Theologian presents God as few readers will have seen him before
God: an anatomy. By Francesca Stavrakopoulou. Picador; 608 pages; £ 25. To be published in America by Knopf in January; $ 35
PTHEOLOGY TEACHERS are imagined as dull and gentle souls. This book, however, is a loud rebellious cry. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, as a student, was annoyed to learn that the physical representations of the Judeo-Christian God in the Bible were only metaphorical, or lyrical, or poetic. He was invisible and ineffable, of course. She wasn’t supposed to see him bodily at all. But, she worried, why not? Why shouldn’t she see him “as a gigantic man with a heavy step, arms in hand and breath hot as sulfur”? Like someone who loved roast meat and pretty girls, laughed and screamed and cried? In short, as the ancient Israelites who were the first to worship Yahweh so vividly painted it?
The result of his annoyance is a learned but exhilarating journey through all aspects of Yahweh’s body, from top to bottom (yes, that too) and from the inside out. The God in whom millions of Christians proclaim their faith every Sunday is firmly placed in a large crowd of other deities in Southwest Asia: Baal, Marduk of Babylon, Ninurta of Mesopotamia, Adad of Assyria, Teshub, Tishpak and Ra . He started life as nothing important, a minor storm god, one of the 70 children of El, the Levantine father of the gods. Then he usurped the throne, and his reign began: in the midst of tumultuous technicolor and with all the aspects, traits and faults of human beings who dutifully threw themselves face down before him.
Rightly so for a book that aims to upset the notion of the troubled and spiritualized creator, Ms. Stavrakopoulou begins with her feet. Huge feet, which wander in landscapes creating sacred spaces and which, north-west of Aleppo in Syria, enter a temple and never leave. Feet which can trample on enemies like grapes one day and, the next day, relax, propped up on a stool. (Until its destruction, the Temple in Jerusalem was considered God’s preferred footstool.)
Walking with God, now a description of holy closeness and spiritual holiness, was in ancient times a kind of male bonding exercise, over rugged terrain, with Yahweh setting the pace, sure-footed in the sandals that all the local gods wore. The worshiper, on the other hand, walked barefoot, while Yahweh cried out that Moses should be approaching the burning bush. Moses appears in this book as by far the most successful walker with God, even coming to resemble him, and later acquiring in art the original bull horns of Yahweh on his head, which Yahweh himself had by then lost in light rays and a mass of white hair.
The feet and legs are followed by the genitals. Here, Mrs. Stavrakopoulou is having almost too much fun. God’s penis becomes the center of all kinds of divine actions: to make the world fruitful, to impose order on the cosmos, to run wild like a bull, to shoot with bow and arrow. Every mention of a bow, she assures readers, really means a penis; even the rainbow is a polychrome celestial tool.
But his goal is serious: to show that God has been regularly and prudently emasculated. The main concern of the biblical God was to defend his prerogative to have sex with whomever he wanted, sometimes in shocking ways. According to Eve, he is Cain’s father, much to her surprise. And in the book of Ezekiel, he covets Israel as a teenage girl:
Your breasts have formed, your [pubic] the hair had grown; you were naked and naked! I walked past you and looked at you: you were at the age of making love. I spread the corner of my coat over you and covered your nakedness …
Rape, in other words. In the book of Hosea, it is even more explicit: God takes the teenager Israel to walk in the desert, “and there she will cry”. Then he gives her earrings, bracelets, a necklace and a crown, presenting her as his own beautiful property.
The book travels on God’s back, turned as a sign of his displeasure, though Moses on Sinai begs to see his forehead shimmering with the rainbow; her shiny white skin, a former source of persistent racial prejudice; his guts, which twist in pain when the Babylonians attack Jerusalem; his right hand, creator and molder of humans, on which he leans like a potter on a wheel; his writing and typing arm. Yahweh’s stomach is fine and perceptive: he awaits the crème de la crème, the first-born of the herd and the “fat parts” of the animals, withdrawing his protective arm and sulking if they do not appear. (An astonishing passage describes a present Passover in Samaria, with the mass slaughter of lambs and blood smeared on the doorposts, as if it was always necessary.) Deities other than himself, especially those made of wood or stone, are “gods of shit”, says God.
After all this daring or evil behavior of the humanized Father, God made man in the Son is a breath of fresh air. Jesus, whenever he makes a rare appearance, appears attractive, rational, understated, and modern. Yet the ties with Yahweh continue naturally. The washing of the feet of his disciples is a return to the notion of barefoot holiness in the presence of Yahweh. The moment he writes with his finger in the dust to save a woman from stoning, crushing the Torah in the Temple itself, is a reminder of the finger of God who spoke of the ten plagues of Egypt and inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. Most shocking, in several Renaissance pietas the deposed body of Christ is represented erect under his loincloth, a sign of virility defying the death of the Creator God.
Such scenes more or less guarantee that many readers will find this book offensive. So many, and probably more, will find it informative, lively, and often hilarious. Above all, it is a corrective to the idea that, when it comes to religion, modern Christians and Jews have become inordinately sophisticated.
Even though most believers openly reject an anthropomorphic God as a primitive idea (Islam, of course, rejects the notion entirely), they still offer prayers to a being who they assume is listening to them, and sometimes even theirs. respond. Indeed, it would be a rare member of a Christian congregation who, invoking God the Father in the usual Sunday manner, does not at least mentally catch a glimpse of a floating beard, a white robe and those enormous sandal feet. ■
This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “Avec son bras tendu”