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Monday, June 15, 2009

Mark Smith: History and the Israelite Scriptures

We are now at a point from which we can attempt a synthesis of these disparate reflections on the Religion of Israel. I will do so by working through Mark S. Smith's The Memoirs of God over as many as four separate posts. I have argued that the essence of what Christianity has termed 'revelation' in the pre-Christian past is the development of Israelite religion toward a true monotheism centered on God whose identity--in so far as it is knowable to human reason--is that of creator. From that standpoint Peter Machinist's comments regarding Smith's book are suggestive:
[Smith's book] is not simply a study of the history and religion of ancient Israel nor of [its literature], but of the complicated interface between [Israel's history and religion]--of how the Bible chose to remember the history and religion of the Israel that gave it birth. As Smith compellingly argues, the formation of memory is indeed the central characteristic of the Biblical text, and in a wide-ranging provocative discussion, he allows us to see the multiple ways in which the Biblical authors struggled to make sense of their past and to define its ongoing significance for them.
Obviously, Machinist's language is somewhat anachronistic, in that the vehicle of revelation--seen as the development of Israelite religion to the point that God's own self revelation in Jesus becomes a meaningful event--is a people, not simply a book. Nevertheless, from the Christian standpoint this development (of Israelite religion) is of interest not merely in itself, as a record of historical memory, but for what this development led to. It is this development and its culmination in Jesus that gives it "ongoing significance," enduring and universal significance.


The Biblical Backdrop to the Story of Israel

Smith's first chapter is an examination of the Bible's role as a source of historical knowledge, since if we are to understand pre-Christian revelation as a development we must perforce come to an accurate estimate of our available resources. Until "relatively recently" many scholars worked on the assumption that the Bible provided a privileged historical memory of past events. That the truth of the matter is more complex--as Christians might well have suspected from the nature of God's own self revelation in Jesus--is now almost universally accepted. As Smith notes, the overwhelming bulk of the earliest Biblical sources reflect their origin during the monarchical periods of Israel and Judah. The Yahwist and Elohist sources date to the 9th century at the earliest, and the Deuteronomist source and Priestly sources date in their written form from even later. As Smith states with regard to the Documentary theory, "Theories abound in the present debate [regarding the composition of the Israelite scriptures as we have them], but what is not debated is the composite nature of the Torah and the dating of its written composition in the period of the monarchy and afterward." (MG 11)

Of course, Smith is not suggesting that the Israelite scriptures have no historical value--far from it. But he is stating that "the Bible no longer holds a privileged place in dictating the norms for reconstructing Israel's past." We must recognize that the Israelite scriptures preserve
not so much 'history' as foundational narratives about Israel's identity as it was being discussed and debated over the period of the monarchy and later. In the Torah, readers glimpse not so much an original word-for-word historical account of events from the Bronze Age, but monarchic-period and later memories about Israel in narrative form as well as prescriptions about what Israel should be. In other words, the Torah is teaching, which is in fact the very meaning of the word. The Deuteronomistic History show a  moralistic effort in explaining the past, in particular the reason why Israel has the land ... why Israel needed a monarchy ... how Israel came to have a monarchy ... how an initially glorious monarchy failed ...  in short, why Israel was defeated, its king imprisoned, its Temple destroyed, and its people exiled in 586 BC. The goal of explaining Israel's past has deeply informed its presentation, both in its selection and in its perspectives. The 'biblical history' constructed in the Torah and the Deuteronomistic History represents Israel's national foundational story as hostage to the conditions of the people's present and their hopes for the future. (MG 13)
As an illustration of the complexities involved, Smith cites the description of the Jerusalem Temple found in 1 Kings 6-8. Based on what we know from archaeology, the Temple is an expression of a basically Canaanite worldview--it is the place where the divine presence resides, the royal chapel, "an indication of divine blessing on the king, the people, and the land." The theme of the divine warrior (common to both Ba'al and Yahweh) dovetails with the presence of the bronze sea--symbolic of the common West Semitic myth of the warrior god's victory over Sea which led to the establishment of kingship on earth. The Temple is, just as were other West Semitic temples, clearly "the home of the god on his holy mountain [in this case, Zion], marked by the palm trees and cherubim on the wall (1 Kings 6:35) [symbolizing the divine garden or Eden on the holy mountain]." But, by the time we reach 1 Kings 8, we find an awareness of exile, and now the Temple is not so much a "house of sacrifice" as a "house of prayer," reflecting the new realities in Israelite life that the exile brought. Moreover, even in the purely descriptive portions of 1 Kings 6 there are Akkadian loanwords. Thus, although the Temple may date to the 10th century, the written accounts (based on these linguistic considerations) could date to anywhere from the 8th to the 6th century and they incorporate historical memories that span a wide expanse of Israelite religious experience. Dealing with such complex texts is not easy:
Within these texts, we see the biblical backdrop...mixed with memories of the past. We also find expressions of the crises faced by Israel over its history, and sometimes it is these that have altered Israel's memory about its past and therefore its representations of its past in the Bible. In short, later crises generated new memories of Israel's earlier periods. Both Israel's history and its responses to its historical challenges meet in the Bible's memories of the past. (MG 15-18)

The Mythic Period of Moses

Smith first points out that, in the Bible as we have it, the books of the Torah (Pentateuch), including Genesis and Exodus, for the most part date to no earlier than the period of the Judahite and Israelite monarchies. There are, of course, fragments and survivals from earlier periods, but these are relatively minor when they are viewed in the context of the overall narrative. Thus, while, as Smith writes, "it has remained problematic to grant any historical substance to the patriarchal stories as such," 1) that does not mean that information of value cannot be gleaned from those stories, especially insofar as they reflect attitudes of the time in which they were written, and 2) Smith believes that some of the Exodus material points toward "some sort of departure from Egypt by some antecedents of the Israelites." Smith places emphasis on the presence of Egyptian names--Moses, Aaron, Phinehas and others--among the leaders of the Mushite and Aaronite lines. We have already attempted to integrate these facts with the Midianite theory while discussing the work of Cross and Dever. Smith also notes that some of the old poems in Numbers 23-24 repeatedly state that "El brings him [Israel] out of Egypt." This certainly attests to some Egyptian connection (although providing no miraculous details), while also preserving the memory of El as Israel's god (also attested in the very name Isra-El). Smith connects this to the Transjordanian traditions which Cross earlier noted, which link Moses to Transjordan and especially to the tribe of Reuben, while the standard view in the period of the monarchy was that Yahweh had brought Israel out of Egypt. Again, the existing traditions of Moses' connections to Midian, where he learned that El was properly named Yahweh, is highly suggestive of the historical substance behind these stories. (MG 18-21)

The Period of the Judges

Smith acknowledges that both archaeological and textual evidence support the view that we have reviewed previously--that "Israelite culture was largely based on the local 'Cannaanite' (or West Semitic) culture," that "the 'Israel' of the highlands in the premonarchic period largely developed out of the local culture." However, the biblical traditions that recall Israelite connections to Aram (Deuteronomy 26) and "Ephraim with its roots in Amalek" (Judges 5) as well as the numerous references to Midianite influences--especially with respect to Yahwistic religion that was established at shrines in Canaan by Midianite priestly familes--suggest strongly that there was a formative influence of an elite minority which gradually led to Yahwism being adopted as the official cult of what become known, somewhat paradoxically, as Israel.

Smith distinguishes three levels of religion in this period. First, as we find attested numerous times in biblical traditions, the religion of ancient Israel was based on the family unit. "Home shrines, perhaps located in doorways and gates as well as the recesses of houses, served as the focal point for religious expression to deities and deceased relatives: both belonged to the category of divinity (elohim)." But there were also the "high places" that served as "the religious meeting place for local sacrifice." Finally, there were shrines that served larger clan or tribal groupings, often located either in central locations or at boundaries. Biblical traditions note that each of these shrines preserved narratives of their founding, often associated with a theophany (Jacob at Beth-El) and/or a prestigious ancestor and a priesthood that claimed descent from a patriarch of a priestly family. (MG 21-23)

Early Traditions in Joshua and Judges

While few texts in Judges (a term probably better translated, following the NJPS, as "chieftans") actually date from an early period, some texts do preserve early traditions that shed light on the social and religious development of Israel. For example, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) preserves such early features as memory of a time when Judah was not a prominent member of Israel (possibly not even a member of Israel at all), the recollection of friendly relations--or even confederation--with Amalek, and victory attributed to Yahweh, portrayed as a storm/warrior god who resides in the foreign territory of Edom rather than within Israel. (Note: Cross attributes later similar references--by writers such as Habakkuk--to Yahweh advancing to battle out of the south as deliberate archaizing, based on genuinely early poems such as Song of Deborah. In post Judges Israel, Yahweh resided on his holy mountain--Zion.)

But there are also many indications of what could be called religious diversity . The stories of Gideon and Abimelech attest to widespread Israelite worship of Ba'al, with centers of worship of both Ba'al and El at Beth-El. While the Ba'al cult is stigmatized in editorial comments, Judges 11 includes the account (with no criticism or adverse commentary) of a chieftan, Jephthah, sacrificing his daughter--in fulfillment of a vow to Yahweh undertaken to gain victory in battle. Almost as striking as this association of human sacrifice with Yahwism is the story in Judges 17, which recounts the founding of the major Yahwist shrine at Dan, in the far north of Israel--a shrine which lasted as a major cultic center for hundreds of years. Among other anomalies, which are glossed over by the editor, we find a layman enlisting his son to serve as a priest for his household, where an image of Yahweh is maintained--apparently in conjunction with images (teraphim) of other household gods. While later editors would seek to characterize such behavior as backsliding from pure Mosaic religion, we are surely correct to believe that these early traditions reflect the complex and gradual coalescing of Israelite religion around a core of Yahwish that was imported by an outside elite. (MG 23-25)


Premonarchic Israel in Genesis?

Another source of possible insight into pre-monarchic Israelite religion is the book of Genesis. Of obvious interest are the various names applied to God, usually variations of El (El Shaddai, El Olam, etc.). Smith sees this as corroborative of the view that El was, logically enough, the original god of Israel--as Exodus reports. The description of family centered religious practice, including household gods, also tallies with the accounts in Judges. Genesis 49:25 also contains a likely reference to the goddess Asherah:
by El your Father who helps you
by Shadday who blesses you
with the blessings of Heavens from above
the blessings of the Deep crouching below
the blessings of Breasts and Womb
This old poem also refers to Yahweh, but separately from El. As we will see later, Smith maintains that many of the characteristics of El (preeminently that of Creator) were transferred to Yahweh at some point and the fact that these were once distinct gods was forgotten--in later writings Yahweh and El are one God. (MG 26-27)

The Origins of the God of Israel

Smith stresses the cultural contacts of Israel with southern tribal groupings: Midianites, Arab tribes, Edom. We have already sketched in some detail the likelihood that Exodus' account of Moses' ties to Midian preserve the knowledge that Yahweh came to Israel from Midian, accompanied by Midianite priests. (MG 27)

The Period of the Monarchy

The rise of Yahweh as the definitive god of Israel coincides, probably not coincidentally, with the rise of Israel and Judah as allied tribal groups and then as a unified state under a king. As we have seen, the origins of kingship are recorded in West Semitic myth as associated with the warrior/storm god's rise to kingship in heaven. Biblical writers speak of Yahweh, too, in these terms, as he storms out of the south and takes up residence on Mount Zion. The Temple of Yahweh on Zion uses iconography that is typical of West Semitic religion:
Parallels from texts and artifacts speak to the Jerusalem Temple's ideological function as the palace of the divine king, who receives offerings from his loyal subjects as he takes up his throne in the back room, or better, his throne room. The accession of the divine king is accompanied by divine victory of the cosmic Sea, signaled by the presence of the huge "bronze sea" in the counrtyard area in front of the Temple. As noted earlier in this chapter, the Temple complex reflects a pattern of victory followed by accession to the thone by the divine warrior-king, the very progression marked by texts such as Psalm 29.

The temple is a spatial icon of Israelite hopes for divine presence and blessing as well as support for the Solomonic dynasty. It would also appear from the iconography within the temple, with its cherubim and trees, that the Temple was regarded as a divine home, conceptually related to the garden of Eden. Like the garden in Genesis 2-3 and Ezekiel 28, this one is guarded by the figure of the cherub, and like Ezekiel 28, the house of God represented by Solomon's Temple is imagined to be located on the holy mountain of God. (MG 33)
The rest of the monarchic period may be viewed as a period of growing conflict between the conservative official cult establishment, which was heavily oriented in the direction of traditional West Semitic practices and expression and, on the other hand, a growing emphasis within elite circles on the uniqueness of Yahweh and of the inadequacy of traditional Israelite religion to express this new vision of Yahweh.

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