west Asian religion and mythology in the second millennium BCE and earlier; a world opened up dramatically in the last 100 years by a cluster of major archaeological discoveries in Syria, Iraq, Israel and Palestine.

The details vary across the region, but a clear pattern emerges. The “high god”, El, presides over a heavenly court of deities; he has a divine consort and a son or deputy who is depicted as a military champion, often a storm-spirit, subduing the primordial sea monster so as to bring order to the world. This deputy is often encountered and worshipped on wild and exposed mountain tops . In Syria, his name is Ba’al, “the master” – the deity who, in the Bible, is regularly cast as the archetypal false god who lures the people of Israel into apostasy. 

But in fact the texts of Hebrew scripture depict the god of Israel as behaving in almost exactly the same way as Ba’al: he is a storm-god, a warrior, the conqueror of primeval chaos, a habitue of sacred mountain tops such as Sinai. More startlingly, he is spoken of with much the same level of intensely physical vocabulary as the gods of the earlier pantheon.

Stavrakopoulou – with evident relish – takes us through a catalogue of bodily actions and bodily organs associated with the biblical god of Israel. Language that most religious readers have unreflectively treated as vaguely poetic licence (God’s right arm, the soles of his feet, his internal organs, his face, his breath, even his genitals) is shown to be rooted in mythical conventions that cannot be taken as straightforwardly metaphorical. It belongs in a mindset for which the divine is a hugely magnified version of physical human dominance – male (and sexually predatory), aggressive, imagined in terms of conventional masculine glamour. The biblical god may have had a comprehensive theological makeover by the time the Hebrew Scriptures reached their present form, but the untamed alpha male deity of archaic west Asian myth is never far away. There is even solid archaeological evidence for the god of Israel, like his earlier counterparts in the region, originally having a female divine consort.

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The book presents this picture with a wealth of scholarly detail and much gusto (and occasional tabloidish hype). Stavrakopoulou is a distinguished scholar of the archaeological record and summarises its data with skill. But the interpretation of her material raises some large questions. We are told more than once that this book introduces us to “the real God of the Bible” – a phrase whose oddity becomes more marked the more you think about it. “The Bible” is a set of very diverse texts bundled together as a canonical unit by Jewish and Christian believers. It is certainly right to protest, as Stavrakopoulou does, when the traces of mythical language are ignored or blandly sanitised by pious reading; but that cannot mean that the mythical substrate is somehow “the real thing” as opposed to what later editors do with these traditions. The idea that the best reading of any text or tradition is one that privileges the oldest stratum needs challenging. 

A parallel of sorts can be found in both Homer and Sophocles talking about the same Olympian gods. Homer’s gods are imagined with physical and emotional directness, and their relations with one another are woven in with the human narrative. Sophocles will refer to the gods, sometimes in a register of dramatic and physical language similar to Homer’s, but the gods are not dramatis personae: their reality frames and makes some (limited) sense of human interactions. Exactly how “literally” that backdrop is meant to be read is a complex affair. It is certainly not the window-dressing panoply of gods and spirits, nymphs and shepherds that you find in classically-influenced early modern English poetry, but neither is it a straightforward recital of what the gods are doing.

So with the biblical texts. By the time the canonical Hebrew scriptures attain the form in which we read them today, the proportion of strictly mythical narrative is small. What interests the writers and editors is human stories. The god of Israel is at times described in unashamedly traditional and physical terms, especially in texts designed for worship, or in the distinctive literary medium of “prophecy” – ritualised challenges and promises addressed to the community, which build on older shamanistic forms of utterance. But the focus of the stories is the record of human interaction.

In many of the more obviously folkloric narratives, such as the story of Abraham or the account of the call of Moses in the book of Exodus, the voice and agency of the divine is still a regular presence interrupting the human story.  But in the very sophisticated account of the life of Joseph, written probably in the fifth century BCE, God is active obliquely and non-coercively, communicating through dreams. In the equally novelistic tales set in the court of King David – above all, the long narrative of the rebellion and death of David’s son Absalom – this obliqueness is even more evident.

These are texts that took shape only a few centuries before the beginning of the Christian era; the chronological gap between them and the most abundant collection of mythical writings about El and Ba’al is larger than that between Homer and Sophocles. It seems strange to say that the “real” god of the Hebrew Bible is to be identified simply with the most archaic aspect of the text. None of the final editors of the Hebrew scriptures is committed to any theory about the non-material nature of their deity. But in the three or four centuries before the Christian era the divine body is increasingly understood by Jewish writers as drastically unlike our own, invisibly filling or containing all finite space, constituted of (or at least manifest in) fire or light. It is not circumscribed as ordinary matter is, and so apparently contradictory things may be said about it. Stavrakopoulou is right to underline that this is still a good way from the resolute insistence of later theology and philosophy on God’s immateriality, from the first Christian century onwards, but it is part of the long process by which that concept finds its way into the Jewish and Christian thought-world.

[See also: How Keats lives on]

As Stavrakopoulou notes, at some point in the history of what became Israel, Hebrew mythology identified the high god, El, with his more active deputy. No one is quite sure, but this seems to be happening well before the great disruption of the Babylonian conquest in the sixth century BCE, though the traces of the older distinction can be seen in some rather laboured passages in Genesis and Exodus where a shift in the divine name has to be explained. On the one hand, this means that the biblical god acquires a double set of robustly physical divine attributes – the more sedentary splendours of the enthroned High God as well as the active and violent characteristics of the warrior storm-god. On the other, it reinforces the sense that the supreme divine power can be the subject of diverse attributes; God is less obviously a straightforwardly amplified physical being, a “big man” – though this does not mean that he loses some of his more toxic gendered qualities.

An intellectually subtle and imaginatively original writer such as the prophet Ezekiel (6th century BC) can deploy deliberately symbolic and archaic narratives of male divine violence against an abused and rejected female who stands for the “unfaithful” people of Israel, in ways that have prompted anxiously sanitising interpretations for most of the last two millennia.

Tellingly, the prophecies of Daniel, from the second century BCE reintroduce images of a “high god” and a second heavenly presence, superficially reminiscent of the archaic Syrian model. But here the second presence is a glorified human figure representing the struggles and sufferings of the Jewish people. This figure is received into the heavenly court as a sign of the triumph, not of the savage regional empires of the period, symbolised by giant beasts at war with each other, but of “the holy people of the Most High” – a society of properly human character, living in devotion,  justice and humility. It is an image that can be perceived clearly behind some of the early Christian language about Jesus. But it originally reflects a second great thought-shift in later Hebrew writings.

A connection is made between the divine ruler of the universe and the concrete, human society of his worshippers. Israel’s god has become the guarantor of a complex system of law and custom, in which ideals of – for example – justice for the outcast or abandoned, denial of any absolute ownership of the material environment, moral critique of the habits of sacred monarchy and social hierarchy have become focal. The god of the Bible is, in other words, becoming the god of that distinctive and remarkable moral project called Judaism. 

This connects with a question raised by Stavrakopoulou’s closing pages. She takes Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous picture of the dead (and prematurely decaying) body of Christ as illustrating the way in which Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy ends up in a conspicuously unbiblical position, presenting human bodies as “repulsive” (her word), unfit to portray the divine. But – apart from the fact that in Holbein’s lifetime the glory of the human form as representing divinity was being reaffirmed by artists in southern Europe as never before – the point of a picture like this, or of any other representation of the torment and suffering of Jesus, was to say that “the divine” does not shrink from or abandon the human body when it is humiliated and tortured.

In contrast to an archaic, religious sacralising of the perfect, glowing, muscular, dominant body, there is a central strand in Jewish and Christian imagination which insists that bodies marked by weakness, failure, the violence of others, disease or disability are not somehow shut out from a  share in human – and divine – significance. They have value and meaning; they may judge us and call us to action. The biblical texts are certainly not short of the mythical glorifications of male power that Stavrakopoulou discusses; but they also repeatedly explore divine solidarity with vulnerable bodies, powerless bodies. Is this a less “real” dimension of the Bible? Even a reader with no theological commitments might pause before writing it off.

[See also: Why work lost its worth]

God: An Anatomy
Francesca Stavrakopoulou
Picador, 608pp, £25

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This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm