What is a God?

Philosophical Perspectives on Divine Essence in the Hebrew Bible

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jaco Gericke
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What exactly is What Is a God? Well, according to its subtitle, it offers various philosophical perspectives on identifying the essence of the concept “God” used restrictively within the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, that subtitle finds expression constantly throughout the book as a mantra of intent that begins each chapter: “How might we interpret and approach the question ‘What is an אלהים?’ from a philosophical perspective?”That repeated restriction limits the author, Professor Jaco Gericke, to examining the diverse occurrences of three related words, Elohim (אלהים), El (אל), and Eloah (אלוה), along with a few “proper names” that purport to index particular expressions of these concepts, for example, JHWH and Ba’al. Professor Gericke’s investigative method takes the reader on an intellectual odyssey spanning the two and a half millennia of Western philosophical history. On this odyssey, he briefly examines twenty-three “metaphysicians,” from Socrates to Jacques Derrida, who offer correlative or competing interpretations of the classical problem of universals and particulars and then applies those interpretations overtly to the metatheistic implications of the Hebrew Bible’s multiple characterizations of “God.” He accomplishes the latter primarily through a simple inventory of verses that use the above “divine” nominal concepts directly or indirectly to make constative claims about who “God” is or what “God” does. The theoretical tour is quite hasty, never resting long enough to scrutinize substantially any one thinker before packing up and heading out again to the next stop on this semantic itinerarium mentis ad Deum.” Yet, the author acknowledges at the inception of the journey that such an expeditious conceptual expedition is precisely his purpose.

The above précis suggests a certain advantage to adopting a more apophatic approach to reviewing the text. In other words, perhaps it might be more informative were I to distinguish what What Is a God? is not instead of what it is? First, it is not an extensive linguistic treatment of the Hebrew concepts for “God.” Although Professor Gericke does an admirable job of tracing the legislating expressions for “God” throughout the Hebrew scriptures, he does not purport to develop a Hebrew biblical theology. His itemizations of pertinent biblical passages vis-à-visthe individual philosophical theories of essence he examines remain merely illustrative lists that offer possible examples of metaphysical definitions of “God.” 

Second, it is not a critical study of any putative philosophical theology developed by any of the twenty-three philosophers that he examines. Here again, Professor Gericke is to be commended for the breadth of his research and his documentation. He obviously has invested time and energy into properly comprehending each theorist’s explanation of the relationship, if any, between thought and being, essence and existence, or whatness and thisness. Still, nowhere in his text does he offer critical insights into how any of his chosen philosophers construe the idea of “God.” 

Third, it is not a meticulous analysis of the metaphysical stances taken by the chosen philosophers. Professor Gericke does not devote several pages to each thinker hoping to give clear and distinct ideas about how each one addresses pertinent metaphysical and ontological issues related to theological language. For example, he dedicates a brief six and a half pages to Aristotle’s metaphysics, and some of those pages are taken up in detailing Hebrew Bible illustrations of certain Aristotelian perspectives. Consequently, one should not read this text expecting to encounter protracted and penetrating analyses of the chosen philosophers. Such is clearly not Professor Gericke’s vouloir dire. Indeed, I could go on with my apophatic approach to the book; however, one may find the author’s own confession of apophasis on pages 10 through 12 where he lists seventeen other traits that establish what the book is not

Gericke quite honestly prepares the reader early on by lowering expectations for the content of the work. He acknowledges that the text might disappoint, given its somewhat myopic emphasis on the name of “God,” its artificial application of complex philosophical perspectives to that emphasis, and its “banality” in focusing on “a pedantic esoteric philosophical curiosity” (x-xi). He admits that he will solve no conundrums or propose any singular and stimulating new answer to a perennial theological curiosity (xii). To be sure, once the reader comes to the end of the book and reflects on its rather quasi-pedestrian content, s/he will actually feel confirmed by the author’s own personal enumeration of the book’s conclusions: “1. The meaning of the question of what an אלהיםin the HB [Hebrew Bible] was means different things in different philosophical contexts. 2. The type of answer one gives to the question of what an אלהיםin the HB was assumed to be depends on one’s assumptions about essences” (155)! 

OK. That sounds about right. Nothing overly abstruse about those conclusions. All of which, of course, raises the question as to why one should even spend the time to read the book. I suggest that its very prosaic, if, nonetheless, sui generis, nature actually serves as an apologetic for consulting the text. Sometimes, merely skimming through traditions as if they were fragmentary tasting menus can motivate one to sit down and feast on more sumptuous philosophical fare. As a result, I can honestly recommend Professor Gericke’s text as a palatable theological amuse-bouche.

About the Reviewer(s): 

R. Keith Putt is Professor of Philosophy at Samford University in Birmingham, AL.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jaco Gericke is professor of biblical studies at North Western University, South Africa.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.