Review of “Covenant and Creation: An Old Testament Covenant Theology,” by William Dumbrell

Before I begin, I should state that I read Covenant and Creation because of a very strong recommendation by Rev. Steven J. Boint. Reverend Boint has had a profound effect on me. It was Boint who introduced me to Einstein and Kuhn — my philosophy of science and understanding of epistemology are largely the product of his instruction. Additionally, Reverend Boint is the author of Did Jesus Die for Dogs?, a popular book on a Christian theology of our common home. There’s strong parallels to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, and I’d advice anyone interested interested in one to also read the other.

My take on William J. Dumbrell’s Covenant and Creation is in several parts. Dumbrell rejects the central core of Christianity. He introduces “covenant theology,” without explanation and without consistency towards what covenants were. His translation style is unusual, and his view towards others who fear the LORD is hostile. The scriptures are sanitized. And the Son of David is rejected.

The Creator, A Creature

jesus-cleanses-temple

Dumbrell appears to reject the central reality of Christianity: that the Creator became a creature. Christianity transcends the fundamental categorical distinction between the contingent and the unconditional, because the baby born of Mary is Himself the LORD.

While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:6-7

But while this view is clearest in Christianity, it is immanent within the Hebrew bible itself.

For instance, the climax of Exodus is the Creator transcending the same divide: the transcendental Being beyond the universe dwells in a tent, and speaks of Moses face-to-face, like a friend. He will always, really and truly, be with the Israel

When the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel.
Exodus 40:34-38

But even though the LORD’s cloud was with them, in all of their journeys, Dumbrell rejects this:

“The temple in the Old Testament is designed to remedy for Israel a lack of the divine presence” (p.38)

and

“And a result of Israel’s sin, God is now only to be indirectly present through the leadership of an angel as Israel’s guide to the Promised Land.” (p. 140)

This is because God is to great to b enshrined, to noble to dwell on the earthly plane:

The transcendent character of God is certainly referred to, and no doubt, in the question of v.5 in the impossibility of enshrining him. The notion could not be entertained that [the LORD] should ‘dwell’ (i.e. sit enthroned) in a temple! (p. 221)

Though, of course, such a notion was entertained by others…

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.”
John 2:13-17

Imagine Dumbrell’s response to the claim that God Himself took the form of a servant…

The Covenant, A Surrender

tokyo_bay_instrument_of_surrender_uss_missouri

In the ancient near east, a “covenant” was an Instrument of Surrender between a weaker polity and a stronger one. Covenants included the identity of principals involved, lists of witnesses from each party, the specific obligation fo the conquering power to protect the surrendering power, the specific obligations (including various forms of tribute) from the weaker party to the stronger party, and consequences in the event of covenant breach. The combined text of Japanese Instrument of Surrender and General Order No. 1 together would furnish a covenant by the ancient understanding. Likewise, the LORD’s Covenant with Moses

Covenants are one of multiple ways that Trinity communicates with man in the Hebrew Bible. There are internal monologues, blessings, oaths, curses, marks, visions, and so on. For a reason not explained, “covenant theology” elevates Covenants over these other Divine Communiques as governing documents. Such a view of the modern would would, say, require understanding of US-Japan relations to focus on the Instrument of Surrender and General Order No. 1, but not the Treaty of San Francisco or the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. In relations between man and man, relying exclusively on Instruments of Surrender would be incomprehensible. No justification is given for applying it in relations between men born of women and the God born of woman.

An obvious objection to this “covenant theology” — a history of God’s relationship to man based on Instruments of Surrender — is that it excludes much. This would as that would be like viewing all of American history as,say, the story of the Surrender at Yorktown. Seemingly anticipating objections, Dumbrell merely states that it is restrictive to insist the meaning of covenant be treated as analogous to any other use of the covenant concept in any other context. In other words, the idea is de novo.

To this, Dumbrell adds the belief that a “covenant” does not necessarily include witnesses, polities, and so forth. The reason is that Dumbrell seeks to collapse all covenants into one, and assert that all of creation history is the story of the covenant of God with Adam, with other covenants being either special cases or instantiations of methods designed to bring this about.

“What this means in real terms is that there is only one biblical covenant, with the end to be reached from the beginning always in view,” (p. 8).

At this point the term “covenant” loses all meaning except for what it Dumbrell wants it to mean.

The Text, A Muddle

Josiah's Reform

The slippery definition of “covenant” in the book is compounded by the quixotic method of translation used. There is a difference between translating and explaining a text. A good example is , in which a vivid sexual metaphor is used to emphasize God’s promise to Abraham. The imagery and the meaning are both clear to adults, but confusing to children. The advantage of separating these two functions – translates and explanations – is that pre-printing-press writing was often fraught with multiple meanings as a method of increasing information density. In this context, an attempt to “explain” instead of translate Genesis 22:17 would lose either the vividness of the imagery (which itself emphasizes the pain of childlessnesss), and bowdlerize the passage out of the pains of adulthood into something as generic and meaningless as a child’s understanding of the problem.

In other words, conflating “translation” and “explaining” collapses a passage fraught in a superstate of multiple dimensions of meaning into only one meaning. Most of the potential and information is lost by Dumbrell’s style of translation.

A specific example of his translations is the Hebrew word “qum,” literally meaning “stand-up.” A context often used would be to “stand-up a covenant.” The literal expression “stand-up” is commonly used in information technology, where it means to create something new. In both English-language communities (technical and military/governmental) were the phrase “stand-up” is used as a verb, it means to create something new. It is in this context that to stand-up a covenant is used multiple times in the Bible, for instance Genesis 6:18, Exodus 6, 2 Kings 23, and so on.

Dumbrell emphasizes covenants with Abraham, Moses, and Josiah. Much of Dumbrell’s argument relies on asserting that these were not new covenants, but merely continuations of an older one.  This is not the sense any trustworthy translation I could find.

Genesis 6:18
New American Standard Bible
“But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark– you and your sons and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

King James Bible
But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee.

Young’s Literal Translation
‘And I have established My covenant with thee, and thou hast come in unto the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy son’s wives with thee;

Robert Alter
And I will set up my covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, you and your sons and your wife and the wives of your sons, with you.

In all formal equivalent translations the tense of the verbs are either both in the future tense (as the covenant with Noah and entering the ark are in the future), or both in the past (as the LORD relates the near future to Noah). Dumbrell arbitrarily selects different tenses for the verbs, and declares it to be a great mystery when a previous covenant with Noah was established (though he is silent on Noah’s family having supposedly already entered the ark!)

Since divine covenants are reassurances to humanity of divine intention, why then, at Genesis 6:18, the mention of a previously unexpressed divine commitment without human involvement? (p. 17)

Yet subsequent uses of the same Hebrew verb, across these four translations, also interpret it as establishing a covenant, as opposed to renewing one:

Exodus 6:4
New American Standard Bible
“I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they sojourned.

King James Bible
And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers.

Young’s Literal Translation
and also I have established My covenant with them, to give to them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings, wherein they have sojourned;

Robert Alter
And I also established My Covenant with them to give them the land of Caanan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned.

… and …

2 Kings 23:3
King James Version:
The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people entered into the covenant.

New American Standard Bible
And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant.

Young’s Literal Translation:
And the king standeth by the pillar, and maketh the covenant before Jehovah, to walk after Jehovah, and to keep His commands, and His testimonies, and His statutes, with all the heart, and with all the soul, to establish the words of this covenant that are written on this book, and all the people stand in the covenant.

Robert Alter
And the king stood on a platform and sealed a covenant before the LORD to walk after the LORD and to keep His commands and His precepts and His statutes with a whole heart and with all their being, to fulfill the words of this covenant written in this book. And all the people entered into the covenant

The four translations above came out in the 15th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, respectively. And none of them agree with Dumbrell.

Dumbrell’s “translations” are thus as useful as Anthony Cekada’s Introduction to the Mass of Paul VI. Both are thought provoking and intelligent, but with an unpredictable pattern of conflating their personal opinions with objective descriptions.

The Faithful, A Remnant

jerusalem messianic seal

Dumbrell makes special notice of the idea of a “remnant,” that while many believers have fallen away a core, real group of religionists will still be saved. Dumbrell does not explain or defend this concept, but its influence can be seen in his antagonism toward Catholicism and Judaism.

Not only doe s Dumbrell believe that God abandoned Israel at the end of Exodus, he believes that (after, temporarily, taking her back), God finished the divorce in the Gospels:

Finally Israel’s rejection of her Messiah, in John 19:15 by “We have no king but Caesar,” will mean the end of the national relationship with [the LORD].” (p. 144)

and

However, when Pilate presented Jesus to the Jews with ‘Behold your King,’ the chief priests answered for Israel, ‘We have no king but Caesar (John 19:14,15). This was the final and tragic covenant breach, making national Israel merely a nation without a cause. (p. 192)

But even Dumbrell’s legalistic view, how could this sever the covenant, because the High Priest was not in the crowd — the High Priest was Christ Himself!

There are three obvious criticisms of this.  First, from a Catholic perspective, this is simply incorrect:

We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity (cf. Rom 11:16-18). As Christians, we cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God (cf. 1 Thes 1:9). With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, pp 247

Second, from a Sola Scriptura perspective, the people literally ask for the blood of the savior — the perfect moral detergent — in the same episode:

And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!”
Matthew 27:25

Third, for the experts in the law, the Letter to the Hebrews explicitly addresses the relationship of the people to God in light of the Sacrifice:

Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws upon their heart,
And on their mind I will write them,”
He then says,

“And their sins and their lawless deeds
I will remember no more.

Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Hebrews 10:11-18

Christ, as High Priest, ensured the blood of the sacrifice would be on the people. Moses did no less.

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Exodus 24:5-8

But Christ’s sacrifice was perfect, once and for all. The death of the High Priest did not create an eternal divide between the LORD and His People, but an eternal closeness.

The God described by Dumbrell though is constantly pulling out the rug. “Now Israel is to be the replacement for Adam” — Israel stole God from Adam, but lost Him to the “New Israel”…  the new wife.

Throughout the text Dumbrell spells out phonetically the Divine Name, instead of using common substitutes such as the LORD, the intentionally mispronounced pseudonym “Jehovah,” or by making reference to the Tetragrammaton. This is odd, considering Covenant and Creation’s position itself as an explicitly theological book, written in a theological institute. The use of such terminology seems specifically designed to alienate Catholic or Jewish readers, and is further ironic considering this paragraph by Dumbrell.

The third commandment declaims against the divine name taken in vain, for the name is an expression of all that can be known of God. All possible misuse of the divine name in perjury, sorcery, curse, blasphemy, false prophecy, empty vows, or anything that leads to any kind of falsehood, deception or harm is warned against. The breach of this commandment is to be punished by the severing of the covenant relationship and therefore by the forfeiture of the freedom which depends on that relationship. (p. 167)

Good thing that Dumbrell is infallible, and his writing cannot possibly lead “to any kind of falsehood”!

The Prophets, Rejected

tissot-saul-commands-doeg-to-slay-the-priests-600

The story is Israel birth as a nation is odd.  It has an interesting structure, including Moses’s Walter White-like descent into darkness.  The Prophet, who was saved as a bay from a murderous tyrant, becomes that tyrant before he is deposed, before the military takes over, before He dies alone

And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women? Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD.Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately.
Numbers 31:15-17

But then, after this, comes a retelling, a story that never was. In Deuteronomy, over and over again, Moses is aggrandized and others forgotten.  The reorganization of the tribes was his idea, not his father-in-law’s.  The ark’s construction was his alone, not the craftsmen mentioned in Exodus.

This same antiseptic view of the Scripture appears in Dumbrell. Bizarre claims, almost proudly out of step with reality or what has been written, are made again and again.  Here’s just one, defending King Saul:

In fact we see nothing in the reign of Saul quite like the extraordinary failure sand personal excesses which characterized the court and person of David” (p. 213)

Of course, to position David as the villain, and Saul as the innocent hero, one must forget of other events in the same book…

Then the king [Saul] said to Doeg, “You turn around and attack the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite turned around and attacked the priests, and he killed that day eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. And he struck Nob the city of the priests with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and infants; also oxen, donkeys, and sheep he struck with the edge of the sword.
1 Samuel 22:18-19

This disinfected view of Scripture extends to how it may have been written. For instance, consider the two books of laws, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. the different writing styles, different technologies described, different views of Moses, and different civil systems implied by Leviticus and Deuteronomy implies that either Deuteronomy was largely written hundreds of years after most of the material in Leviticus, or alternatively that Leviticus was intentionally constructed to appear to be much older than Deuteronomy. Neither alternative rejects the Holy Spirit’s role in authoring those books, but either alternative would provide context for how the words should be read. Dumbbell appears to completely reject such an approach, taking passages at “face value” regardless of context.

Bizarrely, Dumbrell seems to acknowledge this. In Deuteronomy, but not Leviticus, the “Levite” is described as a marginalized class. In Leviticus the butchering of animals was to be done by Levites, but in Deuteronomy this monopoly no longer existed.

“The mention in Deuteronomy 26:11 of the Levite and the sojourner, who are also, though underprivileged in the society of the time…”

but Dumbrell never closes the loop. The interpretation of Deuteronomy and Leviticus as being originally composed in the same historical time period makes no sense, even to Dumbrell, but Dumrell insists on reading them as being of roughly equal antiquity.

My suspicion of what Dumbrell is doing — and what the Deuteronomist intentionally did — is sermonizing. The Holy Spirit uses a variety of literary techniques and tropes to open the door to all.  Some books are war stories (Joshua, Judges).  Some let us see one individual life as it deforms and twists, others are comedies, or philosophy, or even erotic (the Song of Songs). And then there are sermons, a technique like all others which is dull to some and fascinating to others.

A sermon (which in the Christian tradition typically incorporates short passages from the Old Testament, the Letters, and the Gospel) takes specific passages, puts them in a coherent light, and passes by other meanings which may exist as well.  For instance, consider the Fall

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate
Genesis 3:6

Dumbrell’s description:

“‘And he ate’ (v. 6) — no words — the woman is not a temptress.”

Now, this doesn’t follow — or at best is partially true — because the purpose of quoted dialog would be to show what someone essentially is, regardless of what they did in that circumstance. Elsewhere in Genesis there are plenty of passages, where the reader’s perspective must be “Surely, she must have said more than that!”

It came about after these events that his master’s wife [i]looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.”
Genesis 39:7

But Dumbrell is not trying to objective describe either events in the text or what is happening the text.  His work is academic in style but not in intended function. It is a sermon — a sermon for those who love reading — that focuses on its message and uses the Bible as a prop to do so.

The Son of David, a King

jeconiah_ration-tablet_berlin_fj072404t

Dumbrell continues his discussion into the latter prophets, who I have not yet read. So instead I will end this review on the last paragraph of the Book of Kings. Mentioned in this paragraph is the last King of Judah before the exile, Jehoiachin called Jeconiah:

Now it came about in the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, that Evil-merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he became king, released Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison; and he spoke kindly to him and set his throne above the throne of the kings who were with him in Babylon. Jehoiachin changed his prison clothes and had his meals in the king’s presence regularly all the days of his life; and for his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, a portion for each day, all the days of his life.
2 Kings 25:27-29

My take, from almost two years ago, before reading the New Testament, was

The ending of the Book of Kings is odd, ambiguous. The House of David is in captivity, in exile, but exalted above other captive monarchs. The branch of Jesse lives. Perhaps, one day, a King will return…

Dumbrell disagrees. Using the “royal we” he writes

“We doubt, however, whether the concluding verses of 2 Kings are to be constructed in this way… Davidic kingship was not in fact restored after the exile, nor was such a restoration ever seriously contemplated.” (p. 239-240)

If only there was a way to know, if the Son of David would ever return

The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham… Josiah became the father of Jeconiah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. After the deportation to Babylon: Jeconiah became the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel. …. Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
Matthew 1:1, 11-12, 16-17

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