Covenant and promise

Written by John Bright Reviewed By J. Barton Payne

John Bright, retired from Union Seminary, Virginia, is best known for his A History of Israel2 (1972), which mediates between the radical history by Martin Noth and the conservative treatment by Leon Wood—but is closer to Noth than to Wood. Now, in Covenant and promise, Bright follows his mentor at John Hopkins University, the late William F. Albright, by moving from history into a somewhat ‘neo-orthodox’ biblical theology. His volume consists of a 1971 lecture series, updated to include, for example, the current questioning of Assyrian influence upon Israelite religion as developed by McKay (1973) and Cogan (1974). A more thorough editing might have corrected much lecture-style repetition, though the recapitulations (in the sections numbered III for chapters 1–2 and in the introductory sections of the succeeding chapters for 3–5) provide hurried readers with the gist of Bright’s argumentation. His study is designed for seminary students and has a ‘reasonable minimum of footnotes’ (almost two per page), which furnish a summary of the relevant German and English scholarly debate.

The subject of Covenant and promise is indicated by its subtitle: ‘The prophetic understanding of the future in pre-exilic Israel’. In a sense this title is too broad, since the opening of chapter 1, plus chapters 5 and 6, concentrate on Jeremiah (the book John Bright contributed to the Anchor Bible). Yet in a sense this is also too narrow, since the intervening chapters constitute a ‘flashback’ that ranges from the Genesis patriarchs through the pre-Jeremianic prophets, tracing the origins and characteristics of the Hebrew covenants. By ‘future’ he means both their immediate anticipations and their far-future hopes; and he underscores the possible tension (put forth by Mendenhall) between the promissory, almost unconditioned covenant to Abraham or to David and the binding obligation, the ‘if … then’ conditionality, of the Sinaitic covenant. The former says, ‘God defends’; and in the long run this hope is what binds the Old and New Testaments ‘in a single canon of Scripture.’ The latter says, ‘God destroys,’ at least in the near future, those who abrogate his covenant. The tension erupted in Jeremiah’s day, when the majority of Judah, blithely neglecting the Sinaitic stipulations and relying, in ‘theological madness’, on the inviolability of Zion’s temple and David’s dynasty, defied Babylon. For the prophet, however, the Davidic covenant ‘is really alien to him’ (so Bright must seek ways around the Messianic predictions in 23:5, 6; 30:21; 33:15–26; pp. 161, 193, 194); and Judah is doomed. Hope for the indefinite future lies in a new covenant, when the chasm between man and God will be bridged by divine grace. The author concludes that only in Christ are these two approaches to the future brought together and fulfilled.

Bright is at his best summarizing the moral messages of the prophets, especially Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah. He apparently does not consider Joel, Obadiah or Jonah pre-exilic; for they go unmentioned. This helps explain his repeated denial of any supra-historical eschatology, with divine intervention, in pre-exilic Israel. He obviously rejects such Armageddon or resurrection passages as 1 Samuel 2:10; 1 Chronicles 16:33 (Davidic, = Ps. 96:13); Job 19:25–27; or Isaiah 24–26; 65:15–16. He is at his worst in his reconstruction of Israel’s early history, where his negative criticism becomes most apparent. Though Genesis is said to contain ‘an authentic reflection of (patriarchal) religion,’ much still remains conjecture, and passages like 15:8 reflect Solomon’s empire. Though Deuteronomy contains laws ‘mostly of ancient origin’, the book is a seventh-century product, with Moses’ predictions exhibiting ‘a fictitious future’. This in turn helps explain Bright’s repeated denial of any ‘eschatological pattern’, other than of general hopes for continuing prosperity, prior to the Assyrian invasions starting in 750 bc. He thus disregards the Messianic hope in Genesis 3:15; 49:10, or in the Davidic Psalms 2, 110; the millennial forecasts of Leviticus 26:5–12, or the historical panorama of Numbers 24:17, 22–24. He assumes, in fact, the gamut of current naturalistic biblical interpretation: mythical language in the Bible, deutero-Isaiah, and so on. As a result, objective words from God are in short supply: not just about men, like the Aaronic high priest Zadok, ‘whose origins are obscure,’ but about ideas, like ‘the continuance of the Davidic dynasty (in Solomon, if legitimate) as the will of God’. Even about ‘the notion of a covenant bond between God and … earliest Israel,’ he can only conjecture, ‘The evidence is such that it does not allow us to move ahead with complete certainty. But the probability seems to me …’ With such uncertainties, the hope for biblical theology is hardly Bright.

J. Barton Payne

Dr Payne is Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, Mo., USA.