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God: An anatomy by Francesca Stavrakopoulou

04 February 2022

Katherine Southwood on a critical analysis

IN THIS book, Francesca Stavrakopoulou tracks the development of ideas about the body of the deity Yahweh. She argues that Yahweh’s corporeal physicality, which is often evident in texts from the Hebrew Bible, is incrementally erased over time as the texts are sanitised and replaced with notions of immateriality.

Stavrakopoulou is a senior academic and professor. This book emerges from a prestigious grant (Leverhulme) and it should generate a high Research Excellence Framework score. Stavrakopoulou is an atheist. All perspectives, however, are value-laden: there is no neutrality, whatever religious predilections or lack thereof one has. Biblical scholars are trained to be ancient historians and to address the Sitz im Leben behind the text. It is also important to notice the Sitz im Leben of the scholar. I find Stavrakopoulou’s honesty about this refreshing.

Our shared field of expertise (biblical scholarship) focuses on a range of primary evidence including the biblical text itself and ostraca, inscriptions, material from archaeology, papyri, etc. Stavrakopoulou demonstrates an exceptional fluency in terms of navigating an immense amount of primary material while simultaneously engaging with a high level of depth and precision.

The sheer amount of primary evidence examined is staggering. To have in-depth knowledge about this kind of evidence requires a host of skill-sets: knowledge of ancient languages; knowledge of methods in other disciplines (archaeology, for example); and an understanding of scholarly debates and dialogues about the interpretation of primary evidence. For the latter point, Stavrakopoulou also displays strength. Sixty-eight pages of concise endnotes with expertly selected citation exist. The excellent selection of interlocutors from (mostly) high-quality peer-reviewed scholarship demonstrate the research’s quality.

Stavrakopoulou’s argumentation is intellectually penetrating, analytically robust, and sophisticated. She examines her evidence with forensic precision, but also with humour and compassion. She is both detached, and yet sympathetic and respectful towards the ancient communities behind the evidence. Stavrakopoulou shows critical detachment in her analysis of constructions of gender and power in the texts.

Many of the texts in the Hebrew Bible problematically depict Israel as a woman, using sexualised metaphors — for example, equating idolatry with adultery, or worship of other gods with prostitution. Regularly, macho, hyper-masculine depiction of Yahweh, couched in sexualised language, occurs. Stavrakopoulou is right to point out that there are problems. Biblical scholars have a responsibility to steward, or curate, the biblical texts carefully, and to read ethically.

Stavrakopoulou’s relationship to her evidence shows her respectful and intrigued attitude. For example, she mentions walking barefoot around the footprints at the ‘Ain Dara temple. She draws readers, on multiple occasions, into a “narrative” about the evidence in hand — for example, about the clay ossuary from Pequ‘in — a beautiful way to contextualise or capture readers’ imaginations. The humour of the writing also makes it an entertaining read, and a welcome break from academic writing that is dry, stuffy, and pedantic.

Stavrakopoulou’s public-facing scholarship is admirable, though it comes at a considerable personal cost (refer to her blog posts entitled “Public Menace”). Public engagement and openly accessible research is important in biblical scholarship, given the vulnerability of the biblical texts to being used to justify all sorts of dangerous arguments (e.g. “It is very biblical to enforce the law,” Sarah Sanders, 2018). Because of the importance of the biblical texts, we cannot sit in ivory towers pontificating and writing material only for other academics which will zoom straight to the stacks of the Bodleian. Stavrakopoulou’s book, and her public-facing scholarship, demonstrate what makes an outstanding biblical scholar.

Dr Katherine Southwood is Associate Professor in the Old Testament in the Faculty of Theology and Religion in the University of Oxford, and a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford.


God: An anatomy
Francesca Stavrakopoulou
Picador £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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