The Covenant Formula: An Exegetical and Theological Investigation

By Rolf Rendtorff
Edinburgh : T&T Clark (1998). xiv + 105 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 267-268

The Old Testament Studies series of which this book is a part seeks to engage its readers in a fresh discussion of new perspectives in the areas of biblical history, theology, and literature. This volume is the English translation of Rolf Rendtorff’s Die Bundesformel (Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1995). Rendtorff, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at Heidelberg University, is the leading German dissident in the field of pentateuchal criticism. By “covenant formula,” Rendtorff refers to the biblical phrase “I will be your God and you shall be my people” and its variants (3).

This brief (and expensive) volume is divided into four chapters: “Some Preliminary Considerations of Method” (5-10), “A New Look at ‘The Covenant Formula’” (11-37), “The Covenant Formula in Its Exegetical Context” (39-56), and “An Attempt at a Theological Survey” (57-92). The back material includes an appendix entitled “Table of Formulas with *- ;&*%-” (93-94), a “Bibliography of Literature Cited” (95-99), an “Index of Names” (101-2), and an “Index of Selected Biblical References” (103-5).

The volume opens with a discussion and evaluation of the methods of historical criticism and form criticism. Rendtorff criticizes the circular reasoning and hypothetical assumptions that are characteristic of much literary and source criticism. In his opinion, the primary exegetical task is not to isolate and reconstruct hypothetical traditions. “The exegetical task is . . . to understand and interpret the text in the shape in which we now have it, in its final ‘canonical’ form” (8). Looking at the present canonical form of the text is what he terms the synchronic examination (7). His primary goal is to answer the question, “Are there different covenants or a single covenant?” (8, emphasis in the original).

In the second chapter, the author first recounts a brief history of published research on the covenant formula commencing with Rudolf Smend’s 1963 work (11). Next, Rendtorff describes the formula’s linguistic form in the OT. In the remainder of the book he utilizes a threefold classification: A = “I will be God for you,” B = “You shall be a people for me,” and C = the two statements (A and B) combined in a single formula (13). Having established the history of the study and the method for identifying the three different linguistic forms, he takes the reader on a passage-by-passage survey of the formula’s employment in the “Priestly 268 The Master’s Seminary Journal Pentateuch” (Genesis 17; Exodus 6; Leviticus 26; and a few other pericopes), Deuteronomy, the books of Samuel and Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zech 8:8. In the midst of this survey, Rendtorff inserts an excursus on Exod 19:4-6 (26-28).

The author proceeds to demonstrate that the contexts of the covenant formula include other formulaic elements (39-49): a transitional reflection (“in order to be”), the term “covenant” (běrît) itself, an exodus (or, deliverance) statement, a self-introductory formula (“I am Yhwh”), and a recognition formula (“they will/you will know”). Ultimately, three key texts stand out from all the rest as the primary statements employing the covenant formula: Genesis 17, Exodus 6, and Leviticus 26. All three are in the so-called “Priestly Pentateuch.” Rendtorff employs this distinction in order to emphasize the distinctive theological context of Deuteronomy where emphases on election and obedience (keeping the divine commandments) are added to the various contexts of the covenant formula.

By means of literary analysis, exegetical examination, and theological survey Rendtorff pushes his readers along a path that concludes that

there are no differences in the formulations of the covenant formula, whether these relate to the patriarchs, to the deliverance from Egypt, to the encounter with God at Sinai/Horeb, or to a ‘new’ covenant still impending. . . . In the canonical context of the Hebrew Bible, therefore, it must be said that God laid the foundation for his relationship to Israel in his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17) and then, with the Exodus generation, extended it to the people of Israel (Exodus 6). . . .

From this point of departure, there can in fact really be no other further covenant. The covenant has been made once and for all, and at its very foundation God had already called it an ‘everlasting covenant’ (Gen. 17.7, 19) (83).

In his opinion, therefore, each covenant context merely confirms the original covenant rather than establishing a subsequent and separate covenant distinct from the previous. This conclusion is, therefore, the summation of what can be legitimately called “covenant theology” (92).

Although Rendtorff believes that he has successfully applied James Barr’s criticism of those who make “distinctions where no distinction is meant” (82 n. 39), he appears to have fallen off the road into the opposite ditch where similarity of formulaic vocabulary is assumed to indicate an identical covenant. The entire study is a perfect example of how far afield the interpreter can be led theologically when the OT is treated in isolation from the NT. The concept of a single covenant throughout the progress of OT revelation is in direct contradiction to Rom 9:4 (“Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants [αί διαθηκαι]”). Likewise, Rendtorff’s over-emphasis on formulaic similarities ignores many contextual and theological differences. This reviewer has dealt with those distinctions elsewhere (William D. Barrick, “Inter-covenantal Truth and Relevance: Leviticus 26 and the Biblical Covenants” [paper read at the Far West Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, La Mirada, Calif., 1999]).

Anyone performing detailed research in the area of OT covenants must read The Covenant Formula. Students writing theses or dissertations on Genesis 17, Exodus 6, or Leviticus 26 dare not fail to interact with Rendtorff’s work.