Tuesday, September 22, 2020 Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

George E. Mendenhall

Author and Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Department of Near Eastern Studies.
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George E. Mendenhall
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.
Mendenhall quotes
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?
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.

Mendenhall George E. quotes
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.
Mendenhall George E.
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.
George E. Mendenhall quotes
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.
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