In contradictions #28 and #29 we learned that the version of the Abrahamic covenant now preserved in Genesis 17:1-14 was penned by the Priestly writer. In it Yahweh as El Shaddai promises to give Abraham and his seed “all the land of Canaan as an eternal possession,” and to become their god (17:8). In exchange for this Abraham and his seed must observe and keep the covenant:
And you, you shall observe my covenant, you and your seed after you through their generations. This is my covenant that you shall observe between me and you and your seed after you: every male is to be circumcised among you. And you shall be circumcised at the flesh of your foreskin, and it will become a sign of a covenant between me and you… And my covenant will become an eternal covenant in your flesh. And an uncircumcised—a male the flesh of whose foreskin will not be circumcised—that person will be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant. (Gen 17:9-14)
As mentioned in #28, P’s primary concern was to instill hope in the exilic community by creating a narrative wherein Yahweh re-affirmed his commitment to give the land as an eternal possession provided that the Israelites observed the covenant of circumcision.
Yet this covenant and condition is nowhere present in the Deuteronomic literature! And contrary to the claims of the Priestly writer’s Yahweh, the author of Deuteronomy’s Yahweh asserts that possessing and keeping the land is conditioned on observing the Deuteronomic covenant, that is the law code of Deuteronomy 12-26. Textual examples of this can be found in #29, but the end of Deuteronomy, written in the aftermath of the destruction of the land of Judah in 587 BC but presented narratively as prophecy, states this more explicitly:
And it will be if you will not listen to the voice of Yahweh your god, to be watchful to do all his commandments and his laws that I command you today, then all these curses will come upon you… Yahweh will send curse and tumult and pestilence at you in everything your hand takes on to do until you’re destroyed and until you perish quickly… Yahweh will make an epidemic cling to you until he finishes you off from the land to which you’re coming to take possession. Yahweh will strike you with consumption, fever, inflammation, burning, the sword, blight, and mildew. And they’ll pursue you until you perish… until you’re destroyed. Yahweh will make you stricken in front of your enemies… Yahweh will strike you with the boils of Egypt… Yahweh will strike you with madness and blindness… You’ll betroth a woman and another man will ravish here. You’ll build a house but you won’t live in it, etc…
Yahweh will drive you and your king whom you’ll set up over you to a nation whom you haven’t known… You’ll give birth to sons and daughters, but you won’t enjoy them because they’ll go into captivity… And all these curses will come over you and pursue you and catch up with you until you’re destroyed because you didn’t listen to the voice of Yahweh your god, to observe his commandments and his laws that he commanded you… So Yahweh will have satisfaction over you to make you perish and to destroy you, and you’ll be torn away from the land to which you’re coming to take possession. (Deut 28:15-63)
The curses listed in Deuteronomy 28 (read them all if you dare!) can be quite shocking and offensive to modern readers. Yet the author who penned these verses is working from a known Near Eastern literary genre—treaty/covenant curse documents—which we will examine more closely when we get to Deuteronomy. For now, keep in mind that this is the Deuteronomist’s literary creation and that we might even be able to understand why he has presented Yahweh in such horrific terms when we realize that these verses function to assign guilt to Judahites after the destruction of Judah in 587 BC and to prevent, hopefully, a similar catastrophe. I am not assigning right or wrong to these passages, but simply trying to understand them as products of their historical and literary contexts.
At core, the present contradiction represents the differences between how the Deuteronomic and Priestly authors have conceptualized the covenant, and religion. Each author presents the covenant in terms that largely support each one’s theological and ideological agendas and beliefs.
The Hebrew word for covenant (berith) appears 81 times throughout the Pentateuch alone, and 80% of those occurrences are shared between the Priestly and Deuteronomic sources. The Deuteronomist uses the term “covenant” to refer to 2 unique covenants that Yahweh made with the people: the Horeb covenant stipulating the Ten Commandments only—contradictory to the Elohist source (see forthcoming #170)—and the covenantal laws given by Moses to the people on the plains of Moab (Deut 12-26). We have already seen that keeping these covenant laws—the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law code of Deut 12-26—were essential to keeping the land. The Deuteronomist repeatedly stresses that the Israelites are to observe all of Yahweh’s commandments “so that” they may prolong their days on the land. Deuteronomy 28-30 warned that if these covenantal obligations were forsaken, the Israelites would lose their land and find themselves living in exile—passages that were written, in effect, after this had already occurred.
Yet when we turn to the Priestly literature, we find, that with the possible exception of 2 occurrences of the term berith in Leviticus 26, none of the remanding 36 occurrences of the word “covenant” by the Priestly writer refer to the covenants mentioned above in the Deuteronomic literature! In other words, there is no Sinai/Horeb covenant in P! The Priestly writer only uses the word “covenant” to express 3 unique covenants: circumcision (Gen 17:1-14), the Sabbath (Ex 33:12-17), and the exclusively Aaronid run priesthood (Num 25:12-13). Furthermore, P presents these covenants from Yahweh’s mouth; they are all “eternal covenants,” and any individual not observing them will be “cut off” from the community and the land.
It is not only that the Priestly writer makes absolutely no mention of the covenant nor the land in the terms that our Deuteronomist does, but the Priestly writer’s concept of Yahweh’s covenant and what is at stake in forsaking that covenant are radically different than the Deuteronomist’s conception. The bond that represented the people’s committed relationship to their god Yahweh as expressed through the term “covenant” was not for the Priestly writer expressed in terms of Mosaic commandments. That’s not to say that there were no commandments to follow in the Priestly literature. Of course there were. But the Priestly writer never uses the word covenant to refer to a set of laws, stipulations, or commandments.
The difference between the Priestly idea of covenant and that of the Deuteronomist is not just a difference in the conception of the covenant, but of religion and the function of religion as a whole.
What largely accounts for this and future contradictions that we will look at is not only the fact that the Aaronid priests and the Levite scribes had different conceptions about the role of religion, the cult, and Yahweh’s covenantal relationship to his people, but also the very fact that the Priestly writer and the Deuteronomic writer were writing in two drastically different historical eras, to two drastically separate audiences, and to address two diametrically opposing historical circumstances.
As this study has stressed all along, proper, accurate, and even an honest understanding of the Bible’s texts require knowledge of its proper contexts—i.e., its many authors, audiences, and the historical crisis that prompted these scribes to write what they did in the first place.