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.

While many biblical passages, such as in Isaiah 6, envision God as a king upon a throne, which implicitly strengthens the institution of kingship, by and large the logic of correspondences between the earthly and heavenly polities is absent within biblical writing. The anointment of Saul, Israel’s first king, in I Samuel 8—in which the prophet capitulates to the popular demand for a king, and God consoles him, saying, “It is not you that they have rejected; it is me they have rejected as their king”—is probably the only account within the annals of ancient Near Eastern historiography that depicts the historical beginnings of the institution of kingship in non-cosmic, even anti-cosmic, terms.19 In Deuteronomy, it is the people, not God, who are described as responsible in the first place for appointing a king over Israel.20 In a great many biblical passages the king is not deemed necessary for the bond between God and the people. This marks a level of dissociation of a people from its leader in relation to the divine that is found nowhere else in the ancient Near East.21
In articulating the relationship between God and Israel through the political concept of covenant, however, the Bible did not merely sideline or even sidestep royal theology as found in the surrounding cultures of the ancient Near East. Rather, through covenant, earthly kingship is entirely reworked.
As I suggested above, the pact between God and Israel hews to what is known by scholars as an ancient Near Eastern “suzerainty treaty.”22 The suzerain, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a sovereign or a state having supremacy over another state which possesses its own ruler or government but cannot act as an independent power.”23 It is important to stress that in certain circumstances, the vassal state of the ancient Near East retained its autonomy and territorial hegemony and, as we shall see, occupied a place that retained more independence, and perhaps dignity, than suggested by the term “vassal.” For the purposes of clarity, therefore, I shall refer to “the suzerain” simply as “the sovereign” and to “the vassal” as “the subordinate.”
The Bible articulates the relationship between God and Israel as one between a great king and a lesser king engaged in just such a treaty. To understand the extent to which this is really the case, and the theological import deriving from this fact, it is essential to understand the form such international treaties took and the role they played within the political life of the ancient Near East. Letters of correspondence among kings attest to the fact that treaties between states abounded in all ages of the period. Yet we possess actual treaty texts in any significant number from only two eras: The Hittite kingdom of Anatolia from the Late Bronze Age (roughly the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C.E.); and the Assyrian empire in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. There are significant differences in terms of form, tone, and content between these two collections. A vast scholarship has emerged over the last fifty years that seeks to compare these two bodies of literature and biblical covenant passages, and a vigorous debate has arisen as to whether various covenantal passages more closely resemble the Hittite material or the Neo-Assyrian ones. There is a consensus today that the fullest illumination of the biblical texts in question may be drawn by invoking both bodies of treaty literature.24
For the purposes of elucidating the meaning of covenant in this essay, we will focus on the parallels that may be drawn from some eighteen Hittite treaties.25 Although the Hittite kingdom of Anatolia was not contiguous with the Israelite kingdoms, the very nature of political treaties, however, is that they are cross-cultural, and thus it is reasonable to assume that they reflect underlying conceptions and phraseology that were shared by other cultures of the ancient Near East. The underlying axiom at play as we compare the Hittite treaties to the biblical covenant is not that the Hittite treaties per se served as a template for the composition of the Sinai and other covenant narratives. Rather, the form of the Hittite treaties is representative of a form of political discourse that was de rigueur throughout the Near East.

Of all the Bible’s accounts of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God, the Sinai narratives of the book of Exodus, along with their repetition later on in Deuteronomy, are surely the most pivotal. It is here that the story of Israel’s desert encounter with God on Mount Sinai is first spelled out, and the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, first enumerated, and it is therefore no surprise that the covenantal revelation at Mount Sinai (ma’amad har sinai) would later become the centerpiece of classical Jewish belief. Yet it is striking how closely the various biblical accounts of the Sinai covenant follow the typical formal elements of the Hittite suzerainty treaty. These formal elements of structure and of language are fraught with implications for understanding the nature of the relationship between God and Israel, and by extension have bearing on the political thought of the Bible. Five elements in particular stand out: (i) the historical prologue; (ii) the stipulations of the duties, privileges, and responsibilities conferred on each party to the treaty; (iii) the deposit of the treaty within the temple; (iv) the calling of witnesses to the treaty; and (v) the issuance of blessings for adherence to the treaty, and of curses upon its breach.
(i) Historical Prologue. Almost universally, the Late Bronze suzerainty treaty opened with a historical prologue in which the events that led up to the establishment of the treaty are delineated. This section, often of great length, is designed to show the basis upon which the subordinate king has submitted to the dominion of the sovereign. It is critical here to note the variety of circumstances that form the backdrop of the treaty that we encounter in these prologues. Of the Hittite suzerainty treaties known to us, only one documents a situation whereby the sovereign forcibly subjugated the subordinate king.26 Instead, these treaties document the manner in which the lesser king entered into subordination to the sovereign through a consensual arrangement. These fall into two broad categories. In one, the subordinate king is installed by the sovereign as the ruler of territories that have already come into his domain. The treaty outlines the terms of the subordinate’s rule in deference to the Hittite king. In the second, autonomous rulers approach the Hittite king and request his patronage or deliverance in exchange for their fealty as subordinates, in what may be termed self-subjugation treaties.27
There is a single underlying principle that girds the argument of these historical prologues: Moral and legal obligation on the part of the subordinate for the favor bestowed upon him by the sovereign.28 Universally in these treaties we find that the Hittite king initiates an action on behalf of the subordinate, and is later repaid through the fealty that the subordinate demonstrates according to the terms of the suzerainty treaty. Even if the historicity of the accounts is suspect, the discourse itself is telling of the political ethos. Apparently, the Hittite kings of the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C.E. felt that their claims to suzerainty could be deemed legitimate only if power was exercised upon a moral or legal base. Put differently, the moral and legal obligation of fealty on the part of the subordinate was the basis upon which a sovereign could lay claim to suzerainty, and only when the subordinate had submitted to the terms of the treaty of his own volition could it be considered binding.
There are important parallel elements found in the Sinai narratives. The historical prologues of the Hittite political treaties typically begin with the formula “The words of [name of the Hittite king]” followed by a delineation of the favor bestowed upon the subordinate that has resulted in his present expression of gratitude through subordination. The fact that the exodus narrative precedes the Sinai covenant in the book of Exodus accords with this pattern in general terms. It is more instructive, however, to observe how the opening lines of the Decalogue itself also reveal such an introduction. Before the delineation of the laws themselves, we find the following introduction: “And God spoke all these words, saying: I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”29 Notice the moral, or legal, basis upon which God enjoins the children of Israel: He identifies himself not as the God who created heaven and earth, but as the God who bestowed a great favor upon the “kingdom” of Israel, and is thus deserving of its subordinate loyalty. Note that the phrase “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” is surely superfluous after nineteen chapters of exodus and delivery that clearly delineate that this is so. At this juncture, however, God is entering into a “treaty” with the Israelites, and hence the formal need within the written contract for the grace of the sovereign to be documented.30
As we noted earlier, the self-subjugation treaties usually indicate that the relationship between the two kings would be initiated by the subordinate king’s appealing to the sovereign for assistance. Indeed, this pattern emerges from the narrative of the early chapters of the book of Exodus. The process of divine salvation begins only after the children of Israel cry out. Scripture then notes that God heard their cry, a detail which God repeatedly underscores as he tells Moses of his intention to deliver them from bondage.31
(ii) Stipulations of the Treaty. Following the historical prologue, the Hittite suzerainty treaties would typically enumerate the stipulations imposed upon the subordinate by the sovereign that were to be the expressions of his loyalty. These would typically revolve around security arrangements: Delineation of borders, repressing acts of sedition, capture and extradition of escaped fugitives, and the like. What is particularly important about these stipulations is the terminology that they employ, and how these terms are carried over into the Sinai narratives as paradigms for the relationship between God and Israel. Many of the treaties, for example, restrict the political activity of the subordinate king; he may enter into an alliance only with the sovereign. One Hittite treaty warns the subordinate of punishment, “if you [do not seek] the well-being [of Hatti and] the hand of [the Great King of Hatti], but rather you seek the well-being of another… thereby you will break the oath.”32
Such clauses add new dimensions to familiar biblical passages. The demand of the Decalogue that “You shall have no other gods beside me” is understood by a contemporary reader from an epistemological perspective: The Lord God who took the children of Israel out of Egypt is the only true God, and hence the need to underscore the falsehood of placing stock in any other god.33 But the command takes on a different light when seen in the context of ancient treaty formulations. God is the sovereign, Israel the subordinate. To revere another god is not just to accept a falsehood; it means violating a relationship. It means implicitly expressing ingratitude in light of the favor and grace bestowed upon Israel the subordinate by God the sovereign, as laid down in the “historical prologue” of the Decalogue—indeed, as laid out in the entire narrative of the book of Exodus to that point.34 For the subordinate king to establish treaties or other ties with another power would be tantamount to treason.35 The demand for exclusive fealty underlies the striking phrase in the Ten Commandments that pronounces God to be a “jealous God.”36

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