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Towards a Livelier God

God’s Body: The Anthropomorphic God in the Old Testament.

By Andreas Wagner. New York: T&T Clark, 2019. 208 pp. $39.95.

Review by Philip Jenson

The first of the Thirty-Nine Articles states unequivocally that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” Yet the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, is full of descriptions of God’s body, as well as his passions. Andreas Wagner’s God’s Body, a revision of an earlier German book, is a fascinating and provocative discussion of anthropomorphism, the presentation of God as an embodied person. The issue of God’s passions (anthropopathism) is left for another time.

Although it is founded on deep scholarship this is no dry academic study. The author is alive to the interpretive challenge when we read biblical texts while operating from a very different understanding of human and divine nature. For example, the suspicion of anthropomorphism in the theological tradition can be partly traced to a failure to distinguish the prohibition of material images of God (the second commandment) from the verbal imagery that pervades the Old Testament (including the latest texts).

A distinctive feature of this book is its inclusion of numerous pictures of individuals and gods, and its close attention to how they are portrayed. The ancients did not work with the modern notion of photographic realism that limits a portrait to only one perspective. Instead, in their drawings they depicted as many aspects of the body as they felt necessary, even if they were inconsistent. What is important are the function of the specific features. Thus, the nose, neck and breasts of the woman in the Song of Songs are like a tower, not due to their similar shape but because they express the strength and attitude of a woman who is able to protect herself, just as a tower can defend its inhabitants.

The longest chapter surveys the common bodily terms used for God. These can be grouped into two main categories: those that highlight the power and active presence of God (arm, hand, foot), and those that are central to communication (face, ear, eye, nose, throat/neck). It is significant that there is no reference to sexual features, thus avoiding assigning a gender to God (this may also be a reason that idols are forbidden).

The meaning of a body part often depends on gesture, so interpretation requires attention to the related verb and the wider context. There is all the difference in the world between God turning his face towards or away from someone. The function of some body parts has also radically changed in the modern world. For the ancients, the centre of thought was not the head but the heart, and the term translated “soul” is more the throat or neck, which indicates a person’s “intensive intentionality.” Translations often hide or relocate these body parts, like when they render heart as mind or hand as power. Such moves are dangerous, since an embodied God is a safeguard against abstraction and a disembodied intellectualism. Without anthropomorphism the supremely powerful God of the Bible would soon lose for readers his intimate connection with them and the world.

This is one of the most insightful and exciting books I have read for some time. Its basic approach resonates with the cognitive theory of metaphor. This too emphasizes the importance of taking seriously the implications of a realm of experience (the human body) which is not the same as the target (God), but which is in practice a true and essential means for how we are to think and live. Within this overarching metaphor comes a lively and complex metonymy, where the specific parts of the body stand for the whole from a specific point of view. This book invites us to become aware of unhelpful anachronistic assumptions we bring to this language, and encourages us to make our theological language more fully embodied, as it surely must be for Christians in the light of the incarnation. Only then can be speak more adequately about the God who turns his ears to our cries, looks on our plight with his eyes, speaks to us with his mouth, and saves us with a mighty hand and arms stretched out wide on a cross.

The Rev. Dr. Philip Jenson teaches the Old Testament and Biblical Theology at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and the Cambridge Theological Federation. He loves the different perspective that the Old Testament brings to all kinds of practical as well as theological issues. Discovering its depths and riches often means tackling its difficulties and exploring creative ways in discovering how the Old Testament can come to life for modern readers. He has a special interest in the priestly texts of the Pentateuch, and has written several booklets for the Grove Biblical Series that are designed to help people grapple with challenging texts.


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