God: An Anatomy by Francesca Stavrakopoulou

We don’t know his real name. In ancient inscriptions it appears as Yhw, Yhwh, or simply Yh; but because Hebrew used a script which elided vowel sounds we don’t know how his earliest followers might have said it. He has come to be known as Yahweh, but Yaho, Yahu or Yah are also possibilities. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; by the third century BCE his name had in any case been declared unutterable. We know him best as God.

But he wasn’t always a singular deity. When Sargon II of Assyria conquered Israel in the eighth century BCE he described seizing statues of “the gods in whom they trusted”. Who were these other gods – and what was Yahweh to them? Thanks to the extensive literary remains of the Syrian city-state Ugarit, which date to the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE, we know that Yahweh was once a minor storm god of a wild, mountainous region south of the Negev desert in what is now southern Jordan. He was part of a large pantheon of Levantine gods headed by the patriarch El and his consort Athirat. Fellow gods included another storm god named Baal, the warrior goddess Anat, Yam the sea god, and Mot the king of death.

El, not Yahweh, was most likely the first god of the people of Israel. (There is a clue in the name, yisra-el.) But at some point, probably early in the first millennium BCE, Yahweh displaced him. We don’t know how. But this Yahweh is the god whom Francesca Stavrakopoulou – professor of the Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at the university of Exeter – anatomises in this, her first book for a non-academic audience. He is not by any means the perfect, abstract, immaterial being of modern conception; his is a visceral presence with an all too corporeal reality and all too many of the flaws that flesh is heir to.

The Yahweh whom Stavrakopoulou brings back to life is made in the image of a man. His skin is radiant and red-hued, a ruddy complexion being an ancient marker of divine power, of virility and strength, from Egypt to the Levant. His beard is long but carefully groomed, and his hair is curled, black and lustrous; the older, white-haired god with whom we are more familiar is the creation of the prophet Daniel, writing in the second century BCE, but traceable back to depictions of El. God is the Ancient of Days, Daniel says, an epithet that likewise seems to to echo El’s epithet, Father of Years. Yahweh is beautiful too: it was a Talmudic tradition from the fifth to the third century BCE that the most handsome rabbis looked like God himself, because their beauty derived from his through Adam and Jacob.

In the beginning, Yahweh was not entirely man-like, however. “God, who brought [Israel] out of Egypt, has horns like a wild ox!” the prophet Balaam exclaims in the book of Numbers. In early temples to Yahweh in the northern kingdom of Israel he was represented by golden statues of a divine bull, but he more commonly wore a horned head-dress, a crown of horns, in a way common to other gods of the region. The earliest representations of god-as-bull reach back to Sumer in the late fourth millennium BC and its associations with divinity are surprisingly long lasting. When Moses returned from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his face was transformed by the time he had spent in the presence of God. The Hebrew text implies that he grew horns himself, and there are representations of a double-horned Moses deep into the medieval period.

This Yahweh is a much wilder god than the one we are familiar with. Stavrakopoulou’s thesis is that even while the books we now know as the Old Testament were being written – roughly between the eighth and second centuries BCE – the immense physicality of his divinity was being erased, not least under the influence of Platonism. What was once understood literally was recast as metaphor. “Reverence rather requires… an allegorical meaning,” Clement of Alexandria wrote around the turn of the second century CE, expressing a scholarly distaste for the experiential and somatic that remains highly influential. And just as these interpretive accretions over the millennia have privileged the abstract and metaphysical over the poetic and the corporeal, so the choices of translators have then enshrined those interpretations in the text itself. “Troubling texts,” Stavrakopoulou writes, are “softened or obscured with sanitised vocabulary and clunky euphemisms”.

But this more primal, vital Yahweh can be reconstructed from scattered passages in the Bible which still retain warm traces of his divine materiality. So, for instance, there is an ancient creation myth among the religions of south-west Asia in which the world was wrested from chaos, which took the form of a primordial seven-headed sea monster. In the Babylonian mythos, it is the warrior god Marduk who defeats Tiamat, the female sea monster, shooting an arrow from ‘his great weapon’, a bow, into her throat. The bow was widely conceived as a phallic weapon, and the sexual violence of the conquest is explicit: Babylonian scribes summarised its story as “Marduk, who defeated Tiamat with his penis”.

Yahweh’s similar conquest is remembered in the Bible through references to his victories over oceanic chaos monsters variously named Leviathan, Rahab and Tannin, among others. His bow, too, is identified with the penis: “You brandish your bow of nakedness! You satisfy the shafts of your bowstring!” cries the prophet Habakkuk. (This is not, needless to say, how the passage is usually translated.) After Marduk’s victory his bow is translated into the sky as an eternal reminder of his triumph. Yahweh too hangs his bow in the sky after the Flood recedes. Which is to say, Stavrakopoulou concludes, “The rainbow… is a polychrome version of God’s weaponised penis.”

God: An Anatomy is a tour de force: chapter by chapter, part by body part, it takes Yahweh to pieces and examines each in sometimes startling detail before – to use a conceit from elsewhere – re-membering him as something new entirely. Stavrakopoulou builds on wide-ranging biblical scholarship of recent decades to create not just an extraordinarily rich and nuanced portrait of Yahweh himself, but an intricate and detailed portrait of the cultural values and practices he embodied, and the wider world of myth and history out of which he emerged.

This Yahweh is, you might say, a living refutation of the opposition between the carnal and the divine expounded by the apostle Paul, who wrote “what the flesh desires is opposed to the spirit, and what the spirit desires is opposed to the flesh”. By the time that Paul was writing in the first century CE, the erasure of Yahweh’s body had been underway for several centuries; but clearly, if God himself is both carnal and divine, two millennia of both Christian and post-Christian thought might be in need of some rethinking.

It is as if Stavrakopoulou has taken to heart the biblical injunction to seek the face of God. What emerges is a portrait of a god more terrifyingly alive, more damaged, more compelling, more complex than we have encountered before. More human, you might say.

This is an extended version of a piece that first appeared in the autumn 2021 issue of New Humanist.

Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.

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