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A Crash Course in Covenant Cutting: The Structures

akkadian1Okay, so let’s get one thing straight; covenant is a genre. In fact, covenant is a genre with several sub-genres. (I’ll discuss sub-genres in another post.)

This means that covenant has recognizable forms that developed in history through human interaction and communication in particular places among particular people.[1] As with any “literary” form that exists for a lengthy period of time, the shape that covenant takes morphs over time and develops its own vocabulary and categories. We’ve already discussed the essence of covenant as rooted in fear, death and self-cursing. Today, however, I want to lay the foundations for understanding covenant by considering a single covenant form, which is among some of the earliest literary examples we have of ancient near eastern covenants—the suzerain-vassal treaty.

The suzerain-vassal treaty is a covenant form that represents an established relationship between a LORD figure (i.e. suzerain) and an UNDERLING figure  (i.e. vassal). These are made famous by dominating kings who make offers of peace to defeated or defeatable threats instead of destroying them. The entire structure binds the vassal to certain terms of peace and life, but makes no recorded demands on the suzerain, whose unstated obligations toward the vassal are determined by the vassal’s faithfulness to the terms of the covenant.

In its full form there are seven parts.

Preamble—This introduces the party issuing covenant (i.e. the suzerain)

Historical prologue—This lists significant events in the relationship between the suzerain and the vassal. It is a kind of, look how good the suzerain has been to the vassal; he deserves loyalty from him… or, in short, the “You owe me!” note from the suzerain to the vassal.

Stipulations—what is expected from the covenant. This is the list of specifics that the suzerain requires of the vassal in exchange for not being killed, or for avoiding war, or for receiving the unstated protections that go along with being the vassal of such a suzerain.

Deposit of the text & arrangement for public reading/renewal.

Divine Witnesses—this is the list of gods that are called upon by both parties in the covenant as divine enforcers, making sure that the vassal keeps his word, that the suzerain fulfills his unstated part. The details of their enforcement (what these deities will do in cases of either righteousness or unrighteousness) are detailed in the list of…

Blessings & Curses—A list of things that the divine witnesses will do if the covenant is kept or broken, if the parties prove righteous or unrighteous in terms of the stipulations.

Ratification—A symbolic enactment of the covenant… it’s the relative equivalent of signing a contract, only the witnesses aren’t notary publics, but deities.

So let’s compare the suzerain-vassal treaty to some Scripture.

Consider Exodus 20-24:

Preamble:  Exodus 20:2  “I am the LORD your God…

Historical prologue: Exodus 20:2 …who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Stipulations: Exodus 20:3-17

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image…
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness…
  10. You shall not covet

The stipulations are also listed out in increasing detail throughout Exodus 21-23.

Deposit of the text & Renewal: the 10 words [i.e. ten commandments]) are written on stone tablets and stored in the ark of the covenant… i.e. the box of the covenant, whose construction is detailed in Exodus 25. The entire covenant is written in book and read to the people in Exodus 24:7.

Divine Witnesses: (None listed… who would witness against YHWH, and upon what other god would Israel call?)

Blessings and Curses: Not specifically listed, but are resident already in the ratification.

Ratification: Exodus 24:1ff burnt offerings are made with their blood sprinkled on the people. The elders together with Moses and Aaron eat a communal meal before God revealed in Exodus 24:9ff.

A comparison to Deuteronomy proves interesting.

Preamble: Deuteronomy 1:6  “The LORD our God said to us in Horeb…”

Historical Prologue: In Deuteronomy 1:6-3:2 Moses summarizes all that transpired between YHWH and the People from the time he brought them out of Egypt to the present.

Stipulations: Deuteronomy 4:1-26:19 re-records many of the laws of the Exodus covenant in new contexts and incorporates many laws given in both Numbers and Leviticus into the covenant stipulations.

Deposit and renewal of the covenant: The tablets and ark are detailed in Deuteronomy 10:1ff. Deuteronomy 31:9ff details the giving of the book to the priests who carry the Ark of the covenant and demands that the covenant be renewed every seven years, being read to the people as a reminder of all that they were called to do.

Divine Witnesses: While no deities are listed, as with the Exodus version of the covenant, here, YHWH does call heaven and earth itself to witness against Israel. Isaiah will call upon them again when he accuses Israel of covenant violation.

Blessings and Curses: Blessings are listed in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 followed by curses in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. They are worth a read to the get the gist of how these things tended to be worded. When the prophets accuse Israel of infidelity to the covenant of Moses, they reach for these verses for their punishment lists.

Ratification: While preparation for ratification is detailed in Deuteronomy 27:1ff, the actual ratification, the reading of the covenant and the recitation of the blessings and curses of it, is not carried out until Joshua 8:30ff, where they make an altar, offering blood sacrifices, and recite the covenant, including its stipulations, blessings and curses.



[1] See my posts, “Finding Covenant in an Ignorant World,” “Did God Invent Covenant,” & “A Crash Course in Covenant Cutting: Its Essence.

One thought on “A Crash Course in Covenant Cutting: The Structures

  1. Frank reedy says:

    Great job doc, I appreciate the work you do, this stuff does get easier to spot once you know what to look for, I suppose it would be even easier if we could imagine a society where a diety was actually feared.

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