Francesca Stavrakopoulou reads from her new book. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000zknp/episodes/player
Hebrew scholar Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou examines the Bible’s portrayal of God’s body, from his head to his feet, showing how the western idea of God developed from the ancient religions and societies of the biblical world.
In the Beginning
In this first episode, Francesca challenges the idea that the God of the Bible has no body, and is a “formless, invisible deity”.
She says, “As I looked closely at the books comprising the Bible, I couldn’t find this bodiless God. Instead, these ancient texts conjured a startlingly corporeal image of God as a human-shaped deity, who walked and talked and wept and laughed. A God who was distinctly male. I want to tell the story of the real God of the Bible, as his ancient worshippers saw him: a supersized, muscle-bound, good-looking God, with supra-human powers and earthly passions. By exploring the body of this ancient deity as his worshippers imagined him, we can access their world. We can meet the real God of the Bible.”
In the Footsteps of Gods
This second episode begins in the ancient temple of Ain Dara, in Northern Syria. Professor Stavrakopoulou visited Ain Dara before the war in Syria began, and the temple was devastated in an air strike. Its historical significance lies in the fact that its structure maps precisely the biblical description of Solomon’s temple, and what’s striking is that pressed into the rock, across the limestone threshold, are a set of giant footprints going into the temple - the bare footprints of a God.
This is the starting point for a fascinating exploration of the imprint of the feet of ancient Gods, and of the God of the Bible.
“Such is the power of divine or holy footprints that they often become sites of competing religious claims. Most famous is the depression in rock akin to an enormous footprint on Sri Pada, a high peak in Sri Lanka. For Tamil Hindus, it is the print of Shiva, left as he danced creation into existence; for Buddhists the footprint belongs to Gautama Buddha, who pressed his foot into a sapphire beneath the rock; for Muslims, it is the print left by Adam as he trod on the mountain following his expulsion from Eden; for Christians, it is the footprint of Saint Thomas, who, it is claimed, brought Christianity to the region.”
Back and Beyond
In this third episode, she begins at the summit of Jebel Musa, the most sacred mountain in southern Sinai. These are the rocks, tradition has it, from which were hewn the tablets of the Ten Commandments. And here is the very spot where Moses asked to see God’s body in its most fulsome glory.
“It is one of the more carefully choreographed exhibitions of God’s anatomy in the Bible. Like a celebrity stretching out a hand to block the paparazzi, God only permits Moses to see him from behind as he moves away. In the story, this is supposed to be a sign of divine favour. And yet culturally, the back of a god was more usually a devastating sight: it not only signalled divine displeasure but presaged disaster…”
In this fourth episode, she explores how Christian tradition has covered up the genitals, literally fixing bronze loincloths to Michelangelo’s nude statues of Christ.
“No matter that Michelangelo, like many of his predecessors and peers, used the nude theologically to celebrate the humanity and masculinity of the divine Christ. For too many, the genitals were both spiritually and morally dangerous, and had to be hidden from view. Essentially, genitals were to be considered an aspect of the human condition, not the divine. And yet the body of the God of the Bible suggests otherwise…”
Desiring the Divine
In this final episode, she explores the staggering beauty of the God of the Bible.
“God’s aesthetic qualities are more usually veiled in translation by the mistaken assumption that no one believed God had a body to be seen. His magnetic good looks are recast instead as immaterial moral virtues, so that, in most Bibles today, God is described not as ‘good-looking’, but ‘good’; he is not ‘lovely looking’, but ‘gracious’. And yet the Hebrew terms used in these psalms – tob and na‘im – carry with them a strong sense of the aesthetic, and they are often used to describe attractive people, pretty places and wondrous sights, rather than abstract qualities. God may well have embodied praiseworthy values, but he was also staggeringly beautiful…”