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).


“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.


Notes on a verbal ontology

The original language of creation was Hebrew.   Primordial man had Hebrew names.  See here for more detail.   One can argue that all languages imply one another and so truth is translatable, but it is hard to find a reason not to emphasize Hebrew (if given the ability).  Any attempt to judge the Hebrew scriptures by some other translation, be it the Septuagint or the Vulgate, is Nestorian and Docetic–for it divides the Logos from his Hebrew maleness (which is yet another reason why the Logos didn’t assume the universal of humanity, but a localized Hebrew body).  

While much of Jordan’s stuff is in the stratosphere, I can’t find a better summary of a verbalist ontology.  

In Christianity,

God sets up the Mediator.

The Mediator is verbal, not visual.

We must listen and be changed.

In paganism and semi-Christianity,

Man sets up the mediators by making images.

The mediators are visual, not verbal.

The mediators are silent, so we are not changed.

Reading Hebrew: An act of literary defiance

If a tradition claims to be the font and fullness of God’s revelation, and that tradition prizes a translation of the Old Testament (Vulgate, LXX) over the Hebrew/Aramaic, then the act of reading Hebrew is itself a literary defiance.  This is the question I asked the anchorites at OrthoBridge:  if the LXX is the text by which we measure other texts, then what’s the point of even using the Hebrew?  At this point Harnack’s charge of Hellenism is actually correct!  If we marginalize the Bible that Yeshua read, is this not a de-Hebraicizing of Yeshua?  Isn’t this downplaying (if not fully separating) his human nature?

Language Helps for the Young Seminarian

You shouldn’t listen to me simply because I know everything.  I don’t.  However, I have made all the mistakes and if you reverse engineer it, you can see what to do.  Depending on the evangelical seminary you are going to, the curriculum will heavily emphasize the languages, sometimes to a glaring fault.  If you take the following considerations to account, your language study at seminary will be much easier (and these are the hardest courses).  I will focus more on Hebrew.  I minored in Greek in college and Greek is a Western language anyway, so it isn’t that hard to learn.  Hebrew is, though.


Go ahead and read, study, and memorize large sections of the textbook before you get to class.  Preferably do this in the three month interval between graduating one school in the summer and going to seminary.   Learn as much vocab as you possibly can.  It’s boring at times and modern day hippie educators say that’s the worst way to learn, but they can jump in a river.  It’s the only way to learn languages at the beginning (Yes, I know of the “immersion” technique, but since there aren’t any ancient Hebrew communities, that won’t work).  Ask the department which text they are using.  Grammars usually don’t change from semester to semester, and even if they do the content is the same.

Lexical Aids

Sadly, the best lexical material is the most expensive.  You can throw Brown-Driver-Briggs in the trash can.  It is much bulkier than other books and it simply isn’t that good.  At the very least you must get Holladay’s.  If you have an insanely rich backer, get Koeller‘s.  If you can’t afford either, van Pelt’s grammar has a very basic lexicon in the back, which combined with the vocab words at the end of the chapter, will give you a good enough vocab.


Go ahead and get the Basic Workbook and the Graded Reader.   Start working through the former immediately.  They will be assigned as homework assignments anyway.

Computer aids

I’m fairly certain much has changed in seven years, but when I was there many students got BibleWorks on their computers.  The profs frowned on it because it made translation too easy.  All you had to do was scroll your mouse over a word and it glossed and parsed it for you.  I would spend 30 minutes parsing ten verses when another student spent two minutes.  On the other hand, when you get to the exegesis classes, you will be required to put many passages in your paper in Hebrew font, complete with pointers and all.   Even if your Word Processor can do that, I didn’t have the intelligence with computers to work it.  Suppose you know how to type in Hebrew font, try putting a Dagesh Lene or a Vocal Shewa between the letters.   Yeah, good luck with that.  With BibleWorks all you have to do is copy/paste.  This literally takes hours off of your paper.  It’s pricey, but it might mean the difference between passing and failing.

Extras that you don’t need but are helpful anyway:

Vocab Reader:  van Pelt and Pratico published this one.  It gives you progressive lists of which words occur the most frequently. If you memorize certain lists, your ability to spot-read will increase.  Technically, you don’t need it, but it is a useful resource.

Old Testament Parsing Guide:  Parses every verb in the Hebrew Bible for you.  If you have BibleWorks you don’t need this.  Be careful how you use this, as it can become an “iron lung.”