Friday, November 18, 2011

J. Todd Hibbard on Benjamin D. Sommer's Bodies of God

Benjamin D. Sommer

One of my friends from the postdoctoral year (1998-99) that I spent in Jerusalem has published what sounds like a very interesting book: The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (New York: Cambridge, 2009). I've read only J. Todd Hibbard's review of Ben's book in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (Volume 11, 2011), but I'm sufficiently fascinated to consider purchasing the expensive text. Meanwhile, I'll just quote from the review concerning the part that I find especially relevant to my interests, the chapters on what he calls "divine fluidity":
In Chapter 1 Sommer examines conceptions of divine fluidity broadly in the ancient Near East [ANE] (he points out that no such notion apparently existed among the Greeks). The idea was based on a radical contrast in the ANE between humans and gods. The divine self was fluid in two ways: first, through the fragmentation of divine beings (e.g., Ishtar); and second, through the overlap of divine beings (e.g., Asshur). He points out that it was also the case that some gods possessed the ability to be embodied in multiple objects in the ANE. For example, in the pīt pî and mīs pî rituals one can see how idols or ṣalmu were established as embodiments of a god. These were not simply representations of the god, but incarnations of the divine. These embodiments did not mean, however, that the god's body ceased to exist in heaven nor that other earthly embodiments were impossible. In the Northwest Semitic tradition, the betyl presents a similar picture: it is both a god and an animated stone with life (not just a house). Canaanite texts reveal similar notions of multiple embodiment centered on a multiplicity of Baals (and, to a lesser extent, El): "[T]hey, too, have shifting and overlapping selves" (p. 28). Interestingly, however, archaic and classical Greece (as well as Virgil) does not evince similar portrayals. This suggests that the idea Sommer is pursuing is not characteristic of all polytheistic religions.

Sommer's task in Chapter 2 is to address how the fluidity model outlined in the previous chapter was manifest in ancient Israel. In support of the idea he notes the multiple geographical manifestations of YHWH found in inscriptions (e.g., YHWH of Teman and YHWH of Samaria in the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions). In addition to geographical multiplicity, Sommer argues that YHWH fragments himself (think avatar) such that he takes on multiple embodiments. Two such cases include malāʾkh, which he argues is an example of YHWH's self-fragmentation, and YHWH's multiplicity in divine wood such as the asherim. On the basis of the latter, he argues that the much-discussed Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions are not references to a goddess, but rather to wooden cultic objects that are repositories of YHWH's fragmented self. He also argues that YHWH's multiplicity is present in stone such as maṣṣēbôt and stelae, embodiments that render YHWH's presence on a scale safely accessible for human beings. In Sommer's view, the two notions of divine fluidity and multiple embodiment reinforce each other and appear together. He concludes the chapter by noting that these twin conceptions appear to have been especially present in the northern kingdom.

Where this analysis gets really interesting appears in Ben's application of this fluidity model to Christianity:
The final chapter finds Sommer donning his theologian hat in order to answer the question, "What do the Hebrew Bible's fluidity traditions teach a modern religious Jew?" (p. 126). After noting that the antifluidity traditions in P [=Priestly Source] and D [=Deuteronomist] dominate the final form of the Hebrew Bible, he notes that fluidity traditions found elsewhere (notably in JE [=Yahwist-Elohist]) are still present. He briefly explores the development of these traditions in the postbiblical rabbinic literature, the kabbalah and early Christianity. With respect to the latter, Sommer insists that core Christian assertions -- the trinity and incarnation -- are not theologically impermissible within the world of Judaism, but rather are faithful to the fluidity model of divinity found in ancient Israel. For modern Jews, Sommer demonstrates how biblical notions of fluidity and antifluidity pose challenges for both liberal and conservative Jews, though not in the same way. He concludes by insisting that, contrary to customary positions, it is the fluidity model that offers the strongest statement of monotheism consistent with the personhood of God.

I actually recall Ben discussing something of this sort one Saturday morning in a synogogue that I sometimes attended in my attempt to learn more about Judaism, and he even hinted at its relevance for a proper understanding of Christianity and how it could have arisen out of Judaism, specifically mentioning St. Paul.

I'm glad that he's finally clarified that connection . . .

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At 3:49 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Agree: Sommer's study is absolutely fascinating. Sommer time, and the learning is easy... Just some remarks about:

no such notion apparently existed among the Greeks

Well, "divine fluidity" was at the core of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Not only could the Greek-Latin Gods change into whatever they liked be[a]st, but, in a sense, they could not but do so.

The question remains as to their ability to undergo a process of "fragmentation." Maybe the theme was not clearly posed, but--- let's think of Zeus. When he changed into e.g. a swan in order to seduce Leda, did he stop being, at the same time, among the clouds and gathering them (Homer's "Zeus, the Cloud-Gatherer")?

Interestingly enough, this very subject was dealt with by Luther and Calvin about the double place, or not, of the divine Word during the years when He lived as a man on earth.

And, of course, the idea of divine fragmentation-and-oneness can easily be applied to the Catholic Eucharist.

At 7:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I also wondered about some of these 'Greek' cases . . . but I'll have to read Ben's book first.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:14 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I questioned the point about the Greeks as well. Here are some other things I wondered about, followed by my questions/reservations:

"What do the Hebrew Bible's fluidity traditions teach a modern religious Jew?"

Kaplan: What is "a modern religious Jew"?

"For modern Jews, Sommer demonstrates how biblical notions of fluidity and antifluidity pose challenges for both liberal and conservative Jews."

Kaplan: Modern Jews? Liberal Jews? Conservative Jews? What criteria does Sommer use to define these three distinctions? Are there other "kinds" of Jews that are being over-looked?

"He concludes by insisting that, contrary to customary positions, it is the fluidity model that offers the strongest statement of monotheism consistent with the personhood of God."

Kaplan: The "strongest" statement of monotheism? What then are the "weaker" statements of monotheism, how does Sommer rank them, and by what criteria are they determined to be "strong" or "weak"? The use of the word "consistent"--what does this mean? Is this grammatical consistency? Metaphysical consistency? Logical Consistency? Substantive consistency? Essential consistency? Does this consistency have a "nature"? Does this consistency exist, or is this consistency dialectical, dialogical, idealistic, Hegelian, physical, rational? What if we are mistaken, or are even actively deceived about this consistency? And whose version of the "personhood of God" is being used here? Furthermore, if the fluidity model is consistent with the personhood of God, is it also consistent with other forms of being, such as humans, Nephilim, Cherubim, Seraphim, or fair-haired Pleiadians and other "Flying Saucer" people?

"Sommer insists that core Christian assertions -- the trinity and incarnation..."

Kaplan: Core Christian assertions? Whose "Core"? Whose "Christianity"? Whose "Assertions"? The trinity and the incarnation are not very high on my list of concerns when I think about Christianity....

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think we'll all just need to buy Ben's book to find the answers.

As for the Trinity and the Incarnation, you've got to at least acknowledge that these are quite central to most Christians' views, as well as being problematic for monotheism.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:50 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

“'ve got to at least acknowledge that these are quite central to most Christians' views..."

Ah, are they "central", or simply several of many many such "concerns"? To me, they are irrelevant to what Christ says--that is, irrelevant to the real meaning of the Gospels. I get my Christianity from Christ, not from religious societies, churches, or theologians; but to each his own.

" well as being problematic for monotheism..."

Ah, “problematic” is in the eye of the beholder. Again, to me, these are indifferent matters, and even the question of monotheism (I know, I am a hard case). You either agree with Christ or not, and (try to) proceed accordingly. The rest is passing time (recreational talk), metaphysics (nonsense), or academics.

At 4:06 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"The rest is passing time (recreational talk), metaphysics (nonsense), or academics."

...or politics.

At 5:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't think that one can circumvent church councils and get directly to the New Testament. Growing up Protestant, I always assumed that I could, but a study of history has disabused me of that view. The early church determined the canon that we have along with its theological significance, so the vast majority of Christians take the Trinity and the Incarnation as essential to their beliefs. I wouldn't maintain that the texts can't be read differently, of course, and I expect that Ben's scholarship might offer a way toward a different reading, and I find intriguing that he offers a broadened conception of early Judaism that would encompass Christianity as Jewish.

Jeffery Hodges

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