Off the Shelf God in body and metaphor

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What is the true nature of God? That’s a question that has been explored and debated over the centuries. There seems to be no satisfactory answer for everyone, even among believers, atheists and agnostics. Two recent books discuss this issue in very different ways: Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s fascinating “God: An Anatomy” (Alfred A. Knopf) offers a close look at God as the deity was originally portrayed in the Bible, while Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s excellent “God is Here: Reimagining the Divine” (St. Martin’s Essentials) presents intriguing metaphors for those seeking an increased connection to divinity in their lives.

The two authors approach the topic from opposite points of view: Stavrakopoulou, a chaired professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at the University of Exeter, is an atheist seeking to tell “the story of the real God of the Bible, in all his corporeal, uncensored, scandalous forms... The God revealed in this book is the deity as his ancient worshippers saw him: a supersized, muscle-bound, good-looking god, with supra-human powers, earthly passions, and a penchant for the fantastic and the monstrous.” Spitzer, who is a pulpit rabbi and teacher whose courses include new ways to think about God, sees that physicality as a metaphor, rather than an actual description of God: “Yet something new and radical for its time and place was the Bible’s insistence that we resist the urge to represent God in any physical way. Whatever God was, It could not be contained in any object represented in nature or made by human hands (a major departure from the Mesopotamian and Canaanite cultures that surrounded and influenced the ancient Israelites). While physical imagery could be used in stories about God, when it came to worshipping God, there were to be no statues, no pictures, nothing that a person could point to and say, ‘There is my God!’” Although she acknowledges many people still think “whether [they] explicitly believe it or not, God is a Big Person Who knows everything and can do anything God wants,” her work shares metaphors that help people replace what is, for many, an unhelpful image.

In more than 400 pages, Stavrakopoulou systematically explores the biblical text, focusing on its plain meaning and comparing it to other religions of the time to show how the Israelite God was originally like the gods of other religions – meaning that God had a body (including a sexual organ), and walked, talked and ate like humans. She also shows how the ancient rabbis discussed God’s having a physical presence. Only later, during the medieval period, when writers like Maimonides objected to an embodied God, did Judaism dismiss that idea.

To put her ideas into perspective, Stavrakopoulou discusses how the Bible developed, focusing on the different ways God is portrayed. For example, she sees the varying names used for God as showing that the text combined aspects of different divine beings into one God. She notes that several of those gods were married and offers examples from the Bible that suggest the Israelite God may once have had a wife. She also notes while it’s not possible to determine exactly how Yahweh became the main Israelite god, supplanting El and Elshadday, by the times the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah were established, he was the head God of a pantheon of divine beings. 

In order to discuss the details of God’s physicality, sections focus on specific aspects of God’s body, including “Feet and Legs,” “Genitals,” “Torso,” “Arms and Hands” and “Head.” While it’s not possible to explore even a portion of this material, examples include: 

  • God walking in the Garden of Eden looking for Adam. Stavrakopoulou suggests that God walked through the garden seeking companionship and calls out to Adam out of frustration when God can’t find him.
  • The idea that the destruction of the Temple meant that God could no longer eat with his worshippers. Before that, part of the sacrifices were for the worshipper and/or the priest, while the burnt part of the offering was God’s food. Stavrakopoulou sees this shared consumption between humans and God. She also believes that “the holiness of the deity’s priests was not only maintained by an adherence to ritual distinctions between the sacred and profane, but by the regular consumption of the god’s food and drink.”
  • The ark originally serving as a footstool on which God’s actual feet were expected to rest. The author offers examples of footstools found in many non-Israelite temples during that era to show different religions all expected God to be physically present in their place of worship.
  • The existence of the Sabbath day because God was physically tired after creation and needed bodily rest. Her translation of Exodus 31:17 (part of the 10 Commandments) is not the traditional one – “on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” – but rather, “on the seventh day he rested and caught his breath.” 
  • Poetry in the book of Hosea, which uses euphemisms that she believes clearly refer to God’s genitalia. For Stavrakopoulou, Hosea’s use of the word “fructify” (meaning to be made fruitful) makes it clear that the Israelite God, the same as other gods of the time, took the land as a wife and gave it his seed so that “the earth will fructify the grain, the wine, and the oil.”

“God: An Anatomy” is an impressive work perfect for those interested in the history and development of religion. One doesn’t have to agree with all of Stavrakopoulou’s interpretations in order to be challenged by her thoughtful, detailed book. 

While Stavrakopoulou offers a scholarly work that is not interested in religious practice, Spitzer wants to help people increase their spiritual connection to the Divine. She realizes that many people are searching for something beyond the impersonal and, too often, unbelievable ideas found in our religious cultures. She notes, “We need to reject two myths. First that a superhero God is going to magically appear and save us. And second, that human beings are so good and so powerful we can save ourselves. In between those two misconceptions is a deeper, urgent truth: there is Something operating both within us and around us that, if understood and accessed properly, can help us foster the wisdom, compassion, and resilience to perhaps save ourselves and our planet. We need to know It by Its many names and learn from each of those names what is asked of us.” 

While she doesn’t reject using human metaphors for God – for example, seeing “God as Parent, as Beloved, as Teacher” – she believes there are other useful metaphors that can expand our view of God. For example, she explores the ideas of seeing God as Water, Voice, Place, Fire, Rock, Cloud and the process of Becoming. Spitzer notes that these images are taken from the biblical text, which also refers to God in ways other than human. At the end of each chapter, she offers exercises to help readers incorporate these ideas into a spiritual practice. In addition, Spitzer offers examples from her personal life as to how they have helped her during difficult times. 

One wonderful example is her explanation of God as water: “And unlike God as Distant Emperor, God as Water is not ‘out there,’ far from us, but right here, within us. In the first chapter of Genesis, we are told that human beings are created B’Tzelem Elohim, ‘in God’s image.’ About 70 percent of the human body is made up of water; our brains and hearts are approximately 80 percent water. What new meaning the phrase ‘made in God’s image’ takes on if we think of God as Water, and ourselves as made up largely of that godly substance! We are literally composed of sacred stuff. Water is precious and powerful and essential, as are we.” Spitzer then movingly discusses how this metaphor helped her when her spouse was dying of cancer. She learned “that water is essential to life – indeed, water is life – and yet sometimes it is also That which threatens me, overwhelms me, drowns me. God was at one and the same time the waters through which I was passing, and That which supported me as I made my way through an unbearable reality.” 

The beauty of Spitzer’s work is that she offers multiple ways of viewing God, so if one doesn’t suit a person’s spiritual needs, a different metaphor might. Her purpose is to help people see God in everyday life, something that becomes clear when she writes about God as the Place (Hamakon in Hebrew). She notes that, in the Bible, several figures have felt “God is in this place,” for example, Jacob after he dreamed about the angels traveling to and from heaven, and then hears God speak to him. Moses, too, experiences God at the burning bush when God speaks to him. Spitzer writes, “To live in the reality of ‘how awesome is this Place’ is to live our lives open to the possibility that there is a spark of the holy –a bit of wisdom, a deeper understanding, a sense of connection – available to us in any place, in any moment, even in the most difficult.” Spiritual seekers are sure to find meaning within these pages. 

“God: An Anatomy” and “God is Here” offer opportunities to explore ideas about the nature of God that complement and contrast each other. One can agree with Stavrakopoulou’s theories about the Bible and still find inspiration in Spitzer’s work because the two authors are attempting different things. In fact, those who find either Stavrakopoulou’s thoughts about God convincing may still want to create more spirituality in their lives by using Spitzer’s practices. Each of these works will enrich their readers. Taken together, they expand our way of thinking about the world and the nature of the Divine.