The Covenant Formula: An Exegetical and Theological Investigation
A review of Rolf Rendtorff's, "The Covenant Formula: An Exegetical and Theological Investigation," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Rendtorff, Rolf. The Covenant Formula: An Exegetical and Theological Investigation. Translated by M. Kohl. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998. Hardback, xiv + 105 pp. ISBN 0567086054.
Rendtorff presents a discussion of the covenant fomula by observing the late text of Nehemiah 9 and how it combines many of the major covenantal themes. He proceeds to identify the expressions, “I will by your God and you shall be my people,” and its variants, as the basic formulation of God’s covenant with Israel, whether or not the term for “covenant” is present in the context. Key texts are then examined. In particular, the Abrahamic covenant as outlined in Genesis 17 is considered as foundational. Exodus 6, with God’s self-revelation, sets the formula in the context of God’s deliverance from Egypt. Exodus 19 introduces the formula in the context of the election of the whole nation of Israel and the election of that nation by God. Leviticus 26 confirms that, as at the beginning of the revelation of the law (Exodus 19), so at the end, the covenant formula remains the key to the law. That is, God will relate to Israel in the covenant and they have the opportunity to relate to him through obedience to the laws. Deuteronomy introduces new ideas and reconfirms old ones as the themes of God’s election and covenant are interwoven in chapters 4 and 7. The covenant formula recurs several times throughout the Deuteronomic Code of laws (chs. 12-26), with its reaffirmation at the end of those laws as a summary of the covenant is found in faithfulness to it through obedience. The formula is also found in key texts of Jeremiah (7 and 11), Ezekiel, and Zechariah (8:8). In these prophets it looks forward to a future restoration of Israel as a people enjoying the full covenant blessings and relationship with their God. Many of these themes are repeated and developed in the second half of the book where they are surveyed and summarized.
This work is a useful example of the value of a study of a set of phrases and a warning as to the danger of making the analysis of a key theological theme rest upon a single vocabulary word (e.g., berit, “covenant”). Instead, Rendtorff shows how this theme is devleoped in the use of phrases which themselves have various forms (he counts three distinct types). At the same time this is not an exhaustive study of the idea of covenant as found in the biblical text. It is instead a probe into an overlooked aspect of the covenant, yet one that is essential for all who would see this primary theological datum as linked directly to the New Testament. That is, the relationship with God is initiated by him at the very beginning of his dealings with the patriarchs, has its fuller realization in the Exodus and Sinai experiences where God delivers and chooses a people for himself, demands faithfulness but does not cease to exist when Israel fails, and looks forward to a time when Israel will fully recognize its God and enjoy a full relationship with him.
This essay is a useful and important addition to the literature that studies the theological significance of the covenant. It demonstrates the ongoing importance of the covenant relationship that saw its fullest articulation with Eichrodt and continues to provide new insights into the message of the Old Testament.
Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament