This book evolved from ten half-hour radio broadcasts in Switzerland in 1994-96. It was originally published in German in 1998 after the authors revised the presentations, added a lengthy introduction, and included numerous illustrations, color reproductions, and drawings from Near Eastern cultures, especially Egypt. The authors are Silvia Schoer, "an internationally known scholar and professor of Old Testament and the biblical world" and Thomas Stauble, who is "associated with the Biblical Institute in Fribourg."
The authors' goal is to take the reader back to a Biblical understanding of the human body. They lament the "centuries-long Christian history of interpreting the Bible in a way inimical to the body. Women in particular experience the deficiencies of our tradition with respect to bodily spirituality as a grave problem. Historical experiences are generalized, the concrete is allegorized, the material is spiritualized, the earthly is made heavenly." (Body Symbolism in the Bible, p. xiii.)
This work may be classified as an exercise in biblical anthropology. Although the authors never clearly define biblical anthropology (nor theological anthropology, Old Testament anthropology, or Christian anthropology) terms which are sprinkled throughout the book, the reader assumes that they refer to the cultural context in which the Bible was written and the influences Near Eastern cultures, beliefs and particularly languages had on biblical meanings. In this context, our authors look critically at the influences of Greek philosophy on biblical translation and interpretation, the impact of patriarchal societies, and the pervasiveness of andocentrism in biblical scholars, i.e., "the structure of prejudices characteristic of patriarchally-organized societies, through which the human condition is equated with the life conditions of adult men." (p.19) The authors seek to expose these sources of distortion in understanding the Bible, to return to the real biblical concept of body and bodiliness in the Bible, and to show how the Bible presented human beings as images of God and the body as a sacred temple of God.
The book consists of ten chapters, each focusing on one key part of the body and its symbolism in the cultural context of the Bible. There is a chapter on each of the following: heart, throat, belly, head (including neck, nose and hair), eyes, ears, mouth, hand (and arm), feet and finally flesh (skin). Whereas the meanings of some are similar to our own, others, because of our cultural and theological filters, are quite different. For example, for us the heart is the seat of the emotions, e.g., love. However, in Israel the heart is not primarily the seat of the emotions, despite the three references in the Song of Songs. Rather "the heart is primarily the locus of reason and intelligence, of secret planning, deliberation and decision." (p. 43) Furthermore, "lack of heart did not mean coldness of affect, but thoughtlessness, irrationality or simply stupidity. (p. 44)
In each chapter, these assertions are documented with biblical quotations, fascinating pictorial examples, or illustrations from Near Eastern cultures. Throat, in Hebrew nephesh is often translated "soul," e.g., "Bless the Lord, O my soul (nephesh)." Throat, in biblical and the ancient Near East cultures, is understood to mean not just the external part of the body, but throat in a dynamic sense. The activities of the throat are included: audible calling, warbling, greedy or never satisfied, hungry, thirsty and most importantly air-breathing throat. Thus the throat (nephesh) is intimately related to breath, the fundamental life force (or death). "Love God with your whole nephesh." In the Septuagint nephesh was translated 600 times into the Greek "psyche"(soul), which "promoted a good many misunderstandings... because the Greek philosophers' concept of the soul is in no way comparable to the Hebrew idea of nephesh. (p. 62)
The authors counsel the reader to move away from the Greek body-soul dichotomy to the "more unified Israelite image of the human." (p. 67) This they contend will lead the church to be more concerned "with bodiliness, with the concrete neediness, longings, desire for life of people today." (p. 67) In this way, the soul of the human being can be seen, not as some detached immigrating spirit, but as "inextricably bound up with the one, unique life." (p. 67)
In Ch. 3, "God in the Belly," the authors concede that our current usage of the abdominal region as locus of feeling and irrational is "strikingly close to that of the First Testament." (p. 68) What they regret is the omission of the references by biblical scholars to the central attributes of God-- compassion and mercy-- as they are related in the Bible to rehem, the root word for uterus, lap, or womb. Uterus is the internal organ most commonly mentioned. In Israel, a warm, fruitful womb and breasts with their milk were images of blessings, not produced by human effort, but to be received solely as a gift of God. (p. 73)
The authors support their thesis with numerous illustrations from Christian, Hebrew and Near Eastern cultures. This omission is but one more unfortunate example of the excluding or minimalizing of women until recently by biblical scholars. In the subsequent chapters on eyes, ears, hand, feet and flesh, the reader cannot but come away with a new, fresh understanding of the body, the Bible, and the shortcomings of Christian biblical theology. The chapter titles become invitations to fruitful reflection. Chapter 5: They Have Eyes But Do Not See. Chapter 6: Let Anyone with Ears to Hear Listen. Chapter 7: My Mouth Shall Declare Your Praise Chapter 8: With a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm Chapter 9: You Have Placed Everything Under His Feet Chapter 10: All Flesh Is Like Grass.
At the outset (p. xiii) the authors claimed that they intended to introduce with clarity rather than completeness the topic of body and bodiliness, what they termed "a little snippet" of biblical anthropology, so that the reader could be encouraged to think for him or herself. They accomplished that goal. If any shortcomings could be noted, one would have hoped for a clearer and more cohesive introductory chapter. The introduction was too ambitious. It attempts to include too many ideas, theories, and concepts. It was quite dense; it confused more than it clarified. One suspects that the ten chapters were written by one author and the introduction by the other. A summary chapter, focusing on the central theme of the book, would have been appropriate.
In summary, I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to gain new insights into the biblical symbolism of the human body and to use this understanding to counterbalance the "centuries-long Christian history of interpreting the Bible in a way inimical to the body.