George E. Mendenhall

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George Emery Mendenhall (born 1916-08-13) is an author and Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Department of Near Eastern Studies.

"Do the people create a religion, or does the religion create a people? Historically, when we are dealing with the formative period of Moses and the Judges, there can be no doubt that the latter is correct, for the historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence is too powerful to deny. Religion furnished the foundation for a unity far beyond what had existed before, and the covenant appears to have been the only conceivable instrument through which the unity was brought about and expressed."

Sourced[edit]

Law and Convenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (1954)[edit]

  • The messages of the prophets are essentially indictments of Israel for breach of covenant. They preserved some memory of the old traditions, but were not so naive as to think that the literal demands of the old law would be adequate in their own times. There is no condemnation of the stratification of society as such, rather a condemnation of the injustice and extortion which was done by the powerful. To take a specific example, the old law knew as security for a loan only the pledge (Exod. 22:26). In a simple economy, loans were evidently of an amount which would usually be adequately secured by giving to the creditor some property to hold until the loan was repaid. In case of default, the debtor's property simply reverted to the creditor. No other form of security is presupposed in the Covenant Code, and it is specifically forbidden that an Israelite be a "creditor" to one of his fellows. Already in the reign of Saul the situation had changed, Those who gathered about David as outlaws included those who had "creditors" (I Sam. 22:2), and who therefore had to flee. Under the old pledge system of security there would be no possible occasion for flight from the community in case of default. A totally different legal doctrine had come into practice whereby the person of the debtor was security for a loan. Upon default the creditor could seize him (or his family) as a slave, possibly without any legal action at all. The only alternative to slavery would have been flight. This doctrine is identical to that of Babylonian law, and no doubt of the Canaanites as well. It is in the law of the monarchy that Canaanite influence is doubtless to be posited, but it is a legal tradition in total contradiction to the customs and morality of early Israel. Amos protested violently against the way the legal doctrine was practiced, as did most of the prophets (Am. 2:6; Hos. 12:8-9; Mic. 2:1-2). The later lawcodes illustrate beautifully the way in which the early traditions, and the needs of business were brought into harmony. The older pledge system was simply inadequate for a commercial economy; and if the person of the debtor was to be protected, so also must the rights of the creditor to some security for his loan to be guaranteed. Therefore, Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code (Lv. 17-26) accept the doctrine of bodily liability, but place restrictions upon the powers of the creditor over the defaulting debtor. In the Holiness Code he is not to be treated as a slave, nor given the legal status of a slave, but rather to be as a hired laborer.

The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition (1973)[edit]

  • The covenant form is essential not only for understanding certain highly unusual features of the Old Testament faith, but also for understanding the existence of the community itself and the interrelatedness of the different aspects of early Israel's social culture. Here we reach a clear watershed, so to speak, in historical research. Do the people create a religion, or does the religion create a people? Historically, when we are dealing with the formative period of Moses and the Judges, there can be no doubt that the latter is correct, for the historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence is too powerful to deny. Religion furnished the foundation for a unity far beyond what had existed before, and the covenant appears to have been the only conceivable instrument through which the unity was brought about and expressed. If the very heart and center of religion is "allegiance," which the Bible terms "love," religion and covenant become virtually identical. Out of this flows nearly the whole of those aspects of biblical faith that constitute impressive contrasts to the ancient paganism of the ancient Near Eastern world, in spite of increasingly massive evidence that the community of ancient Israel did not constitute a radical contrast to them either ethnically, in material culture, or in many patterns of thought or language.
  • Further, such Levite names as Mūšī, Merārī, Qīšī and others raise the question of whether or not the curious "ethnic" nature of the Levites may not be explained by their pre-Israelite origin as Luwians, who also were evidently noteworthy for their expertise in rituals (footnote: The original "secular" and warlike nature of the Levites has been a mystery for decades; cf. especially Genesis 34 and 49:5). The shift from Luwi to Lēwi is of course exactly paralleled by shifts from sǔm to šēm, and ‘um to ‘ēm, and the "ethnic" Luwi fell together with the Semitic lawī- ‘lent, dedicated.’ Only Luwi can explain the ē by "umlaut."

Ancient Israel’s Faith and History: An Introduction the Bible in Context (2001)[edit]

Edited by Gary A. Herion

  • Martin Luther once observed that your “god” is that which you most fear to lose. More recently, Paul Tillich defined a “god” as an “Ultimate Concern.” For the influential citizens and decision makers of the Late Bronze Age, the “Ultimate Concerns” they most feared losing were power and prosperity, and the political apparatus that was believed to guarantee both. For the elite, these concerns took precedence over almost every other consideration. Like many modern folk, they found it impossible to conceive of the reality of the divine apart from some social system of coercion and force. To worship Baal and Asherah was to affirm the supreme value that power and wealth played in making all human life and experience meaningful.

    This sort of pagan religious ideology almost inevitably sows the seeds of its own demise. Where power and wealth are the predominant concerns and sacred ends, society dissolves into a self-destructive struggle to obtain them. And the more widely held such a religious ideology, the more widespread the violence will likely be, destroying especially those who most faithfully embrace it.

"The thunderstorm at the mountain powerfully reinforced the sacred quality and value of the covenant delivered there by Moses, and the value of this covenant, in turn, powerfully reinforced the escaped slaves’ belief that, in this particular thunderstorm, they had indeed witnessed the presence and voice of a god"
  • The series of events leading up to the formation of the biblical community and its religion apparently began unexpectedly. Moses killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating one of the slaves. It is difficult to imagine this being a fictional invention, especially since the biblical writers never chose to comment on this noteworthy aspect of the protagonist’s dark past. When Moses later tried to intervene between two quarreling slaves, one of them responded, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:11-15). Is the monopoly of force — the ability to coerce other human beings — truly the ultimate basis of social authority? If it seems undesirable to ground social authority on something that essentially boils down to the superior ability to commit murder, then what is the alternative?
  • A numinous experience lacking further significance quickly degenerates into mere superstition, easily rationalized or forgotten over time. What prevented this particular experience from such a fate was its connection with something of urgent significance to this diverse group of escaped slaves: a covenant. The covenant revealed at Mount Sinai directly addressed their wilderness predicament by proposing a framework on which this heterogeneous collection of individuals could see beyond their differences and together build a future, no longer as a “mixed rabble” but as “one people.” The thunderstorm at the mountain powerfully reinforced the sacred quality and value of the covenant delivered there by Moses, and the value of this covenant, in turn, powerfully reinforced the escaped slaves’ belief that, in this particular thunderstorm, they had indeed witnessed the presence and voice of a god.

    In antiquity, the revelation of a new religious insight or system was not described in terms of human inspiration or innovation but rather as a divine revelation associated with a theophany. The theophany was the typical motif used to explain the origin of something new and meaningful. But something new can only become meaningful if it is also expressed and described in terms and analogies that are already well-known to everyone concerned. Despite its religious novelty, the Sinai covenant Moses delivered was readily intelligible to these ex-slaves because it employed well-known concepts and images, in this case concepts and images drawn from the familiar world of Late Bronze Age international politics. Naturally, they were adapted so that they now served religious as opposed to political ends, providing a basis for a community whose cohesion did not require any political enforcement mechanism or monopoly of force.

Our Misunderstood Bible (2006)[edit]

  • In Luther's writings concerning Law and Gospel, he had already observed concerning the phrase, "I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.." "This is purest Gospel." In other words, the structure of the Christian faith is identical to that of the original biblical covenant, and both are similar to the ways of thinking in ecumenical world politics at the time of Moses: that obedience to a set of stipulations is the required result of gratitude for benefits that have already been received. It is a matter of cause and effect, not simply an arbitrary command.

    This is the structure of the original Old Testament and of New Testament religious ethics. This contrasts in the sharpest possible way to the attitudes and tactics of far too many religious zealots of the present world, who are determined to use the force of law to compel people to act in accordance with their concept of divine commands. This in turn is one of the major causes of the widespread antipathy to religion that is growing in the modern world, and of the desecration of the name of God.

    Thus, the misunderstanding of ancient covenants has led to the distortion of the ten commitments of faith into commandments, usually of some human authority.

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