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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 and thus lacks the objectivity the Biblical writers plainly intended to give it. This way of handling the topic I call neo-Feuerbachian. The other is to take seriously the idea that God reveals himself in the world and history—and, of course, that God is—and give to the Biblical covenant, either as in Judaism or in the Christian revision of Judaism, the status of something revealed. This I call traditionalist. There is of course an overlap between the two ways of handling the topic. To maintain the traditionalist view is not to deny that the covenant is grounded in the human mind and in the natural history of society; it is to deny that a psychological or historical explanation is sufficient.

Of the two writers here under review Jacobson is neo-Feuerbachian, Bishop traditionalist. I will look at some things in Jacobson’s book first.

Jacobson wants to maintain that the God of Israel is a fiction, but a fiction that (rightly) has moral importance for civilized men and especially for those who are genealogically and historically, but not religiously, Jews. He writes:

In this book I do intend to take the God of ancient Israel seriously, in the only way I can: as a fiction, as a fantasy, as an imaginative creation. My aim is to try to understand the relationship presented in the Scriptures between the people of Israel and the God they had created, and to follow through to an end (so far as it has one) the “plot” in which God and people were reciprocally engaged. My hope is to learn from this something about the moral imagination and its connections with our fantasy life…. I want [the reader] constantly to keep in mind that it is the record of a passionately held and militant faith.

The faith is not one that I share, or have ever shared.

He is concerned then with uncovering the plot behind the plot, the plot woven by human passions, desires, fears, longings; he is doing for the Bible what other critics have tried to do for, say, Dickens or Proust. That the labor is worth it in any of these cases can only be shown by the established results. The difference between this treatment of the Bible and the treatment of professedly imaginative work is that in the main the Biblical writers do not place themselves before us as offering fictions, though on a priori grounds Jacobson thinks that this is all they can be doing.

He also argues that the Bible can properly be treated as a unity because the authors, so diverse in time and situation, share a common approach to the traditional material and construct out of it in accordance with shared conventions a pattern of types and antitypes. (Here Jacobson has much in common with Northrop Frye’s The Great Code.) This moves us a little away from the Bible as fantasy to the Bible as constructed in accordance with chosen conventions. In one sense, it is certain that the Biblical writers knew what they were doing; understanding them involves picking up the conventions they rely on. This is not incompatible with the idea that we are reading a work of imagination, a projection of inner fantasies; but these may then be understood as fantasies common to most human beings, as is the story of Cinderella (Jacobson’s own example), or common to those who stand within the tradition of exile and return that marks the Jewish consciousness. Who, though, does not find himself in exile and longing for the good place whence he was thrust?

Jacobson is a Greek, in Paul’s sense: he finds the particularity of God’s election of the Jews troublesome. This has the effect that the writing is, as well as graceful and witty, often passionate. The passion shows itself in the discussion of the notion of a chosen people. The notion that a given people should be chosen by its tribal god is easy to understand. The scandal of the Biblical choice is that it is made by the God of all the world, by the one who made all there is out of nothing, the only true God beside whom all the other gods are fantasies, or bits of wood or stone, or images of the brutes. Jacobson recognizes this distinction but still wants to ask why God should be supposed to have chosen the Jews out of all the world. Given the standpoint of the Biblical writers, this must surely be a pseudoquestion.

He tends, too, to be uncomfortable with an imaginative identification of himself with Israel as victorious over the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan, almost as though he sees these conquerors as types of Mr. Begin or General Sharon, or those who man the fortified settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan. He finds it remarkable that “no moral or any other justification is proffered of the most fateful of the choices [Yahweh] makes.” With a tribal god the question wouldn’t arise. But if Yahweh is the Creator the question doesn’t arise either. God can scarcely be said to be a moral agent, a member of the moral community of rational beings. This would make him one of the things, if the greatest, within the universe. This is what Zeus is, or Apollo, or Pallas Athena; it makes perfect sense to ask why Athena favors Odysseus; here the answer is indeed to be found in a mythological rendering of human passions.

One might set Jacobson the following problem. God is a fiction; what he is said to do, e.g., choosing the Jews, must also be a fiction. Now, fictions can have their own coherence: Athena’s succoring of Odysseus is explained by her quarrel with Poseidon. But the choice of Israel by Yahweh has no explanation; it is presented as a brute fact that can’t be further inquired into. Either this is a simple lack of mythopoeic power, and that seems unlikely, or it is a strange fiction indeed. On what other occasion in the history of mankind have men elaborated a fiction so devoid of content? How strange that in the story of the burning bush his name should be I AM WHO I AM, a refusal of all predicates, at least as properly applied. What fantasy lies behind such an idea? On the whole, I think Jacobson refuses to engage this problem. For example:

[Yahweh] is the active or (if you like) supremely responsible participant in the story of the patriarchs and of the people descended from them; he is the sole and exclusive source of moral order acknowledged in the book. Yet no explanation is given of his most crucial decision…. At the same time, the book itself makes it clear that to enter into the realm of choices is to enter irrevocably into the realm of morality.

This is to suppose that we may take choice as a univocal concept to be applied both to God and to man, and it would follow from this that such statements as “God was mistaken” or “God made the wrong choice” would have sense. We may well cry out in rebellion against what God does, reproach him, chide him, question his justice; these are Job’s complaints. When God answers Job “out of the whirlwind,” it is not to justify himself but to remind Job of his inexhaustible power as creator and of the glory of his works. This would be an evasion were God to be taken as a member of the moral community—perhaps a constitutional monarch!

I say all this, not as asserting God’s existence, or that he has revealed himself, but as drawing attention to the logical character of the fundamental Biblical statements.2

Jacobson has interesting and suggestive things to say about the moral imagination as it is refracted through the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, he presents the moral difficulty that seems to go with the notion of Israel’s being a special people, chosen in preference to others. Yet it is a part of the story of the choice that moral rules that are implicitly universal are given to Israel. Since the thought that Israel is favored above others seems to go against the universal justice that is nevertheless a part of Israel’s inheritance, there is in the Jewish tradition a moral tension, a feeling of anxiety, a disposition to think well of oneself and at the same time to feel guilt over undeserved good fortune.

That these complexities of feeling are present in both the historical and the prophetic writings Jacobson is able to show. The fantasies that (as he believes) lie beneath the religious consciousness of the Biblical writers “differ from most idle daydreams and wish fulfillments in incorporating the moral anxieties which they themselves have aroused.” Yahweh whose glory fills the temple and who gives his elected children good land and a good life is also the one who, seeing their faithlessness and their falling into idolatry, punishes them with a range of ills that culminate in exile. But it is Yahweh who, seeing their dejection as they sit beside the rivers of Babylon, unable to sing the praises that went with the temple worship—“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”—once again has compassion on them and brings them back to Jerusalem. But the cycle of exile and return has no apparent end.

At the end of the book there is a somewhat ill-tempered and certainly ill-balanced discussion of the transformation of Judaism in Christianity. Jacobson is entitled to squeeze out of his account every ounce of the irony that comes from the traditional, though no longer generally current Christian, belief that Israel forfeited the divine promises permanently, and incurred God’s lasting displeasure, through the guilt of the high priest and of the Jewish crowd in the crime of deicide. But he takes this belief, not simple as being grounded in certain passages in the New Testament—plainly, it is—but also as grounded in the developed theology of Paul.

This strikes me as just a mistake. Paul’s argument is indeed that the moment has come when “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; [for] the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him”;3 and at the end of the great argument of Romans 10 and 11 he cries out that “God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.”4 But Paul denies that the reversal of roles that has come upon Israel means that Israel has been rejected; he reminds the Gentiles that their membership in the new Israel is through their being grafted, as wild olive shoots, into the rich olive tree of Israel. Finally, addressing Christians, he says of Israel: “As regards the Gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”5

Jonathan Bishop’s difficult book strikes me as that rare thing, an original work of theology. Originality may not always be a virtue in a theologian—no doubt those theologians who announced the death of God had a certain self-lacerating originality—but it may be. Any theology is a fact of culture; and it may strike us as an inert fact, like Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, the product of an age when (as Newman put it) love was cold, and perhaps inert because uttered in an idiom that no longer has life. The idiom of the classic theologian continues to strike us as saying something new; the idiom is fresh, as in Buber’s I and Thou or Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, or is given freshness through the work of a gifted interpreter, Gilson on Aquinas, or, more recently, Peter Brown on Augustine. Here are works to which we continue to return, and they are original in the sense that what they say is though in one way familiar, in another it is as though we were reading a text for the first time.

Bishop takes a group of traditional concepts, such as law and grace, and traditional practices, the Eucharist and marriage, and arranges them all in relation to what he takes to be the grounding idea of covenant.

Before I say something about covenant, I must first try to explain Bishop’s doctrine of categories. We can understand “category” as both a mode of existence and a way of talking about existence. Greek philosophy discusses the what-it-is of a thing and the fact that-it-is, the universal and the particular, temporal and causal relations, and all these are ways of talking about the world and modes of existence in the world. Bishop’s categories, for the purpose of theological discourse, are four. There is the division between sarx and pneuma, “flesh” and “spirit.” Each of these divides again into two, and this gives us four categories altogether.

Flesh divides into 1) the physical and social world and how it seems to witnesses, and 2) the same world qualified by the possibility but not as yet the actuality of spirit. The possibility of spirit shows itself in human awareness of sin and justice, disobedience and obedience; as choosers and doers we are within this category. If 1 and 2 were to exhaust all the possibilities of existence, redemption (in the New Testament sense) would be impossible. The novel things Jesus and his disciples say and do are in 3, the first category of spirit. But this category exists only for faith. Faith for Bishop seems to be an acknowledgment of the covenant as revealed and obedience to its precepts. Without faith the events of 3 belong to 2 or even to 1. The fourth is the category of the absolute future, when God will be all in all. Such are Bishop’s categories.

They indicate, as well as modes of existence, modes of discourse about these modes of existence, forms of language. We can talk about human beings as physiologists or sociologists do; we can speak of them as sinners, as doers and choosers; we can speak of them eschatologically, to use contemporary jargon; and we can speak in figure, as in the Apocalypse that ends the New Testament, about the absolute future in 4 that gives direction to the third category. I think Bishop’s point, in calling these categories, is to assert that without them we can’t speak about what is announced and pronounced in the New Testament, just as in the natural languages we should find it hard to speak about the world without such categories as substance, relation, time, space, cause and effect. The four categories are grounding for the Christian religion and therefore for Christian theology.

What, then, of covenant?

The peculiarity of Biblical religion is that it presupposes a speaking by, and therefore a human relation (as auditor) with, what lies altogether beyond the world. Bishop argues that the religions of natural piety, “from the reactionary elaborations of Sumer and Egypt to the banalities of contemporary popular culture,” enable us to identify

with the powers of life and death in this world. Within the horizon of that enterprise the numinous will be located behind rather than ahead, under rather than above. It will be felt as illusively immanent within instead of distinctly transcendent of the flesh.

Modern ideologies have “the mark of the flesh” upon them; they identify themselves with worldly powers. This is not the case with what he calls the “religions of relation.”

The religions of relation stand over against both the ancient religions and the modern ideologies…. The Bible is distinguished from other texts precisely by virtue of its declaration that relation is ultimate across the board. Relation is what revelation reveals. And the covenant is the means of relation, as soon as that has been explicitly consented to. Once relation is admitted,…I cannot help becoming Somebody “before the face of” Somebody Else to the infinite degree. And in that case whatever I do will become comprehensible in terms of the possibilities organized by the categories. It is what we vulgarly call the “Judeo-Christian tradition” that gives philosophy something serious to do.

Armed, then, with his four categories and with the distinction between the religion of relation and the religion of identification with worldly powers, Bishop gives us a reading of the Old and New Testaments. He uses the work of scholars without letting himself be browbeaten by them. His reading culminates in a discussion of the Eucharist, seen as climactic in every possible way.

Instead of a text within the second category [i.e., something to do with law and morality], then, we are offered the body within the third: in the place of stones, bread; instead of written orders, the presence itself. We can realize accordingly that the last supper is indeed the founding event of the new covenant, as Sinai was for the old; that the Eucharistic ritual is the renewal rite of this covenant, as the oaths sworn at Schechem or in Jerusalem had been before; and that the Eucharistic body is therefore the “document” which testifies to the prevalence of this version of the relation.

After this section on the Eucharist there follow sections on marriage, the works of mercy, and prayer. We soon come to see that Bishop is now talking about himself and his own experience, as a married man, as one who spent time working in a Catholic Worker house for the “marginalized” of our society. The modulation from the reflective and analytical style of the philosopher and commentator is beautifully managed. One comes to see that his experience of personal witness—something that is not in the least narcissistic and that never offers us anything that is merely “interesting”—belongs to the task Bishop set himself at the outset, and contributes to the originality I find in his work.

That Bishop is traditionalist means, among other things, if Jacobson is right, that he is estranged in a fundamental way from the human condition, mistaking what is the work of the mind and imagination for a communication from beyond the world. The commentators, prophets, putative witnesses studied by Jacobson are also estranged beings. Jacobson is able to keep them serious by grouping them with the great imaginative writers whose fictions show us, under one interpretation, the condition of man as a forked animal in an indifferent universe. Bishop presses upon us the thought that the Biblical material points beyond the world, that there are two parties to the covenant relationship. That this is how the Biblical writers think of covenant Jacobson doesn’t deny. I find in his book a note of regret that he can’t, in the end, take them seriously, at least by the criteria they themselves most esteemed.

  1. 1

    Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited with an introduction by Conor Cruise O’Brien (Penguin, 1976), pp. 194-195.

  2. 2

    Toward the end of The Story of the Stories there is a searching discussion of the notion of God’s choice, one that implicitly corrects much that is said earlier in the book. See especially pp. 165-169.

  3. 3

    Romans, 10:12.

  4. 4

    Romans, 11:32.

  5. 5

    Romans, 11:28, 11:29. That Jacobson has been less than careful in his consideration of Judaism in relation to Christianity appears from his bibliography, both what it includes and what it omits. We find Allegro on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, Lawrence’s Apocalypse, and Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. Three of these works have their place in a compendious bibliography of the subject. But where, for example, is David Daube’s The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, or Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s book on Buber? The latter is perhaps the best modern Christian discussion of the relation between Judaism and Christianity.

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