Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Mason, Steven D. “Eternal Covenant” In the Pentateuch: The Contours of an Elusive Phrase (LHBOTS, 494; New York, London: T&T Clark, 2008). Pp. x+261. Hardcover. £70. ISBN 978-0-567-02718-4.

Originally a dissertation written at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, under the direction of Nathan McDonald, this book takes as its point of departure the loose consensus that formed in the middle of the 20th century regarding the eternal covenant or ברית עולם. Walther Eichrodt and others determined that in the Priestly stratum of the Pentateuch, the ברית עולם is an expression solely of God's grace, independent of human deeds. As such, the covenant was said to be unconditional, unbreakable, unilateral, and expressed preeminently in the pacts that God makes with Noah and Abraham. In this view, the covenant is eternal because God is eternal and as such uniquely responsible for its enduring fulfillment. Steven D. Mason challenges this common understanding of the eternal covenant, which he likens to an inaccurate picture, and proposes that in the Pentateuch the ברית עולם between God and Israel is bilateral, conditional, and breakable. As Mason defines it, the everlasting covenant incorporates the obligations of humans alongside the promises of God, and if Israel fails to perform its prescribed duties the covenant is broken.

The first chapter involves a review of scholarship and a statement on method. Mason chooses final-form interpretation over and against the diachronic, historical-critical approach of Eichrodt and his contemporaries: “It seems that the current rise of final-form interpretation means that the older historical methods are less obvious starting points for such a study” (p. 20). This single and somewhat opaque remark is the extent to which Mason discusses his methodology, and it leaves the reader wanting more rationale for his choice of final-form interpretation. Elsewhere, Mason suggests that his analysis of the text's final form could contribute to an understanding of its “complex history of development” (p. 20), and in his concluding chapter he focuses some attention on the postexilic Priestly writers and the covenant theology they are said to have developed in that period (p. 226). In these comments Mason points toward a nuanced methodology with a historical-critical dimension, but in the exegetical portion of his investigation he limits himself to the final form of the biblical text.

The exegetical chapters that form the nucleus of this study exhibit a patterned approach to the biblical text. Mason typically establishes the pericope containing the expression ברית עולם, and then identifies a second pericope in close proximity to the first. He introduces an exegetical connection between the two pericopes, often involving the words אני הנה and ואתה in an expression that is said to be formulaic. With the two pericopes conjoined, Mason has effectively expanded the textual field of the ברית עולם and made it possible to adduce a full range of obligations, human as well as divine, that mark the covenant in question as bilateral and doubly conditional. An example of this approach, and an instance in which it works well, is the chapter on Gen 9. The expression ברית עולם in 9:16 occurs within the pericope 9:8–17, where God promises never to cut off humankind again, to preserve the land perpetually and to recall the divine pledge through the sign of the rainbow. In this covenant the divine promises are self-evident. Mason focuses on 9:9: “As for me (ואני הנני), I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,” and he connects this expression with 9:7: “And you (ואתה), be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” The basis of the connection is the so-called ואתה/אני הנה formula that is said to bridge the two verses, one of which indicates the divine promise and the other the human obligation (Mason takes the admonition to be fruitful and multiply as a covenantal obligation). Mason argues that the future well-being of the ברית עולם in Gen 9:16 thus depends not only on God's promises but also on humans meeting their obligation to be fruitful and multiply. The covenant is conditional and breakable, Mason concludes; if humans fail to be fruitful and multiply it will cancel the eternal covenant. Human obligation, Mason makes clear, is more prevalent in the ברית עולם in Gen 9 than has heretofore been acknowledged.

Using this same approach, Mason probes the other attestations of ברית עולם in the Pentateuch (Gen 17:1c–2, 7, 13, 19; Exod 31:16; Lev 24:8; Num 18:19; 25:13) and in every case determines that the covenant in question is bilateral, conditional and breakable. In support of his conclusion, he identifies in most of these verses three recurrent themes: the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, the authority that God's people have over their enemies, and the effect of people being cut off from the covenant. While the book's thesis thus has the appearance of being iron-clad, some scholars will read these pentateuchal texts differently and reach other conclusions. Possible points of disagreement include the following.

It is not apparent that all of these covenants are bilateral in the sense that there are two parties involved and both parties have covenantal obligations to fulfill. The ברית עולם in Exod 31:16, for example, is said to have two parties, one divine and the other human. The human party is easily located in 31:12–18, a passage that features the Sabbath commandment (31:13a). Mason contends that the divine party to this covenant is reflected in Exod 31:1–11, a set of tabernacle instructions. The two pericopes are said to be interrelated through the expressions ואתה and אני הנה that Mason observes in 31:6a and 31:13a: “When one recognizes the אני הנה/ואתה structure it is clear that the artisan and Sabbath pericopes are to be read together as two sides of the ברית עולם of the Sabbath” (p. 157). Exodus 31:6, however, concludes a subsection (31:2–6) that commentators such as Martin Noth understand to be a later literary addition to the P narrative. In Exod 31, if ואני הנני and ואתה were not from the hand of the same Priestly author, but rather two different ones, what are the grounds for linking 31:1–11 and 31:12–16? Mason also connects the two pericopes in Exod 31 on the basis of parallel attestations of ברית עולם in 31:5 and 16 (p. 150). Commentators such as William H. C. Propp, however, hold that the second instance of עשׂה ‎(31:16) is from the D source, not P. The datum militates against the unity of 31:1–11 and 12–18 if that unity is to be manifest through the repetition of the verb עשׂה. Mason does not address these issues, rooted as they are in source criticism, because he employs final-form methodology, but those with a diachronic approach to the text will rightly wonder whether the Sabbath-goers in this covenant have a divine counterpart.

Moreover, with regard to the divine party attested in Exod 31:1–11, it is not self evident that this deity has made a covenantal promise. Mason focuses on 31:3, a statement that God has infused Hiram with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge as Hiram fashions the tabernacle. While Exod 31:3 contains no explicit divine promise to Moses and his people, Mason interprets the verse as God's promise to empower Israel to fulfill all of the divine commands, on the basis that the commandments are literally written on a stone surface that comes to be found in the tabernacle: “Yet the transcendent message of the eternal covenant is that God will empower Israel to fulfill all his commands, that is, the Mosaic Law, which are inherently connected to the tabernacle through daily worship and life of Israel [sic] which is centralized by the sanctuary. Indeed that [sic] tablets themselves reside within the Holy of Holies” (p. 158). Here and elsewhere the argument becomes strained for the sake of proving the book's thesis that every instance of ברית עולם in the Pentateuch is a bilateral covenant with two parties who have made specific promises to each other.

Similarly, with regard to Lev 24:8, the commandment to prepare and present showbread every Sabbath, the human obligation is obvious while the divine promise is more difficult to discern. Yet Mason deems this “the ברית עולם of the showbread” (p. 187) because God is party to this pact with obligations that are indicated not in Lev 24 but in Exod 16:4–5: “He promises to provide food and sustenance in the land (fruitfulness, if you will) in return for keeping the Sabbath” (p. 188). Mason connects Exod 16 and Lev 24 on the basis that both texts associate bread with Sabbath and stipulate the appropriate quantity of bread for the Sabbath (pp. 170–71). The lexical and thematic linkages that Mason adduces are subtle, to be sure, and even scholars who acknowledge them may question whether the divine promises of Exod 16 can be transposed to Lev 24.

In sum, this book should be regarded positively. Although its arguments are at times strained, Mason's thesis about the ברית עולם is novel in the best sense of the word and to be taken seriously. It is systematically argued through a close reading of the relevant texts. The analysis of certain pentateuchal passages is illuminating and suggests that human obligation is more operative in the ברית עולם than has been recognized previously. The book would only be more persuasive, paradoxically, if it did not press evidence to support the thesis. Nonetheless, future studies of the ברית עולם passages of the Pentateuch will be indebted to Mason's informed treatment of the subject.

Richard J. Bautch, St. Edward's University