My God Is Bigger Than Your God–Literally. Part VI

My God Is Bigger Than Your God–Literally. Part VI March 29, 2010

Although YHWH clearly was perceived by biblical authors in anthropomorphic terms, YHWH’s body was still different from regular human bodies.  For YHWH, like many other deities of the ancient Near East,[1] possessed massive size. For example,[2] the measurements for the seat on the Ark of the Covenant, the throne of YHWH, were ten cubits square (1 Kgs. 6:23-28), suggesting that YHWH was conceived as having enormous size.  Additionally, the temple and its paraphernalia were also superhuman in dimension.  The pillars were some 23 meters high, and the basin, with a five cubit radius, contained nearly forty thousand liters, suggesting not human, but divine use.

That YHWH was indeed seen as having such great size may also be illustrated by Isaiah’s vision of YHWH in his temple surrounded by his divine courtiers in Isaiah 6.  Isaiah 6:1 states that the hem of YHWH’s robe fills the entire (Jerusalem) temple.  Moreover, the cosmic setting of Ezekiel’s vision in Ezk. 1:26-28, to be discussed below, also suggests superhuman size for YHWH, even while attempting to qualify its anthropomorphic language.  Further, Ex. 33:21-23 suggests that YHWH’s hand is able to entirely envelop Moses so as to protect him from the divine theophany which would otherwise cause his death.  Mark Smith states that “[a]ll of these visionary descriptions imply not only great size but also body and gender.”[3]

However, as just alluded to above concerning Ezk. 1, there were movements in ancient Israel that attempted to qualify or reduce anthropomorphic language for YHWH.  Priestly avoidance of anthropomorphic descriptions of YHWH is a typical example of this phenomenon.  It must be stressed, however, as Mark Smith rightly notes, that “Israelite anthropomorphism hardly ends with the monarchy…The anthropomorphic language of Yahweh, other divine beings, and their heavenly realms never disappeared from Israel.  Accordingly, it may be regarded as quite traditional in ancient Israel.”[4]

These issues may be illustrated best perhaps by considering Genesis 1-2:4.a, the Priestly (P) account of creation. In this text the god of Israel is seen as a transcendent deity who creates not by direct interaction with the world, but by merely speaking a word from the heavens. This may be viewed in contrast to the god of the Yahwistic (J) account of creation, probably to be dated a couple of centuries before the P account, in Genesis 2.4b ff., who creates by shaping and molding with his own hands. In this account, YHWH forms man from the dust of the ground, breathing into his nostrils the “breath of life” (Gen. 2:7), plants a garden (Gen. 2:8), walks around in the garden (Gen. 3:8), surgically removes a rib from man in order to create a woman (Gen. 2:21-25), and then makes clothes for them (Gen. 3:21). In contrast, according to P in Gen. 1:26-27, “God said, ‘Let us make humanity [’adam] in our image [tselem] according to our likeness [demut]’…and god created humanity in his image, in the image of god he created it, male and female he created them.” The Priestly god merely creates humanity in the divine image by his word; but what exactly does this mean? It is clear from other usages of the word tselem in the Hebrew Bible that connotations of physicality are implied,[5] yet being made in the divine image obviously has other implications in this context: probably including notions of authority and dominion over the natural world, just as a king rules over his own realm.

Other Priestly authors, however, such as the prophet Ezekiel, clearly continue to use traditional anthropomorphic language to describe YHWH, yet at times it is reduced in an effort to preserve the transcendence of the deity. Thus Ezekiel 1:26-28 reads:

…and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness, like the appearance of man upon it…and I saw…from the appearance of his loins and upwards; and from the appearance of his loins downward I saw as though it were fire, and he had a radiance all around. Like the appearance of the bow which is in the cloud on a rainy day, thus was the appearance of the radiance all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of YHWH.

This reduction in anthropomorphic language might be profitably contrasted, in turn, with the vivid anthropomorphic language used by Isaiah to describe his vision of the divine referred to above: “…I saw my Lord, exalted, sitting upon a throne, and the hem of his robe [shul] filled the temple…and I said, ‘Woe is me!’…because the king, YHWH of Hosts, my eyes have seen!” (Is. 6:1, 5). Moreover, Exodus 33:21-23, mentioned above, describing a conversation between Moses and YHWH at Mount Sinai, reads:

And YHWH said, ‘Look, there is a place near me (where) you shall station yourself upon the rock. And when my glory passes by, I will set you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. And (then) I will remove my hand and you will see my back, but my face will not be seen.

However, despite the continued use of anthropomorphic language used by Priestly and later authors (e.g., Dan. 7; Zech. 3), and in spite of the physical connotations of the words tselem and demut in Genesis 1:26-27, nevertheless the Priestly authors of the creation account in Genesis 1-2.4a have clearly shaped a new understanding of the divine, giving expression to a form of YHWHism that went against the grain of traditional understandings and depictions of YHWH.[6] In what was perhaps a separate poetic piece that once referred to YHWH and his divine consort, Genesis 1:26-27 has been inserted into this prose narrative and has reshaped the popular notion of a divine family by expressing the view that humanity, both male and female, are in the image and likeness of the deity YHWH alone, and no other. True, this passage does refer to the divine council—for nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible is the cohortative used by YHWH except when addressing his heavenly court (c.f. 1 Kgs. 22:19-23; Is. 6:8)[7]—however, this particular verse has been (re)manufactured to state, not that the gods created humanity in their image, but that the god of Israel created humanity in the divine image.[8] By this act the Priestly authors have accomplished what Ezekiel failed to do through his hedging to describe the physical appearance of YHWH, namely to create a sense of divine transcendence in physicality by attributing to humanity a divine shape and authority, rather than merely reducing god to human shape and likeness.[9] This text, while still affirming the transcendent physicality of the deity, suggests that humanity is in god’s image because of their divinely given governance over the natural world and through their ability to create (see Gen. 1:26, 28-30). It is the difference between god becoming anthropomorphic, and humanity becoming theomorphic.

Such reduction in anthropomorphic language in Priestly circles may perhaps also be supplemented by aniconic tendencies in ancient Israel.[10] Although it is certain that ancient Israelites made use of physical representations of their deity/deities (as noted in the discussion of Asherah in part IV of this series), nevertheless there is a marked lack of images representing YHWH that have been archaeologically recovered. This dearth of recovered physical images for YHWH is also supplemented by certain anti-anthropomorphic comments in the biblical texts. For instance, Psalm 50:12-13 asks, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you. I possess the world and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” Moreover, Exodus 20:3 famously states, “You will not make for yourselves an image/idol…” However, Israel’s alleged aniconism is highly debated in modern scholarship, resting largely on an argument ex silentio (i.e., that few sculptured images that can be conclusively identified with YHWH have been found), and on disregarding the cultic significance of already recovered statuary and figurines. The evidence on this issue at present seems inconclusive, although it does seem likely that popular notions of divine beings, including YHWH, were traditionally anthropomorphic in ancient Israel. Indeed, Mark Smith notes the irony in that “priestly avoidance of anthropomorphism indicates that divine corporeality was a general expectation of what a deity was.”[11]

The reduction in anthropomorphic language of YHWH by Priestly circles calls into question whether YHWH was generally considered in ancient Israel as sexually male or female,[12] sexless, or perhaps even androgynous. It is clear, in our view, that for many of the biblical authors, as well as the vast majority of ancient Israelites, YHWH was clearly considered a sexually male deity. YHWH possessed the profile of a typical male deity, and the vast majority of imagery attributed to YHWH is male. For instance, YHWH is revealed as a martial deity, literally a “man [ish] of war” (Ex. 15:3). YHWH’s body would also have been commonly considered sexually male, given that, according to traditional and royal theologies, he had a divine consort, Asherah. However, it is also obvious that female imagery is at times attributed to YHWH, especially in later texts such as Second and Third Isaiah (e.g., Is. 42:14; 46:3; 49:14-15; 66:9, 13), although there are other instances of this as well. For instance, Deuteronomy 32:18 reads, “The Rock who gave birth to you, you neglected; and you forgot the god who bore you.” Nevertheless, it seems relevant that all grammatical indicators for YHWH in Hebrew are masculine including those within these passages that attribute female roles and imagery to YHWH. Thus, the available evidence seems to suggest that YHWH was considered neither androgynous nor sexless (nor sexually female for that matter). Rather, YHWH most likely appears to have been a male deity to whom female imagery was sometimes applied; a deity who possessed a body but who was also transcendent (a notion expressed, perhaps, by his great size, as discussed above).

Additional arguments in favor of such a reconstruction are several. First, there is no instance in the ancient Near East of an androgynous deity; the claims for such parallels in Ugaritic and other ancient Near Eastern sources remain specious.[13] Moreover, there are numerous examples from the ancient Near East of sexually male deities to whom female imagery is applied, and sexually female deities to whom male imagery is attributed.[14] Such divine attributions have a long history in the ancient Near Eastern world and are not an Israelite innovation. For instance, such reversals of imagery can be seen in proper names, such as ’il‘nt, “Anat is (a) god,” or ummi-šamaš, “Shamash is my mother,” as well as in prayers. A Hittite prayer to Istanu (a sun-god), for instance, recounts that, “Thou, Istanu, art father and mother of the oppressed, the lonely (and the) bereaved person.”[15]

Further, because it is clear that YHWH possessed a body, it seems almost certain to think that YHWH also would have had sex. Although it is true that some circles stripped YHWH of his consort Asherah, nevertheless this does not necessarily mandate that YHWH was also seen as being stripped of his sex, even among these minority groups. There is no notion in the Bible of a “castrated” YHWH, for lack of a better term. Rather, the dominant image in popular, family religion of a divine couple heading a family of gods was replaced over time in ancient Israel by the image of a royal sovereign or king ruling a (divine) court.[16] This motif shaped the ways in which YHWH was described in his heavenly abode, and provided a clear theoretical model for explaining YHWH’s sovereignty and supremacy while also eliminating the need for reference to a divine consort (as no queen would be needed to sustain this motif [c.f. Ps. 82]).Thus I believe Mark Smith is correct in his conclusion that:

Biblical texts show a variety of strategies in handling divine gender.  In Deut. 32:18, Psalm 22:9-10, and Isaiah 46:3, 66:9, and 13, Yahweh was not considered female, either separately or in conjunction with male language for Yahweh.  Rather, these passages treat Yahweh as a male deity to whom female imagery was occasionally attributed on a metaphorical level.[17]

[1] There is not space here to discuss the abundance of evidence which demonstrates that ancient Near Eastern peoples generally understood their deities to have superhuman size, although two particularly interesting examples may be proffered.  First, the temple at ‘Ain Dara, a first millennium Levantine temple which follows typical patterns of Syrian temple architecture (as  the Jerusalem temple did as well), has meter-long footsteps carved into the floor approaching the cult niche of the temple..  Further, KTU2 1.23.33-35 from ancient Ugarit describes El’s penis (lit. “hand” [yad]) as supersized!  For further discussion of this issue, see Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 83-86.

[2] The following discussion is drawn from Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 84-86.

[3] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 86.

[4] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 89.

[5] Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible, 43-44 and notes.

[6] For the following analysis of Genesis 1, I am indebted to Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 89-90.

[7] For this observation, see Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible, 42-43 and notes.

[8] As noted by Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 90.

[9] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 90.

[10] For the following discussion on the notion of Israelite aniconism and its problems as an accurate historical reconstruction of the situation in ancient Israel, see Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 89 and notes.

[11] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 89.

[12] Although I will distinguish between sex (which is biological) and gender (which is a social construct) in many instances in this paper, ancient Israelites likely did not distinguish the two so neatly.

[13] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 90.

[14] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 91-92.

[15] For citations and discussion of the names and prayers used as examples here to indicate switches in gender roles of ancient Near Eastern deities, see Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 91.  The translations are those found in Smith’s discussion.

[16] Smith, The Early History of God, 37-39, and Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 22.

[17] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 90.

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