Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Bautch, Richard and Gary N. Knoppers, eds., Covenant in the Persian Period: From Genesis to Chronicles (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015). Pp. 452. Hardcover. US$58.05. ISBN: 9781575063560.

As the title suggests, this symposium focuses on significant developments in Israel's covenantal thought that emerged during the Persian era. It comprises twenty-two essays, collected under five sections: Pentateuch, Historical Books, Prophecy, Wisdom Literature, and Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. While the main title might suggest the greatest concentration of essays would be in the latter sections, the book's sub-title indicates otherwise. Indeed, the final section is one of the smallest, comprising only three essays, which concentrate on Ezra and Chronicles. The underlying premise is that the entire Hebrew Bible (Genesis to Chronicles) was compiled or significantly redacted in the post-Babylonian era, and thus major post-exilic shifts in covenantal thought can be discerned throughout the material which subsequently found its way into the canon (although there is no suggestion of such existing or even being anticipated in Achaemenid times, or that the material is ideologically monolithic).

The book's introduction provides its rationale. The relative lack of recent attention given to covenant perspectives emerging in the post-monarchy period is due to the influence of Mendenhall, Hillers, Eichrodt (for whom the monarchy period was more significant),[1] and the scholarly impasse (cf. Mendenhall, Weinfeld, Van Seters) over how covenant was properly construed in Israelite tradition (e.g., as a bilateral agreement, an unconditional obligation undertaken by one party on behalf of another, or a unilateral promise).[2] Thus the essays in this book fill a significant lacuna by exploring a wide range of covenantal perspectives against the religious, social and historical milieu of this particular period.

In the Pentateuch section, Wöhrle examines Genesis to demonstrate—by various analogies with Persian Imperial Theology—how the Priestly covenants in Genesis are informed by the socio-political context of the final editors. Schüle concentrates on Exod 31:16, demonstrating that P's presentation of the covenant as “eternal” rather than conditional distinguishes covenant from law, and thus implies that Israel's future disobedience will not invalidate the covenant. Oswald correlates the covenants in Exodus (ch. 24 and ch. 34), arguing that both reflect a clear post-monarchical setting in which first, the law is subordinated to the covenant, and subsequently, the old law (the so-called Covenant Code) is replaced by a new one (the words of Exod 34:11–26). Hieke's concern is with the redemptive significance of covenant remembrance in Lev 26, which emphasizes that the catastrophe of exile is not final, because God ‘remembers his covenant’ and so the people will respond in repentance once God circumcises their uncircumcised hearts.

The Former Prophets is ostensibly the focus of the next three contributors, although the first of these (Achenbach) pays as much attention to Deuteronomy and Jeremiah in its attempt to show how “the non-Mosaic oral torah” (reflected in prophetic texts like Jer 11) becomes the “unwritten Text of the Covenant.” Identifying 1 Sam 2:30 as an interpretative key, Ben Zvi maintains that Yehudic focus on the breaking of divine promises resulted in the sociological reconstrual of God's covenants in several ways, although, some—such as those relating to David—were considered more open to reinterpretation than others (those associated with God's choice of Israel and Jerusalem). Edenburg explores the shift in covenantal thinking that led to the concept being applied innovatively to connubium and marital relations rather than its earlier associations with a political treaty or loyalty oath.

Six chapters cover seven of the Latter Prophets. Rom-Shiloni focuses on the various political and marital metaphors in Jeremiah, concluding that the former reflects the more decisive and significant imagery by which covenant is given expression within the book. Sjöberg examines the perpetual covenants associated in Jer 33:19–26 with the Levitical priesthood and the Davidic monarchy, interpreting this as a redactional layer that seems most appropriate in the historical circumstances of the restoration community. Hibbard reflects on the broken eternal covenant described in Isa 24:5, suggesting that this text challenges the more optimistic perspective maintained by some of the book's other post-exilic contributors (cf. Isa 55:3 and 61:8), and constitutes a significant warning for the more encompassing covenant community of the Yehud. Nogalski examines what appears to be a covenant curse in Joel 1, a conclusion substantiated by numerous echoes from both Deut 28–32 and 1 Kgs 8 // 2 Chr 6, which logically imply the current necessity of repentance. Discussing analogous material in Haggai, Kessler draws similar conclusions—by underlining these signs of divine disapproval Haggai is drawing attention to a ‘violation in covenant’ which necessitates attention but does not constitute a rupture in the relationship. Focusing on Zech 11:4–17, Bautch concludes—based on 11:10 and 13:7–9—that the redactor is both abrogating an earlier covenant and pointing to a more durable one in the future. From a close reading of Mal 1:6—2:9, Assis concludes that Malachi employs the “covenant of Levi” as a rhetorical construct to underline the continuing validity of the covenant between God and his people. Concluding this section, Mitchell positively appraises various putative echoes of an Achaemenid political concept, the bandaka or bondsman relationship, in Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

In relation to the Wisdom Literature, Bellinger limits his study to covenant-orientated laments that can plausibly be dated to the Persian era (viz. Pss 44, 74, 79, 89), showing how their concerns inform a holistic reading of the Psalter and place emphasis on Yahweh's covenant obligations rather than Israel's. Dempsey concentrates on the collective appeal to the Abrahamic, Sinaitic and Davidic covenants in Pss 103, 105, 107 and 132, reflecting a positive use of covenant as a means of reassurance and future hope. Grant considers Job and the implications of the covenant ideology that is present in his lament. Bolin likewise maintains that such covenant thinking is reflected in Qohelet, who presents the divine-human relationship in line with his distinctively Persian setting.

In the final section, Nykolaishen contextually examines the covenant of Ezra 10:3, suggesting that the narrator is presenting this as a covenant renewal which subsequently failed to fulfil the new covenant expectations of prophets like Jeremiah, hence underlining a partial but incomplete fulfilment of the future ideal covenant. On the basis of four texts in 2 Chronicles (chs. 15, 23, 29 and 34), Boda discerns a shift from a bilateral to a unilateral emphasis on human agreement, with a particular focus on cultic renewal as the expression of national identity as the people of God. Finally, Jonker examines the Chronicler's insertion of “the covenant” into 2 Samuel's parallel references to “the Ark of Yahweh,” drawing similar deductions about the Chronicler's emphasis on the covenantal significance of the cult and Temple for community identity in the late Persian era.

This symposium helpfully collects a broad range of textual analyses unified by a major theological rubric. As with most such multi-authored volumes, there are clear differences of opinion among individual contributors, although in some cases this is arguably due to distinctive emphases in the underlying texts. A perceived weakness, however, is that some of the essays seem largely to assume the historical-critical premise on which literary-theological conclusions are subsequently drawn. Indeed, in a few cases the latter are apparently constructed on a Persian milieu that is possibly being imposed upon the biblical texts. It is also unclear at times why suggested theological syntheses of some biblical authors and editors must necessarily be so late. Accordingly, the present reviewer found the chapters in this volume that defended their premise or undeniably dealt with texts from the Persian era to be less speculative and more persuasive in terms of the exegetical insights offered.

Paul Williamson, Moore College

[1] George Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” ABD I: 1179–1202; Delbert Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1969); Walther Eichrodt, Theologie des Alten Testaments, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Klotz, 1957). reference

[2] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” ABD I: 1179–1202; Moshe Weinfeld, “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East,” JAOS 90 (1970), 184–203; John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975). reference