Mark Smith on “The Three Bodies of God”

The newest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature has been released, and it features an article by Mark S. Smith entitled “The Three Bodies of God” that I found both interesting and somewhat problematic. Here’s the abstract:

Considerable attention has been devoted to God’s body in the Hebrew Bible, but its widely differing representations have not been addressed. This article sketches out a typology of three types of divine bodies, based on different scales, locations, and settings in life: a natural “human” body; a superhuman-sized “liturgical” body; and a “cosmic” or “mystical” body.

The primary literature with which Smith interacts includes Benjamin Sommer’s The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, Esther Hamori’s “When Gods Were Men”, and Andreas Wagner’s Gottes Körper. As with these authors, Smith seems to presuppose a great deal of harmony tying the various conceptualizations of deity together, as if the various ways the biblical authors presented the deity constituted only slight variations on a small number of canonical forms. While Smith cites Knafl’s book on anthropomorphism (here), he doesn’t engage her discussion of the lack of theological consistency between and even within the sources. I think her methodological precision in that regard could have greatly improved Smith’s analysis. It came across as reductive, and simplified issues that are really quite complex.

My main concern is that Smith blithely borrows interpretive lenses from around the ancient Near East to fill in gaps and shade nuance in the brief descriptions and discussions of God’s form. For instance, in evaluating the anthropomorphic form of God suggested in his noisy movement through the garden in Gen 3:8, Smith compares the scene to Egyptian garden motifs that depict a larger-than-life sized king. “This divine body,” he states, “would seem to be on the scale of human bodies, only somewhat taller.” I don’t see any indication, however, that artwork from elsewhere in the Near East bears in any way on how we interpret the size of the deity here. He continues by cautioning that no body is really required by the narrative’s use of the root HLK in the hithpael, since it is used elsewhere without reference to a body, but this seems to suggest that Smith insists on defaulting to an incorporeal deity, only proposing a body if the narrative leaves no other option. This retrojects modernist theological sensitivities into a period of time during which no such sensitivities can be detected (see Shamma Friedman’s helpful discussion here, in addition to my Oxford master’s thesis, here).

This tendentiousness continues in the discussion of God’s “superhuman ‘liturgical’ body in Exodus and Isaiah.” The three passages under discussion here are Exod 24:10, 33:22–23, and Isa 6:1(–4). In the first, the elders of Israel “see the God of Israel,” and describe a transparent sapphire stone under his feet. Smith rightly notes that the size of the divine body is “not made explicit,” but borrows the footprints of the deity from the floor of the temple at ‘Ain Dara to force the issue:

The footprints of the deity carved into the sanctuary floor at ‘Ain Dara might suggest that divine feet on the flooring of the heavenly palace is what is seen in Exod 24:10. Not only would this fit the verse’s mention of the “pavement of sapphire”; it would also be suggestive of the superhuman scale of the divine feet (e.g., in 2 Sam 22:10//Ps 18:10, Nah 1:3, Hab 3:5; cf. Zech 14:4).44 By implication, the rest of the divine body that goes unmentioned in Exod 24:10 would also be superhuman in scale.

While ‘Ain Dara does have enormous feet carved into the sanctuary floor, I see no reason why it bears in any way on our interpretation of Exod 24:10. Smith continues by insisting Exodus 33–34 “supplies a more explicit witness to the superhuman-sized God” because God covers Moses with his hand while passing by (literally, “I will cover my palm over you”). Smith does not even address the possibility that this just means God will cover Moses’ face or eyes, but interprets it to suggest “a hand that is itself the size of a human. God’s body, by implication, is much larger (it might be imagined to be about sixty-five to seventy feet).” God is also not walking, according to Smith, since the verb there is ‘BR, a root that is not uncommonly used to refer to walking. “This mysterious and unique manifestation of the divine also seems to be nonphysical, perhaps the divine glory sweeping by the mountainside.” There is no explanation of why or how anything about the pericope seems nonphysical.

Next, Smith interprets the highness and loftiness of the throne on which YHWH is sitting in Isa 6:1 as an indication “the text suggests a ‘mental image’ of the deity seated about fifteen feet high. In the vision of Isaiah, therefore, YHWH is represented as seated about ten times human size.” He points out that this would match Exodus 33 as well as Baal’s enormous throne in KTU 1.6.i.56–65. The possibility that a human-sized throne is just located high up in the air is not addressed.

The next section of Smith’s paper treats God’s “cosmic ‘mystical’ body,” which is described in Isa 66:1, for instance, as big enough to use heaven as his throne and the earth as his footstool. That this is not just poetic, but a reflection of an actual conceptualization of the divine body, is assumed. Smith discusses the treatment of God’s appearance in Ezekiel, but I would rather refer readers to Herring’s Divine Substitution than flesh out my thoughts on that passage here.

Smith concludes with a discussion of the extra-biblical literature and traditions that help inform the development of these conceptualizations of deity. The first two are called “traditional,” while third is a development catalyzed by interaction with later Babylonian literature (“informed by astronomical learning”) and the development of a “one-god” worldview.

I think Smith’s discussion is a bit reductive and relies too heavily on the interpretive lenses he borrows from the art and literature of the wider ancient Near East. More methodologically careful analysis could have been conducted within the same amount of space. The conclusions drawn about the historical development of these notions of deity are also a bit simplistic, in my opinion. A great deal of scholarship is available that provides much more detail and insight. Aside from the lack of engagement with Knafl’s typology of anthropomorphism, Smith nowhere shows any awareness of David Aaron’s wonderful treatment of conceptualizations of the divine, Biblical Ambiguities: Metaphor, Semantics, and Divine Imagery. While I don’t expect anyone publishing in the field to be aware of it, I would also point to my Trinity Western University thesis on the conceptualization of deity in the Hebrew Bible, available here.


2 responses to “Mark Smith on “The Three Bodies of God”

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