A while back, I posted a review of Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s Kingdom Through Covenant. Dr. Gentry actually responded to me via e-mail inquiring about my review and about the evidence I had in favor my assessment that he was “almost entirely wrong” when it came to the ritual in Genesis 15. Here is what I originally said:
Speaking of deconstruction, though not entirely integral to the case, Gentry repeats a few times (153, 178, 251, 255-256) an error related to covenant rituals. Speaking of covenant making in the ancient Near East (chapter 5), he says:
Animals are slaughtered and sacrificed. Each animal is cut in two and the halves are laid facing or opposite each other. Then the parties of the treaty walk between the halves of the dead animal(s). This action is symbolic. What is being expressed is this: each party is saying, “If I fail to keep my obligation or my promise, may I be cut in two like this dead animal.” The oath or promise, then, involves bringing a curse upon oneself for violating the treaty. This is why the expression “to cut a covenant” is the conventional language for initiating a covenant in the Old Testament (153).
Unfortunately, this is almost entirely wrong. Gentry cites no sources to support that was common ancient Near East practice. That is because it wasn’t, and so there aren’t any. There is no extant evidence that this was practiced, much less that it was common when it came to “cutting” a covenant. Kenneth Mathews points this out, and Gentry is aware of it, but essentially argues that the fact that it happens in the Old Testament is all the evidence we need (“The OId Testament is part of that cultural data even if no other texts from the Near East specifically mention “halving an animal”). He misses Mathews point however, and instead assumes that what is happening in Genesis 15 is a covenant ritual that “attest[s] to age-old cultural data in the ancient Near East” (255). Much of his case amounts to special pleading in the face of scholarship based on actual ancient Near East evidence.
I was relying on the work of Dr. Johnston for my critique. After some back and forth with Dr. Gentry, he was able to read Johnston’s relevant papers and then emailed me his response. He suggested posting it, I thought that was a good idea.
Here is his email:
Nate, I am grateful for the papers by Prof. Gordon Johnston. I have now had time to read and study particularly the papers relevant to the meaning of passing between the disjecta membra in Genesis 15: Gordon H. Johnston, “The Passing Between the Disjecta Membra in Genesis 15:17 in the Light of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Rituals. Paper Presented at Southwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (25 March 2006).
From my further study of these things I have the following observations:
1) In his conclusion to the paper, Prof. Johnston suggests that the ritual of passing between the pieces in the ANE had to do with either asking for a child or a military victory, and was not necessarily a cove- nant making ritual ipso facto. Nonetheless, Prof. Johnston is entirely unsure about his own proposal at the end of his paper and acknowledges that the ritual could also mark a covenant initiation.
2) Although I accept the hermeneutical principle that we can clarify the meaning of the text from the cultural setting (see KTC) we must be careful to listen to the text and give the text priority over cultural setting. For example, in another paper, Prof. Johnston looks for clues in the cultural setting to interpret the meaning of the brazier and torch. I am sure this is a mistake. The metanarrative of Scripture is deter- minative here: the fire and smoke are symbols of the God of Sinai. This is clear from the burning bush in Exod 3, the fire and smoke at Sinai, the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night throughout the Exodus, the same symbols in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. We need not look to the ANE background for the clues to the meaning of these symbols. Prof. Johnston may have a tendency in his research to give priority to the ANE background over the metanarrative of Scripture.
3) The text of Genesis 15 clearly states: “on that day God made a covenant with Abram.”The statement about the cutting of the covenant in 15:18 relates to both the issues of land and offspring, for both appear to be addressed “on that day.” However, the literary structure of Genesis 15 (see KTC) rightly shows that the covenant making ceremony is most directly a response to Abram’s question regarding the land (15:8) and not the offspring (15:2), which at least cautions against associating the ritual closely with the birth of a child or a victory in a military battle. Carefully note the asyndeton at the beginning of 15:18. This most naturally signals explication of what precedes, which at the very least includes the climactic statement in 15:17 (note the wyhy, MGBH pp. 327–30, §40.A.4. See also Stephen Dempster, Linguistic Features of Hebrew Narrative: A Discourse Analysis of Narrative from the Classical Period. Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1985.) As such, the grammar itself suggests a close connection between the symbolic ritual and the covenant cutting reality, and therefore Jeremiah 34 is a natural biblical parallel, as is the ANE land grant bestowed by Abban, king of Yamhad, to his vassal Yarim Lim, wherein the suzerain’s vow with self-maledic- tory oath sign is described: “Abban placed himself under oath to Iarimlim and had cut the neck of a sheep (saying): ‘(Let me so die) if I take back that which I gave thee!'” As you may know, this is the one extant occurrence outside the Bible where the suzerain takes the symbolic oath on himself. We have in Jeremiah 34 a self-maledictory oath sign associated with covenant, which to me seems legitimately paralleled to the “covenant cutting” ritual described in Genesis 15. Moreover, if we interpret the ceremony or ritual in Genesis 15 with asking for a child or for victory in military battles, this interpretation would not fit Jeremiah 34. So we would have to assume that the only similar ritual in the Bible is to be interpreted quite differently from Genesis 15. Indeed, Jeremiah 34 is an ancient Near Eastern parallel to Genesis 15, albeit from within Scripture and not from without in the surrounding culture. This should carry significant weight for Christians.
These observations may not dissuade you from following the proposal of Prof. Johnston, but at the very least the strong statement in your review “Gentry is wrong” seems a little unwarranted. Thank you for taking time to read this response. You may consider posting it on your blog.
Yours warmly in Christ,
Peter J Gentry
He brings up a good counter-argument regarding Genesis 15 and the ritual and I think it’s enough for me to pull back of saying “Gentry is wrong,” though I still find Johnston’s proposal compelling. I think perhaps my case was overstated (it is absent in the ANE), but it is also an overstatement to suggest it was a common practice when there is so little evidence. Gentry does make a good point about the validity of Jeremiah 34 being ANE cultural evidence, and Scriptural at that.
I still stand by the extensive block-quoting critique, but I would probably phrase it in a less rhetorically charged way. I mean, I just did the same thing here so I can’t be too critical now can I?