The Memoirs of God
A review of Mark Smith's, "The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Mark S. Smith, The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004. xx + 187 pp. Paperback, $21.00. ISBN 0-8006-3485-3.
This volume seeks to study the history of ancient Israel with a focus on the manner in which the Bible records and expresses that memory. More than many of his preceding monographs, Smith here seeks to communicate to the lay reader as much as the scholar. He uses a series of four or five essays in which to constitute an understanding of Israelite memory and the manner in which the biblical texts reveal this memory. The first such essay provides a backdrop, sweeping through the Hebrew Bible with a distinctive review of scholarship and evidence for the sources and formation of the text. Smith brings one up to date with the current uncertainties in the source criticism of the Pentateuch. Even so, his suggestion that everyone agrees as to the composite nature of the Pentateuch (p. 11) is not clearly supported by some of the “revisionist” scholars he refers to, and is explicitly denied by others such as Whybray. Still the absence of critical self-reflection on the sources certainly supports a pre-Thucydides origin for most of the historical writing. For Smith, the exodus in some form does reflect an early tradition. The people and events of Judges fit well into the twelfth and eleventh centuries. Extra biblical evidence suggests that ninth century Israel knew of a David as the dynastic founder and that the Temple of Solomon matches the cultic temples of that era. Genesis and Ruth describe stories whose society fits best within the Monarchy. Religiously, the god El was originally worshiped in Israel; later supplanted by the Edomite god Yahweh. The gradual development of monotheism achieved quantum leaps under Hezekiah and especially Josiah, due to political concerns that led to centralization. The difficult life of the post-exilic period gives evidence of diverse Jewish cultures in Babylonia and Egypt, as well as Palestine. Although these conclusions would not be those agreed upon by all, they do reflect a summary of current critical scholarship.
A second essay reviews the challenges that Israel faced. In the pre-monarchic society, this was defined by competing shrines with different deities and their symbols or images. The command to have no other deities “before me” (Exod. 20:3) should be understood as the absence of other deities in the cultic presence of Yahweh. The United Monarchy created an artificial union in which the south as well as the north was designated by the rubric of Israel. David used military conquest whereas Solomon emphasized diplomacy. The period after Solomon saw the worship of Yahweh as the chief deity of an Israelite pantheon; one in which very likely a second deity, perhaps Asherah or Astarte, functioned as Yahweh’s consort. Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) was a call to choose Yahweh as national deity, rather than Baal. It was not a demand for the sole worship of Yahweh. Veneration (worship?) of the dead and child sacrifice were common at this time as suggested by the archaeology and the references in the biblical text. The focus of Amos and other eighth century writing prophets upon injustices reflected the growing disparity between the classes. In the century after the Northern Kingdom’s demise, Hezekiah and Josiah promoted one god for one people and worship at one temple; i.e., the development of monotheism. Most of this essay is devoted to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 586, and to the variety of written responses after that. The editor of 1 and 2 Kings saw this as punishment for Israel’s adultery. For Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the focus was on how the Israelites “badly mistreated God.” However, the differences between these responses is not as much of a contrast as Smith suggests. Ezra and Nehemiah use the torah to define Israel. Esther and Daniel provide models of people living in the Diaspora, with the former emphasizing the need for cooperation among the Jews. The editors of the Psalms used superscripts and the structuring of the book to emphasize how the reader may follow both David’s piety and the historical experience of Israel in religious devotion. Smith provides some important insights when he suggests that the editors of Exodus through Deuteronomy demonstrated how the observances of the chief feasts of the year, as well as the ongoing discussion of the application of torah to new situations, continues to connect the pious with the first generation of Israel and God’s great deeds then. He is less convincing in seeing the Song of Songs as a model (allegory) for the union of the Northern and Southern kingdoms.
In his third essay, Smith considers the background of Israelite religion and the nature of polytheism in the West Semitic world of the second millennium B.C.; specifically at Ugarit and in the Ugaritic texts. To do so he develops a model that he used in his 2001 work, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. This places the pantheon of Ugarit on a series of tiers, based on their relative importance and sometimes, on their power. On the first tier is the chief couple, El and Asherah. On the second tier are most of the gods and goddesses who figure prominently in the myths (Baal, Astarte, Anat, Shahar, Shalim). This model is transferred to the history of Israelite religion. The tiers change their occupants as the history develops. Thus in the pre-monarchic period, El and Asherah were on the first tier. The second tier was occupied by Baal, Yahweh, and other deities. By the early Monarchy, the first tier became occupied by Yahweh-El and Asherah, with the sun, moon, and astral deities on the second level. This remained the model through the divided Monarchy, except that the Deuteronomists and other monotheists introduced a rival model that became accepted among some. In this model Yahweh was alone at the top and there was no second tier. This type of model has a heuristic value although it is most convincing for Late Bronze Age Ugarit. That is because there is an abundance of texts examining the polytheism of that era and place. We can know less about ancient Israel. Smith must “excavate” the early “strata” of the biblical texts in order to identify the deities and where they belong. Yet not all would agree with his conclusions. Asherah in particular seems virtually unknown in the early biblical traditions, so that her prominent place is more a matter of speculation. Further, the absolute distinction between El and Yahweh cannot be demonstrated from the Bible; but must be read into the early biblical history and religion by exegeting snippets of old poetry (Deuteronomy 32:8-9; Psalm 82) and at times accepting either alternative textual readings or identifications of titles in one place and distinctions elsewhere (e.g., El is Elyon, but neither is Yahweh).
A fourth essay returns to the question suggested by the book’s title, the collective memory of ancient Israel. After reviewing twentieth century French research on this subject, Smith suggests ways in which this study might impact on his research. Using the Sinai narrative as an example, he argues for a collective memory that reworks some possibly pre-monarchic traditions of the site. The Sinai pericope in Exodus has been a notorious location for observing problems and apparent contradictions that can best be explained, in the eyes of many scholars, by the identification of various sources. In some cases, Smith replaces these with collective memory. One has an unease about the concept and use of collective memory. Unlike a literary source, or even an oral tradition, collective memory is difficult to define and to grasp. Like many sociological phenomena, its use might be better appreciated as a description of observable data. Whether it can serve the heuristic purposes to which Smith attempts to apply it is not as clear.
Smith concludes this provocative book with a postscript in which he discusses something of his faith and belief regarding inspiration. He appears to come down on the side of a classic believing critic, in which one strives for a balance between faith and history, without requiring too much of either from the Bible.
As always one learns a great deal from the writings of Mark S. Smith. This is a valuable resource for attempting to make sense out of the bewildering array of data that confront the student of ancient Israelite religion and history. Writing from his critical perspective, Smith gives a readable account of the state of scholarship for the beginner, and at the same time introduces a method that enables him to relate Israel’s story in a new way.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages