De-hellenizing the Old Testament

Walter Eichrodt was a mainline German Protestant who nevertheless wrote an outstanding theology of the Old Testament.  The first fifty pages or so was sheer excitement.  I was floored.  Here was one of the world’s leading Old Testament authorities saying everything about Hebrew Thought and God that I had been saying, except he has tenure.

This is only the first two hundred pages of Old Testament theology.  These deal more with covenant and doctrine of God.   The second half deals with covenant leaders, which is important but not relevant to my studies at the moment.  Key here is the contrast between covenant religion and magic (ontology) religion.

“Real God becoming manifest in history to which the SCriptures of the OT bear witness” (15).

“That which binds together indivisibly the two realms of the Old and New Testaments…is the irruption of the Kingdom of God into this world and its establishment here” (26).

The Meaning of the Covenant Concept

  • Factual nature of divine revelation (37).  “God’s disclosure of himself is not grasped speculatively.”  As “he  molds them according to his will he grants them knowledge of his being.”
  • A clear divine will is discernable.  “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.’ Because of this the fear that constantly haunts the pagan world, the fear of arbitrariness and caprice in the Godhead, is excluded” (38).
  • The content of that will is defined in ways that make the human party aware of the position (39).
  • Divine election and kingdom:  Jer. 2:1; 1 Sam. 8:1-10; this dual pattern provides the interpretation of Israelite history.
  • The bond of nature religion was broken (42).  The covenant did not allow an inherent bond in the believer, the order of nature, and the god.   Chain of being is broken.  Divinity does not display itself in the mysterium of nature.  Election is the opposite of nature religions (43).  Israelite ritual does not mediate “cosmic power.”  “One indication of decisive importance in this respect is the fact that the covenant is not concluded by the performance of a wordless action, having its value in itself, but is accompanied by the word as the expression of the divine will” (44).

The History of the Covenant Concept

Eichrodt discusses the dangers the covenant idea faced.  Canaanite ideas quickly muted the sharp sounds of the covenant.  “The gulf set between God and man by his terrifying majesty was levelled out of existence by the emphasis laid on their psycho-physical relatedness and community” (46).  It is interesting to compare this description with Paul Tillich’s claim that the church placed the intermediaries of saints and angels over the Platonic hierarchy of Forms.

Refashioning of the Covenant Concept

Dt 4.13, 23 understands berith simply as the Decalogue.   A shift to the legal character.  Man can violate the conditions of the covenant, but he cannot annul it (54).

The Cultus

“Alien from primitive Yahwism, and introduced into the Yahweh cultus predominantly as a result of Canaanite influence, were the massebah, the Asherim and the bull image” (115).  The Canaanites believed this was a transference of the particular object of the divine power effective at the holy place as a whole.

  • Special places were always seen, by contrast, as memorials to Yahweh’s self-manifestation (116).

Pictorial Representations

“The spiritual leaders of Israel, however, always made a firm stand against this adoption of heathen image-worship, regarding it as an innovation which contradicted the essence of Yahweh religion” (118).

Prayer

“Indicative of the pattern of Old Testament piety is the fact that the dominant motives of prayer never included that of losing oneself, through contemplation, in the divine infinity.  There was no room in Israel for mystical prayer; the nature of the Mosaic Yahweh with his mighty personal will effectively prevented the development of that type of prayer which seeks to dissolve the individual I in the unbounded One.  Just as the God of the Old Testament is no Being reposing in his own beatitude, but reveals himself in the controlling will of the eternal King, so the pious Israelite is no intoxicated, world-denying mystic revelling in the Beyond, but a warrior, who wrestles even in prayer, and looks for the life of power in communion with his divine Lord.  His goal is not the static concept of the summum bonum, but the dynamic fact of the Basileia tou Theou” (176).

The Name of the Covenant God

Exodus 3:14:  “This is certainly not a matter of Being int he metaphysical sense of aseity, absolute existence, pure self-determination or any other ideas of the same kind.  It is concerned with a revelation of the divine will” (190).

The prophet Isaiah connects the fact of Yahweh is King with Yahweh’s eschatological act of salvation.

 

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5 comments on “De-hellenizing the Old Testament

  1. John* says:

    Jacob,

    Could you please supply the full technical details of this book, including its ISBN and Dewey & Library of Congress Number?

    Thanks,
    J

    • Eichrodt, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament, Volume One (Old Testament Library). Westminster John Knox Press, 1961. ISBN-10: 0664223087
      ISBN-13: 978-0664223083

      Dewey Decimal Class 221.6
      Library of Congress BS1192.5 .E353

  2. Jacob,

    Is this debate between Hellenistic and Hebraic theories of “knowing” determinant to those discussions about voluntarism and intellectualism, like those that exploded during late medieval scholasticism?

    In other words (just so i can better understand what you’re saying): are the issues discussed somewhat similar?

    • Good question. I did not make it with those categories in mind. Perhaps others could see similarities. The only reason I am hesitant to say there are is that both intellectualism and voluntarism presuppose the same discourse/genelogy/ than what I am suggesting (a covenantal approach).

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