God’s anatomy: A scholar shows how people in antiquity viewed the Heavenly Body

Did God “moon” Moses on Mount Sinai? One biblical scholar seems to think so — and she’s got linguistic evidence to back up her claim.

According to the Book of Exodus, while on Mount Sinai, Moses asked to see God’s face, prompting a divine compromise. The Lord placed Moses in the cleft of a rock, hid him with one hand while the divine presence passed, then removed that hand to show Moses God’s back.

Yet Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a British scholar of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Exeter, questioned this interpretation. Throughout the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, God showing his back to the Israelites connoted hostility, such as in the divine declaration, “I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity.”

As for the biblical term used to describe the body part revealed to Moses, it was actually the same one denoting the buttocks of an animal about to get a pre-sacrifice dung-cleaning. “[Moses] sees not the deadly back of God thrust menacingly into the face of an enemy, but the disappearing backside of a celestial celebrity,” Stavrakopoulou writes in one of many provocative insights in her new book “God: An Anatomy.”

The book touts itself as an “astonishing and revelatory history” that “represents God as he was originally envisioned by ancient worshippers — with a distinctly male body, superhuman powers, earthly passions, and a penchant for the fantastic and monstrous.”

“By mapping God’s body, rather than the Bible itself, we can better navigate the transformation of this ancient southern Levantine deity into the God with whom we are now culturally more familiar,” Stavrakopoulou writes.

“I wanted to see this god in his natural cultural habitat,” she said, speaking with The Times of Israel over Zoom. “It’s time-travel, going into the text and the cultural context from which it emerged, a glimpse into ancient religious imagination. How do you have a relationship with an imaginary being, socialize with that being? By deciding it has a human-shaped body. You — by virtue of that — have a god-shaped body. That’s a huge thing, a very powerful thing.”

Chapters explore the image of God from feet to head, with their titles referencing the specific body part or parts discussed. Subsections go into even more anatomical detail. The “Genitals” chapter includes R-rated descriptions of the deity’s penis, including hints that it was circumcised, and concludes with a portion on “Divine Sex.”

Asked which of her claims is the hardest for people to accept, Stavrakopoulou replied, “On the one hand, the idea that this deity was a sexual deity is quite challenging for some believers… On the other hand, I think a deity with a very complex, emotional inner life may be more challenging,” with a further challenge coming from “a god principally considered as very masculine. For a lot of contemporary Jewish and Christian people, the idea of a god who is gendered, as well as God having a body, is quite challenging.”

However, she explained, “A lot of ancient believers in the deity did understand him to be male. He showed his body, quite often as a bearded deity. For some, he was quite a young, good-looking, dark-haired, dark-bearded god. For others, he was more like an old sage, like a Torah scholar. There were a lot of different views in the ancient world of what the deity looked like.”

Such perceptions contrast with longstanding Jewish and Christian views that God is inanimate, abstract and incorporeal, or — for some Christians — only made incarnate through his son Jesus Christ.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou, author of ‘God: An Anatomy.’ (Steven Haywood)

There are also biblical indications that imagining God’s image was frowned upon, notably the prohibition on forming graven images in the very Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Sinai. Here, however, Stavrakopoulou brings in her own background as a biblical scholar who has translated ancient texts.

She cites “a religious regulation which had crept its way into earlier versions of the Ten Commandments in the Second Temple period: ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, whether in the likeness of what is in the heavens above, or what is on the earth below, or what is in the waters beneath the earth,’” adding that this “suggests that material images of God were once a normative feature of Israelite and Judahite religion — otherwise there would be no need for the ban.” She bolsters this claim with evidence from contemporaneous religious practices of the neighbors of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

“The cults of various Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Phoenician deities all experienced periods of aniconic worship, despite the fact that these deities were understood to have bodies,” she writes.

Each chapter begins with relevant examples from history. Sometimes the author incorporates her own insights from her journeys across the Middle East. In one such journey, she summited Mount Sinai, where the Bible credits Moses with receiving the Ten Commandments.

Describing herself as an atheist when she matriculated at Oxford University as an undergraduate, Stavrakopoulou nevertheless had a longtime interest in ancient religions, some of it stemming from the Greek side of her family.

“I was puzzled as a child by the god of Christianity and Judaism,” she said, “the only god of the ancient world to survive into the modern day. What made this god different?”

‘God: An Anatomy,’ by Francesca Stavrakopoulou. (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)

In her book, she contends that there were similarities between the god she looks at — “an ancient Levantine deity that some people know as Yahweh” — and the gods of other faiths from antiquity. Consider the idea of a horned deity found in the Tanakh, including Numbers 23:22, where the prophet Balaam describes the God of Israel as having “horns like a wild ox.”

“Iconographically speaking, bull horns were very common markers of divinity across ancient Mesopotamia, often horns or headgear showing horns,” Stavrakopoulou said. “The animal was associated with fecundity, ferocity, anger, and in certain Mesopotamian cultures with the waxing and waning of the moon. It was very ancient, pre-Yahweh, almost like a general mark of divinity in ancient Mesopotamian ideas around the visual appearance of a deity.”

Stavrakopoulou, then, found it plausible that the bull- or calf-god statues mentioned in the Tanakh, from the Golden Calf to the figurines established by King Jeroboam in Bethel and Dan, were less about idolatry and more about a god who could represent himself in bovine form.

There is also an independent claim of ancient representations of God in human form. In 2020, Hebrew University Prof. Yosef Garfinkel told The Times of Israel that he had found such images in clay figurines dating from the 10th and ninth centuries BCE in locations spanning the historic Kingdom of Judah, including depictions of a rider on horseback.

Yosef Garfinkel with a shrine model made of stone, found at Hirbet Qeiyafa (Courtesy of Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Yosef Garfinkel with a shrine model made of stone, found at Khirbet Qeiyafa (Courtesy of Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

“I think it is very possible there were cult figurines of Yahweh used by his worshipers,” Stavrakopoulou said. “I don’t think the figurines found — the horse figurines found at that particular site, Khirbet Qeiyafa, by Yosef Garfinkel, or the figures more recently found in the new temple at Tel Motza near Jerusalem — those look too low-status in some ways to be Yahweh. I don’t think we have found yet an Iron Age example of the face of Yahweh. Maybe there will be.”

The book does suggest that an idea of God’s facial features can be gleaned from such evidence as the biblical Song of Songs and a terracotta statuette from Ur that was created between 1850 and 1750 BCE.

The face of Yahweh? Views of a clay head dated to the 10th century BC, found at Khirbet Qeiyafa (Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“God’s beauty incorporated those features traditionally associated with idealized masculine beauty: reddened skin, thick locks of dark hair and a carefully styled beard,” Stavrakopoulou writes. Of the statue, she adds that although it “predates the God of the Bible by several centuries, its features would remain typical of masculine beauty across Mesopotamia and the Levant.”

She also posits that Yahweh traveled in a larger circle than is commonly understood today.

“The Hebrew Bible is very clear,” Stavrakopoulou said. “Ancient Israel and Judah were in the business of worshiping other gods alongside Yahweh… It might well be that Yahweh himself eventually became the head of a small pantheon of deities.”

Aerial photo of the temple at Motza at the end of the 2013 excavation. (P. Partouche, SkyView)

As she explained, Yahweh had a lineage, descending from El, a deity from the Late Bronze Age who appears in Ugaritic and Phoenician mythology and — possibly — in the Hebrew Bible.

“In Deuteronomy 32, El and Yahweh seem to be separate deities,” Stavrakopoulou said. “El seems to be a senior deity, Yahweh more of a junior. El is probably understood as being the father of the younger generation. At Ugarit, for example, El is semi-retired with his feet up, handing the business of running things to the younger generation — Baal and various others. Yahweh is probably… one of the second-generation, front-line deities that gradually come to usurp the high god El within certain cultural centers of ancient Israel and Judah.”

She noted that “certain biblical writers and readers” have made “a deliberate assertion” that “El, which can simply mean deity, is the same as saying Yahweh in some traditions.”

Excavation works on the Motza Neolithic site. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Stavrakopoulou criticized the downplaying of another idea — that Yahweh had a wife, the goddess Asherah. Previously, Asherah appeared as El’s wife Athirah in Late Bronze Age Ugarit, but her name and partner changed in Iron Age Israel and Judah. According to Stavrakopoulou, Asherah fell out of favor with the Israelites following foreign attacks that culminated with the Babylonian devastation of the First Temple, and biblical scholarship ignored the goddess’ earlier exalted position.

The book addresses the biblical hostility toward Asherah worship: “In the eyes of the biblical writers, God’s traditional wife, Asherah, might have been cast aside, but he himself retained his position as a divine husband, and wedded himself instead to his worshippers.”

When Stavrakopoulou visited the Israel Museum, she saw a Late Bronze Age figurine from the 13th century BCE from Shephelah that she said is of a high-status goddess opening her labia. Yet it was labeled as possibly “Asherah, the sacred prostitute,” which she called a misidentification.

“Just because the goddess is shown nude, opening her labia, it’s somehow seen as erotic or titillating,” Stavrakopoulou said. “It’s not the case at all with the figurine. Opening a god’s body is seen as revealing life and death, inside and outside. Opening her body was a very powerful manifestation of a divine kind of power over life and death.

“This kind of distortion is often found in museums. The label reflected a lot of bias common to older generations of scholarship. Now there tends to be much better scholarship, thinking more critically and carefully about language.”

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