Way back in February (Has it been that long?), in the wake of the Falk Fiasco, self-styled “blue-collar Bible scholar” Joel Edmund Anderson took it upon himself to defend misogynist David Falk and attack on Twitter biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou and her recent volume God: An Anatomy. Anderson then decided to write a “review” (the term was used loosely) of Stavrakopoulou’s book, covering it in ten posts on his website. (You can read the first one here and then, if you’re brave, continue on to the rest.)
In response to Anderson’s posts on God: An Anatomy, Kipp Davis, specialist in the Dead Sea Scrolls (among other things), wrote his own review of Stavrakopoulou’s book as well as a response to Anderson’s ramblings. He graciously allowed me to post his review within a review here on my website.
Good GOD(!): AN ANATOMY
of a Terrible, Horrible, No Good,
Very Bad Book Review
by Kipp Davis
A backstory, in fewer than 6,000 words.
It has been a few years since I have written a book review, and in truth, I had not in- tended to write one for this book, Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s God: An Anatomy (2022, Picador), but for my recent disappearance into the Twitterverse wormhole. I joined Twitter in January, and for months up to that point had heard numerous good things about Stavrakopoulou’s book. But, that all changed when I encountered this tweet by Joel Edmund Anderson:
Over the course of the next few days, and via a number of exchanges with Joel, I became quite captivated by responses like this to her work. Having not yet read it myself, I was nevertheless well acquainted with a good number of the ideas she was writing. Within modern, critical biblical scholarship it has become widely accepted that the god of the ancient Israelites was no different from gods of ancient near East: he was physically embodied, and active in all of the same respects as human beings. But, what was perhaps most surprising to me was not this particular response, but the fact that this was Joel’s response. You see, Joel Edmund Anderson is a Ph.D. graduate from the biblical studies programme at the University of Pretoria, and I had assumed that with a background in high-level academic biblical studies, such ideas that were seemingly blowing his mind from one day to the next would not appear so scandalous and shocking as this.
As it turns out, I have a more personal connection to Joel than I had at first known. Joel is also a graduate from the same M.A. programme in biblical studies at Trinity Western University where I attended. And, not just that, but he was only a year behind me, having finished in 2003. So, it was with some special interest that I noticed, and then read through his entire analysis of Stavrakopoulou’s book. Though it is lengthy and spread over several blog posts, I remained quite mystified about how this biblical studies Ph.D.—who attended the same graduate school, sat in the same seminars and under the same professors as I had—could be so oblivious about what I have come to know as mainstream biblical scholarship.
It was more puzzling to me than anything, and something from which I had probably been content to move on. But then, I finally got around to reading God: An Anatomy. Where I was at first quizzical, I quickly became frustrated that Stavrakopoulou’s excellent work could be so badly misrepresented. I had little doubt that Joel’s audience—being as it may—would be inclined in the first place to read the book, and it struck me as more troubling that through his bizarrely off-point analysis many will feel entitled to ignore it, when they really shouldn’t. So, here, I have undertaken to write my own short review of God: An Anatomy, but in addition, I have also felt it useful to respond with some clarification about what Joel’s “book analysis” actually is, and why it goes so badly off the rails in its appraisal of the field. This is a review of Stavrakopoulou’s book, and it is also a commentary on some common misperceptions about critical biblical studies, as exhibited by one who claims to be in the guild.
Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s book, and why you should read it
God: An Anatomy is an exploration not only into the world of the Bible, but also the world of ancient near Eastern (ANE) religions, and digging into religions of the whole Mediterranean world. This is a “biblical studies” classic in every sense of the term—it may be the best popular-level book about the Bible written in the last two decades. But, make no mistake: Stavrakopoulou’s delightful text is not just a foray into the fascinating backstory of Israel’s god; it is an eminently informative and useful resource about the often overlooked intersection between human bodies— physicality and religion in history. In the first chapter, “Dissecting the Divine,” Stavrakopoulou provides a clear and provocative direction for where she wants to take her readers:
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. Despite the theological changes wrought by the emergence of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, the one aspect of this deity that remained unchanged was his corporeality. By virtue of having a body, he endured as a powerful social agent in the lives of his worshippers across the centuries of the Bible’s formation. In exploring the body of this ancient deity as his worshippers imagined him, we can access their world. We can meet the real God of the Bible.
So, this, then is a deliciously colourful guided expedition of Israelite religion, its history and developments into Judaism and Christianity, but cleverly organised as a “deep dive” into the innumerable descriptions of god’s physicality—his body throughout the Bible and beyond. The book is arranged in 21 chapters, comprised in five parts, each corresponding to body-part—“Feet and Legs,” “Genitals,” “Torso,” “Arms and Hands,” “Head.” My copy is an e-pub edition, so citations the text here are unfortunately limited to the individual chapters, minus page-numbers.
In the first part, Stavrakopoulou’s compelling prose untangles the biblical depiction of God through a concentrated focus on the deity’s feet and legs—signs of his presence and station within the very real world of his worshippers, and also of his life and movement. She shows by carefully teasing out the imagery embedded within the biblical text these pictures of YHWH’s presence: at Bethel, where he encounters Jacob; in Jerusalem where “the soles of his feet … reside forever” (2. Grounded). Through these stories we are reminded of the intensely personal perspective that the ancient Israelites had of their gods, who lived in the world—in the land—alongside them. She goes on to narrate the history of his “footstool”—thought to have once been a physical representation of YHWH himself, and eventually reduced to a container of the Ten Words (the “Ten Commandments”)—the Ark of the Covenant, as a vehicle through which to see the changing vistas of god and religion experienced by the early Jews and first Christians as they emerged from the world of the ancient CisJordan.
In Part 2 we venture into the taboo, as Stavrakopoulou leads us on an exhaustive tour of god’s genitalia. These chapters in her book have elicited, by far, the most animated reactions of her prudish critics, scoffing from their post-Victorian instincts about private parts. But, the author reveals in tantalising detail the very frank and natural sensibilities that the ancient Mesopotamians, the Canaanites—even the Israelites, had of their own bodies, and their own sexuality. Within this ancient world the penis was a symbol of power, and it naturally followed for a domineering and territorial god like YHWH that his would have been a topic of both penetrating interest and celebration for the first writers of the Hebrew Bible. This was especially so within a culture that valorised masculinity and combat: “Like their gods, the south-west Asian kings of the second and first millennia BCE understood that the weapons of war represented their virility and masculinity—politically, socially and personally” (6. Phallic Masculinities).
In Part 3 we track the biblical portrayals of the back, innards and dietary habits attributed to YHWH. Stavrakopoulou reminds her readers of the deep signi- ficance of body language in Ch. 9, and no less so when the gods turned their backs on their patrons. She describes the crucially important connection between one’s guts, in an ANE mindset, to his emotions. For such a deep-feeling god of the Bible, is it any wonder that his own intestines were frequently at issue for his devotees? There is a full chapter dedicated to the system and function of sacrifices in this ancient culture, in which all the gods—including YHWH—ate and drank in carefully orchestrated rituals intended to mark the sharp distinctions between divine and mortal realms.
Part 4 explores the frequent attention of the biblical writers set on hands and arms of their gods. In the ancient world a person’s hands were essential equipment, so, it is not unexpected to see that YHWH’s own hands were so often featured in descriptions and narrations of their past.
Our handedness not only renders us a species of creative action—doers—but beings of tactile perception, relation and reaction—feelers. I touch, therefore I am. Within the ancient religious imagination, the God of the Bible was no different. He touched, therefore he was. By contrast, a god with unfeeling hands was no god at all. As far as some biblical writers were concerned, any such god could be dismissed as a non-being: an insensate, incomplete, incoherent, unholy idol (12. Handedness).
But, more than the instruments through which god’s actions in the world were wrought, Stavrakopoulou also shows how the transformation of early Israelite reli- gion into Judaism and Christianity was shaped in the performance of god’s hands and arms. With gesturing hands this god distanced himself from the exiled communities, and then returned as a cosmically distant, more tempered and subdued deity that is most recognisable to modern Westerners.
The final part, “Head,” goes to great detail in describing the shape and function of the divine head: he has a face like a human face, as mankind was made “in his visage”; eyes which see and act on sight; a mane of thick, black hair like that of any self-respecting virile king in the ancient near Eastern world—an unmistakable sign of his sexual potency, and military might; ears which both heard the prayers of his patrons, and also recoiled from the din of human activity; breath which brings life, and also mass death in its perpetuation of war and conflict—YHWH’s wrath was physically manifested in his “nose burning and smoking. [His] gaping, gasping mouth also ablaze” (20. Gasp and Gulp).
All of these beautifully illustrated word pictures are deftly deployed by the author to convey the sense of what it was to be an ANE worshipper, and how the old religions changed to address their needs in the shifting, and often tumultuous political and social landscapes of their world. My own focus is the Old Testament, and in this review I have set my attention on how Stavrakopoulou has used the physicality of god to unpack the religions of the early Israelites. However, throughout her book she also spends considerable time showing how the fixation with god’s body also played out in Christian fetishes toward Jesus in the New Testament, and in the imagery and iconography of the Eastern and Western Churches. The entire work is a thorough, quite comprehensive and exquisitely accessible discussion about religion, and not just the Western religions. Anyone with just a passing interest in religion will benefit from—and more importantly, should enjoy—what Stavrakopoulou has to offer in her book.
Scholars are never going to agree with one another about every small detail in their array of ideas about the biblical texts, and it will surprise no one that I also do not buy everything that Stavrakopoulou is selling—seeing her “phallic warrior” in Habakkuk’s oracles is not as clear to me (where it is more abundantly obvious in other texts that she has astutely pointed out); I am unconvinced that the Watchers Myth in 1 Enoch is the source for the story of the sons of god in Genesis 6—rather construing this relationship in reverse, and what the hell do I know about Renais- sance art? But, never mind all of that, because this is part-and-parcel of what biblical studies has always been about. Stavrakopoulou’s work is on the whole brilliant. It is captivating and creative, and important for even (especially?) her critics to devour. She sheds much needed light on the fabric of the biblical texts and the incorrigible imaginations about god that their authors entertained. Stavrakopoulou doesn’t get it right every time, but that is because no one does. What she has managed to do, though, is to bring the text of the Bible to life in a deeply meaningful, relevant, culturally sensitive and accurate way that will enlighten every reader.
Well, every reader except Joel Edmund Anderson.
What is wrong with Joel Edmund Anderson’s review, and why did he write it?
Joel Edmund Anderson—the “Blue-Collar Bible Scholar”—wrote a nine-part, +26,000-word “book-analysis” of Stavrakopoulou’s God: An Anatomy, that he published between 9 February–20 March. But, make no mistake: this is not so much a serious engagement with the text as it is a long screed about the state of biblical studies, activism and scepticism. Joel is seemingly insecure about his place adjacent to these things, so, felt it necessary to provide a full two blog posts of disclosures and caveats as a means to direct his readers away from the actual weight of Stavrakopoulou’s work, and onto his hobby-horse causes—like an old man screaming at all the kids on his lawn God: An Anatomy is a vehicle for his thoughts about everything that’s wrong with the world today.
If there was ever a terrible synopsis for a book, this has to be it. After an unwelcome, unnecessary deluge of preamble, Joel finally begins his book-analysis proper a mere 6,087 words in(!), and right from the outset, completely loses the plot:
Dr. S doesn’t really come right out and clearly say, “This is what I am going to be arguing in the book.” In fact, she never really does. Her writing style, although very good, is nevertheless very meandering, jumping from random biblical passage to random biblical passage, to ANE mythological passage, to some recent archeological find, to something else, then back to another random biblical passage. And what ties all these random things together is, simply put, a body part, although here in chapter 1, there are no specific body parts holding things together. Rather, in a meandering way, Dr. S sort of lays out the kind of thing she is going to be talking about throughout the book (Anderson, 18 February).
By this trite and shoddy irrelevant summary Anderson reveals that he is ill-equipped to properly analyse a project on this level of sophistication. As noted above, Stavrakopoulou’s programme is both ambitious and clear, and for this dolt to miss it altogether is a travesty. To compound the insult, Joel will often compare Stavrakopoulou’s beautifully rendered prosaic style to a “Gish gallop” by which “she tends to jump from random OT passage to random OT passage, to an ANE myth, to a NT pas- sage, and back again—nothing is presented in its actual textual context” (Anderson, 9 February).
Joel appears completely uninterested in actually reading and understanding the contents of the book, which explains why in his “analysis” of Ch. 10 he writes only: “Marduk and YHWH both praise King Cyrus, and Adam and Eve ate prohibited sacred food. Moving on … nothing worth really commenting on.” (Anderson, 4 March). That’s it. Or, in his treatment of Ch. 18 he says: “Chapter 18 doesn’t really have a focus or main argument. It just doesn’t. It is a chapter of random claims.” This, in spite of the rather clear theme of the chapter which traces the changing appearance of YHWH in the Old Testament from virile war god, to the stately “Ancient of Days” in the book of Daniel, and how later Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians grappled with these divine metamorphoses. And this is predominantly how these blog posts go: Joel complains about Stavrakopoulou’s “meandering style,” recounts a list of things he finds “odd” or “peculiar,” and then provides very traditional interpretations and glosses for the biblical passages Stavrakopoulou has seemingly gotten wrong, all the while ignoring the actual story about the Bible and Israelite religion that the author is telling.
But, I think there is no mystery here regarding Joel’s oblivion. While I don’t believe he is altogether very bright, I am also fairly convinced that the intention behind his “book analysis series” is engendering this rather stunningly obtuse dismissal. He had his mind made up about the book in the first 6,000 words of his first two blog posts: Stavrakopoulou is an atheist. She is a “minimalist” (Qere, a “critical scholar”). She is an activist. By all these traits, Joel feels entitled to ignore her.
What is glaringly absent from Joel’s review is any reflection—any, at all—on Stavrakopoulou’s numerous, rich descriptions and careful treatments of texts and material culture of the ANE world, which enlivens and grounds similar, contem- porary imagery within the biblical texts. This is unconscionable, given that these occupy an equal part of her work as does her reflections on the Bible itself. But, it is barely doubted why he missed these rather obvious connections, since Joel has already concluded what the Bible is all about. What use is any comparative literature when one prioritises the text of the Bible as a singularly, unique book? This series of blog entries is rather an impassioned plea to remain entrenched in a very traditional approach to the text—frozen in it’s “final form” (whatever that is)—through which Joel betrays a stunning lack of awareness, for a biblical studies Ph.D., of most of what is widely regarded to be mainstream biblical scholarship.
There are five points to his analysis which reveal his own tragically flawed method, intentions and goals for reading the Bible: 1) Joel is uninterested in “modern ideologies” interfering with his imagined “original context” of the Bible, by which he means traditional theologies that have dominated the text in the post- Renaissance Christian era. 2) Joel is suspicious of “atheists” and their motivation for reading the Bible as a threat to Christianity. 3) For Joel, contributions of comparative literatures and material culture from the ANE are interesting, but ultimately uninformative of the Bible, which is afforded priority for its descriptions of the ancient world and religious landscape in the Iron Age Cisjordan. 4) Joel is only interested in the “final form” of the biblical text, and considers any scholarly forays into the “world behind the text” fraught with anachronistic modern projections. 5) Joel must apply a figurative veneer to those texts and images in the Bible which look too much on the surface like their ANE counterparts, because, see #1 and #3. This is very much about turf-protection for him: sanitising the often frank and surprisingly foreign depictions of god and religion contained in the Bible, and retreating into a bubble of naive, traditional hermeneutics that is slowly but surely shrinking with him stuck on the inside. So, let’s take a look inside the bubble.
1. “Modern ideologies” are interfering with the “original context” of the Bible
At several places in his blog entries Joel wants to ensure his readers that he is primarily interested in the “original context” of the Bible, and with it, the intentions of its authors behind the meaning of the text:
I remember Dr. Gordon Fee telling us that the goal of biblical exegesis was to get to the meaning of the text. The goal was not to try to come up with some kind of edgy or novel interpretation. It was simply to bring out the original meaning of the text. To do that requires knowledge of a text’s historical context and cultural background, as well as a basic literary competency of how the text reads (Anderson, 12 March).
While he pays lip-service to historical contexts and cultural backgrounds, these factor only tangentially in his treatments of various texts within the Hebrew Bible that are also featured in Stavrakopoulou’s book. On the contrary, it seems that he is rather uncritically adopting whatever view it is that is most theologically palatable.
Take, for example, the considerable time that Joel expends to dismiss Stavrakopoulou’s very brief discussion of an oracle in Hosea 2 as a means to illustrate the imagined sexual potency of YHWH for the first readers of texts like these. Word pictures like those drawn here by the prophet appear in much the same respect as observed in a variety of contemporary ANE texts: “the God of the Bible sexually takes the land of Israel as his wife (as signalled by the euphemistic use of the verb ‘to know’) and excites the cosmos into an aroused, mutually reproductive fecundity as he impregnates his bride at a place called Jezreel (‘He Seeds’)—a region famed for its rich agricultural soils” (5. Cover Up).1 Following her translation of vv. 20–23, Stavrakopoulou posits that:
Yahweh’s penis may well be veiled from direct view, hidden behind a modesty screen of euphemism and wordplay, but the bodily, sexual connotations are impossible to miss. Like the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, who bear witness to Yahweh’s genitalia, the prophet Hosea is well aware that God is equipped with a penis—and it is large enough and potent enough to arouse and fertilize the heavens and the earth.
From this, Joel goes on for four paragraphs to denude the imagery of the passage, and to set the sensitive eyes of his own readers properly on where they belong: that
[t]aking part in pagan fertility cults would actually bring about barrenness and shame. Instead, YHWH likens His covenantal relationship with Israel with marriage. The point of Hosea’s message was that staying faithful to YHWH’s covenant and being a “faithful wife” would bring about fruitfulness and honor, and that YHWH was constantly appealing to Israel to turn from her idolatrous and pagan ways (Anderson, 25 February).
Now, importantly, Stavrakopoulou is nowhere detracting this message of the Prophet Hosea in her discussion of this passage, and, in fact, is actually helping to show the visceral, graphic ways by which these warnings about the covenant were frequently delivered by the Hebrew Prophets. So, while Joel feels the need to censor the “pornoprophetics”2 embedded within the text itself he is rather undermining the strength of his own point. And this, because he cannot imagine that the “original context” could have been so sexually charged, despite all contemporary evidence to the contrary. This is why he, on more than one occasion, complains that “Dr. S,” [for some reason, Joel is also incapable of spelling out Professor Stavrakopoulou’s name], “tends to read some obvious metaphorical references as literal. In addition, she tends to ignore the literary context of such passages and favors instead to read them solely against the backdrop of ANE myth” (Anderson, 4 March). It begs the question that if not from the rich texts and iconography of the surrounding ANE world, then from whence does Joel imagine that this fabled “original context” should be derived? What’s worse, is that Joel then misconstrues honest attempts to communicate the realities of ancient cultures as an exercise of agenda-driven, modern ideology: “Simply put, this is not a book about Biblical Studies. Rather, it is a book that seeks to impose the various popular ideologies of our current society back onto the biblical text in order to argue…what?” (Anderson, 26 February). Typically, for Joel, he spectacularly misses the point.
2. “Atheist” readings of the Bible and their threat to Christianity
This is not overtly expressed by Joel, but the subtext is there. One of the more clear expressions of this sentiment is in his rehearsal of what he (incorrectly) assumes to be “biblical minimalism,” which he sees as stemming from Stavrakopoulou’s non-confessional approach, by which “she doesn’t trust the claims made in the OT” (Anderson, 11 February):
As Dr. S states early on in the book, she believes the majority of what is in the OT— specifically everything from Abraham through Solomon—isn’t history at all, but rather belongs “to the realms of fable—and at worst, sheer fantasy” (13). She believes every- thing from Genesis up through I Kings 11 was basically made up by later Jewish scribes of the exilic and post-exilic periods (Anderson, 18 February).
This is highly problematic from the start, since—as I pointed out to Anderson himself—this is not what “biblical minimalism” even is. Yes, it’s a real thing: “biblical minimalism” is the term most commonly used to describe a school of thought in Hebrew Bible studies popularised by scholars like Philip R. Davies, Niels P. Lemche, Thomas Thompson and the so-called “Copenhagen School” which argues that the entire text was an invention out of whole cloth in the Persian or Hellenistic period— sometime in 400–300 B.C.E. In one of the first critiques of biblical minimalism, archaeologist William Dever defined it simply as a conclusion that “there was no ‘ancient’ or ‘biblical’ Israel; and the ‘historical Israel’ that archaeology might recover in theory is beyond our reach due to archaeology’s deficiencies.”3 But, Joel rather misconstrues this minority position within scholarship for what has essentially become the mainstream. Because the sources for the Old Testament are all regarded quite late, and also because the depiction of history within the texts is so often at odds with what we know from third party accounts and the archaeological record, the default scholarly position tends to be just that: that the “pre-history” of the Iron Age kingdoms is hopelessly obscured by mythology; the so-called “Deuteronomistic History” and the alternative version penned by the Chronicler are products of post-hoc royal propaganda and ideology.
This consensus is not forged from modern biases or presuppositions. Rather, this is the current view of scholars from all sides of the biblical text precisely because this is where the evidence leads—this is what happens when the study of the Bible is broadened to include texts, material cultures, theories and disciplines outside of the Bible itself, and to start from the disposition that the Bible is in fact an ANE book like all ANE books. Dever might be regarded as conservative among many within current critical biblical scholarship, and yet even he concedes that the literature of the Hebrew Bible is properly thought to be a product of the Babylonian exile:
The supreme irony of Israelite and Judahite history is that the first edited version of the Hebrew Bible was not a product of the Jerusalem Temple and the court in their heyday, but of the experience of slavery, destitution, and despair in a foreign land. There the faith that we think of as “biblical” was born, after Israel’s history was over.4
Joel makes his feelings heard about such critical approaches to the biblical text as “conspiratorial,” “absurd,” “oversimplistic,” and “ludicrous.” He clearly sees this as the problematic driving force of Stavrakopoulouo’s scholarship: “The real issue lies in some underlying assumptions about the reliability of the Bible, the historicity of ancient Israel, and the role and function of myth” (Anderson 18 February, emph. orig). In his concluding posts, he not-so-subtly disqualifies such views of the biblical text as somehow qualitatively deficient: “Simply put, if reading and studying the Bible isn’t inspiring, if it doesn’t inspire you to do something creative and beautiful with it, then you’re not reading it right. You’re not really engaging with it. If you instead choose to dissect it as if it is a corpse, you’ll find it is your own corpse you are cutting open” (Anderson, 20 March).
Well, that’s ominous.
3. The Bible is “special”—comparative literatures and material culture from the ancient near East be damned
Perhaps the most fatally problematic aspect of Joel’s handling of Stavrakopoulou’s book—and of biblical studies more generally—is this weird expectation that despite the obvious, innumerable parallels in language and imagery between the biblical texts and others from the ANE, our reading of the Bible must be different because of claims that god acted in history. In the second instalment of his farcically long preamble Joel defines the issue as he sees it thusly:
[T]here is the assumption that YHWH in ancient Israel was no different than any of the other gods in the ANE. To be clear, the only texts we really have about YHWH and the worship practices and beliefs of ancient Israel come from the OT, and those texts are abundantly clear that YHWH was different from the other ANE gods and that Israel’s worship was different (Anderson, 9 February, emph. orig.).
But, Joel also must reckon with reality, and concedes that “[n]o one in their right mind would deny that ancient Israel shared the same kind of cultural imagery, symbolism, and language when it comes to speaking of the gods.” The solution for him, then, is to apply an artificial category to the biblical text like “history,” as a means to distinguish it from its closest cultural and literary contemporaries:
As Meir Sternberg wrote, the thing that made biblical literature so unique in the ancient world was that it was obsessed with history. The Jews were “…a people more obsessed with history than any other nation that has ever existed.”5 If I can put it this way, they were well-aware of the various ANE mythologies of their world, and even though we occasionally find the use of ANE mythological language and imagery within the OT, we would be utter fools to think that everything in Genesis-II Kings was just like ANE mythology. Anyone who knows how to read and has even the slightest modicum of literary competency will see the vast difference between what we find in the OT and what we find in other ANE mythology (Anderson, 19 February, emph. orig.).
So, Joel must make two unfounded assumptions in order to establish this point: 1) that this fabled Jewish “obsession with history” is something that can be traced back to before the Persian period, when all of the comparative literature against which it is supposedly distinguished was produced. And, 2) that our modern perceptions of the “vast difference between what we find in the OT and what we find in other ANE mythology” are not themselves prejudiced, anachronistic instincts. It is important for Joel to set his focus on biblical narrative, since this is where these historically dubious claims about the biblical text might survive (they do not). However, when it comes to what scholars more generally agree to be the most ancient parts of the Bible—the Hebrew Prophets, several of the Psalms, independent traditions like the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) and the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32)—then the relationship to more closely contemporary ANE texts becomes more abundantly clear, and Joel’s protestations about the “unique” quality of the Bible are shattered.
Joel’s insistence on the Bible’s obsession with history and its obvious distinction from ANE mythologies also leads him either to miss outright, or completely ignore much of what Stavrakopoulou is discussing in her text. For example, at one point he complains loudly about her rationale for claiming that ancient readers en- visioned a circumcised god:
[P]lease note the line of thinking here on Dr. S’s part: (A) Circumcision marked a special covenantal relationship between God and man [factually wrong], so (B) Adam and Noah were “good guys,” therefore they must have been circumcised [no evidence; purely speculative], and therefore, (C) that means YHWH was circumcised! And what is her evidence? Why, of course, she points to a pagan ANE myth in which she herself admits it only appears that El underwent circumcision. Sorry, that really isn’t a convincing argument (Anderson, 26 February).
Somehow Joel missed the logic of the argument behind the question, and, even more egregiously, the rabbinic text which asserts it explicitly:
Noah, the rabbis declared in the second century CE, was clearly born circumcised, for he is described in Genesis as tamim, just like Abraham. But what of Adam? Crucially, the rabbinic answer to this question unveiled God’s genitals in the starkest of ways: “Adam, too, was born [from the earth] circumcised, for it is said, ‘And God created man in his own image’”.6 If Adam was made in the image of God, as it is twice claimed in Genesis, he must have been circumcised, the rabbis reasoned, for God was circumcised, too (7. Perfecting the Penis).7
The problem here from critical perspectives of the Bible is that such retreats into prioritising the biblical texts as somehow different from other ANE literatures is the very definition of special pleading.
4. The “final form” of the text, and supposed anachronistic projections
As already noted, Joel is quite certain that the only legitimate enterprise of biblical scholarship is the exploration of the “final form” of the text, since “the only texts we really have about YHWH and the worship practices and beliefs of ancient Israel come from the OT” (Anderson, 9 February). Of course, this is something about which scholars should be—and are—keenly interested, but it is also not something that we accept uncritically on the basis of the current shape of the text. Moreover, for a scholar and historian of early Judaism like myself, it is difficult to even know what the “final form” of the text is. On the basis of everything we know about the period prior to the destruction of Herod’s temple in 70 C.E. indications are substantially clear that any so-called “scriptural” texts themselves were still quite fluid, and that collections varied widely from one Jewish group to another. For a guy like me, the “final form” of the text is a non-starter. This, even more so for specialists of the Iron Age from which there are no surviving copies of what might be called “scriptures.” In other words, since Stavrakopoulou has embarked on tracing the development of religion from the Iron Age Cisjordan, through early Judaism, the first Christians and the medieval Churches the Bible as we have received it is helpful only to a point. It requires thoughtful induction through finely tuned skills in language, history, sociology and philology to carefully reveal from whence these texts came, and how they eventually arrived at a “final form.”
Questions posed of the final form of the text ultimately tend to be theological ones, but it may come as a surprise to Joel that not all scholars with interest in the Bible are theologians—Stavrakopoulou is neither a Christian, nor is she a theologian. And, despite his rhetorical insistence that this “does not disqualify her from being a good scholar of the Bible” (Anderson, 11 February), by his qualification of limiting “biblical scholarship” to the received texts of Rabbinic Judaism and the post-Nicene Church, essentially, he is doing just that. In the introduction to her book Stavrakopoulou tells a story of her time as an undergraduate, and the inspiration she experienced by her discovery that “feminist theologians had long taken issue with the maleness of God in their scriptures” (Prologue). But, when it comes to critical ap- proaches to the Bible, Joel has a decidedly different take through a story of his own in which he concludes that what he learned of feminist criticism “is just so absurdly stupid, we couldn’t believe anyone would take it seriously” (Anderson, 12 March).
For Joel the real problem is not so much the enterprise of critical scholarship for attempting to see the world behind the Bible, it is rather how he thinks scholars are filling that vacuum of evidence—not with increasing numbers of archaeological discoveries and through comparative literature, but rather with “activism”:
The fact is, [Stavrakopoulou] shows no real interest in interpreting the OT passages she brings up within the context of the larger, surrounding text. Why not? Because she has already discounted the final form of the text as essentially the product of later “phallocentric” scribes of the exilic and post-exilic period who more interested in cultivating and maintaining “male power” of the post-exilic religious establishment. This serves as her justification for dismissing the actual context of the biblical text. So, without the actual context to contend with, that opens the door to cherry-pick random verses and simply interpret them in light of other ANE myths which may or may not be in any way connected to verse in question. (Anderson, 25 February)
I think this gets to the heart of why Joel even wrote this series of blog posts. He seems to be not so primarily interested in what the Bible has to say as he is in denigrating that which truly frustrates him: “annoying little activists”:
For me, in a nutshell, the Bible is the inspired testimony and revelation of a very real God’s involvement in the history of Israel and the early Church. That being said, it bears witness to those historical events by means of art, poetry, and literature. And, although it is necessary to do the historical and linguistical [sic.] work to make sure we properly can understand the text that we have before us, in the end, it is the inspired, revelatory, and creative interpretation of that history that matters. That is the “wrestling ring” in which we encounter God. That is where our personal involvement is demanded of us. And if you don’t step in that ring and wrestle with what is there, if you instead keep the biblical text at arm’s length (or more properly, at an “academic’s” length), if you instead choose to treat the Bible as a mine from which you simply cherry-pick verses to justify your particular stances and agendas, then what’s the point? You’re just throwing tomato soup at a Van Gogh painting and convincing yourself that what you’re doing matters, that you’re more enlightened than everyone else, and that you’re not just an annoying little activist whose only goal in life is to destroy what is beautiful. (Anderson, 20 March)
As if the beauty of the Bible can only be glimpsed by theology.
5. A figurative veneer to save the texts and images from themselves
At this point I am repeating myself, but that is because so much of what Joel gets wrong in his analysis turns on the same problems: when the many biblical texts cited by Stavrakopoulou look too much on the surface like their ANE comparanda, then it is necessary to special-plead one’s way out of the jam of god’s body by way of a figurative veneer. Or, as Joel puts it:
… even though we find the language of ANE myth in the OT from time to time, the language is used to describe historical realities within the OT. Simply put, it isn’t just “mythological language.” Rather, is it [sic.] mythological language applied and adapted to describe real events in history. This is a huge difference in the way the OT (and NT) use traditional ANE mythological language. And yet, it is completely ignored here. (Anderson, 4 March)
Joel—like many modern readers—is scandalised by the frank, often disquieting casual familiarity that ancient peoples had with their own bodies and their own sexuality, and they used this unabashed, bodied perspective to communicate feelings of power, shame, excitement, anger and fear. He misses all of it while clutching his pearls, and as a result is fixated only on what—to his modern eyes—appears “weird,” “silly,” “stupid,” “ignorant,” “bizarre.” Rather than actually reading this book for what Prof. Stavrakopoulou is clearly revealing about the remarkable world of the Bible, he cannot get past his own prudish prejudice about who god is and what the Bible is. This is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad review because it doesn’t help the reader at all to see what Stavrakopoulou’s book is even about. It is not just about the physicality of the Old Testament god in the earliest enacted contexts of Israelite religions. It is also, importantly, about how the images that the earliest Israelites had of their god were renovated in Judaism and in Christianity. Ultimately, it is about how these images of god were used by writers and readers of the biblical texts to fashion and explain their own worlds, and their perceptions of god’s activity within them. It continues to baffle me just how badly Joel has missed all of this; he seems completely, unflinchingly fixated on these “literal” descriptions of a physical god devoid of what Stavrakopoulou is actually saying about the broader, much more in- teresting implications of the vivid, colourful, sensational imaginations about god’s appearance and his actions throughout the biblical texts.
A case in point of how this unfolds in his analysis time and again appears in his treatment of Ch. 15 in the book, “Holy Handbooks”:
In Chapter 15 (“Holy Handbooks”), Dr. S focuses on the importance of the sacred writings in both Judaism and Christianity. Again, one might be tempted to ask, “But what does this have to do with the argument that the God of the OT has a body?” Well, what can I tell you? It doesn’t (Anderson, 4 March).
Of course, this chapter is confusing to him, because Joel—from the very start—has utterly failed to grasp what this book is. However, within the first two pages of the chapter, Stavrakopoulou makes the point resoundingly clear:
Within both Judaism and Christianity, the ritual use of an authoritative text as a sacred object is not only a matter of ceremonial tradition, but a reflection of the ancient status of scripture as divine revelation. This is writing which is not simply religious in content and character, but sacralized as a revelatory product of God: its origins are heavenly, whether inscribed by the deity himself, hand-delivered by divine beings, transcribed by humans who have spoken with God, or written by those he has mysteriously seized (15. Holy Handbooks).
Again, God: An Anatomy is not just a book about what god looked like. It is also a book about his endeavours and character, and how these shaped and are shaped by the development of religions from the ancient CisJordan into the medieval period. But, as if to heap burning coals on Stavrakopoulou’s quality work and clearly stated purpose, Joel deflects the blame for his own “haphazard” incompetence back onto her:
That is what happens when one tries to get through multiple chapters of a book that is rather disjointed, that doesn’t stay on the stated topic, and that jumps around to random verses and passages in order to champion a clear ideological agenda. And yes, I’ve highlighted parts that I find rather ridiculous. To be clear, there is plenty of good information on many ANE myths and various archeological finds. My problem is the unconvincing way she tries to argue, well, anything really.
No, Joel. Your problem is that either you have chosen to ignore the blazingly obvious intent of the book, or you are just too stupid to see it. I can’t decide which is more damning for a self-styled “blue-collar Bible scholar.”
What is modern biblical studies?
Joel Edmund Anderson’s analysis of Stavrakopoulou’s book, God: An Anatomy reveals a disturbingly shallow view of biblical studies. Joel has defined the idea narrowly, and exclusively within a theological programme that maintains the sanctity of the divinely inspired biblical text, and also its totality as a complete work that is exempt from deconstruction. In his final blog entry of this series he tells a story to illustrate his point about the futility of reading the Bible outside of his own constricting model. It is one of particular interest for me, since he claims this is something that took place at my own alma mater, Trinity Western University School of Graduate Studies.
He says that this happened in an Aramaic class, and then adds a caveat to advise his audience about just how difficult language study is in biblical scholarship: “Simply put, learning all the grammar was challenging—it took me more time to get it down.” But, fear not, dear reader. For, while Joel may not have been the most erudite student of languages, “when it came to understanding and interpreting literature, that is where I excelled” (Anderson, 20 March, emph.orig.). And, with that self-congratulatory preface in view, on with the story:
In any case, in that Aramaic class, I, along with most of the other students, struggled to slog through all the vocabulary and grammar rules. One student, though, was just a natural at all that. Every single quiz or assignment, it was guaranteed that “Bob” would not only get a 100%, but would ace every bonus question as well. Some people are just really good at vocabulary memorization and grammar rules.
During one class, though, we got slightly off topic and somehow got to looking at Zechariah 2, particularly 2:5, where YHWH, speaking about Jerusalem, says, “For I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the LORD, and I will be the glory within it.” When the professor asked how the verse should be interpreted, I said that “wall of fire” was obviously a metaphor that spoke to YHWH’s future protection of His people. Immediately, “Bob” interjected and objected, “How do you know it’s a metaphor?” “It seems pretty obvious,” I said, “unless you really think God is saying He’s going to be a literal wall of fire around Jerusalem.” Bob just looked at me and said, “Well, why can’t it be a literal wall of fire?” and then proceeded to give a lexical and linguistical [sic.] run down on how homat really means “wall” and esh really means “fire,” and therefore “wall of fire” means “wall of fire”—not a metaphorical wall of fire, but a literal wall of fire.
At the outset, I must confess: I find most of this story absurd. Setting aside that for some reason an Aramaic class drifted into a discussion of the Hebrew text of Zechariah 2(?), it is impossible for me to believe that there are graduate students working in the humanities that struggle as much as “Bob” apparently did with the basic concept of “metaphor.” But, I do think that if this is a retelling of something that actually took place, it is more likely that Joel is misunderstanding what hap- pened. It seems much more plausible to me that a discussion of this nature could have been had in a graduate school setting about the visceral reality of images like that of YHWH, the “wall of fire,” within an ancient Jewish worldview. These are, after all, the same people who saw YHWH in a burning bush (Exod 3:2), and in a column of flame (13:21). So, while we are accustomed to viewing these types of phrases as literary flourishes, we should not so quickly dismiss the real sense with which god was thought to appear for the ancient Israelites and Jews. As Joel himself has reminded us, these texts are “testimony and revelation of a very real God’s involvement in the history of Israel” (Anderson, 20 March).
He was dead serious. It [sic.] was dumbfounded. The class soon moved on, but at that moment something clicked in my mind regarding something that had bugged me from the time I was at Regent, up through my time at TWU. I realized that there are a whole lot of scholars and academics who are really good at grammar, lexicons, linguistics, and dissecting every word and phrase down to the most infinitesimal detail, but who simply do not know how to read biblical literature. Ask anybody who has read any number of Bible commentaries or journal articles, and they will attest to the fact that the majority of time scholars obsess over the historical-critical minutiae concerning things like textual variants, roots, etc., but never get around to trying to explain what the actual text means and how it reads. (As a side note, “Bob” was also taking courses at Regent, so I asked a friend of mine who was still there about “Bob.” My friend told me he always came across as an arrogant know-it-all). (Anderson, 20 March).
Perhaps more perplexing, however, is the conclusion that he draws from this story, and how Joel has connected “Bob”’s giftedness with the languages to his arrogance. There is a subtext here that serves as a message about critical scholars, and it bears repeating: “Ask anybody who has read any number of Bible commentaries or journal articles, and they will attest to the fact that the majority of time scholars obsess over the historical-critical minutiae concerning things like textual variants, roots, etc., but never get around to trying to explain what the actual text means and how it reads.” In other words, arrogant, know-it-all scholars cannot see their nose for their face, and for all their “book-smarts” cannot match Joel’s excellence in “un- derstanding and interpreting literature.” It’s not something you can learn; is it something that is, perhaps, god-given?
Biblical scholarship is not theology. As critical readers, biblical scholars are methodologically bound to expositing the biblical text within a naturalistic frame- work. Biblical scholars are historians, philologists and literary critics—scholars in the “Humanities”—and as such they hold as primary an interest in the humanity of the text, and the human world behind it. This necessarily means that the text must be ruthlessly deconstructed before any reconstruction can occur. This means that in an absence of reliable textual data-points material culture is given some priority. This means that in an effort to understand what the Bible is and where it came from we must proceed with some suspicion about its claims for itself.
Francesca Stavrakopoulou concludes her book with a reflection on the teaching of twelfth-century Sephardic scholar Maimonides:
“God is not a body”, he insisted; “there is absolutely no likeness in any respect whatever between Him and the things created by Him”. For Maimonides, anthropomorphic portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible simply served as a means of instructing worshippers by speaking to them about God in the language of ordinary people. The point of Jewish worship, Maimonides argued, was intellectual and spiritual transformation, so that by keeping the commandments of the Torah, the enlightened worshipper would not only better understand the commandments, but learn to dispense with the “ordinary language” of their scriptures and come to comprehend the true nature of God as a timeless, changeless, immaterial deity wholly unlike anything in the created realm (21. An Autopsy).
Joel Edmund Anderson is like Maimonides in that he cannot read the Bible without first reconstructing it to fit his god. That is not biblical scholarship, and that is why this book review sucks.
1 It is worthwhile pointing out that in Hos 2:25 YHWH declares explicitly that “I will inseminate her for myself on the land.”
2 The dazzlingly precise term “pornoprophetics” as a clear description of the language of the Hebrew Prophets was coined by Athalia Brenner in Brenner and Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible. Biblical Interpretation Series 1. Leiden: Brill, 1993.
3 William Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), electronic edition.
4 William Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 294.
5 This is an unreferenced citation from Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading, Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 31. The citation itself is not even Sternberg’s; rather, he is quoting Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of History (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 80. It seems obvious that Anderson’s invocation of Sternberg here is drawn from Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd edn. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 62, which he has cited in a separate blog entry: https://www.joeledmundanderson.com/a-biblical-history-of-israel-by-iain-provan-an-extended-book- analysis-part-3-knowing-about-the-history-of-israel/. Problematically, since Sternberg’s project is a literary- critical one it is not even certain that he adopts the same perspective of the historical reliability of the biblical texts. Rather, his primary focus is on their innovative historiographic quality as a feature of their literary artistry: “if the rules conferred on historiography an unprecedented importance and scope, then the anchorage revolutionized its presentational methods and rhetoric. I have already indicated that the Bible’s claim to truth- telling signifies more than the label one may choose to put on the story told. Methodologically speaking, however, the Bible is even the first to anticipate the appeal to the surviving record of the past that characterizes modern history-telling. Such relics abound on the narrative surface itself, appearing as facts to be interpreted and brought into pattern … In terms of communicative design and force, it is the novelty of the gesture toward historicity that matters. Whatever the truth value of the references and explanations made, their very making strengthens the truth claim by anchoring the discourse in public and accessible features of reality” (The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 31).
6 The passage appears in ʿAbot dĕ-Rabbi Natan, Ch. 2; Stavrakopoulou cites Judah Goldin (ed. and trans.), The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Yale Judaic Series 10 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1955), 23.
7 This is not the only time when Anderson asserts falsely that Stavrakopoulou is making unfounded claims. It is fairly common for him to simply ignore the numerous references to secondary literature that she has included in the footnotes. In his blog entry from 25 February he addresses Stavrakopoulou’s claim that “early Christian baptisms were often done in the nude, but when men took exclusive control over Church leadership, because they had to baptize both men and women, ‘genitals and buttocks were hastily hidden’ (101)” (emph. orig.). He goes on to concede that “whether or not this is true, I don’t know.” But then, concludes that “Dr. S simply does not cite anything to back up this claim” (Anderson, 25 February). Quite to the contrary, Stavrakopoulou includes a footnote with references to three scholarly articles precisely detailing the history of nude Christian baptisms, the suppression of the practice and the evidence for it. Joel really is just a substandard reader.
1 thought on ““Good GOD(!): AN ANATOMY of a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Book Review” – Guest Post by Dr. Kipp Davis”
I see similar in my religion: there are those seek to ossify readings at some point in the past and see themselves as defenders of that interpretation admitting nothing beyond that point that contradicts it, there are those that reject or at best distrust readers from outside their faith in some imagined hierarchy and never really trust those who do not share their own views closely, then there are others more open minded who appreciate both learned and lay scholarship and are willing to engage with anyone who has an honest approach.
In Islam the internal debate over the existence and nature of God’s body has never really ended. To be sure there is a mainstream view but no agreement nor, it appears, has there ever been one. Given that Islam likely inherited it’s views from 7th century and later Christianity and Judaism I think this debate must have been still current in those religions as well.
I am looking forward to reading Dr Stavrakopoulou’s book.
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