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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 52, 2004

T. Staubli and S. Schroer, Body Symbolism in the Bible. Trans. Linda M. Maloney. (Collegeville , MN: Liturgical Press, 2001). Pp. Xv + 249. $US39.95.

This attractive volume surveys representations of the body, principally in the Hebrew Bible, by way of a focus on the symbolic networks of words, ideas, and images associated with certain body parts in biblical texts. Ten chapters deal respectively with heart, throat (and its associations with both breath and appetite), belly (both entrails and womb), head, eyes, ears, mouth, hands, feet, and finally flesh, bones and mortality.

A helpful introduction offers an overview of theological anthropology. The authors make the important point:
The biblical image of the human offers us an opportunity to break through the androcentrism of our Western tradition at several points. This is not to say that Israelite society was not patriarchal, but the stereometric way of thinking in that culture, with its interest in the dynamic, as manifested in its language and imagery, conceals a potential for resistance against our fixed conceptual systems and internalized images, a potential that can be activated. (p. 21)
Methodologically, Staubli and Schroer take issue with James Barr’s understanding of the limitations concerning what biblical Hebrew can indicate about the thought patterns of ancient Hebrew culture (pp. 16–18). They employ an approach that finds meaning in the congregations of words and images around the representation of certain bodily organs, such as heart, liver, ears and so on. The authors nevertheless recognise their “otherness and alienation with respect to Semitic thought” (p. 21). They complement their analyses of body symbolism in biblical texts with archaeological and textual evidence from the Ancient Near East. Many examples are illustrated with line drawings, black and white or colour photos. In all, the book carries 110 figures, including some related twentieth-century imagery.

Fascinating pieces of information suggestive of the cultural world of the Hebrew Bible emerge. For example, thirteen different words are used for hair and haircare in the Hebrew Bible (p. 96); crying children were held up to placate an enemy force approaching a town (p. 148); anger is an inflamed nose (p. 94); incense is used to soothe God’s nose (p. 95). Contrasting the divine womb and the divine nose, they write: “The nose then competes with the womb, whose life-giving mercy determines the basic character of the divine nature” (p. 95).

Body Symbolism makes a distinction between Greek modes of idealised observation of the body and Ancient Near Eastern modes of understanding the body as “a vehicle of meaning” (p. 24), emphasising its socially-constructed aspects, especially the role of representation of the body in shaping social relations and cultural understandings. Schroer and Staubli argue that in a text such as the Song of Songs corporeal metaphors, for example, the neck as watchtower, are not so much about visual as functional likeness.

While emphasis is given to the text of the Hebrew Bible, the authors also make links to the second testament. Occasionally, they give attention to the history of reception of biblical modes of body symbolism, such as the patristic interpretation of the finger of God as the Holy Spirit (p. 171). There are links, too, with contemporary Western contexts. Unfortunately these do not receive the same level of critical analysis as the biblical and other ancient materials and sometimes read as un-nuanced. The claim, moreover, that black skin “evokes the ‘wholly other’” suggests a Eurocentric perspective (p. 208).

Nevertheless, Body Symbolism in the Bible is a valuable introduction to an important emerging area of inquiry in biblical studies, namely, the meaning of corporeality and materiality in both ancient and contemporary cultures and the influence of biblical understandings on contemporary ones. I would recommend this accessible, attractively illustrated, volume to libraries in particular as a fine resource for students and teachers of biblical studies, as well as to anyone interested in the links between biblical languages, cultures and the symbolism surrounding bodies. There are many images to treasure in this book, such as that from 3 Enoch 48A, of the weeping hand of God (p. 179) and the final evocation of life before death (p. 219).

Review by
Anne Elvey
Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies
School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics
Monash University VIC 3800, Australia