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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.

On Racism and Linguistics

Richard Dawkins recently described the headline of an Independent article by Yasmin Alibhai Brown (“I like Corbyn, but let’s face it: we don’t need another white man at the head of a political party”) as “disgustingly racist & sexist.” Alibhai begins the article by sharing an anecdote about her assertion that “the politics of identity are as important as the politics of politics.” She then goes on to make a case for the rising importance of forwarding a minority candidate for the Labour party who can be a force for change in a time when the white male power structures are neglecting and marginalizing the value and importance of diversity. She points to the acknowledgement in American politics of the importance of race, religion, gender, class, etc., and then to the upturned noses of the British elite in the face of a similar demographic makeup:

The UK is the same but most of our deluded leaders – the majority of them white, middle-class men – push the myth of homogeneity and seem to think difference is inconsequential or a damned nuisance. They need to wake up.

The rest of the article discusses examples of how identity politics has influenced the UK and how things could move forward for the better.

Obviously the headline is intended to grab attention, and it was certainly successful in that regard. For Dr. Dawkins, though, it was “disgustingly racist & sexist” because it advocated for avoiding a candidate on the basis of his race and sex. For Dawkins, and for millions of angry white males around the Western world, racism and sexism refer generically to any and all prejudice based on race or sex. Little incites more rage and protest from this demographic than asserting these concepts have primarily to do with prejudices played out within structures of power and oppression, and when I pointed that out, Dawkins predictably appealed to the old “words have meanings” canard:

Setting aside the obviously brilliant tautology of “Duh, racism means racism,” “words have meanings” really means “I don’t understand linguistics, but feel very strongly about what this word can and can’t mean.” (In the interest of space, and because it was the way the discussion proceeded, this post will just address the usage of “racism.”) In subsequent responses to my concerns, he doubled down on his opposition to sound semantic principles:

Here Dawkins is using his celebrity and the authority over all disciplines that his degree in biology clearly affords him to enforce his understanding of the term “racism” over and against the conceptualization agreed upon and promoted by millions and millions of English-speaking people around the world. He demands this definition hold because it protects his position of privilege. If non-white women can be racist and sexist, then he has grounds for rejecting as “disgusting” a demand for minority candidates. Thus white candidates are not as threatened and the minorities are excoriated as racist and sexist troublemakers. Everything defaults to the white males already occupying the default power structures.

It serves the interests of these powerful groups to preclude oppressed minorities from objecting to their oppression on grounds of sex or race. If oppressed minorities are not permitted to single out the oppressing class for criticism because to do so is to discriminate on the grounds of race and/or sex, the oppressed classes can never fight back. We’ve actually found a way to keep oppressed classes in their place by framing their fight against oppression as an expression of the very tool of oppression we used against them in the first place!

So the definition Dawkins pushes is a tool of oppression wielded by powerful groups to maintain their positions of privilege. To confirm this, one need only look at the race and sex of the numerous defenders of Dawkins’ position that rushed to his side. They are overwhelmingly white males, and a disproportionate number of them are #GamerGate kids. In short, Dawkins is engaging in identity politics, even as he denigrates an article about the importance of identity politics for engaging in identity politics.

But what about that definition? All the white males who criticized me for daring to challenge Dawkins’ linguistic acumen immediately cited “The Dictionary” as defining “racism” as prejudice based on race. The Dictionary defines it as generic racial prejudice. Boom. QED. I pointed out that dictionaries do not adjudicate meaning but just try to describe it, and in response I got a lot of creative ways to say, “Nu-uh!” Dictionaries arrive at these descriptions by analyzing usage and trying to isolate the smallest possible set of conceptual features manifested in that usage that sets the concept apart. This is methodologically problematic not only because it presupposes underlying conceptual substructures govern usage (they don’t), but also because it is chasing after meaning, not establishing, governing, or adjudicating it. Appealing to a dictionary to prove what words do and don’t mean is middle school-level rhetoric. Words mean whatever people use and understand them to mean. Dictionaries follow behind trying to figure out what’s going on.

Now, Dawkins knows race is a social construct, but the relevance of that fact to this issue entirely escapes him. If race is a social construct, racism can only be a product of the same. Since that construct is governed by a society’s powerful groups and serves their interests, the entire concept of race is itself an agent of those power structures. Irish people were considered a different race in a period of American history, but through the acquisition and exercise of social power, particularly in relation to blacks, they became “white” and are no longer distinguished from other whites by our society’s conceptualization of race. Race itself, as a concept, structures power. Any prejudices based on that social construct are operating within that structured power; it is either aimed upstream or down. So when Dawkins says “some sociologists . . . have to have an additional polarity of ‘oppression’ & ‘privilege,'” he’s betraying his ignorance of how race and racism function. It is simply impossible to “keep these meanings separate,” and to insist that we do so makes use of that power structure while demanding everyone ignore it. It’s staring at the Wizard while he shrieks at you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s rank and unthinking racism, and it’s a devastating indictment of Dawkins’ humanity and intelligence.

So why insist racial prejudice aimed downstream is “racism” and is just “racial prejudice” when it’s aimed upstream? Because the former has vastly more destructive and harmful effects when it is aimed from a position of power toward a position of less power than when it is aimed the other way. Compare the way Dawkins’ followers brutalized Alibhai on Twitter (to the degree that Dawkins had to try to stem the tide) to the way Dawkins condescendingly scoffed at criticism. Who’s exercising a disproportionate amount of social power? The acknowledgement of that difference in effect has existed throughout the history of the usage of the word. All early usage occurs in the context of privilege and social power (for instance, see first known usage here). I challenged every one of Dawkins’ followers to show me an example of “racism” being used to refer to prejudice aimed from an oppressed class at an oppressing class prior to the last few decades. No one ever even acknowledged the challenge. Why was it necessary to coin the term “reverse racism” following the Civil Rights Movement to refer to putative racism on the part of minorities if “racism” didn’t always fundamentally refer to prejudice based on systemic power? Crickets.

To suggest our use of “racism” is not allowed to acknowledge the difference of those effects is simply to ignore them, and that’s precisely what Dawkins is doing. If racism does not refer to power and oppression, power and oppression are never discussed, and that’s just what white males would prefer. Dawkins wants all the negative rhetorical baggage that comes along with a powerful word like “racism,” but he doesn’t want the reasons for that baggage, since it undermines his use of it. It doesn’t adequately vilify and undermine and marginalize Alibhai to say she’s being “racially prejudiced.” No, he needs the full force of the word “racist,” but he refuses to accept the full semantic load of its usage. I responded with this tweet:

Obviously Dawkins couldn’t respond. He is interested precisely in reifying and legitimizing those structures, since they serve his interests. He’s not concerned with social responsibility, he’s concerned for maintaining his position of privilege and the structures in place that preserve it. He also doesn’t understand the concepts. All he can do is leverage his celebrity and privilege against the arguments of less privileged people like Alibhai and count on his enormous army of white male bootlickers to rush to his defense. Until he learns to check that privilege and take responsibility for the effect it has, his ignorant bigotry is going to continue to be called out while he expresses shock and outrage that anyone dare challenge his whiteness social and intellectual authority over everyone.

On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism

I recently read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. It was an interesting, albeit laughably uninformed, manifesto against religion, but one aspect of the author’s fundamental argument struck me as particularly poorly conceived and communicated: the notion of “scriptural literalism.” In an effort to marginalize and dismiss the experiences and perspectives of more liberal and progressive religionists, Harris must build a case for the purity of the lived religion of fundamentalists, as well as the centrality of “scriptural literalism.” That is, Harris insists that those who adhere to the “literal” meaning, or the “letter” of the scriptures, are more pious and genuine practitioners of their faith. Those who reject that “scriptural literalism” are feeding off of secular insights and so are not true practitioners of their religion. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism,” he insists, “do not open from the inside” (18–19, emphasis in original). Liberal religion is just religion mixed with non-religion; it’s corrupt religion. This is a rhetorical attempt to invalidate the contributions made to this debate by moderates and liberal religionists. Harris need only concern himself with the fundies, which makes everything so much easier to criticize and condemn.

The problem is that there is no such thing as “scriptural literalism.” It simply does not exist. It’s a fundamentalist claim that has no basis in reality (more on why Harris is adopting fundamentalist ideologies later). Here’s why:

First, we don’t really know precisely what the “letter of the texts” really mean. Texts don’t carry inherent meaning. They carry symbols that signify broad ranges of semantic senses for groups who have loose agreements about those signifiers. When we read a text, we call up in our minds our understanding of that agreement and use a variety of methods to try to whittle the possible meanings down to the one we think was intended by the author. This means the meaning of a text resides in and originates from our minds, not the text. The text just provides fuzzy outlines of semantic fields within which we think the intended meaning is to be found, and there are even a variety of ways that an author can actually undermine the expected meaning, violating those semantic fields. It’s a guessing game, really, and the further removed from the cultural and literary context of a text’s composition, the more it is a guessing game. So when we talk about the “letter of the texts,” we’re pretending that the letter and the meaning have a 1:1 correspondence, which they simply and objectively do not.

Next, in order to move from the letter to the meaning, we have to impose some lenses that help us focus on certain semantic fields over and against others in our attempt to whittle that potential meaning down. Our lenses come from our experiences with language and with literature and with culture and other things. This is why when an American reads the noun “boot,” depending on the region they live in, they will most likely impose lenses that whittle the potential semantic fields down to something like a cowboy boot. For someone living in Great Britain, though, the most likely whittled down meaning will be something like an army boot, if not the trunk of a car. Our experiences govern those lenses, and we best interpret texts from other times, languages, and cultures when we can approximate the lenses they would have been using. This is also a guessing game and thus makes it incredibly difficult—and sometimes impossible—to interpret ancient texts.

Conservative and “literalist” readers of the scriptures, whether of the Bible or the Quran, overwhelmingly tend to take one of two approaches to interpretation. One is to presuppose the ahistorical function of scripture and read them as if they were a contemporary composition directed specifically at them, in which case their lenses have them light years from the authors’ intended meanings. The other is to impose an historical set of lenses that serves the religious ideologies of the reader. In other words, they attempt to approximate the lenses used by the authors, but they do so in ways that attempt to protect (or legitimize) their presuppositions about the text’s meanings. For instance, conservative Christians often interpret the word elohim (god/s) in Psalm 82 and Exod 22:8 as references to human judges, and they claim that the word was honorifically bestowed in ancient Israel on judges and other special authorities. It wasn’t (see pp. 49–56 here). Elohim refers to gods, not to judges. There is no fundamentalist Christian anywhere that even approximates literalism when it comes to Psalm 82 (or the Song of Solomon, or 2 Kgs 3:27, or Matt 5:29, or Gen 6:2–4, or James 2:14–26, or dozens and dozens of other passages). To do so would be to contradict their reading of other portions of scripture that they believe deny the existence of other deities. This brings us to the next consideration: univocality.

Univocality means a single voice. It is the dogma that holds that the scriptures (Bible or Quran), as the inerrant and/or inspired word of God, represent God’s consistent and unified position and message. It does not contradict itself. This is a dogma. Both the Bible and the Quran, however, are thoroughly inconsistent. They are collections of texts composed by numerous different authors with numerous different viewpoints over long periods of time that have been edited and redacted by numerous others. They are empirically and objectively not univocal. In order to maintain the concept of univocality, however, “literalists” must massage their interpretation of certain texts to serve that concept and the overriding ideologies of their groups. If a seeming contradiction is identified, the passage that supports an existing ideology will be used as a lens through which to reinterpret the passage that conflict in a way that makes it agreeable. This absolutely precludes literalism, and it brings us to the final consideration:

Literalists are not literal about scripture, they’re literal about their ideology. Scripture is secondary. Religious groups don’t derive doctrine from the literal interpretation of scripture, they derive doctrine from negotiating between their group’s past, the needs of the present within a cultural context, and their interpretation of scripture. It’s very important to keep in mind that that last item serves the other two. Scripture is the authority to which religionists appeal for their beliefs. It is not the source of their beliefs. It is flexible and ambiguous and malleable enough to say what religious groups need it to say. There are ideological literalists, and scripture is their paint and palette. There are no scriptural literalists.

The irony of Harris’ claim is that he has to adopt a fundamentalist dogma in order to serve his own ideology (“Religion bad!”). This is a habit with a long and storied history in ideological bickering. It’s a lot easier to criticize religious traditions if you adopt the fragile and brittle worldviews of the most fundamentalist and uncritical groups within that tradition. Then the more reasonable and informed and complex perspectives can be dismissed before they complicate your arguments and make you think too hard. This is a tactic employed frequently by apologists of all kinds, including, evidently, the dogmatic and belligerent apologists from the New Atheist movement. Dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious, are a lot easier to proliferate when they’re black and white and reducible to small conceptual chunks that are easily digestible for young white males in trilbies who are infatuated with the transcendence of their own genius.

EDIT: Added some links and cleaned up some syntax.

Michael Kok and Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club

Michael Kok has a great article up on Bible and Interpretation entitled “Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club” that discusses some of the main ideas that have been promulgated in recent years related to the development of high christology and invites a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas. I’ve submitted a comment that should be up shortly. If you’re interested in the topic, join the discussion.

My Doctoral Program

I received word earlier today that my application to the University of Exeter’s PhD in Theology and Religion has been successful, and I start in September. It’s a distance program, so I will stay in my new home and keep my wonderful job. My advisors will be Francesca Stavrakopoulou and Siam Bhayro, and the title of the dissertation I proposed is “Divine Agency in Early Israelite and Jewish Literature and Cult.” If you’re interested in reading the proposal, you can find it here. The program will be funded thanks to a generous offer from BYU’s Religious Studies Dissertation Grant Program. I’m very excited to begin doctoral studies after so many unsuccessful attempts, and I greatly appreciate all the help and counsel I’ve received along the way from so many out there. Thank you!

Book Review: What Are the Jordan Codices?

What Are the Jordan Codices?Fresh on the heels of an announcement from the UK about a new Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books, the Elkingtons have published a third book defending the legitimacy of the Jordan codices, this one entitled What Are the Jordan Codices? The Mystery of the Sealed Lead Books. The articles contained in the book, with one exception, actually constitute a virtually untouched reprinting of the articles from the Elkingtons’ previous publication, The Case for the Jordan Lead Codices. Among some of the editorial changes is the inclusion of my own name where Jennifer Elkington had previously referred obliquely to me as “one particular student.” The anonymous author from the previous book has also now included his name under the title of his paper.

The largest change, however, is the addition of an article written by Dr. Samuel Zinner that draws from a larger paper he has recently published on that argues the Jordan codices are indeed modern, but are not forgeries. Rather, they are carefully crafted early modern Zionist “lag baomer” amulets. Zinner’s analysis is creative and thorough, although I believe he skirts around many of the issues that complicate the question of the codices’ origins and the involvement of the Elkingtons. See the full paper for the details of his argument (which are much too detailed to address here).

What Are the Jordan Codices? is, as with the previous volumes, an attempt to arrogate academic legitimacy to the thoroughly unacademic machinations of David Elkington and some compatriots. The articles penned by the Elkingtons and their psychologist colleague uses absolutely horrific personal attacks on me and several other scholars as a smokescreen to obscure and evade their own manipulations and dishonesty, all while accusing us of ad hominem.

I am happy to see that perhaps the codices will hopefully see the light of day so that they can be more directly and thoroughly studied. I still think, however, that the vast preponderance of evidence securely supports the conclusion that the codices are modern productions intended for sale and profit. I am more than happy to be proven entirely wrong, though. Despite the claims of the Elkingtons, I have never attempted to suppress the study or availability of the codices. In fact, as I have pointed out before, I have publicized more photos of the codices and analysis of their iconography and text than Elkington ever has. I would publicize any and all photos and reports and studies that he makes available. Unfortunately, and as anticipated, he saves those details for paying customers.

Review of The El-Amarna Correspondences

A fresh review by Kurtis Peters is up on Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies of Brill’s new two-volume set, The El-Amarna Correspondence. The late Anson F. Rainey provided the lion’s share of the collating, transcribing, and translating, with Zipora Cochavi-Rainey and Bill Schniedewind batting editorial cleanup. Check out the review for more. (HT James McGrath)


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