Taking it on Faith

The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and Its God

by Dan Jacobson
Harper and Row, 211 pp., $11.95

The Covenant: A Reading

by Jonathan Bishop
Templegate (Springfield, Illinois), 458 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The articles constituting the League of Nations were called the Covenant of the League; Protestant piety was then more of a force in the world than it is now, and the history of “covenant” must have been present to many of those who took their seats as delegates in the city of Calvin. The idiom to which “covenant” belongs is falling out of common use, but it may still have some energy, as consoling or slightly disturbing, carrying with it suggestions of Sinai, or Deuteronomy, or the blessing of the cup (“This is my blood of the new covenant”) at the Last Supper, depicted by the writers of the Gospels as a fateful Passover meal in which the history of Israel is recapitulated and what is eaten is, proleptically, the paschal lamb to be slaughtered on the next day.

The idea of the covenant between the Lord, who initiates it, and his chosen people pervades Judaism from the earliest stories in Genesis to the return from Babylonian exile. The belief in its actuality, that the Lord had truly promised himself to his people, sustained Jews in all periods of the Diaspora down to our own day. With the Christian era the idea of the covenant divides: that which continues in Judaism, and that set out with such eloquence by Paul and by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, that Jesus is the sign of a new and universal covenant, the Church the new Israel, the old covenant transformed.

This account is complicated by the doctrine of the Logos, as in Philo and in the Fourth Gospel (“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God…. And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us”). This gives the idea of covenant a cosmic significance; the Creative Word constitutes the universe and man within it; and this is linked with the notion of the divine image in the first of the Genesis creation-stories. The doctrine of the Logos and the notion of the particular covenant between Yahweh and Israel are, typically, brought together by Burke in his famous passage on the idea of contract. Society is indeed a contract, he writes:

a partnership…between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.1

There are two ways of handling the topic of covenant. One is to take the Biblical stories, with the extrapolations of theologians, Jewish and Christian, from them, as expressions of a powerful myth, one that both charms and repels, that has its only origin in the human mind and in the natural history of human society…

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