Reviews of

Where the Gods Are

In Ancient Israel, HB/OT, Israelite Religion, Kurtis Peters, Mark S. Smith, Yale University Press on December 13, 2018 at 10:50 pm

Smith jkt mech 209228.indd

2018.12.12 | Mark S. Smith. Where the Gods Are: Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-300-20922-8. Pp. Xxii + 221.

Reviewed by Kurtis Peters

Where the Gods Are is Mark Smith’s latest contribution to the study of Israel’s religious heritage. In this short volume he proceeds to evaluate the nature of anthropomorphism applied to divinity witnessed in the biblical texts and in the relevant Northwest Semitic literature. The question of divine anthropomorphism came about for Smith over a number of years and thus this new contribution really consists of a compilation and synthesis of previously published material with significant additions.

Smith opens his introduction with personal reflections on the notion of space and its role in the construction of meaning, particularly religious meaning. Spaces, such as temples, provide a physical realm for the abode of a deity and thereby also provide that deity with a physical dimension, i.e. a body. Smith, then, sets out to discuss this divine materiality and does so primarily through the lens of “secondspace,” which consists of the symbols, meanings, and narratives about divine space as on display in the text of the Hebrew Bible and relevant literature and iconography (4). In this “secondspace” deities are often given anthropomorphic identity, though sometimes theriomorphic as well. The sources for the various anthropomorphic representations include natural imagery, family imagery, royal identity and priestly identity. None of these alone captures a deity’s full identity, but foregrounds some characteristics and backgrounds others (7). Anthropomorphism thus serves to explain elements of the unknown in familiar terms.

Following the introduction, Smith sets out three parts to the volume. Part one concerns the particular physical forms of God in the Hebrew Bible and the relationship of gods to their physical temples. The Hebrew Bible, argues Smith, imagines three different types of body for Yahweh: a human-like body in the narratives of Genesis, a superhuman body in Isaiah and Moses traditions, and a third, cosmic divine body exemplified in Third Isaiah and Ezekiel. This last seems to be a later innovation by comparison to the first two, more traditional forms of divine anthropomorphism (24). Part two examines the various ways that anthropomorphism is constructed by comparison to humans (and, by the same process, theriomorphism constructed by comparison to animals). Here Smith makes the crucial point that, while a deity may be described in one instance anthropomorphically, and in another theriomorphically or physiomorphically, these various images are not held separate from each other. They function together to give the sense that God is both like that which humans know, and is very unlike known reality. The deity is both like its images and more than their sum (57). An extended discussion naturally follows of the bull-calf imagery associated with the cultic sites of Dan and Bethel. Part three examines the relationship of deities to cities, highlighted by the titles of gods in association with particular places (e.g. Baal of Sapan and Baal of Ugarit, Ishtar of Arbela, etc.), and by the nature of royal cities as divine space. After providing some very useful raw data from across the ANE – a list of deity names + geographical names – Smith builds the argument that, within a single corpus, a deity in one locale is truly the same deity by the same name in another locale, at least when the deity is given a name rather than a title, such as Baal/baal (87). Yahweh of Teman and Yahweh of Samaria, for example, are the same deity, albeit with different local traditions.

As can be expected from Smith, this volume is highly generative. Readers will no doubt be left to reconsider the lens through which they “see” the God of the Hebrew Bible, and the gods of its world. For readers more exegetically inclined, the excursus on the bull-calf imagery will be especially provocative. Also very typical of Smith, the resultant notes and bibliography are fabulous (comprising approximately one quarter of the volume). This alone secures the book as a source text for any future research on the topic.

Because this work is an edited compilation largely of previously published material, the volume does seem to jump from topic to topic without a high degree of logical flow. It does not, therefore, follow one line of argumentation, but rather several. Nevertheless, this book belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the religious milieu of ancient Israel and Judah.

Kurtis Peters
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Unceded Territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Peoples
kurtis.peters [ at ]


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