Book Review: Stephen L. Herring, Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East

Stephen L. Herring. Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, Vol. 247; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. 244 pp., $65.00, ISBN: 978-3-525-53612-4.

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Read the Introduction here

This publication is an unrevised edition of Dr. Herring’s 2011 University of Aberdeen doctoral thesis. I was pleased to see it in print in the exhibit hall at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, and I immediately reserved the one available copy. Dr. Herring was my Biblical Hebrew instructor during my time at the University of Oxford, and I recall being intrigued by our discussions about his thesis topic during our many meetings in his cramped little office nestled deep in Yarnton Manor’s attic. The conceptualization of deity in the ancient Near East has been of interest to me since I began my academic career, and Divine Substitution tilts at one of the more prominent issues of that disappointingly underrepresented field of study, namely the nature and function of divine images in the Ancient Near East (“image” in the technical sense of a deity’s cultic representation—Akkadian ṣalmu, Hebrew צלם). More specifically, Herring aims to describe how ancient Mesopotamians viewed cultic images as some manner of manifestation of the divine presence of their patron deities, and how—under Mesopotamian influence—three biblical text segments, Genesis 1, Exodus 34:29–35, and Ezekiel 36–37, employ that ideology vis-à-vis humanity.

Divine Substitution’s journey begins where the question of the image’s relationship to its patron deity has found the most currency in recent years: Assyriology. The textual and archaeological data are most abundant between the two rivers, and as we will see, Herring hedges his methodological bets by choosing biblical text segments commonly assigned a Mesopotamian provenance. Some conceptual groundwork must be laid first, and Herring interacts with scholars like C. S. Peirce, T. N. D. Mettinger, Z.Bahrani, and others to show some precedence for the notion that the ancient concept of the cultic image was distinct from the modern concept of representation as mimesis. Herring’s review of the scholarship is brief yet insightful (I would have liked to see Gradel or Gell cited), but he is forced to punt with the summarizing statement that “somehow these material objects have actually become the manifestation of their god” (21).

Herring’s second chapter goes into greater detail regarding the dynamics of images and divine presence in ancient Mesopotamia, describing vivification rituals, explaining the implications of a deity’s abandonment of their image, and examining cases of images with human patrons. Particularly important for this chapter is the discussion of humans themselves as divine images. Five references in Akkadian to a human as an “image” (ṣalmu) of a deity are discussed. Four refer to the king—the divinely sanctioned intermediary between the heavenly and earthly realms—while one refers to an āšipu priest. That a priest was considered a divine image at least once is not without significance for Herring’s analysis. He acknowledges the “functional” interpretation of the application of the term ṣalmu to the king, but insists the application of the same designation to the priest indicates something more is going on: “we would certainly go wrong in thinking that the expression only reflected the functional aspect of kingship, since the āšipu would not have been ignorant of (nor flippant with) the conceptualization of ‘cult images and the rites by which they were animated with the life of the deity’” (45–46). In simpler terms, as the priest was not exercising divine kingship, the “functional” interpretation must be inadequate; some ideology of transubstantiation must tie these usages together. Citing E. M. Curtis, Herring suggests the king’s identification as an image derives from the priestly identification.

I would argue, however, that this proposal runs the risk of drawing too sharp a distinction between ontology and functionality in ancient Mesopotamia. In my view, the two notions are really different sides of the same coin (as with palace v. temple). We need not shackle functionality to kingship, or insist priestly functionality takes precedence. The context in which the priest qualifies as the “image of Marduk” is that of a conjuration. He is exercising divine agency in the same way the king does in maintaining the cosmic order. Both functions make manifest divine power and authority, which I would suggest is the foundational criterion for identification with a given deity. They are “images” of the deity insofar as they exercise the agency associated with that deity (and here Pongratz-Leisten is helpful).

Chapter 3 paints an informed and detailed picture of ancient Israel’s cultic development from iconism to aniconism. In short, Israel had a longstanding history of divine imagery. The nation most likely had anthropomorphic cultic images dedicated to YHWH in their earliest cultic contexts, but we have no positive evidence at this time of this practice. What we do have are firm indicators that several non-anthropomorphic cultic objects—standing stones, asherahs, the ark—functioned in early Israel as divine images. Intimate familiarity with the dynamics of divine imagery is also evinced in the polemics of later prophets and Deuteronomistic authors; even in vehemently rejecting the practice, the biblical authors betray its thorough saturation of their culture and worldview.

With that, Herrings turns to “The Image of God in the Hebrew Bible,” the core of his dissertation. In this chapter, Herring examines Genesis 1, Exodus 34:29–35, and Ezekiel 36–37. The relevance of Genesis 1 is self-evident given the use of the Hebrew צלם in reference to the creation of humanity, but the other two segments require increasingly lengthy justifications for their inclusion in the analysis that revolve primarily around the strength of their connections to Assyria-Babylon.

The main thrust of these sections is that the biblical authors were heavily influenced by the ideological environment of the Babylonian Exile, and adapted for their own purposes the Mesopotamian notion of a human as a divine image. For the authors of Genesis, humanity was created as an “image” of God, which brought the divine presence near in a templeless age and universalized it for an Israel extending beyond its regional boundaries.

For the author of the Exodus portion—and P’s fingerprints are all over it—Moses represented that divine image, most explicitly when he descended from Sinai with a face that radiated either light or horns (or both—Herring dedicates several pages to analysis). The divine presence had earlier been represented by a cloud and a pillar of fire, but during Moses’ time on the mountain that presence was completely absent, compelling the people to fill that void with the production of the golden calf, a Yahwistic cultic image. Moses’ reappearance, clothed in the divine presence and carrying the divinely composed tablets, rhetorically punctuated the contrast between the human origins of the calf over and against the divine origins of Moses’ endowment (note the conceptual parallel of the calf and a horned Moses).

The segment on Ezekiel requires the most methodological nuance and care from Herring, who starts by demonstrating the rhetorical unity of the text as well as its exilic provenance. It is not a part of P, but it occupies an ideologically overlapping position (here Kutsko is prominent). The author’s rhetorical campaign against cultic images is highlighted in the analysis, and particularly the characterization of Mesopotamia’s cultic images as deaf, dumb, blind, and without breath—a characterization that is projected onto those humans (including Israel) so vacuous as to participate in the use of said images. Israel’s restoration, however, is described using imagery of revivification that is argued by Herring to reflect humanity’s primeval creation in Genesis as well as the Mesopotamian rituals that imbued cultic images with the divine presence. Ezekiel’s infusion of the Spirit parallels the Mesopotamian pīt pî ceremony and sets up a model for Israel’s endowment with the Spirit and subsequent obedience to the divine will. It is not wood and stone that the divine presence—the Spirit of YHWH—inhabits, but humanity.

Herring’s fifth and final chapter summarizes the dissertation and draws some conclusions. In brief, the three text segments reflect the Mesopotamian notion of the divine image, endowed through ritual vivification with the divine presence. The provenance of handmade objects is transferred from the craftsman to the divine through these rituals, according to Mesopotamian ideology, but the biblical authors reject the efficacy of such rituals, repeatedly polemicizing cultic images on the grounds that they are the lifeless products of human effort. At the same time, however, they make use of these literary and ritual conventions in their conceptualization of humanity as the cultic image of God, endowed with the divine presence at creation (Genesis 1), at Sinai (Exodus 34), and at Israel’s restoration (Ezekiel 36–37).

Herring’s dissertation joins a growing field of scholars that looks to the rich literary and cultic history of Assyria-Babylon for guidance in understanding the nature and function of deity in the Hebrew Bible. Benjamin Sommer, for instance, proposes a “fluidity” model for understanding the “unbounded” nature of God’s bodies (plural!) and the pluriform manifestations of divinity in the ancient Near East (here). Michael Hundley’s work focuses on divine presence as reflected through ritual and temple (here and here). Spencer Allen’s UPenn dissertation examines the various localized manifestations of Baal, Ishtar, and YHWH. Pongratz-Leisten, focusing only on Assyria-Babylon, proposes a cognitive model of divine agency to flesh out the representation of divinity in cultic objects and, more particularly, astral phenomena. Herring’s work is particularly innovative in uncovering the employment of humanity as a vehicle of for the divine presence, although he avoids promoting any particular view about how that divinity was communicable. Here Gell and Pongratz-Leisten could make a constructive contribution.

Certainly Herring’s argument is strongest where the literary links with Mesopotamia are most explict, namely Genesis 1, but his treatment of Moses’ divinity is sensitive and measured. He is not the first to suggest Moses was considered divine (the text says so, after all), but his discussion of the literary patterns of divine presence and absence helps to better contextualize that divinization as well as the production of the golden calf. The connections are more tenuous in Ezekiel, but Herring’s discussion of the role of the Spirit of God ought to convince even the most skeptical critic of comparative studies that, whatever the primary literary allusions and goals, the author is incorporating some species of the notion of vivified divine images into a more complex and layered rhetorical pastiche. I think most significant going forward is Herring’s highlighting of the implications of this research for the study of Second Temple Judaism, messianism, and early christology. It may be some time yet, however, before the adoption of Assyriological insights into the conceptualization of deity trickles down to those scholarly arenas.

Besides my desire for some discussion of the way in which the image shared in the divinity of the patron deity, a concern I have is with the implied assumption that this notion of communicable divinity derives exclusively or even primarily from a genetic link to Assyria-Babylon. My perception of such an assumption may well be a misreading of a decision on Herring’s part stemming from a concern for length or methodological grounding, but I would argue that Israel likely drew their own similar ideologies of cultic imagery and communicable divine agency from a shared and broad conceptual matrix. Israel had their own cultic images prior to the exile that were no doubt thought to be divine in some sense (cf. the Ark of the Covenant or the references to the asherah in the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qôm). The literary affinities that crop up in P and Ezekiel, from my point of view, reflect stylistic choices more than underlying conceptual borrowings. Having said that, I would highly recommend this book to students and scholars interested in the Hebrew Bible’s conceptualization of deity and/or humanity.

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7 responses to “Book Review: Stephen L. Herring, Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East

  • RT

    This book also caught my eye when I was at sbl and so I appreciate you providing a balanced and critical review. I am doubtful as well that the notion of communicable divinity represented in Gen 1 etc should be seen as necessarily derivative of a Mesopotamian cultural context.

    If you have a moment, I’d be interested in hearing how you think Gradel and Gell would have contributed to Herring’s discussion of ancient Near Eastern conceptualizations of cult/divine images, as I am not familiar with these authors.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Glad it was helpful! On your questions, Gell’s book forwards a theory that “agency” can be attributed to the inanimate, and particularly art. This has been picked up by others who address the way ancient cultic objects can be identified as in some sense divine. The notion of a communicable divine agency, undergirded by theories like Gell’s and more recent cognitive science, answers the “somehow” of Herring’s comment that the cult image became the deities they represented. Gradel’s book addresses the worship of the emperor and his images in the Greco-Roman period, and it talks about the humanity/divinity categories as a continuum rather than a dichotomy. These two approaches have been synthesized by Peppard in his discussion of Mark’s christology and by Pongratz-Leisten in her discussion of the astralization of deities in ancient Mesopotamia. The latter also incorporates more discussion of the cognitive background of the notion of agency.

  • Mark McEntire

    Thanks for the review, Daniel. In a brief essay, your avoidance of the terminology of “mediation” may be incidental, but I am wondering if the book avoids that language too, and if so why? The language of “functionality” that you use is close, but perhaps not exactly the same. I am aware of two additional works that intersect with this significantly. One is Joel Burnett’s recent “Where is God?,” in which he deals with a lot of ANE (not just Mesopotamian) parallels about divine localization. It seems to me that God’s spatial location and need to be represented. I am also fascinated by Esther Hamori’s work of the ‘ish theophany that appears in the two texts in Genesis 18 and 32. These texts seem more ancient to me, and to belong to a time when it was considered possible for God to have a human body and not require representation, yet all but these two traces are now gone.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments, Mark! My avoidance of that terminology is indeed incidental, and it does appear in the book. I spoke with Joel at SBL about Where is God? and my own thesis related to divine presence. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on my list. I’ll definitely have to get to it with your additional endorsement. Hamori’s book is great, and I go even a bit further, arguing that most of the earliest references to the “angel of YHWH” were originally references to God himself that were obscured with the interpolation of the angel (I treat that here, and it’ll be the topic of a paper I propose for next year’s SBL). Of course, he couldn’t be everywhere in physical form whenever anyone wanted, so mediatory cultic objects wold not necessarily have been absent within such a worldview. Sommer’s book goes into this a bit.

      It’s a great topic, and I’m always interested in more takes on it. Thanks again!

  • Mark McEntire

    Daniel, I like your explanation of interpolation and it certainly seems like a reasonable possibility. I don’t think it precludes my own understanding of a consistent narrative result in which the angel is the first stage in a progressive appearance of YHWH. I am working with Jubilees right now and am fascinated by the way it reverses the process. At the beginning God is directly present with Moses on Mount Sinai, but introduces the Angel of the Presence and then recedes.

  • Ken Berry

    Herring’s thesis is also available in pdf through this link: http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.554215

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