Saturday, January 26, 2013

Divine Embodiment

“Divine embodiment.” Oh, must be a blog-post about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. It is Epiphany, after all.

Your intuition, dear reader, is not wholly misplaced. In fact, though, the subject I intend briefly to summarize dials back the clock at least four or five centuries before Christ, and then more beyond that. In the last months, I have been dipping occasionally into a current of recent Hebrew Bible scholarship: its flagship figures are Benjamin Sommer (at Jewish Theological Seminary), Esther Hamori (at Union Theological Seminary in NYC), and, my latest discovery, Michael Hundley (a post-doct at the University of Munich). Its aim? Exploring what is at once a pervasive assumption of the Hebrew Bible and doctrine completely suppressed by orthodox doctrines of God, Jewish and Christian: the manifold forms by which God is embodied.

The phenomenon is common across ancient Near Eastern religion. Gods have bodies – indeed, multiple bodies and fluid selves. Thus, a god was commonly thought to reside simultaneously (and without contradiction) both in his or her heavenly dwelling-place as well as in his or her cult statue – physical presences both. The cult-statue was not a sign pointing to a reality that was actually, fully present in a different sphere. No; as Michael Hundley writes in his worthwhile article (“Divine Fluidity? The Priestly Texts in their Ancient Near Eastern Contexts”), the cult image “represents an accessible semi-permanent theophany in the midst of human community (7). It is not as if the god had relocated to the cult object, thereby vacating heaven – he or she is fully and locally present in a body like a human body in the heavens and also present in the body of the cultic image. Furthermore, divine selfhood was divided not only between heaven and earth but also shared between various earthly manifestations: different cities each might worship a distinct yet related physical presence of a given god. There is an Ištar of Arbela and an Ištar of Nineveh. The same Ištar and yet individuated enough so that hymns do not name only one but both, sequentially. Various Ba’als at Ugarit receive differentiated offerings and invocations. Different emphases or characteristics accrue to one version of a god more than another of a separate locale: the Anatolian Ištar of Nineveh developed an underworld aspect in contrast to her selves elsewhere (Hundley, 4). Oddly, it seems that the semi-independent instantiations of a certain god could even go to war against one another if their cities came into conflict. An analogy for all this that came readily to my mind are the various cult sites of the Virgin Mary in modern times (Guadelupe, Fatima, Lourdes), each with their own special founding story and charism. The same Mary, and yet also distinguishable (though not to the extent of fighting against each other).

The fact is that the Hebrew Bible operates within the mold of these theological assumptions. God is everywhere physical, described often with anthropomorphic language (descending and ascending and appearing and eating), and even in more circumspect passages, still physical (cf God passing Moses by, Ezekiel’s visions, etc). Nowhere is God NOT spatially located and physical. Moreover, inscriptions recovered from early Israel show Yhwh as a localized deity like Ba’al: “Yhwh of Samaria” versus “Yhwh of Teman” (so Sommer in his book, The Bodies of God, p 39). Some of these epigraphically preserved local versions of YHWH were also worshipped along with an “Asherah,” a much debated term that indicates either a goddess wife or some kind of cult object. These kind of geographically distinct manifestations also crop up within the Bible (2 Sam 15:7, Ps 99:2). The “messenger of Yhwh” who appears and acts in God’s name throughout narratives in the Hebrew Bible is an embodied being, both distinct from but also continuous with Yhwh. Even the complex theologies of the Priestly and “Deuteronomistic” texts execute a kind of conceptual reshuffling – within the boundaries of ancient Near Eastern notions of divine embodiment and multiplicity. The “glory of God” and the “name of God,” the respective focal points of these two major biblical traditions, each stand amorphously and blankly in for a more concrete and specific cult object. They are not as human-sized and -controlled as a cult statue. But at the same time, both of these, glory and name, are often depicted as materially localized (this contra Sommer). The name of Yhwh dwells in Jerusalem. The shining glory of Yhwh lifts off from the temple. They are hypostases of Yhwh, who is simultaneously present in heaven and also in these manifestations. The uniqueness (per Hundley) of these theologies is not in their perspective on the multiplicity of divine selves per se, but in their rigid limitation of Yhwh’s earthly self to one place, and their disciplined resistance to describing the shape and personality of Yhwh’s embodiment. In other words, these two schools, likely postexilic, do not describe Yhwh’s earthly body: instead they affirm this (real!) presence, otherwise unspecified, indirectly through the name and the glory.

All of this is, obviously, quite theologically provocative. I have only sketched the barest outlines of these authors’ detailed proposals. Sommer explicitly links his extended treatment of divine embodiment back to Christian beliefs in the incarnation, to say, in the end, that “the presence of God [i.e., in heaven] and of God-in-Jesus on earth is nothing more than a particular form of this old idea of multiple embodiment, and hence no more offensive to a monotheistic theology than J and E sections of the Pentateuch” (133). My thinking also runs quickly to the works of theologians like Karl Barth and Robert Jenson, who, for uniquely Christian theological reasons, are going to propose that Jesus Christ was never a logos asarkos, i.e., a disembodied word. Incarnation is, rather, proper to God’s own innermost self-definition: on their telling, God has freely elected always to have been a God en route to Incarnation, and, indeed, perhaps proleptically to have been embodied in the history of God with Israel.

For my own part, ONE thing I would love to undertake in further graduate study is the connections between the “bodies of God” in Israel’s sacred texts and the “social bodies” (boundaried self-concept[s]) of Israel. To wit, what are the relationships between the “body” of Israel and the “body” of Yhwh, in their various instantiations within the Hebrew Bible? What is the relationship between the boundaries of the people of God and Yhwh’s own? The answers to such questions would need to rove across all the recent theory that has been written on human societies considered as bodies – but also to delve deep into the materials researched by the authors named above on the constitution of divinity in Israel and its neighbors. My goal would, ultimately, be “theological” and “missional,” that is, to discover who the people of God are and how their/our prerogative echoes God’s own. I would like, in effect, to stage a symposium, as it were, chaired by (someone like) Lesslie Newbigin and with presenters (such as) Benjamin Sommer, Konrad Schmid, and Carol Newsom – the theologically ramified plumbing of divine selfhood, the Pentateuchal transmission history, and the graceful integration of social theory with nimble exegesis, respectively. Or another way round (for those few who care): to take what the Sofja-Kovalevskaja Research Group is working on over in Goettingen and fill it out with both social theory and missiological nerve.


  1. Colin,

    I'm not sure about this stuff about Barth rejecting the Logos Asarkos, but what I am sure about... that you should totally come to Duke. I think you'd fit in really well and that the types of questions you are asking (from what I gather from skimming blog) would have great resonance here.

    Whether or not you come to Duke (though obviously you should), I hope your plans for next year are shaping up the way you hope.


    Derek Taylor

  2. ...and I was just joking about Barth. I think you get it right with your qualification, though I think there are significant differences between him and Jenson....