Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Ellman, Barat, Memory and Covenant: The Role of Israel's and God's Memory in Sustaining the Deuteronomic and Priestly Covenants (Emerging Scholars Series; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013). Pp xv + 222. Paperback. $49.00. ISBN 978-1-4514-6561-7.

Joining the growing body of literature on memory in the Bible, Memory and Covenant speaks to an important gap in research: the use of mnemonic theory to illumine the text's notion of memory. For her part, Ellman focuses on two major memory corpora, the Priestly writings and Deuteronomy, and interprets them through key theorists.

Ellman's basic argument is that the Priestly writings and Deuteronomy use memory in unique ways to sustain Israel's covenant with God. She seeks to develop her view in three phases: 1) by showing that the so-called two creation accounts (Gen 1:1–2:4a and Gen 2:4b–3:24) introduce the views of memory, covenant, and cosmogony that guide the Priestly and Deuteronomic traditions, respectively; 2) by elucidating the ways in which the two traditions conceptualize memory; and 3) by examining the text's representations of the religious programs (i.e., rituals and practices).

In the first phase, Ellman suggests that her memory rubric provides a possible answer to why Gen 1–3 sets two creation accounts side-by-side. The reason, she says, is because it aims to establish the governing creation-destruction-re-creation patterns that play out in these two traditions in the Hebrew Bible. (She realizes that Gen 2–3 is not usually considered Deuteronomic but surmises that the passage's ideas may have resonated with the Deuteronomist and were therefore appropriated.) Each of the Priestly and Deuteronomic traditions has its own view of how things were meant to be, where they went wrong, and how God aimed to resolve them through his covenant relationship with Israel. Because each sees memory as the means of sustaining the covenant, each also presents a unique conceptualization of memory's role.

What, then, are these conceptualizations? This constitutes the second phase of Ellman's work. For the Priestly tradition, she takes a traditional tack and views its concerns as more global in scope, as displayed in Gen 1–11. Here the consequences of sin are worldwide, so Israel's role has universal implications as well: its covenant is what upholds God's relationship with creation. By maintaining the covenant Israel maintains world order. Memory's function, as such, is primarily related to God: God needs to be reminded of his covenantal obligations. Israel's role is to provide such reminders through cultic activity. When Israel practices ritual and sacrifice properly, it issues visible reminders to God who then remembers his obligations both to Israel and creation.

These ideas have been common at least since Brevard Childs wrote on memory in the early 1960s.[1] Where Ellman makes her mark is in the area of visual stimuli. She seeks to show, in her third phase, that far from the “sanctuary of silence” described by Israel Knohl,[2] the cult was a veritable “sensory symphony and a dazzling display” (p. 120). In her view the sensory nature of the reminders arising from cultic activity was not incidental but essential. She points out, for instance, that one of the reminders, the high priest's vestments (robes, ephod, and diadem; Exod 28), is described as visually striking: richly arrayed in color and brilliant ornamentation which, not incidentally, seems to mimic an earlier reminder—the rainbow of Gen 9. Another reminder is the blasting of the silver trumpets (Num 10), which appeals not to God's eyes, like the priestly vestments, but to his ears. And then there is the “pleasing fragrance to YHWH” that rises from burned offerings (e.g., Lev 3:5). This reminder therefore gains God's attention through a different sense, that of smell. Overall the picture is one of sensory reminders meant to evoke God's memory.

While God's remembering is primary in the Priestly tradition, Israel's memory is not unimportant. The role of Israel's memory, though, is in a more subservient capacity—that of maintaining cultic order. Here Ellman largely follows the work of Adriane Leveen,[3] who argues that Israel's memory centers on using commemorative objects to evoke cautionary tales (e.g., the plating on the altar and Aaron's staff in Num 16–17). These objects therefore stand as perpetual warnings of the dangers of undermining God's ordained system. Where Ellman diverges from Leveen is in her understanding of the Holiness Code's reinterpretation of memory. She seeks to show that the Holiness literature reflects a re-tooling of the Priestly ideas in absence of the temple. As such, it emphasizes the community, rather than priestly, obligation to issue reminders to God. This results in elevating the significance of “signs” such as circumcision and Sabbath.

In regard to memory in Deuteronomy, Ellman offers a rather surprising reading. She argues that in contrast to the Priestly tradition, which focuses on sensory elements, Deuteronomy bases memory on informational content. In this view, Deuteronomy takes up Israel's rituals and practices and transforms them into a more “verbalized” and “intellectualized” form (p. 103). The point of doing so, Ellman suggests, is to bring these rites into line with the text's educational impetus, an impetus that she sees as emphasizing the memorization of law, history, and song through verbal repetition. Thus, memory serves as an engine to “ensure the transmission of doctrine from generation to generation” (p. 81). To Ellman, Deuteronomy's focus on an intellectualized memory indicates a very different form of actualization to that traditionally proposed by Brevard Childs and Gerhard von Rad.

What makes Ellman's reading so surprising is that it runs against the grain of the text and of widely held views without offering much reason as to why. Most strikingly, she seems unaware of a critical contrast in memory between the two bodies of literature. In the Priestly writings, the main object of Israel's memory is God's commands, while in Deuteronomy it is his mighty deeds. The idea in the former is that to remember the commands is to do them; but in the latter Israel remembers God's deeds in order to obey his commands (compare the Sabbath commands in Exod 20:8 and Deut 5:15). The rub, then, is that the textual phenomenon appears to run perfectly opposite of Ellman's argument. Priestly memory centers not on sensory (episodic) elements but on informational (semantic) ones—God's commands. And Deuteronomy employs memory not to engrain doctrine in Israel, but to motivate obedience to it by recalling foundational episodes. Deuteronomy's memory, therefore, is by nature episodic, not semantic.

How, then, are we to account for Ellman's reading? I think the reason is to be found in her reliance on Harvey Whitehouse's modes of religiosity.[4] The theory's basic premise is that all religious expressions ultimately grow out of one of two systems of human memory: episodic and semantic. Episodic memory specializes in images, and so religion that stems from it is called “imagistic.” Semantic memory, however, specializes in conceptual knowledge, and so religion that arises from it is called “doctrinal.” Each mode displays a certain set of characteristics. Ellman, as such, seeks to fit the Priestly literature in the imagistic mold and Deuteronomy in the doctrinal.

While I appreciate her effort to leverage Whitehouse, something that I myself have done,[5] I have serious misgivings about Ellman's approach. Firstly, she presses the text into a seemingly unnatural shape without offering good reasons as to why. Secondly, her interaction with Whitehouse offers neither an adequate picture of his theory nor an incisive critique. And thirdly, the components that Ellman does discuss are the ones friendly to her cause, despite the fact that there are others that would pose serious questions to her conclusions. For me, Ellman would have been better off focusing on a central idea in Whitehouse: that while each religion tends toward one or the other, none is purely imagistic or doctrinal; and each seeks to borrow elements from the other to balance itself out. Had she done so, I think Ellman would have found that the sensory elements in Priestly writing and the verbal in Deuteronomy are part of a subtle balancing act. Analyzing that act, I think, would have helped her accomplish her goal of clarifying the roles of memory in each tradition.

For me, Ellman's engagement with Whitehouse is representative of her larger work. Her approach is an important one for scholarship today, seeking to illumine biblical memory through contemporary mnemonic research. In her excitement to do so, however, she perhaps rushes to conclusions. A more balanced approach would contribute to amplify the text's own voice, which is the goal of interdisciplinary work.

A. J. Culp, Malyon College

[1] Brevard Childs, Memory and Tradition in Israel (London: SCM Press, 1962). reference

[2] Israel Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995). reference

[3] Adriane Leveen, Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). reference

[4] Harvey Whitehouse has developed his model in three works: Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (New York: Altamira, 2004); Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Inside the Cult: Religious Innovation and Transmission in Papua New Guinea (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995). reference

[5] “Modus Operandi? Deuteronomy's Religion in Dialogue with Whitehouse's Modes of Religiosity” (paper presented at Rocky Mountains-Great Plains region of the SBL, Denver, CO, April 2013). reference