Tag Archives: Conceptualization of Deity

BRANE New PhD Showcase

Next Thursday at 4 PM EST (2 PM MST), I will join Debra Scoggins Ballentine, Mark McEntire, Brian Rainey, and Jen Singletary over Zoom to discuss my doctoral dissertation, “Deity and Divine Agency in the Hebrew Bible: Cognitive Perspectives.” To see more info, register to attend, and to get a pre-circulated paper outlining my dissertation, visit this link.

Thanks so much to Eva Mroczek and the rest of the folks at the BRANE Collective for this amazing opportunity!


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.

Thesis Posted

I am making my recently defended master’s thesis available in PDF format at this link. The title and an abbreviated abstract are below.

“You Will Be Like the Gods”: The Conceptualization of Deity in the Hebrew Bible in Cognitive Perspective

This thesis has two primary goals: (1) to analyze the contours and extent of the generic category of deity in the Hebrew Bible, and (2) to propose a semantic base for the term. It begins with a description of the fields associated with cognitive theory, and particularly cognitive linguistics. Chapter 2 examines the cognitive origins of notions of deity and discusses how this heritage is reflected within the biblical texts. The third chapter examines the conceptualization of Israel’s prototypical deity, YHWH, beginning from the earliest divine profiles detectable within the text. In Chapter 4 the discussion returns to the generic notion of deity, highlighting references within the biblical text to deities other than YHWH. The conclusion synthesizes the different sections of the thesis, sketching the origins and development of the Hebrew Bible’s representation of both prototypical and non-prototypical notions of deity. Implications for further research are then briefly discussed.

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.



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.

Thesis Defended


Yesterday afternoon I defended my thesis, “‘You Will Be Like the Gods’: The Conceptualization of Deity in the Hebrew Bible in Cognitive Perspective,” to faculty and students at Trinity Western University. I gave a brief 20-minute presentation and then answered questions from my thesis committee, from other TWU faculty, and from students attending. The entire process was supposed to take no more than 2 hours, but I spent a full 90 minutes just fielding questions. There was a lot of interest in the topic, which was nice.

The committee deliberated for less than ten minutes, and I was asked to make some very small structural revisions and was given an A+. Two professors afterward commented that it was one of the best theses the school had produced. The director of graduate studies, who was in charge of all the administrative processes, told me she usually doesn’t sit through the defenses, but she found it so fascinating she just had to stick around. I was very flattered. Afterward my wife got to speak with several other students and professors, and many of them made a point of congratulating her and thanking her for her support, which she greatly appreciated.

It was very nice to be back in the northwest and to see some old friends. I enjoyed being back on TWU’s beautiful campus and talking biblical studies again with mostly the same faculty, staff, and students. It was a wonderful trip, and thanks to a new prescription of Valium my flight anxiety was non-existent for the flight back. It’s been a nice week, and now I get to sleep in my own bed again.

Thanks to everyone out there who has supported me in one capacity or another, in person or in spirit, as I pursued this degree and my previous two. It has meant a lot to me, but I don’t often get the chance to express it. Thanks again.

PS – Information on how my thesis will be made available in the future should be forthcoming.