The Fall And Rise Of Covenant, Law And Treaty -- By: Kenneth A. Kitchen

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 40:1 (NA 1989)
Article: The Fall And Rise Of Covenant, Law And Treaty
Author: Kenneth A. Kitchen

The Fall And Rise Of Covenant, Law And Treaty

Kenneth A. Kitchen

The theme of covenant (and especially the Sinai covenant and its renewals) has attracted much debate for over a century in Old Testament studies. In a recent book, succinctly and clearly written and handsomely presented, Professor E. W. Nicholson has reviewed the vicissitudes of covenant in Old Testament studies (in effect) from Wellhausen to the present decade.1 The thrust of his book is that Old Testament studies have come full circle: Wellhausen originally denied the covenant (both term and concept) any effective existence until the eighth and particularly the seventh centuries BC, and now (after varied peregrinations) not a few contemporary Old Testament scholars, including Nicholson, wish to return to that position.


As chapter 1 makes clear, Wellhausen’s view divided opinions sharply for some forty years (1878–1918). Such scholars as Stade (1887), Meyer (1906) and Gunkel (1913) followed Wellhausen in denying the antiquity of the Sinai covenant. Others such as Kittel (1888), Steuernagel (1899), Procksch (1906) and Gressmann (1913) all argued in varying degree for a covenant enacted in some form at Sinai under Moses. The term bĕrīt for ‘covenant’ was discussed at length with varying results. Alone, J. Pedersen (1914) invoked non-biblical data, but utilized only the (impossibly late) pre-Islamic Arabian sources, refusing to consider data from ancient Mesopotamia on the inadequate ground that its (supposedly) urban civilisation lent a different significance to the term there. So, by 1920, no agreed solution had emerged.

But in the ensuing thirty years (1920–50), ‘The Controversy Ended’, to reuse the title of chapter 2. From the mid-twenties, more and more scholars accepted both the antiquity and significance of ‘covenant’ in early Israel, arguing in its favour under fresh impulses. Such were: Mowinckel (1921–4, 1927, 1951: monarchy period), Hempel (1926), Weiser (1928, 1931, 1948), Galling (1928), especially Eichrodt (1933–9); Gunkel (1930, changing from his 1913 stance); Porteous (1936), H. W. Robinson (1946) and Rowley (1950), G. E. Wright (1944–52), and Noth (1930–50). The basic reasons were threefold: (1) re-emphasis on Israelite religion having been founded on historical events (not a mythical ‘nature-religion’); (2) the fresh emphasis on the role of cult (Mowinckel), leading to the theory of an annual autumn covenant-renewal feast; (3) the thesis of a twelve-tribe league based on a covenant enacted at Schechem (You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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