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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The Papers Presented at the Society for Old Testament Study

As promised, here is a brief overview of some papers presented at the SOTS conference that I attended last week. It is all new to me, so please be aware that I may have misunderstood some of the points being made, but these are the main highlights from my point of view. [I will add my own thoughts in square brackets.]

Moritz Adam: Ecclesiates

Moritz thought that Ecclesiates was well-introduced by the book of Proverbs. Solomon is sometimes linked to Christ, in an attempt to understand the books (though obviously this adds a whole layer of later history). Solomon is alluded to, but not named, possibly to widen the book’s appeal to later generations. However, the authorship is firmly linked to Solomon, ‘even if Solomon was not an historical figure’. [The scholars presenting papers often added this caveat—I don’t know whether they themselves doubted that Old Testament figures actually existed in history, or if they were ensuring their paper would be accepted whatever the reader’s view.]

There was a lot of discussion about how Ecclesiates potentially had Greek influence, such as the Hellenistic style of linking people with deeds: Moses—Exodus, Solomon—Proverbs. He suggested that the idiosyncrasies in Ecclesiates reflect a Greek style, as Hebrew doesn’t ‘do abstract’ very well. [I took notes, but found all this difficult to grasp as my own knowledge of Greek history is very limited.]

Moritz suggested that themes within the book reflect Greek thought, with no context for the ideas that are presented. He also quoted an Egyptian saying: ‘That which is crooked cannot be made straight.’ [I think this implies some of the thoughts may have come from Egypt, but to be honest, I didn’t really catch that bit!]

One idea that I enjoyed, is that ‘paradise’ is linked to the gardens of Persian courts.

Megan Daffern: Psalms

Megan was considering how the Psalms use self-reflection. [‘Talking to yourself’ in other words.] She said that sometimes this allowed the author to distance himself from the Psalm, and examine what was being presented. Sometimes it is used as a device to reassure oneself, to remind oneself that God offers security.

It was suggested that psychology today uses self-distancing to aid motivation [like when we talk to ourselves, saying we can achieve something].

David Firth: Psalm 40 and Psalm 70

Psalm 70 is basically the same as Psalm 40: 14-18. [I have never noticed this, have you?] David remarked that the Masorites [the scribes who added vowels and punctuation to the Hebrew texts] added a title to Psalm 70. Apparently, if a psalm has no title, it was possibly linked to the psalm before. [I didn’t know that, either!]

The paper then considered whether these two psalms were a copy of each other, or if both are original. It’s possible that both are included in the collection of psalms because they are very similar. Or, one may have been altered to be like the other.

The Hebrew word: ישב is a common verb in psalms 69, 70 and 71, which is some evidence that psalm 70 stands alone, and is not just an extract from psalm 40.

[Personally, I suspect that someone was feeling a bit desperate, read the extract in psalm 40 and wrote it out as it fitted his mood. He tweaked it a bit, and this then became part of the collection of psalms, because people liked it. But obviously I have no evidence for this.]

Kirsi Cobb: ‘Using Fiction to Fill the Gaps’

I hoped that this paper would be about how fiction writers can aid understanding by writing stories based on Bible narratives. But it wasn’t. The paper was basically a slating of a fictional book, stating that the concepts are badly presented. The whole paper made me furious, especially as at times it seemed to be a personal ridiculing of the author of the book being reviewed. There is a lot I can say, but I will leave it there.

[After the seminar, I remarked on the apparent personal attack, and I was told that this is normal. Scholars consider each other fair game for insults, and they don’t consider politeness to be a virtue when reviewing each other’s work. I hope I am never like this. Whilst I admire their brains, I did not always admire their manners.]

Paul Joyce: Inappropriate Optimism

This paper considered the unrealistic optimism that was presented by the false prophets, such as in Jeremiah. It discussed optimism as a cognitive illusion, and suggested that people tend to ignore evidence and lean towards optimism. [I feel I should introduce him to some of my family, as this seems very much a generalisation to me.]

He did note that biblical criticism and psychology share similar concepts, which I found interesting.

There are two other papers that I really want to tell you about. One was about covenants (you will never look at a rainbow in the same way again) and one was about whether the Hebrew Bible presents monotheism (there is only one single God). I will write about them in other blogs.

As you can see, most of the papers were full of information and ideas, and even though I am not as scholarly as most of the audience, it was extremely interesting. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Have a good rest of the week, and take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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I was invited to attend the Society for Old Testament Study conference. It sounded interesting, and not something I have experienced before, so I was keen to attend. I sent off my application form and fee, booked a train to Sheffield and put the date in my diary. That was the easy part. (I also explained to my family that ‘SOTS’ did not mean what they thought it meant! They had images of drunken old men sharing sticky bottles of whiskey.)

British Rail announced strikes, and my train to Sheffield was cancelled. I decided that the conference was still worth attending, so booked a train for the day before, and a room in a Premier Inn. Worried that the cost/hassle was now increasing. A few other people from college were going, some by coach on the day of the conference, and one via the same train and Premier Inn as me. We would all travel home together after the conference. This is important. I have very annoying issues with anxiety, but usually if I force myself to do things, especially with other people to distract me, then it’s fine and no one notices. I strive to be normal.

However, the train drivers then announced a strike for the 5th, which is when we were travelling home. I agreed with my friends that we would catch a coach from Sheffield to Victoria. Which sounded easy until I thought about it. The coach picked up from a motorway junction. This might be tricky to reach with all our bags. The coach only went as far as Victoria, and there were no trains to bring me nearer home. It also looked like I would be travelling alone the day before the conference, and staying in the Premier Inn on my own, as the others opted for different travel plans. It was the final straw, and I was about to cancel. Husband then kindly said he would drive me, book an Airbnb where he could work, and drive me home afterwards. Phew! I was saved. (This is why I love the man. That and his wickedly funny sense of humour.)

The first day of the conference arrived and I desperately hoped it would be cancelled. It wasn’t. It was held at Sheffield University, which I found very confusing when arriving on a dark January afternoon. Managed to find the registration place, and checked into the ‘hotel’ (which was basically a student room. But a much nicer one than when I was a student.) I told my son, who knows the university, that the seminars were being held in ‘The Edge.’ He told me this is the student bar, and I should watch out for the jello-shots. (Not sure the family fully believed my explanation of SOTS.)

The itinerary was full, with lectures interspersed with drinks or meals. I soon got into the swing of it, my brain switched into conference mode: chatting to strangers over drinks, checking the timetable, listening to people present papers, learning almost as much from the questions that followed.
Most of the papers were very interesting, despite being read. I have realised that this is a thing in academic circles. Someone writes a paper (Eg. ‘The false prophets were overly optimistic, which is a human trait.’) They are then given 45 minutes to read it, followed by 15 minutes of questions.

Often the questions were not really questions at all. Sometimes they seemed a veiled criticism, suggesting someone else had already written about the subject extensively. Sometimes they were adding information from their own studies in the past. Sometimes they were an opportunity to cite their own paper/book. And occasionally they actually were questions, usually asking for clarity or how the paper tackled a certain problem raised elsewhere. It felt combative, and whilst enjoying the intellectual to-and-fro, I was glad that I wasn’t presenting anything.

There were about 80 scholars attending each session.

I was aware that everyone was more learned than me (most seemed to be lecturers at universities). Most were probably more intelligent. I listened, and learned.

I also drank a lot of coffee.

There is not room here to talk about the papers that were presented. Some of them were brilliant, so I will write a few brief blogs to tell you about the ideas being discussed. I arrived home feeling drunk — nothing to do with alcohol, more complete saturation-point of my brain. I am so glad that I went.

Thanks for reading. I hope your brain has a work-out this week too.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson
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