Foundational Theology: Theology of Promise


James Strauss, Professor


Lincoln Christian Seminary


Theme: Prophets, Covenant, and Promise


During the decades of the '50s' and '60s no theme in the Old Testament received more intensive research than that of the Covenant in Israel. Beginning with George Mendenhall's essay Law and Covenant in Israel and The Ancient Near East (originally appeared in BA 17 (1954): 26-46; 49-76) was issued as a monograph by the Biblical colloquium, Pittsburgh, 1955.


Research continued in the work of K. Baltzer, G. von Pad's student, and W. Beyerlin, A. Weiser's student. The former published Das Bundesformular, Neukirchen 1960, reviewed by W. Boran in Biblica 43 (1962): 100-106; the latter published Herkunft und Geschichte der Altestern Sinaitraditionen, Tubingen 1961. W. F. Albright wrote in 1957 (From The Stone Age to Christianity (Doubleday, p. 16: "One point which I emphasized briefly in 1940-46 was the Pre-Mosaic origin of the Covenant between God and His people, as illustrated by the word (berit/berith) and its uses. Here, however, I failed to recognize that the concept of 'Covenant' dominates the entire religious life of Israel to such an extent that W. Eichrodt's apparently extreme position is fully justified. We cannot understand Israelite religion, political organization, or the institution of the prophets without recognizing the importance of the 'Covenant'."


Research on the nature of covenant in the Near East has helped to bring out the distinctive character of Israel's relation to Yahweh (cf. D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (Rome, 1963); E. Gerstenberger, "Covenant and Commandment" in JBL 84 (1965): 38-51; F. L. Moriarty, "Prophet and Covenant," Gregorianum XLVI (1965): 817-833; and J. D. Strauss, “Creation and Covenant”).


I.  Prophecy and Covenant


A. Wellhausen to Mendenhall:  Earlier critical presupposition, i.e. 'Covenant' idea is a late development (cf. time between Elijah and Amos)—"Nor did the theocracy exist from the time of Moses in the form of the covenant, though that was afterwards a favorite mode of regarding it.  Only when the existence of Israel had come to be threatened by the Syrians and Assyrians did such prophets as Elijah and Amos raise the Deity high above the people, sever the natural bond between them, and put in its place a relation depending on conditions, conditions of a moral character."  (Wellhausen's Prolegomena to The History of Israel (E.T.  NY:1957), p. 417). Comparison between certain covenants described in the OT, such as we find in Exodus 20 and Joshua 24, and the international suzerainty treaties of the late second millennium, best known from the Hittite archives, opened up a whole new era of research, with large implication. This new data required a sweeping revision of critical assumptions held by a majority of OT scholars.



B. A second shift which research has required is the assumptions with which prophetic literature is approached (cf. Johannes Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Oxford, 1962) for changing views of prophecy and the prophets). The earlier work of G. Holscher claimed that the 'supernatural' experiences that were characteristic of Israelite prophetism were restricted to the Syria-Asia Minor region and were borrowed by the Israelites from the time they entered the area. Ecstatic prophecy, according, would not be something native to Israel but taken over from Canaanite culture which profoundly modified Israel's religious outlook (cf. 0. Eissfeldt, "The Prophetic Literature," in The Old Testament and Modern Study (Oxford, 1951).


C. Contemporary attitudes toward prophesy concentrates on the functional or structural aspect of the phenomenon of prophecy. What purpose did it serve in the life of a people who were conscious of a special relation to their God?  (cf. my Hermeneutics and Structuralism) A very perceptive analysis of the pitfalls awaiting those who indulge in "psychological analysis' of the prophetic experience has been pointed out by R. Hiller in his essay "'A Convention in Hebrew Literature': The Reaction to Bad News" in Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 77 (1965). He warns: "In the light of parallels gathered here, these passages must be used much more cautiously in discussing prophetic psychology…The use of traditional literary formulae prevents us from drawing any conclusions as to his individual psychological reaction. We can only say that he was concerned to describe himself as reacting in a typical normal way." (pp. 86- 90; also R. E. Clements, Prophecy and Covenant, 1965).


D. In addition to focusing our attention on what is essential in the prophetic office, the notion of mediation (mediates God's Word) has the advantage of preserving that continuity which exists between the prophetic period and the earliest period of Israel's existence as a people. Central to Israel's 'self-understanding' is the realization that Yahweh is Israel's true ruler and no one else. As the 'Kingship' was established in Israel, under Saul, the prophetic office came into being as the charismatic institution which would play a formal part in the divine government of Israel (cf. J. Ellul's Politics of God and The Politics of Man). It is enough to recall the mediatorial function of Samuel, Nathan, Gad and Elijah whose task was no different essentially from that of an Isaiah or a Jeremiah as far as their role in the divine government of Israel was concerned,  (cf. Yahweh as King in Psalms 93; 95-99; and Isaiah's inauguration, Isaiah 6).


E.  Covenant and Cult: Liturgy


Cult as a factor in the formation and transmission of Israel's religious heritage (cf. G. E. Wright, "Cult and History," in Interpretation 16 (1962):esp. pp. 13-14; M. Noth, Twelve Tribes of Israel - discusses the amphictyony model). This is expressed by the relationship of "ritual system' and "Holy History." Israel's worship is carried on within a tradition of sacred history. Agricultural feasts have been related to "God's Acts' within Israel's history. These redemptive events are the presuppositions of Israel's worship. The aspect of 'Covenant' also plays its part in the role of the king and of the Davidic house in Israel's worship (cf. ‘Worship’ IDB, 1962, esp. pp. 882-883).


F. It has been observed that explicit references to the Covenant are lacking in their oracles. But without the 'Covenant' idea it is impossible to grasp the real significance of the prophetic message (cf. see my Theology of The Prophets), the condemnation of sin, threat of punishment, promise of forgiveness on condition of repentance; all presuppose the covenant.


The prophetic interpretation of Israel's history dominated by the idea of Yahweh's ultimate purpose and its fulfillment makes no sense apart from its basis in some kind of a contractual relationship between Yahweh and Israel.


II. Prophecy and Covenant: Three Aspects - Election, Law and Eschatology.

 (cf. Clement's work)


A. Amos as a Test Case:  Unequivocal proclamation that Yahweh as about to destroy Israel for her persistent infidelity to an 'election' and ‘Covenant’ relationship. Earlier prophets had condemned individual sinners such as David, Solomon, or Ahab. "You alone have I known" (yada).  (of. G. E. Wright, "Lawsuit of God" Israel's Prophetic Heritage, 19621; W. Brueggemann, "Amos IV. 1-13 and Israel's Covenant Worship" in Vetus Testamentum, 15 (1965):1-15).


1.  Amos 4.4-5'- castigates the people for broken covenant, satirizing their hypocritical religious externalization.


2.  4.6-12a - list the curses called down upon Israel for covenant violation.


3.  4.12b-13 - contains urgent call to covenant renewal, i.e., the Sinaitic Covenant. The words prepare (kun) and to meet (liqra'th) occur in the covenant traditions of Exodus 19 and 34, the theological implication being that Israel in the 8th century is once again invited to covenant renewal. Should she refuse, judgment will inevitably follow.


B. The word election (bahar) does not occur before Deuteronomy. The idea of election cannot be separated from the idea of covenant. These two ideas are intermingled within the complex of divine actions which include:  (1) Deliverance from Egypt; (2) Guidance during the desert sojourn, and (3) Gift of the land.


Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel show a clear awareness of the Exodus-Covenant traditions and the obligations that were corollaries of Yahweh's saving action and special election (cf. Amos 2.9-10; 9.7; Hos 11.1; 12.10; 13.4; Jer 2.5-7; 7.21-22; 23.7-8; 31.31-34; Ez 16; 20.1-44 - efforts to defend separation of Election and Covenant are futile).


C. Isaiah and Micah do not appeal to election during the exodus; instead, their thought turned largely on the promises made by Yahweh to the Dynasty of David. Israel's hope (cf. Zion traditions) depends on the Lord's presence in Jerusalem. "Yahweh has founded Zion and in her the afflicted of His people find refuge." (Isa 14.32; 17.12-14; 28.14-18). Here we have the 'Election Tradition' of the Exodus and the 'Zion Tradition' of David's time, but they are not to be interpreted as independent. The Promise fuses these two traditions.


Election and promises attached to the Davidic line and its Holy City were understood as a normal development and fulfillment of the covenant concluded at Sinai between Yahweh and Israel. The promises made to David had their basis in the Covenant of Sinai (cf. R. de Vaux, "Le roi d' Israel, Vassal de Yahve" in Melanges E. Tisserant (Rome, 1964), pp. 119-133). de Vaux correctly claims that David the King was a vassal of Yahweh who established a suzerainty treaty with His anointed servant. The Covenant with David contained both promise and commandment.


III.  Covenant and Law


The transition from Election to Torah is normal. Without the covenant Israelite law would have no foundation (cf. J. Hempel, Das Ethos des A.T. (Berlin, 1964).


A. Connection between Law and History in the Decalogue - Jos 24; Ps 44; 78; 81; 95; 105; 135ff.


B. Through better understanding of historical roots of Israel's ancient ethical traditions it is no longer possible to speak of the 8th century prophets as innovators, the men who discovered 'Ethical Religion', i.e. 'Ethical Monotheism.' (Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics; E. Hammershaimb, "On the Ethos of The Old Testament Prophets" in Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 7 Leiden, Oxford, Vol.1957), pp. 75ff. It was because Israel refused to obey the divine commands that Yahweh was breaking off the 'Covenant' relationship.


IV. Covenant Lawsuit: Rib-Pattern


There is widespread agreement that the prophetic oracles of protest were formulated in terms of "Covenant Violation" (cf. J. Harvey, "Le Rib-Pattern, requisetoire prophetique sur la rupture de 'alliance": in Biblica 43 (1962):172-196; H. B. Huffmon, "The Covenant Lawsuit in The Prophets" in JBL 78 (1959):285-295; and D. R. Hiller, Treaty-Curses and The Old Testament Prophets (Rome, 1964). The more important elements that constitute the Rib-Pattern are:


1.  Summons, calling heaven and earth to witness the proceeding - Jer 2.12; Isa 1.2; Dt 32.1,2; Mic 61.1,2.

2.  Introduction of the case in the form of an interrogation - Jer 2.5,6; Mic 6.3; Dt 32.6.

3.  Recall of the benevolent acts of the Suzerain - Jer 2.7-13 (Intermingling of blessing and ingratitude - Mic 6.4,5.

4.  Indictment and sentence - Amos 3-11,12; Jer 2.35b-37; Isa 1.20 (warning rather than outright condemnation - Dt 32.19-25.


As a consequence the forceful affirmations of the injunctions of the covenant law by the prophets stand in marked contrast to the neglect of the covenant demands in the worship of Israel's sanctuaries (cf. H. H. Rowley, Ritual and The Hebrew Prophets in Myth, Ritual and Kingship (Oxford 1958), esp. pp. 240-242). Prior to the exile the prophets found themselves forced into an opposition to the established cult of the day. After the exile prophesy returned again to its ancient home in the cultic life of the nation, but not before it had exerted a great influence on Post-Exilic Israel (cf. Tension Between Prophet, Priest and King).




V. Covenant, Promise and Messianic Hope


The question of prophetic eschatology is inseparable from the themes of Prophecy, Covenant and Promise.


A. Eschatology, Apocalyptic and Hope


B. No cleavage between history and the eschaton


C. History moves toward a climatic event


D. The Promise of the New Age (New Heaven and New Earth - Isa 60-66)


E. Another creative intervention of Yahweh transforms past, present and future.There is no discontinuity between Creation and Recreation.


F. The Prophets were certain that God's last word was not destruction but renewal, not through Israel's merits but through gracious fidelity to His own Promises - Amos 9.11,12; Hos 2.14,15; Isa 2.2-4; Mic 4.1-4; Jer 23.5,6; (compare von Rad's T des AT, II, 112; esp. pp. 148,149; and Clements, pp. 31.31ff.).


G. A new beginning, marked by Yahweh's intervention, was the sign of Israel's eschatology.  "Behold, days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will make a New Covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah. ...  I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." Jer 31.31-34.


H. God's definitive intervention in history was proclaimed and achieved by His Son - Heb 1.1-4; Jn 1.1-18.