Sunday, July 31, 2011

covenant: the history of a biblical idea

Maybe you noticed I've been writing a few Amazon reviews? I'm hoping my own re-thinking some important and favorite books might help reactivate this blog and reactivate my life some, too. This time it's Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (from a series, Seminar in the History of Ideas, published by Johns Hopkins Press, of the school where the concept of the history of ideas probably originated) by Delbert R. Hillers. This is the book one of my seminary professors insisted we'd need to understand because otherwise we wouldn't *get* our seminary education. I didn't reread the book (yet), but glancing through it as a critter casually noms on browse made me realize it could be fun and even enlightening to read again in detail.

Covenant book coverParticularly in the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, sometimes referred to as "Old Covenant Scriptures," throughout scripture we hear about the God who covenants, the God of covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, David... the God who covenants with each one of us in baptism. On a side note, the seminary I attended most properly would be referred to as "ecumenical," and it's also one of the historic United Church of Christ seminaries. Some antecedents of today's UCC opined that God never had dealt with, interacted with humanity in any way other than by covenanting!

Author Delbert Hillers observed that [page 87] "Outside the Bible, it is in treaties that we find … a mixture of history and commands, and the present shape of the Pentateuch ultimately reflects the combination of narrative and obligation in the treaty." In school we read examples of suzerainty treaties, purportedly the model for many of the biblical texts.

Early on the author cautions, "A … difficulty with 'covenant' is that it is not necessarily one idea." [page 6] However (listen up, peeps!), on page 29 he lists the most characteristic six parts of a typical treaty: 1 preamble; 2 historical prologue; 3 stipulations; 4 provisions for deposit and public reading of the text; 5 list of divine witness to the treaty (a stone of witness often stands in just fine for the divine); 6 blessings and curses that frequently simply mirror each other.

from page 80:
Democratization of religious responsibility meant that covenant traditions were kept alive in the individual family. This is a feature so characteristic of modern Jewish life, and of Christianity as well, that it takes an effort to recall that in the ancient East much of religion was a matter of the state: the gods were the gods of the city, and specialists, the priests, saw to the "care and feeding of the gods" and preserved the liturgy and mythology of the temple.
Also, as we need constantly to be aware, in these texts and during that time there was no concept of secular in the rationalized dualistic sacred/secular dichotomy sense post-enlightenment Western people understand and almost comfortably exist within.

Central to our understanding as Christians, [page 152] is the author's citing "Deuteronomy's brand of love... [as]...the mother lode of much other influential biblical teaching about love for God." Therefore, "To love Yahweh" is linked inseparably with "to serve Him." Page 154-155: "...the covenant of obedience binding Israel, and the covenant of promise binding Yahweh, were originally two separate things, not at all easy to reconcile with one another. In Deuteronomy, however, they are combined in classic fashion, so that even if the tension is not resolved, some of the essential features of both are preserved." Briefly, the Abrahamic covenant becomes intertwined with the Sinai covenant: [Hear, O Israel,] Yahweh desired you and chose you because Yahweh loved you and because of lovingkindness for you, Yahweh redeemed you from slavery in Egypt.

I enjoyed looking through this book and would love to facilitate a maybe weekly month-or-so-long adult study class on it and related biblical covenant texts. However, although you can copies on Amazon, they are expensive!

my Amazon review - covenant: a biblical reality

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