From the Academy: Benjamin Sommer

By | Tagged: History, texts

In this installment of “From the Academy,� Dr. Benjamin Sommer, Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells us about his current research and academic work.
I just finished a book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, which will be published next year by Cambridge University Press.In it I describe an ancient Near Eastern perception of divinity that shows up in certain parts of the Bible, according to which a god (or, in its biblical version, God) differs from a human because a god can have more than one body, each one located at some specific place on earth or in heaven.

As a result, a god (or God) has a fluid self that is quite unlike the self of a human. The dominant strains of biblical religion rejected this understanding of divinity, which I call “the fluidity tradition,” but it is still found in some biblical texts, especially in Genesis, Exodus, Hosea, Isaiah, and some psalms.

Later Jewish and Christian thinkers inherited this ancient way of thinking, so that it shows up in the doctrines of sefirot in Kabbalah and the trinity in Christianity.

I spent eight years working on this book, and they were wonderful, eye-opening and stimulating. The topic appeals to me because it allows me to address several types of religious questions.

Modern biblical scholars often claim that the religion of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is quite removed from what we know as Judaism. Some biblical critics, both Christian and Jewish, take what I think is an immature delight in trying to show that the Tanakh really belongs to the cultures of the ancient Near East and not to Judaism.

In this book, however, I show that it is precisely when we recover a lost ancient Near Eastern way of perceiving divinity that we recognize a deep continuity between the Tanakh and later Jewish thought. We also notice the deep roots of some kabbalistic ideas in earlier Judaism, not only in rabbinic literature but also in the Tanakh itself.

(In this regard, my project is a footnote to and extension of the lifework of Moshe Idel, who has done so much to demonstrate the ancient rabbinic origins of basic ideas found in medieval Jewish mysticism.)

Posted on October 24, 2008

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