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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mark Smith: Memory and Amnesia in the Israelite Scriptures

Chapter Four of Mark Smith's The Memoirs of God, “The Formation of Israel's Concepts of God: Collective Memory and Amnesia in the Bible,” is dense and difficult. Smith is attempting to deal with the issue of historicity in the Israelite scriptures:
What are we biblical scholars dealing with in the Bible, what or who are we as we deal with it, and what means can we deploy to plumb the difficulties in these questions and to assess these issues? In this chapter, I focus on the last of these questions. In particular, I wish to advance the claim that the academic study of collective memory offers important intellectual help for understanding the biblical representations of Israel's past. (125)
This is a complicated topic, and at times Smith stumbles in selecting his terminology, but I believe he is very much on the right track.

1. Collective Memory and Amnesia

Smith begins by setting out two fundamental points about the Bible's treatment of the past.
First, the Bible is not a record of “events”... “What we have are various witnesses to an event.” (quoting Brevard Childs) ... Second, the Bible is teaching (Torah in Hebrew), much of it religious in character. Ancient Israelites ... as well as modern Biblical scholars, largely recognize the Bible's pedagogical purpose, and this teaching function extends to the Bible's narratives of the past. (126)
Smith refers to “the Bible's treatment of the past” and “the Bible's narratives of the past.” There are several problems with this choice of words, most of which problems Smith later recognizes to varying degrees. While the “Bible” is for us a book, its constituent parts were mostly not written to be part of a book—they were themselves books that were self contained units. The authors and redactors of some, but not all, of the various books that constitute what we call the Bible do in some cases treat of past events--or sometimes of events better described as set in the past. Whether the narratives do in fact describe actual events is quite another matter, as is the question of the original authors' intent. Other books, particularly some of the prophetic books, treat of what, for the prophet, were current or contemporaneous events, although at times also referring to the past. Therefore, while the redactors who formed what we now know as the “Bible” may well have had a view regarding the historicity of the narratives in the Biblical books that treat of events set in the past, that viewpoint must be carefully distinguished from the intentions of the actual authors of those books.

Having set out these two fundamental points, Smith presents a summary of several influential sociological and historical researchers' ideas “concerning collective memory and the impact of that memory on the historians who” have studied, and may belong to, the cultures in which those memories are preserved. (126) Those scholars he surveys include Maurice Halbwachs, Philippe Aries, Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora, and Daniele Hervieu-Leger. To go into their views would not serve our purposes, but Halbwachs views on memory and social power lead to this observation by Smith:
The process of commemoration is a collective, deliberate effort on the part of a culture's memorialists both to preserve and to adapt slowly over time. It is a process that transpires so slowly that its incremental changes are imperceptible to those who participate in them. For Halbwachs, a historian is in a position to observe such change, while those immersed in such a process of memory and tradition resist change and the idea of change in a tradition, and in fact they deploy acts of commemoration in order to effect such resistance. (128)
Obviously, much of this passage is of dubious merit. Eliade and others have documented that the process of change, certainly the process by which events are assimilated to archetypal patterns, is not necessarily slow. Moreover, by the same token, resistance to change may, ironically from an historian's perspective, involve changing the “facts” to conform them to the archetypal pattern that the memorialists are dedicated to preserving. The point, as Eliade recognizes, is to preserve meaning, not mere facts. To fail to recognize this dynamic in the Israelite scriptures is certainly unfortunate.


Implications for Collective Memory in the Bible

Having surveyed the views of sociologists and historians on “collective memory” (in my view, a somewhat unfortunate choice of terminology), Smith presents “seven points,” “lessons” to be gleaned from “historians of memory.”
First and foremost, the Bible does not simply record fact or fiction, history or literature. ... Instead, many biblical texts might be better characterized as constituting the record of Israel's cultural memory. (131)
Despite the clumsiness of expression we can, I think, agree with this general formulation, noting that “cultural memory” can be embodied in multiple literary forms—and certainly is in the Israelite scriptures. This formulation obviously does not exclude the inclusion of “historically accurate information,” but also includes other forms of cultural memory. Importantly, Smith qualifies this characterization as “the partial record of Israel's cultural memories of its past.” The importance of this qualification is apparent from the fact that archaeological study has revealed aspects of Israel's cultural past that we would never have gleaned, or certainly not in as great detail, from a reading of the Israelite scriptures. The use of the phrase “of its past” is, however, unfortunate, as it could lead a reader to suppose that cultural memories are always of an objectively factual past.

Point two is no more than a reminder that scholars bring their own past to the study of cultural memory and no comment is necessary.
Third ... we may appreciate the role of social context and power of groups in shaping their collective memories.. (133)
By this Smith means that who records cultural memories is a factor which may have an important or, at times, decisive influence over what memories are commemorated and what memories may be discarded—cultural amnesia. He points out that “the Bible is largely a collection of the partial records of family, priestly, and royal commemorations.” Which is to say, among other things, that it is likely not a record of the commemorations of the common people—as has been confirmed in some important respects by archaeological research. But it also matters whose records—for example, the records of which family or priestly faction—have come down to us.
Fourth ... the role that actual physical sites play in shaping cultural memory. (134)
Exactly what Smith means may best be illustrated by the example that he provides:
One dominant view of Moses in the Bible seems to be his status as super-prophet and conveyor of Torah, which apparently shows the stamp of northern Israelite prophetic circles and the circles that produced Deuteronomy. Other traditions about Moses known, for example, from Transjordanian Israel may have been lost, suppressed, or rewritten ... (135, my emphasis)
Obviously, this point is closely related to that regarding whose records have been preserved. The role that location may play in shaping self-identity can also have a significant influence.

We will also pass over the fifth point, which is concerned with the rise of writing in eighth century BC Israel, and state the final two points briefly:
Sixth ... the importance of societal tragedy on the production of writing about the past. ... It is arguable that to tell the story of the past is to explore the reasons for the present state of matters...
Once again, it is necessary to point out that there is an important distinction to be made between writing about the past and narrative that is set in the past. Myth is most typically a narrative set in the past that explains or attempts to give meaning to the present through the relation of the present to archetypal actions that took place in illo tempore, as Eliade says. To describe this as “writing about the past” is misleading, to say the least.
Seventh ... the conflicting efforts on the part of shifting hierarchies to homogenize collective memory ...
Here, Smith is speaking of “the destruction and restructuring of traditional memory” that can take place—the “reappropriation of reinvented memory.” For example:
These are all features that biblical scholars would recognize in the accounts of Israel's past in priestly traditions in the Torah (Pentateuch) and in Deuteronomy as well as the historical books influenced by it, Joshua through 2 Kings. The past is provided with new connections to the present, and there are differences over such presentations of the past and evidently conflicts over such competing accounts. (137)
Smith adds an important caution: “later tradition may retain older material that can be conformed to later understandings or often does not conspicuously contradict them.”

2. Remembering Divinity at Mount Sinai

Having studied the ways in which memory is shaped and influenced, Smith applies these lessons to the Mt. Sinai narrative which, as “the alleged foundational moment of Israel's experience with God ... expresses Israel's identity.” He finds “four foundational reinterpretations of Israel's religious identity” associated with its “memory” of Mt. Sinai. (140)

From Single Service God to Monotheism at Sinai

We have already discussed the four levels of divinity that characterized early Israelite religion, in common with West Semitic religion generally. The Ten Commandments recognize this fact to the extent that they recognize that there are other Gods than Yahweh: “You shall have no other gods besides me.” (Ex 20:3) In other words, among all the gods, the Israelites are to limit their worship to one of them: Yahweh. However, when we compare this view with later views of the Sinai experience, written during the Exile, we find the writer retrojecting a strict monotheist view into Israel's past: “Yahweh is God; there is none apart from Him.” (Dt 4:35) That is, the other gods are no gods at all. Of gods there is only one: Yahweh. And this later monotheism is presented in Deuteronomy as “part of the original revelation at Sinai.” There has been a development of revelation and a corresponding literary development in its expression.

God at Sinai: From Divine Body to the Voice of Holiness

Smith next examines how the various witnesses within Israelite tradition chose to remember Sinai:
there was a continuing discussion and debate about how events on Mount Sinai were to be recalled ... In the end the text functions as a sort of compromise document that preserves both the older traditions of Exodus and later interpretations emerging from priestly and Deuteronomic circles ... The collections of teaching date to different periods, yet these are all enshrined in Israel's collective memory of the foundational events at Mount Sinai. (143)
Whether there were, in fact, “events” at Sinai is one question, but Smith moves on to illustrate the diversity in Israel's memory of Sinai. He turns first to Ex 24:9-11, which he identifies as an early passage:
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended. And they saw the God of Israel. And under His feet was the brickwork of sapphire, and like the very heavens for purity. Against the leaders of the Israelites, He did not raise his hand, and they beheld God, and they ate and drank.
Smith notes four features in this passage: 1) an assemblage of Israel's leaders see God; 2) there is an allusion to the architecture of God's palace, located atop the mountain of God; 3) reference is made to God's bodily parts—his feet; 4) the Israelites eat and drink atop the mountain of God. Smith locates this tradition in the North of Israel during the early monarchy and speculates that it may reflect what appears to be a pilgrimage tradition associated with the Mountain of God. Smith further notes that this tradition of visual experience of a bodily god accompanied by a religious meal with the deity in his mountaintop palace predates the priestly and Deuteronomic representations of God at Sinai, which were manifestly uncomfortable with this early tradition. (144)

By contrast, Deuteronomy 4 offers a “new recollection” of God at Sinai: 1) only Moses ascends the mountain; 2) there is no meal; 3) there is no visual experience. In fact, Deuteronomy makes a point of saying “you perceived no shape, only a voice.” The priestly representation (Ex 20) is even more minimal, limiting the manifestation of God to “thunder, lightning and smoke.” Clearly these various “recollections” correspond to differing views of God—views which evolved and developed throughout the history of Israel.

The Shifting Nature of Revelation at Sinai

After examining the differing “recollections” of Sinai within various Israelite traditions, Smith turns to the place of Sinai within the overall tradition. He begins by noting that Sinai is not mentioned in accounts of the exodus and entry to the land that appear in Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 26:5-10 and 1 Samuel 12:8.
Similarly, Psalms 89 and 105 include long descriptions of the exodus, the wilderness experience, and the Israelites' entry into the land, but there is no word about Sinai. Also, Psalm 114 beautifully balances exodus and land, sea and Jordan River, but it makes no mention of Sinai. In other passages the mountain is included in the itinerary, but again without any reference to the Sinai revelation (for example, Psalm 106). (146)
It is only in the postexilic book of Nehemiah that we find “clear linkage” of a revelation at Sinai with the traditions of exodus and conquest of the land. Nehemiah 9 presents the “traditional” picture we are familiar with, from schematized, conflated versions. These textual strands are what Smith terms the “external evidence.” This evidence, Smith argues, tells us only “when the picture of the Sinai revelation with the exodus and the conquest traditions was finding acceptance more broadly within the Israelite community, or at least among community authorities.” (147)

On the other hand, there is what Smith calls the “internal evidence.” There is abundant evidence (which we have previously reviewed) that old traditions portrayed Yahweh as an outsider deity from the South/Southeast: Edom/Midian/Paran/Seir/Sinai. The dating of this internal evidence strongly suggests a preexilic date: “The nonpriestly tradition brings Moses and the people to the mountain of Horeb.” Thus:
... the linkage of the Sinai tradition to the exodus and the conquest is first found within the nonpriestly material of Exodus itself, which most scholars now date to around the eighth century. ... the picture we have of the Sinai revelation is largely a creation of monarchic period memory, far later than the time when Moses is said to have lived. The biblical description of Sinai may preserve some old sherds of memory [i.e., the Midianite traditions] but these are vestigial in their present form ... It would seem we cannot get back further in Israel's traditions to the historical setting of Moses. Just as important, the various traditions remember Sinai itself very differently ... (148)
Sinai: Mountain above All Others

Finally, Smith focuses on the role of Sinai itself, noting:
Outside the so-called Elohist tradition in Exodus and the poetic piece in Deuteronomy 33:2-4, we know of no monarchic-period material that views Mount Sinai as the site of divine revelation mediated by Moses. It is possible that the so-called Elohist represented a major development in the generation of a northern tradition of foundational religious origins.
It was common for religious sites—often sited on mountaintops—to have foundation stories that associated them with ancestors: Shechem, Shiloh, Dan, Bethel. “For the priestly tradition as represented in the Torah as we have it, Mount Sinai becomes the Mount Everest of the Bible; it overshadows and displaces all of these sites.” (148, my emphasis) This shift on the part of the priestly tradition affected the use that it made of earlier traditions. Notably, the poem in Exodus 15 which states:
You brought them and planted them on your mountain,
the place You made for your dwelling, Yahweh,
the sanctuary, Yahweh, your hands established.
is generally believed to refer to a mountaintop sanctuary within the land, due to the references to surrounding peoples: Philistines, Edomites, Moabites. Shiloh is a frequent (and Smith's) choice for this shrine. But the priestly tradition which framed the Torah as we know it has so placed this poem as to point, anachronistically, toward Sinai itself. In Smith's view, this shift of God's mountain to Sinai served an important purpose in postexilic Israel. God's mountain had, in the Judahite monarchy, been definitely established as Mount Zion, Jerusalem. But Yahweh's mountain had been ravaged by the Babylonians. The shift to the shadowy Sinai in the South, and its identification as the holy mountain of God, helped Israel endure the fall of the royal city. (149)
The Sinai revelation was a new foundational story that would overshadow and perhaps submerge other foundational stories claimed by particular shrines in the land. The Sinai complex of texts is a stunning example of programmatic change in cultural memory. For in adding collections to the Sinai event, Israel's later priestly and Deuteronomic writers would attribute to ancient revelation what had developed later during the monarchic, exilic and postexilic periods. In other words, the Sinai complex enshrines as the eternal teaching of God what had developed in later times. (150)
3. “Methods of Monotheism” and Collective Memory

By “methods of monotheism” Smith means “the various ways by which ancient Israel reconstituted the diversity of its deities into a single God.” (151) He identifies three “ways” or mechanisms: convergence, differentiation and reinterpretation. Convergence involves the”assimilation of other deities' traditions/traits to Yahweh.” In this category Smith provides examples that were already discussed in Chapter 3: the fact that Yahweh's cosmic foes share names with Baal's cosmic enemies, that Baal's holy mountain of Saphon is identified with Yahweh's holy mountain of Zion in Psalm 48, and that Yahweh shares Baal's traits as storm god and cloud rider.

Differentiation involves the claim that “older traditions formerly associated with Yahweh did not belong to Yahweh,” often by claiming that it was an imported foreign practice. Here, Smith cites as an example the denial of asherah, which was manifestly an ancient tradition in Israel.

Reinterpretation involves the “reinterpretation of polytheistic vestiges,” also discussed in Chapter 3. Deuteronomy 32 preserves a poem in which El Elyon divides up the nations of men among the “divine sons,” with Israel apportioned to Yahweh. This is a clear example of the polytheism that was typical among West Semitic peoples, however, in the poem it is later stated that these other gods are “no gods.” In other words, the ancient tradition is preserved, but reinterpreted.

4. Cultural Memory and Amnesia of Divinity through the Lens of Divine Oneness

In this section Smith addresses what he calls “cultural amnesia” regarding “other representations of divinity in the Bible.” Strangely, he does not attempt to relate this to the preceding “methods of monotheism,” although it appears clear that the applications of these methods advanced the cultural amnesia he describes.

Yahweh and El

The most important example of amnesia is the explicit identification of Yahweh with El, found at Exodus 6. This, however, appears to be a clear example of reinterpretation, as Smith notes: “Here cultural amnesia seems to result from long tradition, which included a process of interpreting older traditions no longer fully understood.” (153) Smith regards this example as “unconscious and not deliberate.” However, it certainly seems possible that, with the rise of a “higher” vision of Yahweh there would no longer be room for El as high god. Since the traditions of El and Yahweh may have corresponded to different social elements, a unifying solution for the nation might have been sought. Rather than outright conflict, a reconciliation would doubtless have seemed preferable—the two are the same God, under different names, a surprisingly “modern” solution. This would be particularly true if “Israel” was in fact, as has been discussed, formed from originally somewhat disparate elements.

Yahweh and his home in Edom

Once again, the clear evidence that Yahweh was originally a god who came to Israel from the south, perhaps as the god of an elite minority that assumed a leadership role over an Israel that was just beginning to coalesce as a nation, has been discussed at length in earlier posts. Smith concludes that, “In time, Yahweh came to be recalled as 'the god of Israel,' with the memory of his origins in Edom remapped as the Mount Sinai experience ...” (154) Smith sees this as “unconscious,” but again I see this as reinterpretation in the interests of national unity.

Yahweh and the Divine Family

The Divine family and council were also discussed at length. This concept was restructured from an early typically West Semitic four tier pantheon to an ultimate two tier construct, in which Yahweh was supremely God and the lower tier was occupied by the gods from the other levels who were now cast as “angels” and “no gods.” The structure is preserved, but greatly modified.

Angels and the Gods of the Fathers

With the demotion of “second-level divinities” to the level of messenger gods, the God of the Fathers, El, occasionally came to be identified as an angel. This is most clearly seen at Genesis 48:15-16, “where the accompanying 'god of the father' and the protective angel stand in grammatical apposition:
May the god before whom my fathers, Abraham and Jacob, went about, the god who has shepherded me from my time back till today, the messenger who has redeemed me from all evil, may he bless the boys. (156)
In closing, Smith notes that the “Bible's commemorators” came to read the Israelite scriptures with this monotheistic God in mind:
For the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity, this view of the monotheistic God of Israel's past became normative. This past was no longer simply Israel's representation. It also became recognized as God's own revelation about the past. ... The Bible's representation of the past became God's words to Israel about God in Israel's past. ... Israel's past as represented in the Bible became the memoirs of God. (158)
In other words, when “revelation” came to be understood as God's words to man, written in a book, this history of the development of God in Israel necessarily became God's own memoirs. In his Postscript, Smith attempts to address the theological issues that arise from this viewpoint.

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