Jack Miles adopted a bold literary device in his masterpiece, “God: A Biography,” which presents the life story of the Almighty as if the Bible writers were telling the life story of God. a character in a book. The Pulitzer Prize jury approved his approach by awarding him the Pulitzer Prize in the biography category in 1996. So what does Miles think of “God: An Anatomy” by Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Knopf)? We discover in the blurb that appears on the back cover of his book:

“Awesome,” enthused Miles. “Fascinating. A tour de force, a triumph. A breathtaking book.”

The truth that Stavrakopoulou recounts in his book is perhaps best summed up in the old adage that “the emperor has no clothes” – and quite literally. She recalls what she learned as an undergrad when God’s sex was pondered: “[T]The way feminist and traditionalist theologians proposed to circumvent this delicate question was to insist that God could not have sex or gender, because God had no body. But the Bible “clearly conjured up a startling bodily image of God in the form of a human-shaped deity, who walked, talked, wept, and laughed.”

So Stavrakopoulou insists on taking the authors of the Bible at their word when they describe God as possessing a human form. She points out that “this powerful figure had somehow been theorized and replaced by the abstract being we are more familiar with today”. And, in real sense, she wrote “God: An Anatomy” for herself younger: “This is the book I wish I had read when I was in college.”

“Mapping the body of God, rather than the Bible itself,” she boldly announces, “[w]We can meet the true God of the Bible.

Stavrakopoulou is a genuine scholar who studied at Oxford and holds a full professorship of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Exeter. As a featured presenter on the BBC and the History Channel, she knows how to speak to a lay audience without dumbing down her ideas or information. All of these skills are on display in “God: An Anatomy,” which is tightly argued, deeply rooted in scholarship, lavishly illustrated, and yet both accessible and compelling.

“Anatomy”, as the word appears in the subtitle of his book, is used literally. The book is divided into five sections: Feet and Legs, Genitals, Torso, Arms and Hands, and Head. She points out how these body parts are attested to in the biblical account, and she insists that early Bible readers – if not modern ones – were quite comfortable with a bodily deity resembling their own.

“In Genesis, Adam and Eve hear Yahweh’s footsteps approaching as he walks in the Garden of Eden,” she points out. “[L]Later in the same book, Abraham sees Yahweh standing with two other divine beings under a group of sacred trees, and then walks with him. Nor are God’s feet a mere coincidence: “In the Bible, God’s feet are crucial to his social existence – fundamental to his very being – and are therefore the bodily features by which he often makes himself evident in the world.

The author’s use of the masculine pronoun in reference to God is not merely a grammatical convention. “[T]he biblical writers (and their subsequent translators) did their best to sanitize the story by diluting Yahweh’s bodily sexuality,” she points out. “Essentially, the genitals were to be viewed as an aspect of the human condition, not the divine. And yet, the body of the God of the Bible suggests otherwise. When Ezekiel describes his glimpse of God, for example, he describes “the motnayim, a Hebrew word traditionally (and politely) translated as “kidney” or “waist,” but which more specifically refers to the groin and its genitals. » Ezekiel is also not “the only biblical figure to recognize the genitals of God”, writes Stavrakopoulou.

Such reflections may be difficult for some readers, but Stavrakopoulou only means to inform and not to sensationalize. Indeed, there is no part of the human body that she neglects, but each organ is considered a means of understanding what the biblical authors meant about God and how their view differs from ours. At times, his prose transcends his powers of analysis and explanation and approaches the sublime.

Consider, for example, a passage from Deuteronomy in which God sees a child named Jeshurun, a metaphorical reference to the people of Israel (Deut. 32:10). Conventional translations obliterate “an old Hebrew idiom…which refers to the pupil of the eye as ‘the little man’ – a vivid allusion to the tiny reflection we can see of ourselves when we look closely into the eye from someone.” For Stavrakopoulou, the word of God “goes beyond metaphor” and says something poignant about God himself. “His eyes weren’t just seeing organs, they were smelling organs,” she explains. “Translated more carefully, this ancient poem depicts the deity gazing at her baby so intently that the boy is imprinted on the shining black pupil of God.”

Throughout “God: An Anatomy,” Stavrakopoulou contrasts the different perceptions of God in Jewish and Christian tradition. If we use the Hebrew Bible as a reference, she insists, Jewish tradition is right.

Throughout “God: An Anatomy,” Stavrakopoulou contrasts the different perceptions of God in Jewish and Christian tradition. If we use the Hebrew Bible as a reference, she insists, Jewish tradition is right. “The Christian construction of God as a transcendent, invisible, incorporeal being is a distorted refraction, not a reflection, of the biblical image of God. The true God of the Bible was an ancient Levantine deity whose steps shook the earth, whose voice thundered in the heavens, and whose beauty and brilliance dazzled his worshippers.

This contrast is his book’s most illuminating achievement, precisely because it brings the reader so close to “a deity who fashioned god-like humans from clay…[a] god who cried and talked and slept and sulked. A god who felt, fought, loved and lost. Above all, she insists that the deity she describes “was a god more like the best of us and the worst of us. A god made in our image. not


Jonathan Kirch is editor of the Jewish Journal and author, among other things, of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible”.