God and His People, Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament

Written by Ernest W. Nicholson Reviewed By W. A. Strange

One of the greatest needs of OT students has been for a book which conveniently surveys the study of ‘covenant’ in the OT, and puts the results into students’ hands in a comprehensible form. This is such a book.

Nicholson’s book is divided into three parts. Part One (chs. 1–4) surveys the history of the study of ‘covenant’ from Wellhausen to the present day. Nicholson traces four phases in scholarly opinion over the period. First, after Wellhausen, scholars differed about the antiquity of the covenant concept, but were agreed that it was a theological notion. Then in the second phase, under the influence of sociological study of the OT, scholars such as Noth achieved some consensus in interpreting ‘covenant’ as principally a social institution. This line of interpretation tended to place ‘covenant’ relatively early in Israel’s history, and gave rise to the third phase which began in the mid 1950s with the work of G. E. Mendenhall, drawing attention to the parallels between Israelite covenant and Hittite vassal treaty. Nicholson argues that more recent work (such as that of McCarthy and Perlitt) has taken us into a fourth phase. No complete consensus has arisen, but this recent work has returned to a position similar to that of Wellhausen: ‘covenant’ is a theological, rather than social, concept, and it emerged late in Israel’s history, with the Deuteronomic movement in the 7th and 6th centuries bc.

Part Two (chs. 5–9) is concerned with establishing the date of origin of the covenant concept in Israel. It examines in detail the key texts to do with ‘covenant’ from Exodus and Joshua, together with the covenant references in Hosea. Nicholson concludes that the Exodus and Joshua references give little help in deciding when the notion of a covenant between Yahweh and Israel came into being. But Nicholson concludes that the two references to covenant in Hosea are genuine. Not only that, but they seem to presuppose that Hosea could appeal to the concept of covenant as something known. Therefore ‘covenant’ pre-dates Hosea (and the Deuteronomists): ‘All in all, the conclusion is warranted that the concept of a covenant between Yahweh and Israel originated at some point during the second half of the monarchical period’ (p. 188). On Nicholson’s analysis, although ‘covenant’ has its origins before Deuteronomists began their work, it only came into its own at their hands, as the Exodus and Joshua texts testify.

Part Three (ch. 10) looks at the theological significance of ‘covenant’ in Israel. Here sociological analysis has something to contribute, and shows us to what extent Israel’s (eventual) covenant faith was distinctive. Nicholson traces a development in Israel from a religion which legitimated a divinely-ordered society to a religion which was a de-legitimating agent; which challenged and relativized the social order in the light of the righteousness of transcendent Yahweh. This development is particularly associated with the 8th-century prophets, but it came to formal and systematic expression in Israel’s covenant theology. This revolution in Israelite theology, whose legacy is ‘covenant’, set Israel’s faith apart from the world-sustaining religions of antiquity. After this revolution, Israel’s course would be set away from magic, sacrifice and ritual intended to ensure and maintain the right ordering of the world, and towards a chosen response of freely given commitment to Yahweh.

Students of the OT will appreciate the orderliness with which Nicholson treats a vast field of research, and the clarity with which he writes. If he had done no more than produce an ordered account out of the chaos of theological ferment, he would have done a great deal. But he has done more, in going on to make some original contributions of his own to the covenant controversy.

One of the problems of order, though, is that things do not always fit one’s framework. So, Nicholson’s third phase in the study of covenant (which placed it early in Israel’s history, and argued from parallels with vassal treaties) is by no means entirely finished (see G. Wenham, ‘The Date of Deuteronomy’, Themelios, 1985). Nicholson is able to assume a 7th or 6th-century date for Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic school (he had already dealt with the issue in Deuteronomy and Tradition [1967]). Readers who have not followed him in this will not, perhaps, follow him in his reconstruction of the history of covenant. Even they, however, will find his survey of scholarly views a helpful introduction to a large topic. They should also find Nicholson’s analysis of the significance of ‘covenant’ (Part Three) thought-provoking as a theological investigation, even if they do not find themselves in agreement with its historical aspect.

W. A. Strange