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Vol. 2 No. 1 (2016): "I Sing the body electric". Body, Voice, Technology and Religion

The Body and Voice of God in the Hebrew Bible

August 11, 2015


In both Judaism and Christianity the question as to whether God has a body is sensitive and contested terrain. The answer now tends to be ‘no’ and yet the most straightforward interpretation of numerous Hebrew Bible passages is that God is conceived of in bodily, anthropomorphic terms – though often there also exist attendant possibilities of ambiguity and ambivalence. The familiar divine statement, ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’, betsalmēnû kidmûtēnû (Gen 1:26), for example, seems to envisage – particularly in the case of the first term, tselem (‘image’) – a physical form; not least, because in the Hebrew Bible tselem most often pertains to concrete, hewn images, including to idols. This is very clear at 1 Samuel 6:11 where the people are instructed to make (from ‘śh, a verb pertaining to crafting and shaping) models of mice and tumours;[1] as well as Numbers 33:52, with its reference to molten images (cf. 2 Kgs 11:18; 2 Chron 23:17); and also in the Aramaic account of Daniel 3:1, where a cognate (tselēm) refers to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol. But in two occurrences at least physicality of tselem is undermined: hence in Psalms 39:7[2] and 73:20[3] the noun pertains to elusiveness, possibly to a semblance, or phantom. If tselem refers more widely to either a seeming (i.e. a phantom), or to a more inclusive, not-only-physical form or image, this could indeed complicate matters for interpreting Genesis 1:26-27.

* A version of this paper was presented at ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, an interdisciplinary day conference held at the University of Hull on 3 June 2014 to explore body and voice from all of musicological, technological and religious studies perspectives. The envisaged readership is eclectic and not always specialized in biblical studies. Hence, I transliterate and translate all biblical Hebrew. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are my own. The primary purpose of this paper is to provide a general and diachronic overview of the topic.

[1] The verb śh occurs elsewhere, too, with tselem: Ezek 7:20 (of making abominable images), Ezek 16:17 (of making male images) and Amos 5:26 (of making images of astral deities). In all cases the images appear to be concrete and three-dimensional. It is not clear whether all are anthropomorphic.

[2] In English bibles the reference is Ps 39:6. The expression here is ’ak-betselem yithallek –‘îš, which might be translated along the lines of, ‘surely a man goes about in apparent form’ (NRSV translates betselem, ‘like a shadow’ – ‘in shadow’ would be closer). The idea that tselem refers here to something shadowy and non-solid is strengthened by its being in parallel with abstract noun hebel (‘nothingness’).

[3] The Hebrew is kachalôm mēhāqîts ’adōnāy bā‘îr tsalmām tibzeh, ‘like a dream on awaking, O Lord, in the city their phantoms you despise.’ The Hebrew is not straightforward but the clear reference to a dream indicates that tselem probably refers here to something illusory (cf. NRSV, ‘They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms’).