This week’s installment of OT Theology Thursday is an oldie but a goodie (though I don’t agree with him on much): Walther Eichrodt, arguably the key figure to put OT theology back on the map in the early part of the twentieth century.
“The concept in which Israelite thought gave definitive expresion to the binding of the pepole to God and by means of which they established firmly from the start the particularity of their knowledge of him was the covenant. That the basis of the relationship with God can be regarded as embodied in a covenant from mosaic times has of course been sharply contested. Nevertheless, it can be demonstrated that the covenant-union between [YHWH] and Israel is an original element in all sources, despite their being in part in very fragmentary form. Indeed this is still true even of those passages where the word berit has disappeared altogether. The whole course of early Israelite history, in which the religious sense of solidarity is bound up with the Sinai tradition, affords further evidence of this” (36).
For Eichrodt, the center (die Mitte) of the Old Testament is the (Mosaic) covenant. In his view, this theme is so pervasive that one can take a cross-section of Israelite faith and belief at any time in its history and discern therein the importance of covenant. While I am at heart a covenant theologian (though my recent reading of Fretheim–see HERE–is tempering that a bit), I register serious disagreement with Eichrodt on this matter. First, the assumption that Israelite faith is consistent over time, and thus that it along with the covenant concept does not evolve, is problematic. Recent forays into the history of Israelite religion testify to its dynamic character. Second, to assert that anything, including covenant, is the center of the OT presumes too much unity. More recently scholars such as Erhard Gerstenberger (Theologies of the Old Testament), Walter Brueggemann, and others have noted the diversity of theologies (plural) in the Old Testament. No one concept rules the day. Regarding covenant specifically, it is hardly in evidence in the Wisdom Literature, thus straining Eichrodt’s argument that it is the consistent center of the entire OT. Relatedly, Eichrodt’s concept of the covenant is univocal. What about the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants? (Eichrodt understands the Abrahamic covenant as a later retrojection of the Mosaic covenant, meant to ground the covenant concept in the earliest period of Israel’s history). But why the exclusive focus on the Mosaic covenant to the detriment of these other covenants?
Eichrodt’s contribution to Old Testament theology is an important one, though one that has not stood the test of time it seems. Much of his writing bears troubling witness and hints to the time and place of his writing: Germany in the 1930s. But despite these significant issues, he remains an important voice in the conversation history, and story of Old Testament theology.