Covenants and Mathematical Monotheism

More from the Winter 2023 SOTS conference.

(It was January 2023, so not entirely sure whether the date above is a typo or for when it was originally scheduled.)

As promised, I will tell you about the two papers which I enjoyed the most at the SOTS conference. They both helped to shape my understanding of who God is—and are far removed from the way God is presented at Sunday School. As before, please note that I am describing the lectures as per my own understanding, with apologies if I am not accurately describing what the papers said.

Peter Hatton: ברית as treaty

The Hebrew word ‘beret’ (ברית) is frequently used in the Old Testament, and is usually translated as ‘covenant.’ Therefore, God made a ‘covenant’ with Noah, that he would not flood the world again, and he made a ‘covenant’ with Abram that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and so on. However, Peter Hatton suggested that our understanding of ‘covenant’ is misleading, and ‘treaty’ would be a better word. He said, “You don’t make covenants with friends, but with enemies.” There is an element of threat when a covenant is made—and we tend to forget this today. A ‘covenant’ or treaty is very different to a contract, which is an agreement between two equal sides, with no underlying threat, and with a right to appeal if things change.

He then discussed the treaty made with Noah, which was symbolised by a bow in the sky. A bow was a sign of power, a threat of attack. Peter showed several examples of pictures of bows from the ancient world, and each time they were signifying threat and power. The bow shown to Noah is a bow (not a rainbow) and it is immediately after God has murdered/executed all the people and animals in the world (so definitely something of a threat would be understood). [This is not something my Sunday School teachers emphasized, with our songs about ‘When you see a rainbow, remember God is love…’]

The treaty with Abram included a sign too. Abram had slaughtered animals, and cut them in half, and fire had gone between the halves. In the ancient world, people sometimes walked between divided carcasses, to symbolise the idea that if they went back on the agreement, they would be like the dead animals. [A little like in a Court of Law, we swear to tell the whole truth ‘so help me God’ in other words, only God will be able to save me if I lie.] In the example of Abram, God was saying that he would be like a divided carcass if the covenant was broken. [I am unclear here as to who the he might be. According to my notes, Peter Hatton said that Abram would be like the dead animals, but when I later read a commentary, they said that it was God himself who was saying he (God) would be like the animals if he didn’t fulfil the covenant. I think the Hebrew can mean either, so you can decide for yourself. Either way, the covenant/treaty held an element of threat.]

Peter’s paper then considered why this element of threat might be important. When people are in situations of conflict, pretence tends to disappear, and people are very real/honest. Peter said that when he has counselled couples with marriage problems, they are in conflict, and they tend to be honest about the hurt and difficulty. He remarked that in this situation, when people are genuine about the pain, they can start to rebuild. He also said that marriage is a covenant/treaty between people who are different (because individuals are different). [He lost me a little here, perhaps I was tired, but I don’t entirely see the same link with a marriage covenant and conflict/threat. But maybe you can work that out for yourself.]

Philip Jenson: Mathematical Monotheism

For me, this was the most helpful paper of all, because I have been struggling with the idea that the Old Testament is very clear that there is ‘One God’ and yet Christians are very strong on the Trinity (which to my mind, is basically three Gods working as one).

Philip Jenson pointed out that ‘monotheism’ is a term that first arose in the 17th century, which is when understanding of mathematics and science was developing rapidly. The idea (rather than the word) of monotheism first arose during the exile. Before then, people held a belief in monolatry (that only one God should be worshipped, above all other gods).

The Hebrew word for ‘one’ is אחד and it means more than the mathematical idea of quantity. אחד is about quality, about being incomparable, being in a position above all others. ‘God’ is not countable. Numbers are unhelpful here. God is known by power. אחד might be better translated as ‘unique’ rather than ‘one.’

[I think some of these comments about inappropriate translations maybe arise because language is not static, and our understanding of words changes over time. Therefore, when Hebrew is being translated today, words like ‘one’ or ‘covenant’ have slightly different nuances than they did during the reign of King James and the Authorised Version.]

Another problem with this is our understanding of the word ‘god.’ What is a god? Modern people don’t like to think that there could be lots of different gods floating around. However, the Bible speaks of ‘Heavenly Beings’ and some are named (Eg. Seraphim). These might be who were understood to be ‘gods.’ Or perhaps the ‘gods’ were man-made, anything that was worshipped and revered, anything that people treated like a god. Anything that rivalled people’s loyalty to God. Therefore, they did exist, but not in a way that was separate from human perception. A carved animal was a god, because it was worshipped as a god but if placed on a shelf as a mere ornament, it was not a god.

The paper then considered texts that possibly contradicted this idea, such as Isaiah 44: 6, “…beside me there is no god.” This seems to exclude the possibility of other gods. But this ‘exclusion formula’ might refer to power rather than the existence of other gods, so is inconclusive.

The conclusion was that God, YWH, is incomparable, and his multiple titles add to the hierarchy (because a lack of names implied a lack of status in the ancient world). The implication in the Bible is that other gods were created by God, and were potentially mortal (ie. not eternal).

I found it all extremely interesting, with lots of ideas to mull on. I also find it helpful when thinking about the Trinity, because I don’t need to try and explain an apparent contradiction between ‘one God,’ and that I believe Jesus was God, and yet he prayed to his Father, who was God. I can stop worrying about how many I can count, and focus on the unique, incomparable being who is God. I am very happy to admit that this God is beyond my understanding, and leave it there.

Hope you have a great week. Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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