Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Mark S. Smith, The Memoirs of God: History, Memory and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).  Pp. xviii + 187.  Paper, US$21.00.  ISBN 0-8006-3485-3.

In the preface to his latest book, The Memoirs of God: History, Memory and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel, Mark Smith states that he is writing for a more general audience in an attempt to bring that which is academic into the mainstream. Smith proves himself to be quite good at doing this. He is able to present complex scholarly arguments in a way that those without biblical training can understand without insulting their intelligence and at the same time present a text that is not boring or overly basic to the scholar. His success here is strengthened by his willingness to acknowledge where scholarly debates exist and point the reader to further sources for follow-up, without getting bogged down by the details and scholarly conventions.

The introduction acquaints the reader with the basics of historiography and through this lens explores the history of Israel and the biblical text. Smith traces the history of Israel by examining the texts he has determined belong to each period. For example, he dates Judges 5 to the pre-monarchic period and uses it to draw historical information about that time, but he does not use all of the book of Judges, as its writing reflects the concern of the later period when it was composed. Chapter one details the history through various social-science perspectives (e.g., archaeology, biblical studies, anthropology) and attempts to reconstruct an accurate picture of the historical events.

In contrast, chapter two explores that history through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures, not limited to the Historical books and explores the interaction between history and literature.  Smith focuses on the crises in the history of Israel and the responses to such events. He examines them in light of the categories established in chapter one (e.g., pre-monarchic, united and divided monarchy, etc.). While chapter two is billed as an examination of crises in Israel’s history and the responses to them, the main focus is the destruction of Jerusalem and the resulting exile, which is undoubtedly the most significant crisis the nation faced. The chapter takes the reader through a historical tour of Israel viewed with the lens of its literature, the historical purpose for developing that literature and its effect on the populace.

Chapter three presents an excellent synopsis of Smith’s earlier famous works on Israelite religion. In this chapter, he explores Israelite religion and its responses to the events of chapter two. The chapter begins with an exploration of the ancient Near Eastern polytheistic context, particularly the Ugaritic divine council. Then Smith traces the history of Israelite religion from its earliest polytheistic phase to later monotheistic expressions.

The final chapter provides the climax for the book. Smith attempts to embrace the biblical texts with the concept of collective memory. While this has been a popular study in the social sciences, it has been underrepresented in the realm of biblical studies. He begins the chapter by tracing the theory of collective memory through its major theoretical proponents. Then Smith explains how the theory of collective memory can be applied to the Bible, by exploring the theoretical framework of Halbwach and the Annales school in relation to formation and the study of the Bible. In the last third of this chapter, he explores collective memory in the biblical text specifically in relation to areas surrounding divinity, which allows for a nice tie to chapter three and brings the entire analysis to completion. This is really the part of this work that is groundbreaking and the piece that distinguishes it from the previous work of Smith and of other scholars.

While for the most part Smith does an excellent job of presenting scholarly views to the laity, there are times when he uses forms that would confuse the average reader of the Bible (e.g., not a biblical scholar). For example, in chapter two he refers to the high priest as Jeshua, yet most English translations of the biblical text use Joshua. This could lead readers without the linguistic background to be confused and have trouble relating what Smith says to the biblical text. In addition, the book generally gets more technical and advanced as it progresses. However, this is a very minor observance in a work that is overwhelmingly beneficial to all readers. 

Ellen White
University of St. Michael’s College