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 (MG) 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.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Religion of Israel V: Frank Moore Cross on Israelite Religion

In previous posts I've made several references to Frank Moore Cross' classic study Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (CMHE), published in 1973 and now in its ninth edition. Cross, professor emeritus in Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Languages, was a student of William Foxwell Albright who in many ways pioneered the comparative study of Canaanite and Israelite religion. (William Dever, whose work we have cited frequently, was a student of Cross.) In 1998 Cross published a collection of essays, most of which date to the 1980's, under the title From Epic to Canon (FEC). Several of these essays are relevant to our concerns and are worth considering before we move on to summarizing our conclusions concerning Israelite religion.

Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel

In Chapter 1, "Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel," Cross stresses that the notion of kinship is absolutely fundamental to a correct appreciation of ancient Israel, based as it was--in common with other West Semitic groups--on a fundamentally tribal society. I would wish to go somewhat further and point out that kinship concerns are not exclusive to tribal societies per se but are a common feature of many societies that Mircea Eliade characterizes as "archaic" or "traditional." For example, traditional Japanese society is not usually considered to be tribal, yet it is based on the mythology of common blood descent from the god and goddess on Mount Fuji. In theory, therefore, all Japanese are members of an extended family.

Kinship, Cross notes, defines "the rights and obligations, the duties, status, and privileges of tribal members." Of particular importance was the concept that an attack on one member was, given the blood tie, an attack on all members. Thus, the notion that all members were one flesh, blood, bone (Cross cites Gen 29:14, 2 Sam 5:1, Judges 9:1-4, Gen 37:27) had very practical ramifications in terms of group cohesiveness for the common defense. Rights and obligations were defined by this relationship not only for other members but also with regard to non-members.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

According to the Scriptures - N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright has a somewhat popularized book, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture, which is directly relevant to some of the posts here--especially the post devoted to C. H. Dodd's classic work: According to the Scriptures. (Frustratingly, Wright's book has no index and does not cite Dodd's work, but I find it impossible to believe that Wright has not read and thought deeply on Dodd's ideas.) I am in general agreement with Wright's approach, but would wish to amend it in some respects. Here are the key passages, spread across two chapters, with my comments:

3. Scripture and Jesus (pp. 42-46)
... I have argued...that Jesus believed himself called to undertake the task ... through which God's long range purposes would at last be brought to fruition. ... What this means in practice is that in and through Jesus evil is confronted and judged, and forgiveness and renewal are brought to birth. The covenant is renewed; new creation is inaugurated. The work which God had done through scripture in the Old Testament is done by Jesus in his public career, his death and resurrection, and his sending of the Spirit.
Comment: I believe this is generally the correct approach. However, there are complexities that need to be addressed. First, Wright refers to "[T]he work which God had done through scripture in the Old Testament," yet at the time of Jesus the Old Testament did not yet exist: there were significant differences among versions of the writings that we now call the Old Testament, and there was not yet general agreement as to which books could be regarded as scripture. In addition, Wright describes God as working through a book--a view which is at some variance with the picture we get from scripture itself, which describes God as working through a people in history. This is not nitpicking. Rather, it gets to the heart of a central question: how did Jesus himself regard the Israelite scriptures?