The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel
Over the past few decades mainstream (i.e., nonevangelical) Old Testament scholarship has experienced significant changes. The consensus of the 1970s, represented by such works as John Bright’s History of Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981) has fragmented into numerous revised interpretations of ancient Israel’s history and religious development. Surprisingly little evidence of this shift has surfaced at the popular level. One important exception is The Memoirs of God, which summarizes in a concise manner much of the current nonevangelical thinking in the field of Old Testament studies and is designed to reach a popular audience.
The movement away from the old consensus is readily apparent as Smith does not see the patriarchal narratives as reliable traditions about Israel’s forefathers. He characterizes the Mosaic period as “mythic,” with a “possible historical kernel behind the biblical account of the exodus” (p. 19). He argues that polemical references in the Old Testament to Canaanite religious ideas are evidence of residual, premonarchic polytheism in Israel’s religion. Through a blending of some old traditions (e.g., Yahweh replaced the Canaanite god El) and a rejection of others (e.g., El’s consort, Asherah, was eventually detached even from Yahweh), monotheism came to dominate Israel’s traditions. Smith argues, “Ultimately, there can be no biblical center or core to biblical theology that emphasizes some notion of God at the expense of others [because the Bible contains] a kaleidoscope of divinity that the biblical Deity chose to leave as the record of divine identity” (p. 170).
Besides denying the historicity of the Bible, Smith does not differentiate adequately between Israel’s “orthodox,” “official,” and “popular” religion. He says that throughout Israel’s history orthodox prophetic faith competed against polytheistic faiths at both the official and popular levels. “Orthodox” faith presupposes that one tradition is viewed as “true” in contrast to other notions of the pantheon that were “aberrations.” While Smith refers to the “memoirs of God” as the divine role in transforming Israel’s traditional religion(s) into a monotheistic faith (p. 158), he clearly—and unfortunately—excludes a clear, intervening voice of God through the prophets (p. 169).