“MY GOD, MY GOD, thou art a direct God,” John Donne wrote, “may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? But thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures […] as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies.”

Donne seems, in his 19th “Expostulation,” simply to praise the Lord, but a polemic is clearly to be heard between the lines. Born Catholic (he accepted Anglican ordination only in his early 40s), Donne intends to praise metaphorical and figurative language in itself by praising it in his Creator. Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist and derivatively Puritan guise, celebrated as the only proper reading of scripture the literal, “plain sense” one, which Donne concedes in his first sentence is sometimes the proper reading. It was the rejection of the metaphorical, the figurative, and, above all, the allegorical, so celebrated by Christianity down to the West-European 16th century, that crucially enabled the Protestant Reformation’s return to the alleged “plain sense” of primitive Christianity. John Donne begs artfully to differ.

The history of Christianity since the 16th century has abundantly demonstrated that no sola scriptura reform is beyond further reform by a return to an even plainer sense of scripture, and to an even earlier time, rejecting yet again as “fancy” distortion everything that might have lately come along. Such is the spirit that engendered Mormonism and all the other “restorationist” churches that bubbled up in the American 19th century, most of them reading the Old Testament more eagerly than the New. Such, in more secular guise, is the impulse that in the 20th century has been intellectually prepared to excise much of the actual, artful Christ of the Gospels themselves in favor of the recovered, earlier, plain-sense “historical” Jesus. And such, in still more radical and more thoroughly secular guise, leaping much further back in time, is the impulse that lies behind Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s brilliant new God: An Anatomy.

As an undergraduate, Francesca Stavrakopoulou observed to her theology professor that “lots of biblical texts suggest that God is masculine, with a male body,” and was told, to her evident frustration, that these texts were metaphorical, or poetic. “We shouldn’t get too distracted by references to his body,” her professor asserted, because to do so would be “to engage too simplistically with the biblical texts.” Anything but distracted by biblical references to God’s body, Stavrakopoulou is aesthetically entranced by them and programmatically attentive to their iconographic and literary contexts, from ancient Southwest Asia in the fourth millennium BCE to Christian and Jewish Europe as late as the 16th century. Her work, true to its subtitle, is anatomically organized into five parts plus an epilogue: I, “Feet and Legs”; II, “Genitals”; III, “Torso”; IV, “Arms and Hands”; V, “Head.” Each of these five major parts comprises three or four chapters, and each chapter has its own fresh emphasis and coherence. “Head,” for example, has separate chapters for ears, nose, and mouth.

Because the Bible is not organized this way, Stavrakopoulou’s program requires of her, first, that she control the Bible’s countless bodily references to God or to Christ well enough to reorder them — down to the individual verses — around her chosen corporeal headings. She does this amazingly well, clearly working from the original languages. Her fascinating program requires, second, that she contextualize these references culturally by apposite and frequent reference to contemporaneous extrabiblical visual and literary art, thus to better appreciate how these bodily references would have been heard and understood in ancient times. She meets this challenge even more impressively: her work has 56 exceptionally apposite figures, and her references to ancient Semitic literature, beginning with Sumer, are especially abundant, though she does not by any means stop there. Her program requires of her, third, a closing chronological thrust toward the Jewish and Christian successors of the Israelites who imagined Yahweh in the first place. These latecomers — still within the Bible itself — did gradually spiritualize or disincarnate their image of him, and theirs is the God we know today, the theologically understood God of her undergraduate classroom, the God who for her is more a bore than a scandal. She discharges this last, chronological requirement reluctantly, as if recording a defeat, and only in her final chapters, but she discharges it nonetheless with honesty and sensitivity. Her epilogue has just one chapter, “An Autopsy.” The ruddy god she loved best is dead and gone, but she lingers nostalgically over his nude corpse, reviewing it for us, inch by anatomically correct inch, as it lies before her on the slab, a closing allegory for the iconographic history she has just reviewed.

Boldly simple in concept, God: An Anatomy is stunning in its execution. It is a tour de force, a triumph, and I write this as one who disagrees with Stavrakopoulou on broad theoretical grounds and finds himself engaged with her in one narrow textual spat after another. Let me place the theoretical issues on the record briefly and then move on to the spats, for they are really what make this book endlessly stimulating.

Stavrakopoulou throws down a heroic crusader’s gantlet (and takes an indefensible theoretical position) at the very opening of her book:

Stripping away the theological veneer of centuries of Jewish and Christian piety, this book disentangles the biblical God from his scriptural and doctrinal fetters to reveal a deity wholly unlike the God worshipped by Jews and Christians today. The God revealed in this book is the deity as his ancient worshippers saw him: a supersized, muscle-bound, good-looking god, with supra-human powers, earthly passions, and a penchant for the fantastic and the monstrous.

Stavrakopoulou greets any metaphorical or figurative reading of body language in the Bible as a fetter to be cast off, and it is fun to watch her do this, yet language — not just biblical language but all language — is inherently figurative, and this is so whether we imagine the language to be God’s, as John Donne does, or only that of the biblical writers. Deuteronomy 32:4, to choose an example almost at random, begins: “The Rock! His ways are perfect; for all his ways are justice.” Literal or metaphorical rock? I vote metaphorical, and I doubt that, doing so, I fetter any bold lapidary frankness on the ancient writer’s part.

My second theoretical objection is with the phrase “the biblical God.” There can be no “the” biblical God for anyone writing, as Stavrakopoulou does, as a historian of ancient religious theography (whether iconic or literary). Historians cannot write directly of God, for God is available to their methods only through what humans, over the millennia, have written or painted or sculpted to represent him. Thus, to her promised “deity as his ancient worshippers saw him,” immediate objections arise: Which worshippers? How ancient? A literary critic suspending disbelief and following the different representations of the divine protagonist as they unfold from one book to the next in the biblical anthology may speak of the divine character as changing just as people change over time, with the greatest change being his climactic manifestation as Yahweh the Jew. A theologian may assert on faith the very opposite — namely, that God never changes; faltering humans merely understand him falteringly as epoch follows epoch. But a historian qua historian can do no more than note the differences. Any historian who goes beyond registering the differences to declare one representation the correct or “real” God — or, as here, “the” biblical God — simply ceases to be a historian.

But Stavrakopoulou is a rousing read, even, or especially, when I tangle with her over particulars. John Donne, I’m sure, would share my theoretical reservations, but Jack Donne would read on as curiously as Jack (né John) Miles did when Stavrakopoulou dares to argue, textually, that Eve had sex with God.

The verse in question is Genesis 4:1, in the Revised Standard Version, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord’.” At issue are the words Eve speaks. The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates them, “I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord.” Robert Alter translates, “I have got me a man with the Lord.” Note that Alter omits the word “help,” which, in fact, is absent from the Hebrew. Stavrakopoulou omits it too, but goes a large step further: “I have procreated a man with Yahweh.” The Hebrew word here is qnyty (I have gotten/gained/got me/procreated) ‘yš (man) ‘t (with) yhwh (Lord/Yahweh). Critics have long noted a bit of wordplay in the verb Eve speaks inasmuch as qnyty is lexically linked to qyn (“Cain”) around the root notion “to forge.” There are, then, two grounds for Stavrakopoulou’s move from the metaphorical to the literal: first, help is absent from the original; second, the verb hints that Eve did indeed do or perhaps “forge” something with Yahweh. Here I found myself thinking of the first verse in the Book of Jeremiah. In the King James Version, “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee.” Stavrakopoulou’s “procreate” is a carefully chosen word, for Yahweh’s imagined procreative interaction with Eve, or any later pregnant woman, may be quite physical without necessarily entailing intercourse, and Stavrakopoulou never claims otherwise.

In any case, what about Eve’s prior baby-making with Adam? Where, or when, did he come in? I knew you’d ask, but somehow, this gets glossed over as Stavrakopoulou soars wildly on into speculations about the name “Eve” as merely a title for the goddess Asherah — Asherah being Hebrew for Athirat, the spouse of the pan-Semitic high god El, and El being functionally identical with Yahweh. Stavrakopoulou infers far too much, in my opinion, but, as for the key translation itself, she has warrant for what she does.

She always does. I close with a second example, this one from Song of Songs 5:14. The speaker is a woman joyously celebrating her male lover’s body, describing it from head to foot rather as Stavrakopoulou does in her allegorical autopsy. Between the girl’s celebration of her boy’s golden hands and his marble thighs, we read (New Jerusalem Bible): “His belly a block of ivory / covered with sapphires,” and other versions are similar. Stavrokopoulou translates, “His genitalia are fine-worked ivory, / with inlaid lapis lazuli.” Now, the average Hebrew scholar will readily recognize raglayim (“feet”) and motnayim (“loins”) as standard euphemisms for the male reproductive organs. Here, though, the operative noun is me’im, which I would normally read as “bowels” or “innards,” but may also mean “reproductive powers” or even “womb.” “Belly” in this context seems plainly possible and not in the least metaphorical, but “genitalia” is defensible, for after all, what is it that comes below the hands, resting there at a man’s sides, but above his thighs? Stavrakopoulou, smartly adducing support from the learned Daniel Boyarin, infers from this evocation of a nude male lover whose ivory genitalia are artfully inlaid with lapis lazuli that a comparably jewel-studded sculpture of the nude male Yahweh once stood in the Jerusalem Temple. She draws repeatedly, in surprising moments like these, not just on her close reading of the Hebrew but also on her wide and resourceful use of relevant and surprisingly copious lexical and archaeological work done just since the turn of the millennium. In a way, she may have seized a moment in biblical scholarship to offer her colleagues a dazzling summation of their own recent work.

Granting for the moment that the translations just cited are accurate, we may well ask nonetheless whether they are simply good translations. There are times, in other words, when the plain sense is humanly, artistically, psychologically, or emotionally just off. Can you imagine a mother exulting over her newborn baby boy with the words, “I have procreated”? Can you imagine a lover swooning poetically over her sweetheart’s gorgeous “genitalia”? Would those really be the words used? What would Jack Donne say? You take my point, I’m sure. We do have our poetic reservations, Jack and I, but, Stavrakopoulou has nonetheless written a stunning book.

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This review previously appeared in the Catholic Herald.

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Jack Miles is the author of the God trilogy: God: A Biography; Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God; and God in the Qur’an.