Review of Mark Smith, Where the Gods Are: Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World (Yale University, 2016)

In Where the Gods Are Smith addresses the timely topic of deities in relation to space in the ancient world and the Bible. Building off and drawing on previously published material, Smith presents an admirably concise and yet broad comparative discussion on the issues of divine representation and anthropomorphism, clarifying the various strategies and means by which humans mediated divine presence in their social and political world.


Chap 1 offers a typology of biblical YHWH’s body, whose physicality and size varies depending on the literary context. Chap 2 discusses how the temples in which deities reside partake of and express their superior status. Chap 3 suggests that divine anthropomorphism is complex, combining anthropomorphic, theriomorphic (animal-like), and natural imagery so as to distinguish deities from humans. Chap 4 explores the meaning of bull-calf imagery as applied to YHWH in the Bible and the possible significance of singular and plural references to calf images. Chap 5 reviews evidence for the localization of divinity in broader territorial contexts with particular focus on how different cultic manifestations related to and influenced one another and the development of a centralized cult at Jerusalem that excluded divine fragmentation. Chap 6 examines the royal city as an integrated sacred space and proposes that divine anthropomorphism stimulated the personification of Jerusalem as wife and mother.


Considering the narrow length of the book, Where the Gods Are covers an impressive amount of material, ranging widely over the literature and iconography of the ancient Near East and synthesizing it into a coherent, if bibliocentric, narrative. The writing is clear, accessible, and well-organized. Irrespective of whether one agrees with specific aspects of his argument, the discussion is brimming with insight and learned interconnections, representing the fruit of years of study and close interaction with ancient religious texts. As is his custom, Smith provides extensive and up-to-date bibliographic detail, allowing the reader to get a feeling for the state of the scholarly conversation as it stands in contemporary research.


In general, I thought his account of the complexity of anthropomorphic discourse and the need to instantiate deity in relation to human society and on analogy thereto was convincing. Concepts of deity are integrally related to human experience and imagination and therefore necessarily change and evolve over time. However, I found some of the specific literary-historical arguments advanced in the course of the book to be insufficiently supported and/or problematic. Here I will mention two, including the notion that YHWH in the Bible has three typologically distinct bodies and the second that the varying numbers of calf images in biblical tradition point to divergent iconographic backgrounds.


With regard to the first, Smith claims that in the Bible YHWH is associated with three types of bodies (chap 1). He refers to these as the “natural human body,” which is physically anthropomorphic and manifest on earth, the “liturgical body,” which is superhuman in size, nonphysical, and manifest on earth, and the “cosmic mystical body” located in heaven (14-24). However, while it may be the case that YHWH’s body is depicted with varying degrees of size and physicality and that some imagery is more consistently associated with certain locations or settings (cf. Sommer 2009), it is much more questionable whether they can be divided into these particular categories or if we have sufficient information to typologically distinguish one representation of the divine body from another.


The main evidence for a “natural human body” consists of Gen 2-3, 18-19, and 32, all of which attribute behaviors to deity consistent with an anthropomorphic physical body. Yet in Gen 2-3 the narrative suggests that YHWH is imagined to have a superhuman rather than human-sized body. The statement “YHWH-Elohim took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden” (v. 15) implies that the deity was large enough to pick the man up and move him to another location. If this is the case, as Smith admits, then it seems rather arbitrary to separate this presentation from the so-called “liturgical body,” which also hinges on a supersized body. In addition, many scholars have noted that the Eden story takes place on a cosmic mountain near the divine abode, thus further undermining the differentiation of this deity from the “liturgical” category of deity, which Smith describes as belonging to the “constellation of themes associated with the deity’s temple-palace located on the holy mountain” (18).


In the case of Gen 18-19 and 32, while both passages refer to deities who have a human-like body and in the present form of the tradition at least one is identified with YHWH, it is not clear that they were originally identified as such and therefore are entirely relevant to defining the first category of divine body. As is well known, Gen 18-19’s description of the three men who visit Abraham exhibits significant literary tensions. The narrative begins with the introduction “YHWH appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre…” (v. 1) and then immediately moves to the narrative report that “He looked up and saw three men standing near him” (v. 2). Because the juxtaposition implies that one of the men is YHWH, it is highly odd that the narrative should initially fail to distinguish among them. Why the awkward YHWH appeared > Abraham saw three undifferentiated “men”? For the most part, the men are treated as an integral group throughout the narrative: “wash your [plural] feet… your [plural] servant… They said… before them… They said to him… Then the men set out from there…” Considering that later two of the men are portrayed as destroying angels who have been sent by YHWH to bring judgment on the people of the plain (19:1, 13), it seems reasonable to assume that they were all originally mediating second-tier deities in a larger pantheon structure, one of whom has been secondarily identified with YHWH. Michael Hundley has noted that one of the main ideological goals of the Genesis-Exodus narrative is “exclusive worship. In order to accomplish this goal, the text squeezes out the middle gods, either demoting them into the lower servant tier or pushing them out of the market entirely” (2016: 17). This understanding of the mysterious figures would explain why they tend to function in the narrative as a group, rather than YHWH and two subordinate angels. They are all of comparable divine status, sent by a higher authority. In the genre of epic literature heightened anthropomorphism and direct interaction with humans would also be more consistent with mediating figures than a cosmic high god such as El.


Similarly, the deity that wrestles with Jacob in Gen 32 is not explicitly identified with YHWH. Although the man is recognized in the narrative as divine (vv. 28, 30), his identity is unknown to Jacob, who demands that he inform him of his name (v. 29). By contrast, in Hosea 12:3-4 the figure seems to have been identified with El, which may reflect a relatively late anti-El redactional layer (cf. Chalmers 2008). The failure of Jacob to recognize the man and the fact that he engages with him in combat strongly militates against the suggestion that he is his personal god, which in an Israelite context would have been El or YHWH. It is simply inconceivable that Israelite tradition would have memorialized a story about its founding ancestor having defeated his own personal god, undermining notions of divine power, benevolence, and serviceability. Rather, because the man is of divine status, fights against Jacob, appears only in the nighttime, and is warded off by the morning sun, he can only have signified a hostile demonic figure. He strikes Jacob in the loin area, suggesting an attempt to destroy his virility and posterity (Gevirtz 1975; Smith 1990).


The situation is reminiscent of the bizarre incident between YHWH and Moses in Ex 4:24-26, which also concerns the male sexual organ and occurs at nighttime. The narrative reports that at the place where Moses and his family were sleeping YHWH comes out of nowhere and tries to kill him, which Zipporah averts by placing blood on his penis and pretends to have circumcised him. Comparative and biblical evidence indicates that in the Canaanite-Israelite world circumcision had an apotropaic/propitiatory function and was associated with sexual maturation, marriage, and fertility (Propp 1993; 2010: 236-237; Olyan 2004; Flusser 2009; Wyatt 2009). In the Damascus Document circumcision is thought to protect from the figure of Mastema, the father of evil and angel of disaster (6QD 16:4-6), and in the Book of Jubilees it is Mastema who tries to kill Moses (48:1-4). So Ex 4:25 would seem to be another case where a demonic deathdealing figure has been obscured in the tradition and assimilated to normative mono-YHWHistic ideology.


The next category of body, the liturgical body, is supported by Ex 24:10, 33:22-23, Isa 6:1, and 1 Kgs 6:23-28. Here YHWH is thought to be superhuman in size and nonphysical in substance. Yet in Smith’s first example there is no reference to the deity’s size or physicality, only a mention of his feet, presumably resting below a throne. While it may be the case that YHWH is envisioned here as gigantic in size and nonphysical in nature, it is important to emphasize that the passage itself does not provide any direct indication of this. In the other passages YHWH is indeed portrayed as larger than life, or at least implied to be such. This is especially clear in Ex 33:22-23 where YHWH places Moses in a cleft of the rock and covers him with his hand, which recalls the depiction of deity picking up Adam and moving him with his hand in Gen 2:15. With regard to the deity’s physical nature, Ex 33, Isa 6, and 1 Kgs 6 are more ambiguous. Does “glory” in Ex 33:22 refer to something specifically nonphysical, or is it a circumlocution for YHWH’s body, whatever substance that may be? Kabod is elsewhere used in Hebrew to denote the substance of a human body (Sommer 2009: 60). To say that the description is not as naturalistic as Gen 2-3 because YHWH is said to “pass by” rather than “walk” is somewhat tenuous, since “to pass by” could easily be used of a human as well. Similar questions may be asked of Isa 6:1. Does Isaiah envision YHWH to be a physical or nonphysical being? Does he literally “see” him sitting on his throne in the Jerusalem temple, or is this a prophetic vision reflecting the happenings of a heavenly-mountain temple? The conceptual overlap between these spaces makes it difficult to know for sure.


The “cosmic mystical body” is found in Isa 40:12, 66:1, and Ezekiel 1, which is cosmically large, located in or above heaven, and apparently nonphysical. Yet here again we encounter problems. First, the statements in Isa 40:12 and 66:1 are highly rhetorical, evincing a concern to magnify the transcendence of YHWH over human cultic affairs. These passages are not philosophical or straightforward descriptions of the divine, but employ hyperbole and metaphor to highlight the greatness and supreme authority of YHWH. They both may well presuppose the tradition that YHWH’s body was gigantic in size, not so different from Gen 2-3 and Ex 33. It is also seems fairly clear that whatever the size of deity in the theophany described by Ezekiel he is not cosmically large, since the throne-chariot rises and moves about in the air. Second, it is unclear to what degree the localization of deity in these presentations should be distinguished from the concept of YHWH or El dwelling on the cosmic mountain in Gen 2-3, Ex 24, and 33. In Canaanite culture Mount Zaphon had long been conceptualized as the home of deity because it was close to heaven. The one reached into the other and so the spaces were closely bound together. It is certainly true that in later prophetic and apocalyptic material God’s home is universalized and pushed higher into heaven, but even in Ezekiel 1 the transition to a purely heavenly cosmic locale has not yet been effected. In Ezek 1:4 the prophet reports that he saw the throne-chariot proceed from Zaphon, or the North, which cannot but allude to God’s home on the cosmic mountain of El. Third, the passages cited fail to provide any direct information about the physical nature of YHWH’s body, aside from indicating that it was anthropomorphic. In Ezekiel the material substance of the divine body is left purposefully ambiguous, though aspects of the presentation of the throne-chariot would certainly allow for some kind of substantial embodiment (cf. 1:24).


In sum, there appears to be more continuity among the different representations of the divine body in the Bible than Smith has acknowledged. YHWH or El is generally perceived as being superhuman in size and having some kind of physical or material nature.


Smith also attempts to shed light on the singular and plural references to calf images in the Bible (chap 4). Sometimes the biblical text refers to only a singular calf icon worshipped at sites in Israel, but in a few cases a plurality of calf icons are mentioned (1 Kgs 12:32; Hos 10:5-6). Smith speculates that the divergence in numbers reflects distinct iconographies or backgrounds in the cult at Bethel, with the singular referent pointing to the use of a single calf icon as an object of focus and the plural referents including a double calf pedestal for an anthropomorphic statue and votives or cultic masks.


In order to explain the biblical forms, Smith interweaves textual and iconographic evidence from across the Near East, starting from the assumption that the variation between singular and plural numbers points to separate underlying cultic realities. However, while some of the proposals made here are ingenious, I found the general line of argumentation to be unconvincing for several reasons.


First, the plural reference in 1 Kgs 12:32 is a rather thin foundation upon which to build his thesis. From the literary context, the plural “calves” is most easily read in connection to the pair of calves mentioned in 12:28. The narrative specifically reports that Jeroboam made two calves of gold and placed one at Bethel and the other at Dan (vv. 28-29). Then it speaks about calf-worship as a national sin, as well as the construction of plural bamot sanctuaries across the countryside (v. 30-31). So when we come to the plural “calves” in v. 32 it would be natural to suppose they refer to the same two calves located at Bethel and Dan, not that the calf icon population at Bethel had suddenly increased. Of course, the main difficulty with this reading is that Jeroboam’s sacrificing to the calves appears to be localized at Bethel with the statement wyʿl ʿl hmzbḥ kn bbytʾl “he went up on the altar, thus he did at Bethel” in the MT (v. 32b), and according to the LXX, “he went up onto the altar that he had made in Bethel,” which reflects the use of a relative ʾšr rather than the particle kn. But the statement in v. 32b “he went up on the altar, thus he did at Bethel” is suspiciously similar to v. 33a “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel,” especially if we follow the more syntactically intelligible phraseology of the LXX. The use of the adverbial kn immediately after the clause “he went up on the altar” is awkward and the verb ʿśh is used in the surrounding context in the sense “to construct, make, appoint,” not “to do.”


In addition, the occurrence of the localizing information “in Bethel” in this clause creates further literary tension, since it is repeated in v. 32c “he set up in Bethel the priests of the bamot he had made” and then again in v. 33a “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel.” In other words, the repetition of Bethel is excessive and unnecessary. It seems reasonable to conclude therefore that the statement “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel” in v. 32 is a secondary addition and that the sentence originally read, “Jeroboam appointed a festival on the fifthteenth day of the eighth month (like the festival that was in Judah) to sacrifice to the calves that he had made,” that is, the calves at Bethel and Dan. The intention of the addition was presumably to clarify where Jeroboam was celebrating the festival in preparation for the following narrative about Jeroboam and the man of God (chap 13). V. 32c would also represent a closely related addition about the priests of Bethel. The earlier form of the narrative would have moved from a general national orientation in v. 32, with Jeroboam appointing a festival in Israel to sacrifice to the golden calves, to the specific setting of Bethel in v. 33.


Second, the explication of 1 Kgs 12:32 by means of Amherst Papyrus 63 also faces challenges. Steiner’s proposal to read the name “Yaho, our bull” and the divine title “lord of Bethel” is very uncertain, as Smith himself admits (61-62). Bethel is elsewhere in the document a title of the supreme god Mar, so the construction r.byt.rm is more sensibly read as a reference to the same deity. The passage about kissing bulls in Col V, 12 is far removed from the above supposed allusions to the Israelite Bethel cult and unfortunately the text at this point is broken, making it difficult if not impossible to situate these statements in their literary context. In any case, there is no clear indication that the background to the community responsible for the liturgy was Israelite. I think it more plausible to follow Kottsieper that they were a Canaanite group from south Syria somewhere in the general vicinity of the Lebanon (1997; 2013). In addition, because the significance of the bulls and calves is unclear from the context, it is premature to assume that they are invoked in synonymous parallelism, suggesting that the terms had come to overlap semantically and to symbolize a single god, comparable to biblical YHWH. In order to buttress this claim, Smith argues that šwr “ox” and ʿgl “calf” are used parallel in Ps 106:19-20. However, the full context of the passage shows that this understanding is questionable: “They made a calf at Horeb and worshipped a cast image. They exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass.” The mention of šwr is not used exactly parallel to ʿgl; the term is qualified with the adjectival phrase “that eats grass,” indicating that “ox” here functions not as a synonym but as the general animal category to which ʿgl belongs. In Hebrew ʿgl is normally used to denote a younger bull-calf, and I have argued that YHWH is depicted as a young bull-calf in the pithos A painting from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, consistent with his identification as “the calf of Samaria” (Thomas 2016).


Third, it is difficult to imagine that scribes in the biblical tradition would use a single lexeme to denote so many different iconographic realities, the singular meaning one thing and the masculine and feminine plural meaning something else. This kind of philological ambiguity would have created substantial potential for confusion and miscommunication in the tradition on an item of major importance in the development of biblical attitudes toward aniconism. Certainly later scribes responsible for the transmission of the Bible understood that the singular use of ʿgl referred to a calf icon or idol, so they would be unlikely to have introduced a totally new sense for the plural. Beyond that, it is particularly doubtful that Hebrew scribes would have employed ʿgl to designate a statue corresponding with the animal on the one hand and a composite image in which bovines were only the pedestal of an anthropomorphic deity on the other. In the latter case, the most important aspect of the icon would have been the anthropomorphic divinity, not the pedestal animals. To call a calf icon an ʿgl would accurately capture its material form, whereas the same would not be the case for an anthropomorphic statue.


Finally, while the feminine plural spelling ʿglwt in Hos 10:5 is morphologically anomalous and deserving of an explanation, I think it very unlikely that its cultic referent should be sharply differentiated from the calf icons polemicized against elsewhere in biblical tradition. From the immediate literary context it is clear that ʿglwt refers to a singular masculine entity, “for its/his people will mourn over it/him, its/his priests will wail over it/him” (v. 5). So whatever the origin of the feminine ending in the text, it does not function as a regular plural. Further, the ʿglwt is depicted as a cult statue of YHWH, since not only is it associated with human worshippers and priests, it is said to have a kabod, went into exile, and is brought as tribute to Assyria (vv. 5-6), all pointing to an enlivened and personalized cult manifestation. Thus the literary context would seem to exclude seeking for some specialized iconographic background or cultic utility for the unique ʿglwt, such as votives or masks. Smith’s analysis highlights the dangers of a narrowly philological method that focuses on individual words as the locus of historical information, rather than paying adequate attention to literary matters of context and interrelationship.


Despite my disagreement and concern with aspects of Where the Gods Are, the book makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion on concepts of deity in the Bible and generally models an open, fair minded, and non-dogmatic consideration of the issues.  


[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]




Chalmers, R. S. 2008. The Struggle of Yahweh and El for Hosea’s Israel. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix.


Flusser, D. 2009. Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Sages and Literature. Trans. A. Yaddin. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.


Gevirtz, S. 1975. Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford. Hebrew Union College Annual 46: 33-54.


Hundley, M. 2016. Of God and Angels: Divine Messengers in Genesis and Exodus in their Ancient Near Eastern Contexts. Journal of Theological Studies 67: 1-22.


Kottsieper, I. 1997. Anmerkungen zu Pap. Amherst 63. Teil II-V. Ugarit-Forschungen 29: 385-434.


—. 2013. El. Das wissenschaftliche Bibellexikon im Internet. Accessed 9/25/16.


Olyan, S. 2004. Israel: Rites of Passage. Pp. 442-444 in Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, ed. S. I. Johnston. Cambridge: Harvard University.


Propp, W. H. 1993. That Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus IV 24-6). Vetus Testamentum

43: 495-518.


—. 2010. Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB 2. New Haven: Yale University.


Smith, S. H. 1990. ‘Heel’ and ‘thigh’: The concept of Sexuality in the Jacob-Esau Narratives. Vetus Testamentum 40: 464-473.


Sommer, B. D. 2009. The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. New York: Cambridge University.


Thomas, R. 2016. The Identity of the Standing Figures on Pithos A from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud: A Reassessment. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 16: 121-191.


Wyatt, N. 2009. Circumcision and Circumstance: Male Genital Mutilation in Ancient Israel and Ugarit. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33 : 405-431


Canaanite Eden


For those who are interested, I thought I would summarize some of the implications of my study with regard to the Garden of Eden:

1) The Eden story is an authentic myth with roots in the landscape and religious sensibilities of ancient Canaan/Palestine. As with origin myths of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, it is a story that evolved over time and was adapted to particular hearings and audiences and whose purpose was to explain from whence humanity and its relationship to the gods and cosmos. It was not conceived as history, there was never a real Garden of Eden that could be located in real time or space and neither was there an actual Adam and Eve who once lived there.

2) Although the Garden of Eden was a mythical place, it was nevertheless anchored in the real world to the extent that it was commonly believed to be located in the lush, forested, mountain gardens of Mount Lebanon. These high mountains were the home of the gods and in particular El, the chief of the Canaanite pantheon. Just as human kings had their royal palaces and gardens, El had his own royal abode and garden, magnificent and impenetrable, towering over all the land.

3) The biblical narrative about Eden in Gen 2-3 has undergone substantial editing and adaptation from the time of its original writing, in order to develop the image of God or deity to fit later Israelite-Jewish religious conceptions and to obscure the location of Eden in the Lebanon. Traces of the polytheistic and Canaanite origins of the myth are detectable at numerous points in the narrative, for example, in the fountain or “flood” that breaks forth to water the garden.

4) Efforts by biblical scholars to locate Eden somewhere in Mesopotamia or Armenia far from the land of Canaan are most likely misplaced (e.g. Ziony Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? 2013; John Day, From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1-11, 2014; Marjo C.A. Carpool and Johannes C. de Moor, Adam, Eve, and the Devil: A New Beginning, 2015), not taking into account how the biblical tradition has developed literarily and conceptually and that El’s home was originally in the Lebanon.

5) This analysis underscores how biblical and pre-modern concepts of God and sacred history can be traced back to numerous, contingent, micro-developments in the literary heritage of ancient Israel-judah. God or the divine is an idea that is ever changing and on the move.

Chaoskampf, the Garden of Eden, and the Mountains of Lebanon



I have a new paper up on the Garden of Eden that explores its mythological background in Canaanite-Israelite mythological tradition. Among other things, I argue that the mysterious ʾēd that comes up to water the ground in Gen 2:6 is correctly translated “flood” and that the motif hearkens back to an ancient Canaanite myth in which El created the world through defeating the primordial Sea monster. This discovery then leads me to reconstruct how the biblical Garden of Eden story has evolved over time, with particular emphasis on the identity of YHWH-Elohim and the original mountain location of Eden in Canaan. I show how at an earlier stage in the narrative the divine protagonist was likely El rather than YHWH-Elohim and that the site of Eden has been adapted from Mount Lebanon to a non-defined place somewhere on the eastern horizon.