God: An Anatomy
by Francesca Stavrakopoulou
Picador, £25, 608 pages
‘My God, my God, thou art a direct God,” John Donne wrote, “may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? But thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures… as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies.”
Donne seems in his 19th “Expostulation” simply to praise the Lord, but a polemic is clearly to be heard between the lines. Born Catholic (he accepted Anglican ordination only in his early 40s), Donne intends to praise metaphorical and figurative language in itself by praising it in his Creator. Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist and derivatively Puritan guise, celebrated as the only proper reading of scripture the literal, “plain sense” reading, which Donne concedes in his first sentence is sometimes the proper reading. It was the rejection of the metaphorical, the figurative and, above all, the allegorical so celebrated by Christianity down to the West European 16th century that crucially enabled the Protestant Reformation’s return to the alleged “plain sense” of primitive Christianity. John Donne begs artfully to differ.
The history of Christianity since the 16th century has demonstrated that no sola scriptura reform is beyond further reform by a return to a plainer sense of scripture and an earlier time, rejecting yet again as “fancy” distortion everything that might have lately come along. Such is the impulse that in the 20th century has been intellectually prepared to excise much of the actual, artful Christ of the Gospels themselves in favour of the recovered, earlier, plain-sense “historical” (as opposed to scriptural) Jesus. And such, in still more radical and more thoroughly secular guise, leaping much further back in time, is the impulse that lies behind Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s brilliant new God: An Anatomy.
As an undergraduate, Francesca Stavrakopoulou observed “lots of biblical texts suggest that God is masculine, with a male body” and was told by her theology professor that these texts were metaphorical, or poetic. “We shouldn’t get too distracted by references to his body,” her professor asserted, because to do so would be “to engage too simplistically with the biblical texts”.
Anything but distracted by biblical references to God’s body, Stavrakopoulou is aesthetically entranced by them and programmatically attentive to their iconographic and literary contexts from ancient southwest Asia in the fourth millennium BCE to Christian and Jewish Europe as late as the 16th century. Her work, true to its subtitle, is anatomically organised into five parts and an epilogue: I, Feet and Legs; II, Genitals; III, Torso; IV, Arms and Hands; V, Head. Each of these comprises three or four chapters, each with its own fresh emphasis and coherence. “Head”, for example, has separate chapters for ears, nose and mouth.
Because the Bible is not organised this way, Stavrakopoulou’s programme requires of her, first, that she control the Bible’s countless bodily references to God or to Christ well enough to reorder them around her chosen corporeal headings. She does this amazingly well, clearly working from the original languages. Her fascinating programme requires that she contextualise these references culturally by frequent reference to contemporaneous extra-biblical visual and literary art, thus to better appreciate how these bodily references would have been heard and understood in ancient times. She meets this challenge even more impressively; her work has 56 exceptionally apposite figures, and her references to ancient Semitic literature, beginning with Sumer, are especially abundant, but she does not by any means stop there. Her programme requires of her, also, a closing chronological thrust toward the Jewish and Christian successors of the Israelites who imagined Yahweh in the first place. These latecomers – still within the Bible itself – did gradually spiritualise or disincarnate their image of him, and theirs is the God we know today, the theologically understood God of her undergraduate classroom. She discharges this last, chronological requirement reluctantly, as if recording a defeat, and only in her final chapters, but she discharges it nonetheless with honesty and sensitivity. Her epilogue has just one chapter, “An Autopsy”. The ruddy god she loved best is dead and gone, but she lingers nostalgically over his nude corpse, reviewing it for us, inch by anatomically correct inch, as it lies before her on the slab, a closing allegory for the iconographic history she has just reviewed.
Boldly simple in concept, God: An Anatomy is stunning in its execution. It is a tour de force, a triumph, and I write this as one who disagrees with Stavrakopoulou both on broad theoretical grounds and one who finds himself engaged with her in one narrow textual spat after another. Let me place the theoretical issues on the record briefly and then move on to the spats, for they are really what makes this book fun to read.
Stavrakopoulou throws down a heroic crusader’s gauntlet (and takes an indefensible theoretical position) at the very opening of her book:
Stripping away the theological veneer of centuries of Jewish and Christian piety, this book disentangles the biblical God from his scriptural and doctrinal fetters to reveal a deity wholly unlike the God worshipped by Jews and Christians today. The God revealed in this book is the deity as his ancient worshippers saw him: a supersized, muscle-bound, good-looking god, with supra-human powers, earthly passions and a penchant for the fantastic and the monstrous.
She greets any metaphorical or figurative reading of body language in the Bible as a fetter to be cast off, and it is fun to watch her do this, yet language – not just biblical language but all language – is inherently figurative, and this is so whether we imagine the language to be God’s, as John Donne does, or only that of the biblical writers. Deuteronomy 32:4, to choose an example almost at random, begins: “The Rock! His ways are perfect; for all his ways are justice.” Literal or metaphorical rock? I vote metaphorical, and I doubt that doing so I fetter any bold lapidary frankness on the ancient writer’s part.
But Stavrakopoulou is great fun to read.
She dares to argue, textually, that Eve had sex with God. The verse in question is Genesis 4:1, in the Revised Standard Version, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord’.” At issue are the words Eve speaks. The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates them, “I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord.” Robert Alter translates, “I have got me a man with the Lord.” Note that Alter omits the word “help”, which, in fact, is absent from the Hebrew. Stavrakopoulou omits it too but goes a large step further: “I have procreated a man with Yahweh.” The Hebrew here is qnyty [I have gotten/gained/got me/procreated] ‘yš [man] ‘t [with] yhwh [Lord/Yahweh]. Critics have long noted a bit of wordplay in the verb Eve speaks inasmuch as qnyty is lexically linked to qyn (“Cain”) around the root notion “to forge.” So, then, there are two grounds for Stavrokopoulou’s move from the metaphorical to the literal: first, help is absent from the original; second, the verb hints that Eve did indeed do or perhaps “forge” something with Yahweh. Here I found myself thinking of the first verse in the Book of Jeremiah. In the King James Version, “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee.” Stavrakopoulou’s “procreate” is a carefully chosen word, for Yahweh’s imagined procreative interaction with Eve, or any later pregnant woman, may be quite physical without necessarily entailing intercourse, and Stavrakopoulou never claims otherwise.
In any case, what about Eve’s prior baby-making with Adam? Where, or when, did he come in? This gets glossed over as Stavrakopoulou soars wildly on into speculations about the name “Eve” as merely a title for the goddess Asherah, Asherah being Hebrew for Athirat, the spouse of the pan-Semitic high god El, and El being functionally identical with Yahweh. She infers far too much, but as for the key translation itself, she has warrant for what she does.
She always does. I close with a second example, this one from Song of Songs 5:14. The speaker is a woman joyously celebrating her male lover’s body, describing it from head to foot rather as Stavrakopoulou does in her allegorical autopsy. Between the girl’s celebration of her boy’s golden hands and his marble thighs, we read (New Jerusalem Bible): “His belly a block of ivory / covered with sapphires,” and other versions are similar. Stavrokopoulou translates, “His genitalia are fine-worked ivory, / with inlaid lapis lazuli.” Now, the average Hebrew scholar will readily recognise raglayim (“feet”) and motnayim (“loins”) as standard euphemisms for the male reproductive organs. Here, though, the operative noun is me’im, which I would normally read as “bowels” or “innards” but which may also mean “reproductive powers” or even “womb”. “Belly” seems plainly possible and not in the least metaphorical, but “genitalia” is defensible.
After all, what is it that comes below the hands, resting there at a man’s sides, but above his thighs? Stavrakopopoulou, smartly adducing support from the learned Daniel Boyarin, infers from this jewel-studded evocation of a nude male lover that a comparably jewel-studded sculpture of the nude male Yahweh once stood in the Jerusalem Temple. She draws repeatedly not just on her close reading of the Hebrew but also on her wide and resourceful use of relevant and surprisingly copious lexical and archaeological work done just since the turn of the millennium.
Granting for the moment that the translations just cited are accurate, we may well ask nonetheless whether they are good translations. There are times, in other words, when the plain sense is humanly, artistically, psychologically or emotionally just off. Can you imagine a mother exulting over her newborn baby boy with the words, “I have procreated”? Can you imagine a lover swooning poetically over her sweetheart’s gorgeous “genitalia”? I have poetic reservations but Stavrakopoulou has nonetheless written a stunning book.
Jack Miles is the author of the God trilogy: God: A Biography, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, and God in the Qur’an
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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