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The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel [Hardcover]

by Benjamin D. Sommer
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 29, 2009 0521518725 978-0521518727 1
  • Winner of the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion, in the Textual Studies Category, as the best book in religious studies focusing on textual analysis published in 2009.
  • Winner of the Jordan Schnitzer Award from the Association for Jewish Studies, as the best book published in biblical studies, rabbinics, or archaeology in the years 2006-2009.

In The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, Benjamin D. Sommer investigates the notion of a deity's body and self in ancient Israel, Canaan, and Mesopotamia. He uncovers a lost ancient Near Eastern perception of divinity according to which an essential difference between gods and humans was that gods had more than one body and fluid, unbounded selves. Though the dominant strains of biblical religion rejected it, a monotheistic version of this theological intuition is found in some biblical texts. Later Jewish and Christian thinkers inherited this ancient way of thinking; ideas such as the sefirot in kabbalah and the trinity in Christianity represent a late version of this theology. This book forces us to rethink the distinction between monotheism and polytheism, as this notion of divine fluidity is found in both polytheistic cultures (Babylonia, Assyria, Canaan) and monotheistic ones (biblical religion, Jewish mysticism, Christianity), whereas it is absent in some polytheistic cultures (classical Greece). The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel has important repercussions not only for biblical scholarship and comparative religion but for Jewish-Christian dialogue.


Editorial Reviews

Review

"An innovative and illuminating exploration of the idea that God in the Hebrew Bible is embodied. Benjamin Sommer explores the various modes of embodiment found in different sources and shows that both rabbinic and mystical Judaism, as well as Christianity, have roots in the variety of presentations in the Hebrew Bible. A characteristically lucid and original book." - John Barton, Oriel College, University of Oxford

"Sommer's audacious and original analyses of fascinating aspects of biblical theology, the fluidity and the embodiment of God against their Near Eastern backgrounds, open new questions and facilitate new solutions as to the later developments of Jewish thought, especially the sources of Kabbalistic theosophy." - Moshe Idel, Department of Jewish Thought, Hebrew University

"This very original work raises profound questions about how to understand the way in which the Biblical God (and the gods of the ancient Near East) makes his person manifest in the world. Readers will be stimulated to think about the identity of God in strikingly new ways." - Gary Anderson, University of Notre Dame

"Sommer explores such topics as monotheism versus polytheism, sacred space, the concept and manufacture of divine images, and the priestly and Deuteronomic views of the divine name and glory in fresh ways, pointing out their profound interconnections and persuasively challenging in the process long-held scholarly views. Throughout his discussion, he remains the consummate analyst, discerning and discriminating in his reading of the ancient sources and the modern scholarship on them. And yet his book is not only that of an analyst. In its lively, incisive, and conversational style, it is also a deeply personal encounter with fundamental and troubling issues about the relationship of divinity and humanity - issues, as he makes clear, that have not lost their relevance and their bite." - Peter Machinist, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages, Harvard University

"I found [Sommer's] perspectives quite revealing in terms of Pauline Christology as well as for notions of 'Incarnationalism' in Judaism. I would very much recommend taking a look at his material. It contributes significantly in my view to the rethinking of the early Christian-Jewish relationship that has taken such interesting and significant turns in the last decade.' - The Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, Catholic Theological Union in Chicago; President, International Council of Christians and Jews

"This book is a lucid, elegant and erudite presentation of a series of complex topics. Sommer has made an important contribution to the field of biblical theology. It is my sense that this will be a much-discussed book for many years to come." --Mennonite School of Theology, Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil

"The book is a stunning foray into ancient Israelite religious traditions that produces new insights and raises critically important questions. ... it will be hard to read biblical texts in the same way after having encountered Sommer's analysis. His identification of the fluidity traditions--and even the term he has coined to describe them--will likely influence much future scholarship on Israelite religion and the Hebrew Bible for years, if not decades, to come." --H-Judiac, (May 2011)

Book Description

The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel uncovers a lost ancient Near Eastern perception of divinity according to which an essential difference between gods and humans was that gods had more than one body and fluid, unbounded selves. Sommer's book has important repercussions not only for biblical scholarship and comparative religion but for Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 350 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (June 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521518725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521518727
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,161,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Benjamin D. Sommer is Professor in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Previously he was the Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, where he taught from 1994 through 2008. He has been a visiting faculty member at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, the Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University, and the University of Chicago.
Dr. Sommer's book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2009), received two major honors: the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Textual Studies category, awarded in 2010 by the American Academy of Religion, and the Jordan Schnitzer Award from the Association for Jewish Studies, for the best book published in the years 2006-2009 in biblical studies, rabbinics, or archaeology. The book addresses perceptions of divine embodiment in ancient Israel, Canaan, and Assyria, and how these perceptions reappear in later Jewish philosophy and mysticism. The AJS Prize Committee described Sommer's book as "an original, wide-ranging and accessible work of scholarship . . . a cross-cultural tour de force" and wrote that his "thesis has implications for understanding not only the theology of ancient Israel but also the theologies of its surrounding world, whether in Mesopotamia or the Levant, as well as those of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity." (Interestingly, the AAR jury also used the phrase "tour de force" to describe the book.)
Dr. Sommer's first book, A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40-66 (Stanford University Press, 1998), was awarded the Salo Wittmayer Baron Prize by the American Academy of Jewish Research for best first book on ancient or medieval Judaism published in 1998. He has received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies,the Yad Hanadiv/Beracha Foundation, the Tikvah Center at New York University Law School, and the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University.
Dr. Sommer serves as the Editor of the Psalms volumes of the Jewish Publication Society Bible Commentary Series and is writing the first volume of that five-volume set. He is also working on a book that will be published by Yale University Press, Artifact or Scripture? The Jewish Bible Between History and Theology. This book will examine whether the Bible, understood as the ancient Near Eastern document it is, can be relevant for modern Jewish thought.

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarship understandable for laymen June 7, 2010
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The extraordinary thing about this very interesting book is that, while clearly an example of advanced scholarship, it is so readable by the layman interested in religious ideas that its audience is much broader than is usually the case with this sort of thing. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in what the Bible meant to the people who wrote it.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars God's body?? November 18, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A very scholarly book, dealling with biblical,pre-biblical references to the concept of God having a body, and where was it.
The author is a very religious Jew,and presents a detailed review of a astouding collection of material.
He does an excellent job of teasing out the threads of the various writers of the bible.
This is an excellent choice for students, although it might upset fundamentalists of several religions.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I do not feel like summarizing the book for you... October 15, 2010
Format:Hardcover
...but I must say this:

This is by far the most comprehensive and lucid overview available of the Biblical conceptions of God's embodiment - thanks to a great deal to the fact that it starts with a clear definition of what is considered a body ("something located in a particular place at a particular time, whatever its shape or substance").
This definition is something that many otherwise excellent works lack and the value of it should not to be underestimated. Consider, for example, how desperate Glenn Peers's "Subtle Bodies - Representing Angels in Byzantium" is for such a clear idea of what the author is in fact discussing. Peers's is a very well researched book and the author's writing style is certainly not lacking in charm, but he seems to be juggling a few different definitions of what a body in fact is, and therefore produces some very messy paragraphs. Not so with Sommer, who remains crystal clear on what he means by "body" or "embodiment" throughout his book and successfully tests his definition against competing conceptions.

Sommer offers not only a great overview of all the conceptions of God's body and selfhood that found their way into the text of the Hebrew Bible, but also many valuable original insights and innovative interpretations.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bodies of God.... December 4, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is an excellent resource for those who desire to understand how God related with the people of Israel in the ancient world. It is relevant for all who come out of a Judaic or Judaic-Christian background. It is especially helpful in grasping the meaning of how God expressed God's self in a culture that was situated in the midst of many other cultures with many different gods. We are told that Israel's relationship with God was monotheistic - this book shows that the circumstances of God's relationship with Israel was far more complex -- even "fluid" in how God interacted with the people. The book explores the differing strands of biblical scholarship and how these differing interpretations have come down to us today in the Hebrew Scriptures. Excellent scholarship.
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