Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Tiberius Rata, The Covenant Motif in Jeremiah’s Book of Comfort: Textual and Intertextual Studies of Jeremiah 30-33 (Studies in Biblical Literature, 105; New York: Peter Lang, 2007). Pp. xi + 177. Harcover, US$64.95. ISBN 978-0-8204-9508-8.

In this dissertation–defended at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield–Rata defends the following positions:

*     The new covenant in Jeremiah 31 needs to be interpreted as in continuation of the earlier Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants;

*     The new covenant in Jeremiah 31 has the character of a promise that was partially fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus and awaits complete fulfillment in the eschaton;

*     The writing on the heart of the Law should be construed as an act of the Holy Spirit.

            This somewhat traditional view is argued with an exegetical and theological discourse.

            In his methodological remarks, he states that he is applying the thematic-progression theory of Daneš that implies that in a given text most themes are followed by a “rheme” or continuing sub-theme. In text-critical matters he prefers the MT version of Jeremiah over and against the LXX. He opts for a grammatical and stylistic analysis of the textual units. As for hermeneutics, he vehemently states that “[t]he biblical text and its meaning are not to be separated from God, the author of the text” (p. 10), leaving unclear what exactly he means by “separate” and “author.” Having said that, Rata turns to the history of interpretation of the idea “covenant.” He starts with the Church Fathers , moves then to the Reformers, and from them to present day thinkers--among the latter, he quotes only exegetes of Jeremiah. It would have been interesting to see how the concept of “covenant” is perceived in modern dogmatics. But Rata seems to be unaware of the (mainly German) discussion on the interpretation of the Hebrew noun ברית from the 1960s on.  Furthermore, it is a pity that he jumps in one giant leap from the Reformers to the liberal exegetes. Remarks on the federal-theology of Cocceius would have enriched his overview.

            The main part of Rata’s book consists of his interpretation of three textual units: Jer 31:27-40; 32:36-44 and 33:14-26.  He follows the same strategy for each text: translation, syntactical analysis, semantic analysis, practical analysis leading to a proposal of the theme-rheme structure in the passage, and theological analysis. The syntactical analysis contains the kind of details normally present in an undergraduate paper, with the same amount of mistakes and errors. The semantic analysis is generally interesting to read. Rata makes some fine observations, but one misses discussions with, and arguments against positions that differ from Rata’s view. The pragmatic analysis is a good example of blurring exegetical categories. When it comes to the saying about the children’s blunt teeth, Rata is not very clear as to what he means by “personal responsibility” over against “individuality.” This weakness affects the analysis of the internalization of the law in the New Covenant section: Is it stressing individuality or personal responsibility? Thus, on p. 46, Rata makes a strange remark: “Maybe it was that the younger generation thought it improper that they suffer for the sins of the previous generation.” In my view he is missing the point. I think that Jeremiah wants to indicate that the younger generation can no longer hide behind the conduct of the previous generation or use their forefather’s failures as an excuse for their own conduct. I agree with Rata that Jer 31:31-34 are crucial to the Book of Consolation, as well as with his view that 31:35-37 are fundamental for a concept of the trustworthiness of God grounded in creation (why did he not quote Helga Weippert here?). I, however, disagree with his interpretation that the human heart–on which the law will be written–is a more permanent surface than breakable stone tablets, erasable scrolls or flammable parchment.  In biblical anthropology, human are not seen as immortal; to the contrary, they are construed as vulnerable. The pragmatic analysis of Jer 31:27-40 contains a curious and assumedly unintended error: “The people are rebuked for now knowing the LORD (Hosea 4:1-2).” Moreover, in the theological analysis, the Christian Vorverstšndniss seems to play a greater role than the more strict exegetical arguments that have been brought to the fore by scholars who link the section on the New Covenant primarily or exclusively to the early post-exilic period. In my criticism I have concentrated on Rata’s discussion of Jer 31:27-40, but I could have made comparable remarks on the other textual units.

            Rata opens his fifth chapter (Jeremiah 31 in the New Testament) with the following phrase: “To understand the theology of the new covenant and what it means, one must look at both the Old and the New Testament.” This clear and direct statement points at the conceptual problem in Rata’s work. He is reformulating the position to be proven as the method to follow for proving the position itself, which is a circular argument. This said, the chapter under consideration contains, nevertheless, various good observations on the interpretation of the relevant passages in the New Testament.

           I would have liked to engage Rata on a discussion on whether it is better to approach these texts within an hermeneutical framework centered on the  concept of "appropriation" rather than on “fulfillment," as Rata and others before him did. Certainly, it is the New Testament writers who re-read the ancient texts as if they were written for their contemporary circumstances. However, a serious engagement with his position would  exceed the limits of this review.

            Rata has not convinced me, mainly since he is in fact only repeating traditional arguments. Moreover, he fails to argue with alternative positions in contemporary research. In fact, many recent voices on the topic are absent even from his bibliography (e.g., Becking; Bozak; Levin; Weippert). Unfortunately, his book is also disfigured by a variety of misprints and typos.

Bob Becking
Utrecht, the Netherlands