Reading the Bible as a Covenantal Document

One of the prominent features of contemporary historical criticism is to dissect the bible into discrete units which are taken to represent the earlier historical sources and literary traditions which underlie the biblical text. Having identified these historical sources, critical scholars then analyze how they are pieced together into the various books of the bible. As an example, critical scholars argue that the Pentateuch is a compilation of four originally independent documents: the Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P) sources. According to critical scholars, the Pentateuch did not originate with Moses (~1400 BC), but were finally complied by some unknown redactors during the Jewish Babylonian exile (~400 BC).

Presumably, this critical historical exercise would enable scholars to gain insights into the literary intentions or ideological biases of the final redactors of the presently preserved biblical text. This exercise may enable scholars to speculate on the history of the composition of the text. But one wonders whether the critical approach may lead scholars to miss the forest for the trees, that is, to be so focused on the discrete and artificially constructed fragments of the text that they overlook the meaning of the bible which becomes evident when one reads the books of the bible holistically.

An alternative approach to the historical-critical reading of the bible would be to take the bible on its own terms, that is, to read the bible holistically. Meredith Kline argues that such a holistic reading is necessary because the bible is in its literary-formal form a covenantal document, and that biblical canon must be read holistically as a treaty-canon.


Excerpt from Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Eerdmans, 1972)

To sum up thus far, canonical document was the customary instrument of international covenant administration in the world in which the Bible was produced. In this treaty form as it had developed in the history of diplomacy in the ancient Near East a formal canonical structure was, therefore, available, needing only to be taken up and inspired by the breath of God to become altogether what the church has confessed as canon. And that is what happened when Yahweh adopted the legal-literary form of the suzerainty covenants for the administration of his kingdom in Israel.

It is necessary to insist constantly that the scriptures, whether the Mosaic covenant documents, which constituted the nuclear Old Testament canon, or any other Scripture, are authoritative – uniquely, divinely authoritative – simply in virtue of their origin through divine revelation and inspiration. Certainly, then, their authority as such is not to be accounted for by looking beyond them elsewhere. As divinely authoritative revelation, documentary in form and with unalterable content, they possess the essential components for a definition of canon properly conceived. Nevertheless, it is legitimate to inquire into the precise literary brand of canonicity in which God was pleased to cast his authoritative words, for this is an altogether different and purely formal matter. In this respect biblical canonicity does have an earthly pedigree. And what has become clear is that it was the treaty brand of canonicity inherent in the international treaty structure of the Mosaic age that was adopted by the earliest Scriptures along with the treaty form itself. Biblical canonicity shows itself its inception to be of the lineage of covenantal canonicity.

The beginning of canonical Scripture thus coincided with the formal founding of Israel as the kingdom of God. In the treaty documents given by Yahweh at the very origins of the nation Israel, the people of God already possessed the ground stratum of the Old Testament canon. Only by resisting the accumulating evidence can the modern critical dogma that the concept of canonical document did not emerge until late in the development of Israelite religious thought be perpetuated and “histories” of the formation of the Old Testament canon continue to be erected upon it (pp.27-28).

The post-Pentateuchal historical narratives no longer perform the same formal literary role as prologue and framework for treaty laws. Thematically, however, they are seen to be nothing other than an extension of the historical prologues of the foundational Mosaic treaties in the Pentateuch. For their theme is first and last Yahweh’s relationship to Israel as their covenant Lord (p. 54).

Indeed, the covenantal orientation controls the entire disposition of these narratives, the arrangement as well as the selection of the materials. Thus, episodes of covenant-making and of covenant reaffirmation and renewal after Israel’s lapse and Yahweh’s judgments provide the climatic literary high points (see, e.g., Josh. 8:30ff.; 23 and 24; 1 Sam. 12; 2 Sam. 7; 2 Kings 11:17ff.; 22 and 23; 2 Chron. 15:8ff.; 34 and 35; Ezra 9 and 10; Neh. 9 and 10).

There is a virtual acknowledgement of this essentially covenantal nature of Old Testament historiography in the currently popular higher critical theory that the material in Joshua through 2 Kings was shaped by an alleged Deuteronomistic school. On this approach, the Book of Deuteronomy is thought to have been produced as a programmatic introduction for the following history work, the latter being then understood as an interpretation of the life of Israel in terms of the theology of history expressed in Deuteronomy. Though unacceptable as an account of the origin of the literature in question, this view is not mistaken when it finds the distinctive trait of these narratives to be their historical demonstration of the theological principles spelled out in the Book of Deuteronomy. And that is in effect to say that this historical treatment is covenantal, for Deuteronomy is precisely the treaty document given by Yahweh through Moses to be the canonical foundation of Israel’s life in covenant relationship to himself. It may be added that modern higher critical studies of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah point to their covenantal orientation too. They are often seen as the product of the “Chronicler”; but whatever their origins, the selection of data for narration reveals their primary and pervasive interest in the cultic and dynastic institutions by which the covenant relationship of Yahweh with Israel was maintained (pp. 55-56).

The establishment of the prophetic office was itself a matter of treaty stipulation. Moses, prophet-mediator of the old covenant, arranged in the Deuteronomic treaty for his covenantal task to be furthered by a succession of prophets like unto himself (Deut. 18:15ff; cf. Exod. 4:16; 7:1f.).
The peculiarly prophetic task was the elaboration and application of the ancient covenant sanctions. In actual practice this meant that their diplomatic mission to Israel was by and large one of prosecuting Yahweh’s patient covenant lawsuit with his incurably wayward vassal people. The documentary legacy of their mission reveals them confronting Israel with judgment. These writings mirror the several sections of the original treaty pattern – preamble, historical prologue, stipulations, and sanctions – in new configurations suitable to the prophets’ distinctive function. They proclaim the sovereign name of the covenant Lord: Yahweh, Creator, God of hosts. They rehearse the gracious acts of his reign through the history of his relationship with Israel. They reiterate interpretively the obligations his treaty has imposed (cf. Ezra 9:11; Dan. 9:10), calling into review Israel’s rebellious ways, and they confront the sinful nation with the curses threatened in treaty text and ratificatory rite, while renewing promises of unquenchable grace. Manifestly, then, these writings of the prophets are extensions of the covenantal documents of Moses. They summon Israel to remember the law covenant of Moses commanded at Horeb (Mal. 4:4) and to behold the eschatological future whose outlines were already sketched in the Mosaic curse and blessings sanctions, particularly in the covenant renewal in Moab (Deut. 28ff.).

The covenantal nature of the prophets’ office and message is reflected in various details of the language and form of their writings. The evidence for this is not only inner-biblical. Along with the links between the prophets and the specifically Mosaic covenants, parallels can be traced between the prophetic literature and the documents of international covenant diplomacy (pp. 58-59).

The psalms of praise, whether magnifying the majesty of Yahweh’s person or the wonder of his ways in creation or redemption, were a part of Israel’s tributary obligations; they were the spiritual sacrifices of the lips offered to the Great King. As vehicles of private and public devotion they were a continual resounding of Israel’s “Amen” of covenant ratification. Psalms that rehearsed the course of covenant history (see, e.g., Pss. 78, 105-106, 135-136) were confessional responses of acknowledgment to the surveys of Yahweh’s mighty acts in Israel’s behalf which were contained in the historical prologues of the treaties, responses suitable for recitation in ceremonies of covenant reaffirmation where those acts were memorialized (cf. Deut. 26:1ff.; Josh. 24:16-18). In the use of the psalms extolling the law of God, Israel submitted anew to the stipulations of the covenant. Plant and penitential psalms might find a place in interaction with the prophetic indictment of Israel in the process of the covenant lawsuit. Thus, the case for the covenantal function of the Psalter does not depend on a theory (like Weiser’s) that would assign much in the Psalter a role in some one annual covenant renewal festival, speculatively reconstructed. Rather, the Psalter served broadly as a cultic instrument in the maintenance of a proper covenantal relationship with Yahweh (p. 63).

The central thesis of the wisdom books is that wisdom begins with the fear of Yahweh, which is to say that the way of wisdom is the way of the covenant. In the Deuteronomic treaty Moses affirms that Israel received wisdom as an objective gift from Yahweh when he set before the nation the righteous statues of his covenant and that Israel’s subjective possession of wisdom was to be made manifest in their keeping the covenant (Deut. 4:6-8; cf. Jer. 8:8; Ezra 7:14, 25)

Accordingly, the function of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament is the explication of the covenant. One way it performs this is by translating the covenant stipulations into maxims and instructions regulative of conduct in the different areas of life and under its varying conditions (pp. 64-65).

An important point of contact between Old Testament wisdom and their treaties, biblical and extrabiblical, is their common concern that their precepts be transmitted to successive generations through parental instruction of children. The parallel is strikingly reinforced by the coupling of this theme with the insistence that obedience be rendered with the whole heart and also with the provision that obedience be prompted by binding the precepts to the body as signs. For examples of this interesting complex of ideas see, on the wisdom side, Proverbs 3:1ff.; 6:20f.; and 7:1ff. and, on the treaty side, Deuteronomy 4 (a passage which closely combines the treaty document clause and an identification of the covenant way with wisdom, vv. 2-8); 6:1ff.; and 11:13ff. (see also Jer. 31:31ff.; cf. Prov. 3:3; 7:3). The appearance of Yahweh’s covenantal words in the wisdom form of parental instruction reminds us that the covenantal and family models offer complementary understandings of God’s relationship to man. The Lord of the covenant is also the Father of his people (see Deut. 1:31; 8:5; 14:1; 32:5ff; 1 Co. 8:5f.).

From the foregoing sampling of the data it can be seen that the foundational treaty form which was adopted in the Mosaic covenants anticipated in its composite pattern the subsequent development of the Old Testament. The treaty form was a remarkable documentary epitome of the whole covenant relationship. In it we see a corolla of petals tightly compacted, while in the Old Testament canon as a whole we see this covenant corolla unfolded in flower. In this process of organic extension there was combined with the Pentateuchal record of the establishment of the covenant a centuries-spanning documentary witness to the continuing relationship, consisting in historical accounts, documents of the prophetic emissaries of the Lord, and literary deposits of other aspects of covenant life. The Old Testament which was thus produced represents an adaptation of the treaty form which is as much creative as it is imitative. Hence, the Old Testament is a covenantal corpus which is not only materially but formally sui generis. But it is indeed as a whole a covenantal corpus (pp. 66-68).

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