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The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (review)

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 1, Fall 2012
pp. 79-81 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0045

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I enthusiastically recommend this book to all who have an interest in biblical scholarship and Jewish intellectual history. It is accessible to those outside of academia and is a treasure trove of new thinking in historical-biblical criticism. Moreover, Sommer’s argument has implications for Jewish theology that are at once radical and traditional.

Sommer begins with the premise that the God of the Hebrew Bible has a body and that evidence for a belief in the carnal nature of God can be found throughout the biblical texts. He spells out his argument in the very first paragraph of the book where he writes, regarding the Hebrew Bible, “that God has many bodies located in sundry places in the world that God created” (p. 1). Sommer defines “body” as “something located in a particular place at a particular time, whatever its shape or substance” (p. 2). The theological concept of a god who can self-fragment by manifesting in different places and in different forms at the same time is at the center of Sommer’s work. He calls this concept the “fluidity” model. Each manifestation is divine and does not decrease divine presence and being from other places. God’s manifestations are often human-like avatars, but each manifestation is a part of the same deity.

Sommer’s fluidity model is reflected throughout the records of the ancient Near Eastern world. In Mesopotamia, each god could have more than one body that could be located in specific places in the heavens or on earth. Gods would move in and out of statues, blend with one another while simultaneously remaining independent, and seemingly split into multiple manifestations of the same identity. Sommer contends that the God of the Hebrew Bible also had a fluid self that could manifest in a variety of forms in a variety of locations. In this regard, the biblical monotheistic system and ancient Near Eastern polytheistic systems were quite similar. In contrast, in Greek theology the gods could change form, but they could occupy only one shape and one location at a time. Sommer points out that fluidity vs. non-fluidity have no logical corollaries to polytheism and monotheism; he believes that the biblical writers were monotheists from an early period and it is only through the influence of the Hellenistic world and later Jewish thinkers that we came to associate monotheism with one consistent divine being.

Sommer then moves on to the schools of biblical thinkers who reacted against the fluidity model. Sommer suggests that P (the priestly source) uses kavod to convey the idea that God has only one body and when God chooses to dwell on earth it is only in one place. D (the deuteronomic source) asserts that God (and God’s body) never comes down to earth at all. In this context, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) is best understood as an assertion within an internal biblical debate, about whether God is one and unified or fragmentable and fluid. Ironically, in trying to distance themselves from any confusion with polytheistic systems, D and P both made God more human-like (by claiming only one divine body that could be in only one place at a time). The fluidity model renders God as profoundly different from all other living beings.

Sommer’s historical-critical research is thorough, brilliant, and convincing. In the last chapter of his book, Sommer shifts from history of religions to theology. This chapter may well become a source of interesting debate among both Jews and Christians. Sommer argues that the fluidity tradition persists, both in the idea of the trinity in early Christianity and also as the Shekhinah, particularly as preserved through Kabbalah in Judaism. He concludes that these two religions have much more in common than usually recognized and that “[t]he only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects” (pp. 135–136). Sommer suggests that Christianity may be truer to biblical religion than the direction Judaism took in adopting Maimonidean theology. Sommer argues that “Maimonides’ rejection . . . [of...

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