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God's Alliance with Man

By Joshua A. Berman

By adopting the features of ancient treaties, the Bible effected a revolution in the way we relate to God and to each other.


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T
he idea of covenant, or brit, has long been one of the main ways in which the biblical encounter between man and God is understood. This term has been especially popular among today’s political theorists with an interest in Scripture, who have tried to marshal the biblical term for contemporary political applications. But these efforts have, more often than not, only clouded our understanding of the biblical concept of covenant. Invariably they employ anachronistic political theories or much—later understandings about what the word means to interpret the term, and then to read it back into the biblical text.
Daniel J. Elazar’s Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel offers a good example of the problem. Seeking to mine the term for its contemporary implications, Elazar depicts a covenant, following Max Weber,1 as a bonding agent among members of the Israelite community. Yet the covenant in the Bible is between God and Israel, and any definition that is not built around this relationship must necessarily miss the point. Moreover, Elazar discovers “covenant” at every turn—even in the account of creation—and he attempts to show how the principle of covenant underlies every major story in the Bible. Yet by invoking the principle of “covenant” in so many different instances, Elazar makes a precise definition of the term difficult to attain.2 A more recent work, The Jewish Political Tradition, a major compendium of sources and commentaries edited by Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum, and Noam J. Zohar, likewise eschews any attempt to engage covenant on its own terms within its biblical and ancient Near Eastern contexts.3 Instead, the relevant chapter assesses the covenant narratives in the Bible in light of modern political theories of consent.
Thus, despite the fact that covenant has been widely discussed in modern political thought, it has often been without really addressing the essential question: What is the original, biblical meaning of covenant? As some scholars first noted fifty years ago, the pact between God and Israel bears a strong resemblance to the ancient Near Eastern “suzerainty treaty” between a sovereign king and a subordinate king.4 In this essay I will show why this is the correct model for understanding covenant, and flesh out some of the theological implications of the employment of the international treaty metaphor as a paradigm for the relationship between Israel and God.
Whereas much scholarly discussion has focused on the idea of the people of Israel as a collective, and the covenant referring to an entire nation as such enjoined in a covenantal bond with God, I will argue in what follows that within the covenantal narratives human kingship is bestowed not only upon the entire Israelite polity, but upon each individual member of that polity as well. God is a king who enters into a treaty not only with the Jewish people as a lesser king, but with each individual Jew, subordinate yet possessing honor and standing in his own right.
The implications of this claim—that subordinate kingship devolves upon the individual no less than the people—may extend far beyond the scholarly debates. The idea of covenant may in fact be indicative of a profound revolution which biblical thinking represented in the ancient world, a revolution which is with us to this day....

Joshua A. Berman is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center and a lecturer in the Bible department at Bar-Ilan University. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book Biblical Revolutions: The Transformation of Social and Political Thought in the Ancient Near East.





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