In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Benjamin D. Sommer about what the Bible tells us about God’s body as they explore the following questions:
- What does God look like?
- Does God have gender?
- Who is Maimonides and what did he have to say about God’s body?
- Where did the idea that God doesn’t have a body come from?
- What is kabbalah?
- Why do we resist the idea of God having a body?
- Can God be inside an object?
- Does every biblical writer think God has a body?
- How is God’s body perceived as different than our bodies?
- What is the significance of Jerusalem and God’s body?
- What do ancient Near Eastern idols tell us about the understanding of divine bodies?
- How does the Trinity reflect ideas of the Hebrew Bible?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Benjamin D. Sommer you can share.
- “I think that for some of the biblical authors, God’s body is different from our body because God’s body is made of something incredibly bright, something a little bit like fire, but much, much brighter and much more powerful.”— Benjamin D. Sommer
- “When I say that God has a body or anything has a body, what I mean is you can be located in a specific place in a specific time, whatever the shape, whatever the substance happens to be.” — Benjamin D. Sommer
- “God’s body is made of energy, not of flesh, not of matter.” — Benjamin D. Sommer
- “For other biblical authors, they might agree with the statement God does not have a body, but they would go in the other direction with that statement than we would mean when we say that. They believe that God has multiple bodies. They believe that God can manifest God’s self in more than one body, in multiple different places all at once.” — Benjamin D. Sommer
- “There are biblical characters and biblical authors who believe that God can become present in an object, in a certain kind of object, and having those objects in a temple is perfectly legitimate.” — Benjamin D. Sommer
- “The model that the trinity uses is a model that is native to Jewish culture, it’s native to ancient Israel.” — Benjamin D. Sommer
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: A Guide for the Perplexed
- Book: The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel
- Website: Benjamin Sommer
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Today we’re asking this question – does God have a body – with Ben Sommer.
Pete: Yeah, Ben is, first of all, fun fact, we went to the same high school four years apart or something, which I only found out about recently, but that’s pretty cool. So anyway, but Ben is a professor at, in the department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which is in New York City and he’s written a bunch of books, he’s a smart guy, and it’s a great episode.
Jared: And we’ve had him before!
Pete: He’s a repeat.
Jared: He’s one of a few people, select few people.
Pete: He was worthy.
Jared: He was worthy. We deemed him worthy. It is quite a vetting process.
Pete: We brought him back into the holy of holies.
Jared: And you’ll see why.
Pete: Yeah, you’ll see why.
Jared: He’s brilliant.
Pete: Yeah. He’s brilliant and he’s got so much to say about stuff, and he’s thought about stuff and he just weaves things together and it’s like, oh my goodness, I’ve never read the Bible before.
Jared: Yup. All right.
Pete: All right, here we go.
Ben: I think that God’s body is different from our body because God’s body is made of something incredibly bright, something a little bit like fire, but much, much brighter and much more powerful. They don’t have a word for it in Hebrew, so when they want to talk about it, they’ll usually say it was like a consuming fire.
Jared: Well, welcome back to the podcast Ben, it’s great to have ya.
Ben: It’s great to be here again. Thanks Jared.
Pete: You are, this is a rarified era isn’t it? A repeat guest.
Jared: It’s a very rare honor.
Ben: Well, thanks very much Jared and Pete, it’s great to be back.
Pete: Well, okay, I’m glad you appreciate this Ben, because this is a big moment in your life, I think.
Jared: Yeah, am I starting this podcast, or are you?
Pete: You’re starting it, go ahead. I just want Ben to appreciate where he is right now, that’s all! Okay?
Jared: So, we’re talking about something that’s very interesting and people might not have even ever thought to ask this question – does God have a body? So, maybe you can just –
Jared: Give us a little context for why it’s even a question worth talking about.
Ben: Well, at least in a Jewish context, I think all of us Jews are brought up learning at Hebrew school or if we go to a day school or a parochial school, wherever we get our Jewish education, we’re taught from right off the bat, you know, you can’t see God, there is nothing to see of God, God doesn’t have a body, and that’s just a very, very big part of the way that Judaism perceives God, that God is not an embodied being. This is part of, you know, Jewish liturgy, a lot of Jewish prayer services end with a hymn called Yigdal that is based on the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith written by the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides from the Middle Ages, and one of the lines there is “he doesn’t have a body and he is not a body.” And so, when Jews pick up the Bible, you know, they just, Jews think that the Bible says God doesn’t have a body. What’s interesting is if you ask a person, actually, what verse is that, where does that actually say that, it’s gonna be hard for people to find that because actually, there’s no verse that ever says that anywhere in the Bible. A lot of the Jewish Bible, what Jews call the Tanakh in Hebrew or what Christians call the Old Testament, actually, the truth of the matter is a lot of the Tanakh does assume that God has a body and you really can’t find a place that denies it. Sometimes people will say, well, there’s that verse from Exodus in Exodus 33 or 34, “a human being can’t see me and live.” But that doesn’t actually mean that there’s nothing to see, it just means that if you were to see it, it would kill you, that God actually has a body and there’s something about seeing God’s body that is so overpowering that it would kill a human being. So, the truth is that the Bible itself never denies that God has a body, it often assumes that God has a body, and the reason we don’t notice that the Bible says this is that we’re told that the Bible doesn’t imagine an embodied God. And when we’re brought up that way, if you’re brought up not to see something when it’s right in front of you –
Ben: You just don’t see it!
Jared: Can we take a dive, then, into a few of these to give people a context for where it actually would say that, where it is right in front of our noses?
Pete: Or God’s nose, as it were.
Ben: Or God’s nose.
Pete: Okay, anyway…
Ben: Well, the truth is, you don’t have to go very far. You just open up in Genesis and in Genesis, in Genesis 2 and 3 we’ve got the story of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2, God blows air into Adam’s nostrils.
Now, you know, maybe God isn’t literally physically doing CPR there, so that’s not necessarily a reference to God having a body and God being actually in the garden of Eden, but when you get to chapter three, we’re told that God was walking around the garden during the breezy time of day. That is to say, in the cool time of day when it’s nice to go for a walk, God was taking a walk in the Garden of Eden. If God was taking a walk in the Garden of Eden, well, a being who takes a walk is a being who has either legs or something very similar to legs. And a being who has legs is a being who has a body. When you read that verse, I think you realize that, oh, that first verse in chapter two about God doing CPR to bring Adam to life, maybe that was actually quite literal. Maybe the same being who has legs also has something like a mouth or a nose which blows the first breath of life into Adam. So, you don’t have to go all that far. For that matter, actually, even in chapter one when God creates humanity, God says let’s create humanity in our own shape, in our own image. The Hebrew terms used there are tselem and d’mut and I think primarily, those terms really just mean shape. I think that what Genesis 1:26-27 are saying is that human beings share a basic shape with God, which is to say roughly, a torso, two legs, two arms, and a head. I think in Ezekiel 1, it actually also happens to be around verse 26-27 there, you get the same idea that there is some sort of shape to God and us human beings, we human beings, we have the same shape. By the way, in Genesis 1:27, when we’re told God created the human beings in God’s image and God’s shape, well, if that shape is basically two legs, two arms, a body, a head, that raises, immediately it raises the question, okay, well, how many appendages are there and where exactly are they located.
Ben: In other words, it raises the question, does God have gender, does God have sex?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ben: And it’s interesting that that verse goes on to say, “God created humanity, male and female God created him,” or God created them. It, once we’re talking about God’s shape, well, that raises the question of gender and it’s not a coincidence that the verse goes on to answer the question of gender, both males and females share the basic shape of God. So, I think what that is telling us is that God doesn’t have gender, God doesn’t have breasts, God doesn’t have a penis, God doesn’t have a vagina, it’s just broadly speaking this kind of shape of a torso and something on the bottom for legs, something like hands, something like a head, but I think that we’re being told God doesn’t have any gender. If you were to read that verse quite literally, you might argue that the verse is saying that God has both genders, that God has all the equipment. I think when we get later into the Pentateuch and later into the whole Bible, the fact that God is never, ever sexually active, God never gives birth, God never fathers a child, that’s really, really central to the biblical idea of God, I think that that means that Genesis 1 is saying God has no gender, rather than God has both genders.
Ben: But the verse itself probably, on its own, could be read either way.
Pete: Yeah, that is extremely interesting. You know, in Bibles that Christians read like the NRSV and things like that, it says image and likeness and we always just pass over that, because like, okay, what does it mean to be created in God’s image and likeness? And typically, and I’m assuming that you may have had a similar kind of upbringing, but I think, Jared, for us, was more like God’s ability to reason or be –
Jared: Yeah, abstract.
Pete: It was very abstract and spiritualized.
Ben: I think that you will find that in Jewish tradition too, that these two words are understood in a more abstract or philosophical sense, and I think that there’s a lot of validity to that kind of a reading that, well, it’s something else, we share something else with God. But if you take a look at these two Hebrew words, tselem and d’mut elsewhere in the Bible, typically they refer to a shape. They are really more physical if you look at them elsewhere in the Bible, and so I think that the biblical authors probably, they might not be ruling out other ideas, the idea of thinking or the ability to use language. But at the most basic level, I think that this is also literally about shape, quite literally about the form in which human beings are created.
I should add, by the way, I mentioned Maimonides before, it’s really with Maimonides that the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides in the Early Middle Ages or about the 12th century, that the idea that God is embodied becomes completely rejected in Judaism. He writes, his great philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed, and a lot of The Guide of the Perplexed is arguing that God doesn’t have a body. The first third of The Guide of the Perplexed spends it’s time looking at a lot of biblical verses that seem to say that God does have a body like Genesis 1:26-27, and he’ll explain them away in some, one way or the other. So, that’s what he does in the Genesis 1:26-27, it has to do with rationality, he says. But when you spend, you know, a good hundred pages explaining that –
Ben: The Bible doesn’t mean what it seems to mean, and it takes you a hundred pages to do that, that’s probably an indication that, well, no, maybe originally the Bible did mean this. After Maimonides, it takes about a hundred years, about a hundred years after Maimonides, he wins this debate and Jews start thinking that no, God has no body, and you start reading the Bible in a new way. But up until that time, Jews, many, many Jews did think the Bible says God has a body and, yeah, that must be in there, God has a body.
Pete: If I remember right, you know, Christianity, it began that trip a little bit earlier, right?
Ben: I think so.
Pete: It didn’t take until the Middle Ages, yeah…
Ben: Mm hmm. Yes, yes.
Pete: I don’t know, I seem to recall, I mean, this is too simplistic, but it might be due to Greco-Roman influence and things like that where the philosophers didn’t have gods with bodies running around. Maybe the common people did, but the philosophers didn’t, and –
Ben: Mm hmm. I think so.
Pete: But it’s interesting, it’s the same problem that you said for Judaism, God is not embodied, and I was like, not for Christians either. We got the Jesus part, but that’s, we’ll talk about that later.
Pete: That’s a different thing, but it’s there at least in that respect, but what you’re saying –
Ben: Yeah, it shows up in –
Pete: It’s also there in the Bible, it’s also there in the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh.
Ben: Yeah. And I think in Christianity, you get that philosophical influence much more strongly early than in Judaism. There was one Jewish philosopher named Philo who lived actually in the 1st century, so roughly in the same time, actually, a little bit later than Jesus, who makes the same argument. But Philo is a Jewish philosopher who never actually catches on very strongly among Jews. He wrote in Greek –
Pete: He made the same argument as Maimonides, okay. Interesting.
Ben: But he ends up having much more influence in Christianity than in Judaism.
Pete: Yes, yes.
Pete: That’s his Greek context, right?
Ben: Right, exactly.
Pete: We can’t have a God with a body, it just doesn’t make any sense. It makes me look dumb.
Ben: Right. Greek philosophy doesn’t really begin to enter into Judaism. Philo is an exception, but he doesn’t last, so to speak, within Jewish culture. It’s only when Greek philosophy begins to influence Islam that then Jews in Muslim countries also become interested in philosophy. The first Jewish philosopher who makes this argument really, Saadia is his name, Saadia is in roughly about the 10th century CE, so, it’s 200 years before, 200 years before Maimonides. He makes this argument because he’s one of the Jews living in an Arabic speaking country who’s influenced by Muslim philosophy, and Maimonides also was an Arabic speaker living in Muslim countries. He is also deeply influenced by Muslim philosophy and by the Greek philosophy that he’s getting in Arabic translation. So yeah, it shows up, it’s your point again, it shows up in Judaism much, much later than it does in Christianity.
Jared: So, I have a two-fold question. One, could you maybe locate a few more texts that imply or show that God has a body? And then, to that, I’m curious what everyone’s objection, like Maimonides and others, there’s clearly a move away from that. So, what are those objections because I would assume if they were rooted in Greek philosophy, it’s something we’ve also inherited in our culture in some ways that may have people scratching their heads or being anti-this idea that God would have a body and what, you know, kind of what are the implications of God having a body? What would those be?
Ben: Gotcha. So, a few other places just sticking with Genesis, the fact that God goes down to take a look at the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, seems to mean that God is up. That might be a reference, an indication that God is located in a specific place and time as opposed to our idea of God, that God is sort of nowhere, though in some ways, also maybe everywhere. But no, if God has to leave heaven and go down to look at the tower, that could be taken to imply that God has a body.
Similarly, Genesis 18, when Abraham meets the three men who come through the desert and visit him and give him the news that Sarah is going to have a child, initially the three men, well, that passage begins with the statement “God appeared to Abraham,” or “God manifested God’s self to Abraham.” God appears or manifests to Abraham, and then we keep on going in that chapter and there’s just a description of these three men. And as you go further into the chapter, it gradually becomes clear that either one of these men, or maybe all three of these men are, in fact, God. And what’s especially interesting here, because eventually Abraham has a conversation with the men, but the narrator keeps telling us simply that God spoke to Abraham.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ben: Abraham at the beginning doesn’t seem to realize that this is God. He just thinks that these are three men going through the desert who probably need some water and a little bit of an ability to rest and get some food before going on with their journey. It’s only as the chapter moves along that Abraham gradually comes to realize what we, the readers, know from the very, very beginning because the narrator told us that either one of these three men is God, or maybe even all three of them are God. That’s a particularly interesting case, because in this case, God’s body is so human-like that Abraham doesn’t even realize that it’s God. Just one or two other examples real quickly, in Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah says, “in the year that King Uzziah died, I saw God sitting on a throne high and mighty, and his robe filled the palace.” He just says it, right out, “I saw God sitting on a throne.”: I think some translations kind of fudge there a little. Instead of translating the verb va er’eh as “I saw,” let’s see, the new JPS, a very well-known Jewish translation says, “I beheld my Lord.”
Ben: I think they’re sort of, they’re kind of hedging there, but the verb, this is the same verb that just means “to see,” and, well, you know, he saw God sitting on a throne.
Ben: God seems to be an embodied being there. We could go to other cases. The truth is, once we realize that what we were told in Sunday school isn’t actually true, we’ll see it all over the place. There are lots of biblical authors who actually do say that they saw God. Generally speaking, they’re scared. This happens with Isaiah a couple of verses later he says, “woe is me, I’m doomed.” The general rule in the Bible is if you see God, you’re going to die, from the book of Exodus, “a human can’t see me and live.” So, Isaiah is really scared that he’s about to die, but he finds out that he’s an exception to the rule. There are a number of other exceptions to the rules.
Jared: So, so then, with those it seems so clear –
Ben: Mm hmm.
Jared: That these examples, what are people’s hesitancy? Like, what were the reasons Maimonides maybe gave or other things for why in our culture we may resist this idea that God has a body?
Ben: So, for Maimonides, Maimonides says, look, the core theological idea of Judaism is that God is one. God is indivisible. Anything that is physical is divisible. You could, if you had, you know, you could cut it in half, you could cut it in thirds, you could cut it in quarters. Anything that’s physical isn’t truly a unity, a completely radical unity. So, Maimonides for that reason feels that, reasons I should say, that God cannot be an embodied being. Furthermore, God has to be, for Maimonides, to truly be the one God, God has to be truly and completely transcendent. God has to be outside of the universe that God creates. If God is a physical being in the universe, then God is part of the universe rather than being the master of the universe from outside the universe. The truth is, I think Maimonides has a number of very, very good philosophical reasons explaining why God can’t be embodied. As a religious person, I think basically Maimonides is correct, but what’s interesting to note and what’s surprising to note is that within Judaism, this was a new point of view. He may be right, but he’s, he’s introducing a point of view that was relatively new. It had only been with, it had only entered Judaism really for about 200 years since the time of his predecessor Saadia, another Arabic speaking Jewish philosopher. It’s a new point of view.
Now, Maimonides thinks that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it says, so Maimonides genuinely believes that he’s just explaining what the Bible really, really meant. But I think, historically, that no, he’s actually disagreeing with the Bible. He doesn’t claim to be disagreeing with the Bible, I think he doesn’t intend to be disagreeing with the Bible, but from a historical point of view, yes, he’s introducing a new idea that the biblical authors wouldn’t have agreed with.
Ben: Actually, I would say, I think the biblical authors really wouldn’t have even understood it. I don’t think that they had a concept of something that was existent that was not locatable in space and time. And when I say a body, when I say that God has a body or anything has a body, what I mean is you can be located in a specific place in a specific time, whatever the shape, whatever the substance happens to be.
Jared: Right. Broadly speaking of a body. Mm hmm.
Pete: So, okay, there is, there are these texts that pretty clearly indicate that God is, has a body. I recall that not every biblical writer thinks that way.
Pete: Or do they? Do they all think that way or do some just emphasize other things, because, you know, you don’t seem to have a body showing up every time God shows up.
Ben: That’s true. Not all of them emphasize this, but with one possible exception I don’t think that there are any biblical authors who deny that God has a body.
Pete: Who deny it, right. Okay, yeah. So even if God is in heaven –
Ben: Mm hmm.
Pete: Right? That doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a body.
Ben: Correct. Because heaven, I think, for the biblical authors, heaven is a place. It’s above that blue stuff up there. If you could get up whatever that thing is up there that’s bright blue, above there, that’s where God is. And that’s where God has a palace, that palace is probably located in the sky or really above the sky right over the city of Jerusalem, so that there’s this parallel between God’s heavenly palace and God’s palace on earth, the Jerusalem temple. But I think that biblical authors generally believe that God is located up there, but sometimes comes down here. The other, the other surprising piece of information, though, is I think that some, not all, some biblical authors, a minority of biblical authors believe, well, God has a body, but God’s body is different from our body in some really crucial respects. So, for one set of biblical authors, I think that God’s body is different from our body because God’s body is made of something incredibly bright, something a little bit like fire, but much, much brighter and much more powerful. They don’t have a word for it in Hebrew, so when they want to talk about it, they’ll usually say it was like fire, that’s what Exodus 24 for example, if memory serves I think it’s verse 17, says, actually I’ll look this up real quick. 24:17… Yeah, it’s 24:17 says that the kavod, the Hebrew word kavod means glory or presence, but it can also, I think, mean body. It comes from a root, a Hebrew root that means to have substance, to have weight, to be weighable you might say, to have mass. So, in Exodus 24:16 says, the kavod or the glory or presence or body of God dwelt on Mount Sinai and then in the next verse, we’re told the appearance of the kavod of the Lord was like a consuming fire on top of the mountain in view of all Israel, all the children of Israel. So, the Israelite’s are on the bottom of the mountain. Looking up, they can actually see this kavod, which I would really just translate as God’s body, and they don’t have a word to describe what they see. So, what the text says it’s like a consuming fire. You get similar language in the book of Ezekiel 1. So, God’s body is made of this substance that is incredibly bright, so bright that if you saw it directly, you would die. Now, it’s surrounded on Mount Sinai by a thick cloud, so the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain aren’t killed. They can’t see it quite directly, but it’s so bright that they can still see it through the cloud. So, God’s body is different from our body because it’s, this is sort of an anachronistic use of Newtonian terminology, but I think we might be able to say that for this passage, God’s body is made of energy, not of flesh, not of matter. So, that’s one difference, maybe, between God’s body and our body. We may have the same shape, but it’s not made of the same kind of stuff.
Ben: I think that for this particular author who is probably one of the ancient priests, what in Hebrew is called one of the kohanim, an ancestor actually, therefore if you know somebody with the last name Kohen, an ancestor is someone with the last name Kohen. Kohen is simply a Hebrew word that means priest. These priestly authors also probably believe, I think, that God’s body was variable in size. It could be big enough that it’s on top of a mountain and the people at the bottom of the mountain can see it, but it can also become small enough that it can go into the tabernacle that Moses and the children of Israel build, and the back room of that tabernacle, it’s not a very, very big room. So, I think its size is probably variable and it’s not made of flesh, it’s made of some sort of energy. That’s one way that one group of ancient Israelite writers, the ancient priests, the ancestors of the people with the last name Kohen, last name Katz also, that’s how they saw God. There are other biblical authors, however, who have an even weirder idea. For other biblical authors, it’s not that God doesn’t have a body, well, let me rephrase that. For other biblical authors, they might agree with the statement God does not have a body, but they would go in the other direction with that statement than we would mean when we say that. They believe that God has multiple bodies.
Ben: They believe that God can manifest God’s self in more than one body, in multiple different places all at once. So, God can be in heaven and simultaneously in the city of Jerusalem, but simultaneously in the city of Samaria or the city of Bethel. So, in this case, God, for these writers, sometimes God’s body might look very much like a human body. The author of Genesis 18 is an example of this kind of author, and for that author, Abraham didn’t even realize that this body was a divine body rather than a human body, but God can have more than one body. It might be that all three of those human beings were God, and God was simultaneously still probably present up at God’s palace up in heaven. So, God is different from us not in that God has no body, but in that we have one body and God could have as many bodies as God feels like.
Pete: Well, I may be wrong on this Ben, but this sounds like, well, I wonder if like outside of the Bible in the Ancient Near Eastern world, if that’s sort of how idols work.
Ben: This is going to sound very shocking to some listeners, especially to some Jewish listeners, but I think that this is exactly how idols work in ancient Babylonia, Assyria, and among the Canaanites and probably also among the Egyptians but that’s a little bit more outside my area of expertise. But we know from Babylonian, Assyrian, and Sumerian texts that ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians believed that they could bring the presence of a deity into an idol. The Acadian word, the Babylonian word for idol is tsalmu, it’s actually related to that word in Genesis 1:26-27, tselem. Acadian, the language of ancient Babylonia and Assyria is a Semitic language, so it’s related to Hebrew and it has similar vocabulary. A tsalmu is the word that they would use for the, what we would call an idol or an icon or a statue of a deity, but they believe that after the craftsmen had made the idol out of wood and then gold and silver and jewelry that they put over the wood, then a group of priests would do a ritual, would perform a ritual on that tsalmu and over the course of that ritual, the actual presence of the god would come into the tsalmu. And they explicitly say in these ancient texts, until the ceremony, known as the mouth opening ceremony, or the mouth washing ceremony, until the mouth opening ceremony has been performed, the eyes of the tsalmu cannot see, the ears cannot hear, the nose cannot smell. But the idea is once they’ve preformed the ceremony, that tsalmu is no longer simply a statue, it is now a living being, it now is the god Marduk or it is the goddess Ishtar. But, Marduk could be present in many different tsalmu at the same time.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ben: There might be a statue of Marduk in a temple in Babylonia, but twenty miles away in the temple in Borsippa, there’s also a statue of Marduk. In fact, even just in Babylonia, there’s a statue of Marduk in the Marduk temple, but across the street from the Marduk temple, there was a temple to Marduk’s son, the god Nabu. And it’s fitting that in the Nabu temple, there’s also a little chapel in honor of Nabu’s father Marduk, and there’s a statue of Marduk there too. So, here, Marduk is simultaneously in two different statues on opposite sides of the street.
That kind of thinking was clearly known to the biblical authors. Some biblical authors ridicule it. Think about Psalm 116 plus or minus, I think it’s 116, that sort of mocks the idea that a statue could have eyes that see or ears that hear, but the Babylonians really do state that quite explicitly. If you’ve done the right ceremony, the eyes can see, the ears can hear, so this idea that a statue can actually house a deity, there were some biblical authors who agreed with that idea, and they did believe that God could come into a statue. Among the Israelites, the statue is much less fancy. It was usually just a stone pillar, what’s known as a matzeva in Hebrew or a beit el in Hebrew. Beit el actually just means house of God and they call it the house of God because God is inside of that pillar, that stone pillar. But again, there are many different stone pillars around the land of Israel in different temples in which there were some Israelites who believe that God was literally present in that stone pillar.
Ben: Other biblical authors totally disagree with that.
Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.
[Producer’s group endorsement]
Pete: Is that the story of Jacob and the stairway to heaven?
Ben: Mm hmm, exactly.
Pete: He puts his head on a rock?
Ben: Correct, correct.
Pete: Okay. Flesh that out a little bit, because that’s fascinating.
Ben: So yeah, in that story, when Jacob, he has a vision when he’s asleep of that stairway to heaven, early Zeppelin fan, little known aspect of Israelite religion, but now it can be told.
Pete: These are the little nuggets our listeners are aiming for.
Ben: Right, right. So, he has that vision when he’s asleep. When he wakes up, he realizes, oh, God is in this place and I didn’t realize it, I should commemorate that. And he takes the stone that he was sleeping on, puts it upright so that now it’s vertical instead of horizontal, and then it says that he pours oil on it. Now, an ancient Israelite ritual, to pour oil on somebody or something is to change its status. So, David was just some shepherd, then the prophet Samuel pours oil on his head and now David is the king of all Israel. Nobody knows it except for David, Samuel, and God, but officially, he’s now the king, right? And that’s how you also become a high priest in the book of Exodus, the book of Leviticus. The High Priest is often called the anointed priest, hakohen hamashiach, because he became High Priest in a ceremony in which they poured oil over his head. I think, this is just my own theory, that when Jacob is pouring oil on the matzevah, that that is the Israelite equivalent of the ceremony that brings the presence of God into this object. For the Babylonians, it was the mouth opening ceremony, which is a very, very fancy, very long ceremony. I think that for the Israelites, the ceremony was simpler, just as the object itself was actually not as fancy and much simpler, and that by pouring oil in, this becomes an object that embodies God. But elsewhere, in related cultures among the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Arameans, this term matzevah and also the term beit el very clearly and explicitly refers to a stone that is inhabited by a god or a goddess. Well, actually, a god, not a goddess.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ben: A stone that is inhabited by a god or a stone that embodies a deity, a stone that embodies God. When you see that language, it’s very clear in some of the Phoenician sources, you see that language, the exact same term showing up in Hebrew because the Hebrew language and the Phoenician language are pretty much just two dialects of the same language.
The same term shows up in that story about Jacob. I think it’s very clear that Jacob wasn’t just commemorating the fact that he had an interesting dream here, Jacob was actually making this into a holy site and God was agreeing to become available at this site in this particular piece of stone.
Jared: Hmm. So, what I’m hearing you say, I just want to make sure I’m clear, is that within the Bible itself, within the text, we have different opinions from these authors on whether God has a body or God can have multiple bodies, and would that be then also a disagreement on whether, I’m, the idea of idolatry is coming in. So, are there some who, why is that not idolatry or is it and it’s just okay in some biblical texts and not in others? I’m trying to wrestle with this idea of idolatry.
Ben: Gotcha. So, on your first point, yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying that within the Bible, there’s a really interesting theological debate going on. I think that all biblical authors agree on the basic principle that there’s only one God in the world who really matters, that that God has chosen the nation Israel and given the nation Israel a certain mission to obey a certain law, thus showing their loyalty to God, to the one God. That they all agree on. But then they disagree on a great deal of, on a great deal. And one of the disagreements theologically is, I think, whether God has multiple bodies, or God has only one body. We modern Bible scholars, most of us believe that the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, which you often call the Torah, is not really a book, it’s not a unified book, but it’s a collection of several different sources that have been interwoven among each other. In the, there’s somewhat different versions of this theory, but the most classical version of this theory which is known as the documentary hypothesis says that there were three or four originally separate documents that were edited together to create the Torah, the five books of Moses as we know them. And we usually talk about the four authors as being J, E, P, and D. Why do we call them that? Not really worth going into right at the moment, but what I’m suggesting is that when I read through the Pentateuch, in the J and E passages, again and again I see the idea that God can have more than one body, that God can manifest God’s self in more than one place at a time, and that God has a certain sort of fluidity of selfhood. And this is very, very similar to the sort of theology that we would get in Babylonia or Assyria or among the Canaanites and the Phoenicians, it’s just that for the Babylonians and Assyrians and Canaanites and Phoenicians, this is true of lots of different gods and goddesses. For the Israelites, for the J and E authors, this is true only of one being, only of the one God. But they still have that same idea that a god differs from a human being in that gods have this multiplicity of embodiment and this fluidity of selfhood. And they believe, therefore, that it’s perfectly appropriate to worship God in a piece of stone, which sounds to us a lot like idolatry, but the truth is, you go through various parts of the Bible and these stones, which are known as a matzevah or even a piece of wood or a tree or a bush, which is known in Hebrew as an asherah, there are biblical authors who mention them without condemning them. There are biblical characters who are positive characters, good monotheists, who worship only the one God, who are associated with these objects. Jacob is an example; Jacob sets up one of these stone pillars in Genesis 28. Moses sets up twelve of them in Exodus 24. Moses, he’s like a pretty positive character. Like, you don’t get much more monotheistic than that.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ben: But he’s not condemned for putting up these matzevot in Exodus 24. In the book of Kings, King Jehu is a very zealously monotheistic king. He reforms the temple of northern Israel where he lives, he gets rid of all sorts of idolatrous and polytheistic paraphernalia, but he never gets rid of the asherah that’s in the temple. He apparently thinks that this stone, oh, I’m sorry, the asherah is the wooden pillar, this wooden pillar or this tree or bush, he seems to think it’s perfectly kosher for monotheists. So, there are biblical characters and biblical authors who believe that God can become present in an object, in a certain kind of object, and having those objects in a temple is perfectly legitimate, it’s perfectly kosher.
Pete: So that’s where, there’s a debate, you’re saying, in there.
Ben: Mm hmm.
Pete: So, what came to mind as you were talking about this immediately is the shema in the, you know, “the Lord our God is one God,” and –
Ben: Mm hmm.
Pete: Does that have to do with what you’re talking about right now?
Pete: Just explain that a little bit –
Pete: Because what does that, he’s got, well, what does that even mean? Like, well this might mean something to do with this…
Ben: So, the people who believe that God can be present in an object or in a body in more than one place at a time, very often they’ll refer to the god of this place versus the god of that place. So, for the Babylonians, they’ll talk about the goddess Ishtar in the city of Nineveh and they’ll talk about the goddess Ishtar in the city of Arbela. These are probably two different statutes of the same goddess, so they’re kinda different. They’re different bodies of god, they’re different Ishtar’s, but they’re the same Ishtar because ultimately, they’re all, they’re all manifesting the same divine reality of the goddess Ishtar. So, you see this very, very often in ancient texts that ancient texts will refer to a deity as being present in a certain place, and they might even list several different Ishtar’s in the same, let’s say in a legal document, they’ll list several Ishtar’s by their place name. The Ishtar of Arbela, the Ishtar of Nineveh, the ba’al of this city, the ba’al of that city. This is actually somewhat similar, by the way, I think to Mary in certain kinds of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Mary of Guadalupe is one Mary, and then Mary the Black Mary in Poland is another Mary. Well, they’re the same Mary, but people might have a particular devotion to the one or the other. They’re the same Mary, but they’re not the same Mary, but they have some degree of independence. You see this with the god of Israel too here and there. There are some inscriptions that have been uncovered by archeologists that talk about, well, sure we gotta pause for a second. In Bible translations, whenever you see the word LORD in all capital letters, the original Hebrew there doesn’t say LORD, it actually has God’s personal name, which is spelled, in English it would be Yahweh. Following Jewish tradition, I never pronounce that name out loud, which makes it a little bit hard to talk about, um –
Pete: [Light laughter]
Ben: But there are these inscriptions that –
Pete: That’s why you just say LORD, Ben, that’s what the whole point of that is.
Ben: Right. Well, the thing is when we say LORD it makes it sound like a noun, well, it makes it sound like it’s a job title.
Ben: Because the word God or the word LORD, those are job titles. That’s not a personal name. That’s like saying Mr. Judge, or Your Honor, the judge, right? What’s interesting, though, is that we can also refer to God by God’s personal name, which ancient Israelites actually did. It became standard in Jewish ritual practice though, that we no longer pronounce that name out loud, which is why I’m avoiding doing.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Ben: Other biblical scholars would pronounce it out loud, I happen not to. So, so that guy, we have inscriptions that talk about, as it were, the LORD of Sinai, or the LORD of Samaria, or the LORD of Hebron. We have references to geographic manifestations of the God of Israel, and actually, even in the Bible itself we get that language here and there. Absalom, you might remember in the story of Absalom, the son of David, he and his father have their various disagreements when Absalom is younger, obviously they get worse later on when there’s a civil war and all that, but when Absalom is younger he flees for a while and goes to live in what today is called the Golan Heights, which is controlled by a different king and his mother’s family is originally from there. But he and his father, David, are reconciled and Absalom comes back to Jerusalem, but he’s kind of a little bit under house arrest in Jerusalem. He can’t leave Jerusalem; David doesn’t let him leave Jerusalem. And then Absalom says to David, look, I made a vow to the LORD who is in Hebron that if I would ever make it back alive to Jerusalem, I would come and do a sacrifice to the LORD who is in Hebron. And David doesn’t say, okay, so go to the temple here, you know, go somewhere here in Jerusalem and fulfill that vow. No, he’s gotta go to Hebron, which is south of Jerusalem, to fulfill that vow because he didn’t simply make the vow to the LORD generally, to this LORD Yhwh, he made it to a geographic manifestation of this LORD, so he had to go to the city of Hebron to fulfill the vow. It would be similar to, let’s say, a pious Catholic making a vow to visit Mary of Guadalupe. Going to some church elsewhere and looking at an icon of Mary, that wouldn’t cut it. Going all the way to Poland and going to wherever the Black Mary is in Poland, that wouldn’t cut it. You’ve got to go to Guadalupe to do that.
Ben: It’s the same sort of idea. Now, that idea, you see this in the parts of the Torah, the parts of the Pentateuch written by the J and E sources, but the D source of these four different sources that create the Torah, the D source is the book of Deuteronomy and in Deuteronomy 6:4 we read the famous line of what is the shema prayer for Jews, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” What does that mean? The Lord is God, one Lord. Part of what that means is that Deuteronomy is saying don’t think about there being a LORD of Hebron and a LORD of Samaria and a LORD of the South, which are all terms that show up either in the Bible or in archeologically attested discoveries from ancient Israel. Those are all the same LORD. So, don’t even talk about there being a LORD in this place or a LORD in that place. Deuteronomy is pushing back against this conception of God having this fluid self, or this multiple embodiment. Deuteronomy totally agrees and says, no, there’s only one God. Deuteronomy, I think, pretty much does think God has a body, but Deuteronomy thinks that body is up in heaven and never ever comes to earth.
Pete: Yeah, mm hmm.
Ben: And you shouldn’t think that there are multiple manifestations of the LORD. There’s only, there’s only one manifestation of the Lord, and it’s up in heaven and we’ll never see it.
Ben: By the way, the priestly parts of the Torah do the same thing. The priestly parts of the Torah also believe that God only has one body. The priests believe that that body does come down to the planet earth and dwells in the tabernacle that Moses and the children of Israel build, but they too reject the idea of this multiplicity of embodiment. So, priestly verses and Deuteronomic verses in the Torah, they say the matzevah is totally forbidden and asherah is totally forbidden. If you see one, you should knock it down, you should destroy it, you shouldn’t let that be inside of your temple. But this is a real debate among different ancient Israelite authors who wrote different parts of the Torah. Some of them think the matzevah, the stone pilar of God is perfectly kosher, some think it is completely non-kosher, completely forbidden. It’s a really interesting debate that happens within, not just within the Bible, in this case within the Torah, in the five books of Moses.
Pete: That’s right, yeah. That’s so completely fascinating. Well, listen Ben, you mentioned Mary a couple of times. So, with the few minutes that we have left, just give us a little bit to think about here with the Christian faith where, you know, an embodied God is sort of an important point. It’s Jesus, right?
Ben: Mm hmm.
Pete: So, maybe just, if you can riff just very briefly on maybe the continuity of these ideas in parts of the Hebrew scriptures and then the Christian story as well.
Ben: Sure, so you’ve got this debate going on in what Jews call the Bible or the Tanakh, what Christians call the Old Testament. I think that by and large within the Tanakh, within the Old Testament, the Deuteronomic or priestly point of view wins. The J, E position that seems to be a little bit more of, you know, believing that God can be fluid and multiple becomes the minority position, so much so that it’s not even all that noticeable. You have to work hard to notice that it’s there. But it never fully disappears. I think it keeps on showing up in the post-biblical period, it shows up for example in Jewish mysticism. I think it also shows up in Christianity. Let me just give two examples of that in Christianity. First of all, the idea that, you know, which is explicit let’s say in the Gospels in the opening verses of John. The idea that Jesus is not just a human being, but that Jesus is also God, the idea that God sends the Word, but the Word actually is God, this idea really is similar to the idea that we’ve got a small scale manifestation of God on the planet earth, which is really similar to what Jacob is doing when he brings God into that, into that piece of stone. So, the idea of Jesus as being God or part of God in the New Testament, that’s really just another example of what I would call this fluidity thinking that appeared in the Jewish Bible in the Old Testament. It’s a minority position there, but it never disappears, it reappears in early Christianity. I would also suggest that the doctrine of the trinity is also an example of this fluidity position. This idea that you can have multiplicity within a unity. If God can be, let’s say back in Genesis, present in one or maybe three men who appear to Abraham and simultaneously, God is still up in heaven, then God is at once multiple and unified.
Ben: Now, once you’ve got the idea that the unity that is God can manifest itself in multiple places and in multiple ways at the same time. You know, you could have ten such manifestations, you could have three such manifestations. In classical Jewish mysticism, you actually have ten manifestations that are known as the sefirot; in classical Christianity, you have three manifestations that are the three persons of the trinity. I think a lot of people have often thought that, especially among Jews, that the idea, a lot of Jews believe that the idea of the trinity, it’s not really monotheistic, that somebody has taken some Greek idea, which is a pagan idea, and superimposed it on the monotheistic idea from ancient Israel and that’s what produces the trinity. Something that was really, really surprising for me when I wrote my book The Bodies of God, when I was researching this book, is I came to realize that that Jewish criticism of the trinity is not really actually such a legitimate criticism. That is to say, the idea of the trinity is actually very much at home in the religion of the Hebrew Bible. The idea of the trinity is simply another later idea of multiplicity within unity. Theologically, what I’m arguing is that theologically, from the point of view of Judaism, there’s nothing really the matter with the doctrine of the trinity. The theological model of the trinity is an acceptable model. Now, having said that, let me just make real, real clear. I’m not saying that it’s okay for Jews to believe in the trinity, I certainly don’t believe in the trinity, but the model that the trinity uses is a model that is native to Jewish culture, it’s native to ancient Israel. It’s what we see, not in the book of Deuteronomy, not in the book of Leviticus, but we do see it in parts of Genesis and Exodus. We do see it in the J and E stories that appear in the Torah, and we see something similar in Jewish mysticism, what’s known as Kabbalah. In fact, in Jewish mysticism it even goes further in that there are ten manifestations of God within the universe rather than just three. And that’s been a part, an aspect of my book I think that was really surprising to a lot of people. Frankly, it was surprising to me. And again, I want to be real, real clear, I’m not saying that it’s okay for Jews to believe in Jesus or that it’s okay for Jews to believe in the trinity, I’m just saying though, that the idea of the trinity is an idea that is native to Judaism and we Jews might think it’s a wrong idea, but it is not in principle an incorrect idea. Does that make any sense? It’s not polytheism.
Jared: Well, I appreciate that it shows that continuity, again, between the faiths and shows in some ways, again, we talk a lot on this podcast of recognizing the context of the Jewishness of our New Testament –
Ben: Mm hmm.
Jared: And those early followers of Jesus, and so I think that just kinda continues that conversation for me.
Ben: Yeah, I think it helps, this perspective that I’m describing from my research, I think does help show that the doctrine of the trinity is a, has a great deal of continuity with the culture of ancient Israel. A lot of people think that it’s a new idea, it’s a new invention in Christianity, a lot of people think that’s what separates Christianity from Judaism. Actually, funnily enough, surprisingly enough, I don’t think that’s the case. I think that the trinity does not really socratically separate Christianity from Judaism. There are other aspects of Christianity that are radically different, the rejection of the Law, for example, in particular. But the trinity, now the trinity has a lot of continuity with, has a lot of continuity with texts within the Hebrew Bible. It also has a continuity, in a way, with later Jewish texts in Jewish mysticism in Kabbalah. And what’s surprising here, by the way, is that it’s only when you’re looking at the Bible from the point of view of modern biblical criticism that you can notice this. If you believe, as many traditional Jews continue to believe, and as many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians continue to believe, if you believe that the whole Torah is just, it’s one document, God wrote it, Moses copied it down on dictation from God, well then, there’s no such thing as a J verse versus a P verse versus a D verse. And in that case, if you don’t look at the J material by itself, you can’t notice this stuff. But if you’re willing, as some religious Jews and some religious Christians are willing to do nowadays, if you’re willing to look at the Bible through the lens of modern biblical criticism, of modern biblical scholarship, then you can try to listen to the voice of the J authors as opposed to the voice of the D authors.
And you realize, gosh, this isn’t just all one melody, the Torah is giving me a lot of different melody lines. It’s giving me harmony, its sometimes giving me a lot of dissonance, in fact, you know, these different voices are disagreeing with each other on some things, they’re debating with each other. If you’re willing to read just the J verses and then just the P verses, you can reconstruct this ancient debate and in light of that ancient debate I think it becomes clear that, yeah, that the trinity goes back to a way of thinking about divine fluidity that you find in the J and E, the J and E sections of the Pentateuch. If I can give you one other example of this, by the way, that relates to Christianity, I think that when Catholics have, when Catholics do communion and they believe that the real presence of Jesus comes into the wine and into the wafer, that is very, very similar to this ancient idea of the mouth opening ceremony that the presence of a deity literally comes into an object and there were some ancient Israelites who believed in that, that’s what Jacob was doing in Genesis 28. So, I think that Catholicism is really picking up on this J and E perspective from this ancient Israelite debate that we find in the five books of Moses. In many ways, when Deuteronomy rejects that way of thinking, Deuteronomy says, no, no, no, no. God is only in heaven, God never appears on earth, what we have here on earth though in the temple is God’s name. There’s a name or a word of God that, it’s not God, but it represents God, and we should learn about God , we should read about God, we should memorize what the Torah says, you should say these words, you should memorize them and utter them every day. For Deuteronomy, what allows for worship isn’t the real presence of God in the temple, but is the symbolism presence of God in the temple. And in a lot of ways, I think Deuteronomy is, if J and E are the Catholic element of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy is the Protestant element of the Pentateuch.
Jared: Wow, what a fascinating, just fascinating conversation here. But, you know, as we wrap up the conversation, where, you mentioned your book. Can you just give us the title and where people can find that, and where people can just keep going, digging down this rabbit hole if they would want to?
Ben: Gotcha. So, the name of the book is The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. It’s published by Cambridge University Press, so you can just go onto Amazon or Barnes and Noble or order it from a bookstore, or you can go to the Cambridge University Press website and order it directly from them. Probably Amazon would be the cheapest I’m guessing, but I really don’t know. It’s a long book that talks about this issue. I would add, I wrote the book in a very specific way. You can tell as I’ve been talking about this, there’s a lot of technical knowledge that comes into creating this thesis that I’ve just presented. A lot of that technical stuff though, I just keep that in the end notes at the back of the book, and I try to make the book itself readable to an interested reader who doesn’t have a Ph.D., and so I think if you just read it and don’t worry about the end notes, I hope that it’s a somewhat, it might be a challenging read, but it’s something that people can actually get through. There also are some discussions of the book that give, that provide good summaries in the, there’s a web magazine called Tablet that had a really, really good review of the book that does a great job summarizing the book. If you go to, I think it’s https://www.tabletmag.com/, it’s a Jewish online magazine. A guy named Adam Kirsch had a really, really very, very insightful review of the book that provides a good summary if you don’t want to buy the whole, you don’t want to buy the book, you don’t want to read the whole thing. Or I don’t know if your listeners know about the website https://www.academia.edu/, but there’s this website called Academia in which scholars can post their articles and so forth. If you join https://www.academia.edu/ , which you can do for free, you can then look me up, Benjamin Sommer, and you’ll see there’s, I have a PDF there that provides book reviews of The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. I can’t put the whole book up there, that would be illegal, Cambridge University Press wouldn’t let me do that, of course, but I put up some reviews of the book and the review by Adam Kirsch is one of the ones that’s there. I would recommend reading that one in particular if you want to learn a little bit more about this in some more detail.
Jared: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for the conversation, and just, your clear, robust knowledge and understanding of the Hebrew Bible. It’s really excellent to hear.
Pete: Absolutely fascinating. Thank you, Ben.
Ben: Great! Well, thanks for asking me, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been great to be back.
Pete: Thank you, see ya.
Ben: See ya!
Jared: Thanks everyone for listening in. Hey, listen, there was a lot going on in this episode. If you want to unpack it, there’s a few ways you can do that.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, one of those ways, Jared, is we have an afterword now where we discuss, you know, these episodes. We go in different directions, we try to unpack some things and it’s just a great way for, I mean, Jared, for you and I to just sort of like regroup after an episode and wrap our arms around it. It’s something that people can benefit too, from just sort of hearing maybe some of your questions are going to be asked and answered in a little session like that.
Jared: Right. And if you have a question that you’d actually like to ask Pete or myself, we do a quarterly Q&A session for our Patreon supporters that you can join, and the next one is actually November 18th from 8-9PM.
Pete: Eastern time.
Jared: Eastern time. But it’s coming at a great time with this episode, so if you have questions as you listened, bring those on November 18th from 8-9, and to do that you just sign up on Patreon, that’s our $15 tier. The afterword that Pete talked about was at our $8 tier, so just head to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople for ways to engage more.
Pete: All right folks, thanks, see ya.
Narrator: Thanks to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
Jared: Thanks again for following along, blup bleh ble bleda blugrh. Nope, Dave, not gonna happen. I don’t even want to say that.
Jared: Thanks for listening everyone. There was a lot going on in this episode, so if there is a few ways you wanted to keep… If there is? Dang it, Dave. Dang it. Oh my gosh. Okay, here we go.
Pete: Yeah, I mean one of those ways is that Jared and I have now an afterword. We sort of try to unpack some things for a few minutes and that gets thrown up on YouTube, that’s one way of getting… oh, it’s not on YouTube.
Jared: It’s not on YouTube, you gotta start over.
Pete: Darn it all.
Jared: It was good though.
Pete: It was really good.
Jared: Just switch out YouTube with Patreon.
Pete: Yeah, figure it out Dave.
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