Where the Gods Are

Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World

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Mark S. Smith
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How are we to account for the occasionally apparent and thorny anthropomorphic depiction of God in the Hebrew Bible? Are there any parallel instances within the broader Biblical world and, if so, how do they function? These constitute the two main questions Mark Smith attempts to answer—and does so in an interesting, informed, and clear manner—in Where the Gods Are.

There are certain premises permeating this very well-written volume. First and foremost, Smith bases his main thesis on the principle of an inextricable link between space, place, and gods in the Biblical world. Second, this link is manifested via an anthropomorphism that holds different functions, also becoming apparent via theriomorphism or even psysiomorphism. Third, divine representations—in any of the aforementioned forms—are simultaneously religious and political. As such, political bodies, like cities, are intertwined with the religious language and milieu of the Biblical world. And last but not least, the association of space, place, and gods with humans and the mundane world—where gods manifest themselves or humans by their own initiative, and without divine stimulus, decide to sacrilize a locus—indicates a deeper religious understanding of the cosmos, while concurrently prompting us to rethink the traditional concept of “religion as revelation” within the Biblical world.

These important issues are discussed in three parts, each consisting of two chapters, and accompanied by an introduction, an epilogue, extensive and instructive endnotes, and two indices containing the modern authors as well as the ancient sources mentioned in the book. Smith must be commended for his deep knowledge and utilization of the ancient sources, his erudition, and his clear writing that allows the reader to follow his argumentation effortlessly.

Consistent with the subtitle of the book, Smith bases his research on the Hebrew Bible and the Ugaritic texts, supplemented by “other West Semitic texts and relevant iconography and archaeological remains” (3), thus making the case for a comparative view of the Biblical world and its anthropomorphism(s). Space, being the core notion throughout the volume, is understood here in a [Henry] Lefebrian manner, accompanied by the views of geographer Edward W. Soja. Smith concentrates mostly on what Soja called “Secondspace,” corresponding to the “perceived or conceptual space”, that is, the commonly encountered in the ancient sources “representations of conceptual space” (3-4).

Anthropomorphism is understood as the attribution of primarily human form, and secondarily, emotions to gods. Smith succinctly presents the various sources of Biblical anthropomorphism—from the experience of nature to the role of priestly representations and the centrality of law and wisdom, (5-6)—while offering a series of accounts for anthropomorphism—from human projection theory to a psychological process attempting to deal with the unknown, (6-8). Although Smith sketchily mentions the recent discussions stemming from the cognitive study of religion—where anthropomorphism is primarily linked to the attribution of mind to gods—he nevertheless prefers to take anthropomorphism in a more traditional fashion, that is, primarily linked to external/physical elements (8).

Chapter 1, “The Three Bodies of God in the Hebrew Bible” expands further on this latter conception of anthropomorphism by presenting the three dominant ways God is seen anthropomorphically in the Hebrew Bible. These are the depictions of: a material human-scale body manifested on earth; a superhuman-sized body manifested on earth, mainly luminous rather than material; a body of unclear physicality located at or above the heavens, which is a continuation of the second instance, heavily influenced by a Mesopotamian later developed idea of the universe that replaced the traditional identification of astral bodies with divine bodies. Chapter 2 “Like Deities, Like Tempes (Like People)” discusses the linkage between anthropomorphism and locales, or more particularly, sanctuaries and temples. Deities intersect with humans in temples, and Smith offers a comparative view encompassing the traditions related to Baal, Mesopotamia, the Egyptian royal texts, and Phoenician traditions, all influencing and inherited by Jerusalem.

In the third chapter, “The Construction of Anthropomorphism and Theriomorphism,” Smith provides further information on his understanding of anthropomorphism as well as theriomorphism—gods represented in animal form—and physiomorphism—gods having specific natural properties (54-57). He distinguishes between the attribution of physical actions and emotions to gods based on: 1) “identical predications,” that is, actions and states attributed to humans and deities in identical terms; and 2) “similar predications,” that is, gods doing things as humans do (47-48). However, as Smith notes, anthropomorphism also functions based on similes, that is, comparisons of actions and emotions between humans and gods. When deities are compared to humans, they are depicted at their worst, for example, El’s drunkness; while when humans are compared to gods, they are shown at their best, as in  someone’s beauty like that of a god/goddess (50-54). Theriomorphism is addressed in chapter 4, “The Calf Images at Dan and Bethel: Their Number and Symbolism,” where Smith draws on the case of the bull-calves at the sites of Dan and Bethel.

Chapters 5 and 6, “Gods and Their City Sites,” and “The Royal City and Its Gods,” conclude this fine book by drawing the reader’s attention to how divine names are related to geographical names. Smith offers a number of connections, principally focusing on Baal Sapan and the “international transferal of his cult” (88), and the dynamic nature of Yahweh’s different cult sites. As Smith argues, the latter—under the influence of priestly works—slowly led to the principle of one holy site for the one God: Jerusalem, which, following the anthropomorphic conceptions of tradition, “became God’s city as embodied female” (108).

For those interested in anthropomorphism in the Biblical world, Smith’s book is among the best studies on the topic. Smith’s writing allows for a wider readership to feel comfortable with the contents of the book, while students and scholars working on Near Eastern anthropomorphism will be definitely rewarded by the richness of Smith’s scholarship and his new approach of anthropomorphism-and-space that, in a way, challenges long-established views on Biblical anthropomorphism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nickolas P. Roubekas is assistant professor at the department of religious studies, University of Vienna, Austria.

Date of Review: 
May 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark S. Smith is Helena Professor of Old Testament Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of fifteen books, including The Early History of GodThe Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus (with contributions by the archaeologist Elizabeth Bloch-Smith); The Origins of Biblical MonotheismGod in TranslationPoetic Heroes; and How Human Is God? Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible.



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