God's Body

The Anthropomorphic God in the Old Testament

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Andreas Wagner
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Andreas Wagner’s 2010 monograph, Gottes Körper, has been wonderfully translated into English by Marion Salzmann under the title God’s Body: The Anthropomorphic God in the Old Testament. Wagner’s study establishes that Old Testament texts describing aspects of God’s corporeal form abound, justifying a further examination of the ancient Hebrew (and ancient Near Eastern) notion of the body in relation to the divine. Christian tradition, he argues, supplanted anthropomorphic images of God with the Hellenistic idea of a remote, bodyless God; modern theology rationalized these texts (31–32). In both cases, the language of the Old Testament was divorced from its ancient context, distorting the original meaning of verbal images of God. Wagner seeks to correct this error by situating Old Testament language of the body, especially God’s body, within the milieu of the ancient Near East (ANE).

Wagner takes a step-by-step approach and first examines ANE concepts of the human body as depicted in material images (drawings, statues) and verbal images (2). Over fifty illustrations from the ANE helpfully accompany his descriptions. Across cultures (Egypt, Syria-Palestine, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia) and centuries, a striking pattern emerges: material images are concerned only with certain primary body parts (head, eye, nose, mouth, neck, shoulder, torso, arm, hand, legs, and feet) (48); the functional meaning of body parts is more important than accurate visual representation (83–84); and images are conventional—people are usually portrayed in the same position (bodies and eyes in front view, head in profile) without individual markers—and thus relatable to the viewer (85). It is not until the spread of Greek culture that images of the human body begin to include more detail and contouring (52–53). Similarly, ANE verbal images are concerned with the function of the body part, rather than an anatomical description (83).

Wagner further explores the meaning of primary (based on the frequency of occurrence) body parts in the biblical text. He synthesizes the various aspects in which the body parts are used—whether as “specific corporeal concepts,” for “gesture and facial expression,” or “functional” (action-oriented)—to form a wholistic understanding of the way(s) in which the ancient Israelites in particular understood and described the body (95). Based on his analysis, he concludes that “two areas . . . are central to Old Testament anthropology: communication and action” (115).

Having narrowed the field from the ANE context to the biblical context, Wagner then applies the “synthetic spectrum of meaning” (95) of the various body parts to texts referring to corporeal aspects of God. Importantly, he notes that certain body parts used in reference to the human body are never used in relation to God (118). Those which are used reflect a specific understanding of God as a God who both communicates and acts (134). Although these are features shared with humanity, as noted previously, God’s ability to communicate and act is described as being fundamentally superior to that of humans.

As Wagner notes, “these characteristics show that the Old Testament God is not a distant, unworldly God; instead a God who communicates with mankind and acts in the world . . . However, God’s ability to act and communicate goes far beyond man’s; it is divine and not human” (137). The similarities between God and mankind are presented most forcefully in the creation narrative of Genesis 1; yet this passage also places God and man in the positions of creator/superior and creation/subordinate respectively (156–57). Wagner argues that the anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the biblical text present a unique and highly nuanced deity who stands in contrast to many of the portrayals of divinity in the surrounding ANE context (161–63).

God’s Body presents an important introduction to the discussion of the body in the Bible and the ANE. Further research on God’s body which included texts using comparative language (“as” or “like”) and ascribed roles, both of which are specifically excluded from Wagner’s research, would be beneficial, particularly with regard to texts which draw similarities between God and a specific gender (i.e., where God is portrayed as engaging in a paternal, maternal, or husbandly role) or animal (i.e., lion, eagle).

Naturally, such a study would extend beyond a strict discussion of “body,” but Wagner’s work has laid the groundwork for an approach which, when applied to these other texts, would further illuminate the biblical understanding of God. Another avenue for further study would be the examination of biblical language of the body as it relates to humans only: for example, how does the spectrum of meaning of various body parts change with regard to gender (i.e., his arms vs. her arms)? Certainly, Wagner’s book opens numerous opportunities for future research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Gane Burton is an Independent Scholar residing in Collegedale, Tennessee.

Date of Review: 
May 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andreas Wagner is Professor in Hebrew Bible at the University of Bern, Switzerland.



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