Excellent Introduction to the History of Israel for the Lay Person

I started reading Mark S. Smith’s Memoirs of God this past week. Smith states in the introduction to the book that his audience is those outside of “fellow scholars” and “graduate students,” i.e. “the general public.”  For the whole of the book, I’m not so sure he hits that target. I work with a more general audience, and I feel fairly certain the general audience I work with would have some difficulty in the shift that takes place between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3.  Chapters 3 and 4 are not, in my opinion, nearly as accessible as the first two chapters, but I suppose sometimes there is only so much that one can simplify a topic.

However, I would draw attention to chapters 1 and 2.  I have had a very hard time finding a good succinct written history of Israel that I would recommend to a lay person.  As Smith duly notes, most  histories of Israel (e.g. Bright) start with the patriarchs and move through the stories of the Old Testament in the order of their presentation in the Biblical text trying to match up stories with archaeological findings.  Anyone who has engaged in a critical study of the History of Israel recognizes many of the inherent problems in this approach.  Yet how does one avoid this traditional approach without muddying the waters too much?  I think Smith accomplishes this in chapter 1 of the book, though this is certainly a matter of personal opinion.  In addition, the discussion in chapter 2 of the difficulties faced by the nation of Israel throughout its history would also be beneficial to all readers.

And at $10 for the paperback, I think the text would be well worth the purchase even if only for the first two chapters.


  • mark will be gratified to learn you appreciated his work.

  • Thanks very much for the good comments about my book, The Memoirs of God. And thanks to Jim for drawing my attention to this blog.

    It is true that chapters 1 and 2 of this book are more accessible than chapters 3 and 4. At the same time, chapters 3 and 4 are building on what readers have taken in with chapters 1 and 2. In a way, chapters 3 and 4 address many of the same historical phases but with an additional intellectual ideas about how Israel remembered its own past and specifically about it remembered its history with God. So it is true that chapters 3 and 4 are not as straightforward, but for me this book really is about how Israel remembers its past and how this memory affects the representation of the past, including its representation of God.

    Again, thanks.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I also appreciate Jim pointing you here. I hope the criticism did not overshadow the positive comments. I have appreciated your work for some time, ever since I read The Early History of God a number of years ago. And, your discussion in this particular book of how your interests as a Roman Catholic have potentially influenced your thinking also resonate with me, as the Catholic church is where my faith commitments lie. In terms of my own reading, I thought that the book was excellent.

      It was just when I got to the section in Chapter 3 on the Structures of Divinity: Deities over Divine Monsters that I felt it was going a bit beyond what the general audience that I work with might be able to handle. It was particularly in the section where the examples of Psalm 74, Psalm 104, and Genesis 1 are drawn in and following. It is at that point that, to me at least, the distinctions begin to get a bit finer and levels become a bit harder to keep separate in one’s mind. Of course it could be that I’m working with a different definition of a general audience based on my own personal circumstances. In addition, it could be that I underestimate (God forbid) the people that I teach in my local parish or overestimate the difficulties in the presentation of the concepts in those chapters.

      At any rate, I appreciate the work that you have put into this book and look forward to your newest text on Genesis 1 that Jim told me about via e-mail (though I may actually have to get some of my own thesis research work done before I delve into it).

      All the best