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.

The theological implications of all this are far-reaching. To begin with, the notion of a “historical prologue” suggests that the relationship between God and man in the Bible is founded on gratitude and moral obligation, and not merely on God’s power over man. By invoking the language of “love,” “hate,” and “jealousy,” the Bible educates toward seeing God not just as a power but as a personality. And like the Hittite self-subjugation treaties, the Pentateuchal narrative of the covenant underscores the subordinate Israel’s readiness to accede to the treaty—the most famous expression of this being Israel’s declaration, soon after the Ten Commandments are presented, that “All the things that the Lord has spoken, we will do and obey.”62
But perhaps the greatest implication of casting the covenant between God and Israel in terms of the Late Bronze Age suzerainty treaty is the relative pedestal upon which it places the human agent here, Israel, in its role as the subordinate king. Saul Olyan has effectively dramatized this implication through his application of studies in the anthropology of honor to treaty-making in the ancient Near East. Consider the following relationships: A child in relation to his parent, the young in relation to the elderly, a slave in relation to his master, a subject in relation to his sovereign. These pairings are all social contexts in which persons of inferior status interact with those of superior status. Moreover, they are all relationships where there is a bestowal of honor, and it is bestowed unilaterally by the inferior figure to the superior one.
In his study of honor and shame in ancient West Asian covenant relations, Olyan has shown that whereas the master owes no honor to his servant, material from Mari and the Amarna archives reveal that honor is a commodity bestowed in both directions between sovereign and subordinate in political treaty-making.63 It is in this vein that we find within the El Amarna correspondence a letter to Pharaoh by one vassal complaining that he has received less honor from Pharaoh than has another vassal.64 In one of the Hittite self-subjugation treaties, with a subordinate king named Sunashshura of Kizzuwatna, we find that the subordinate is mandated to appear at regular intervals in the court of the Hittite sovereign. The treaty reads,
Sunashshura must come before His Majesty and look upon the face of His Majesty. As soon as he comes before His Majesty, the noblemen of His Majesty [will rise] from their seats. No one will remain seated above him.65
The visit of this Sunashshura to the Hittite court is hardly made in tar and feathers. He is received amicably and with distinction; the Hittite king’s nobles must rise in his honor. There are indicators in the Hittite self-subjugation treaties, moreover, that even as the subordinate submitted to the sovereign, he still remained autonomous in relation to the kingdom of the sovereign. Nowhere in these treaties do we see that a sovereign could impose an heir upon the death or abdication of a subordinate king, nor is there any indication that he could ever rightfully annex the subordinate’s territory, even in the event that the treaty were violated.66
In the ancient Near East, a variety of metaphors was typically invoked to articulate the human-divine encounter: As a child to a parent, as a slave to a master, and as a subject to a king. What is common to all of these is that they are relationships in which honor is bestowed unilaterally from inferior to superior. Indeed, each of these paradigms may be found to describe the disposition of man toward God in the Bible as well. Yet alongside these, the Bible sought complementary paradigms through which to articulate the human-divine encounter in a radically new way. It sought out the metaphor of Late Bronze Age treaty-making, for in it honor was a commodity reciprocally bestowed between sovereign and subordinate. The implications are that within the biblical notion of covenant, God honors man, even as man honors God.

But beyond the powerful implications regarding the honor that God bestows upon man, there is a further implication of the parallel between biblical covenant and Late Bronze Age political treaties, one that has drawn little attention. The vast majority of the Late Bronze Hittite subordination treaties are unambiguously constructed as agreements between two individuals—the sovereign king and the subordinate king.67 In the Bible, it is clear that God plays the role of the sovereign. Yet who stands parallel to the subordinate king? Now, it is true that the Israelites have a leader: Moses. Yet Moses cannot be properly termed a king. He is never referred to by this term; his children are not discussed as possible heirs. Moreover, nothing in the language of the covenant narratives suggests that it is Moses who is the vassal king, and Israel his subjects. The covenant is never cast as a treaty between God and Moses. Rather, the implication of these passages is that God enters into a covenant with the people.
One is tempted to say that the role of the subordinate king is played here by the corporate body of the people of Israel as a whole. And perhaps this is true to a certain extent. Yet, within the Sinai covenant itself we see that God in fact relates to individual Israelites. Each of the Ten Commandments is of a nature that it can be fulfilled, or transgressed, only by an individual. None of them requires a collective effort, such as would be necessary to build a sanctuary, anoint a king, or engage in military conquest. Moreover, we see that within the Decalogue, God distinguishes between those who adhere to his covenant and those who do not. He pledges to visit the guilt of fathers unto the third and fourth generations of “those who hate” him, while showing kindness unto the thousandth generation of “those who love” him.68 When God, as the sovereign, bestows honor, he does so selectively, upon individuals, and not only collectively. In I Samuel God says “those who honor me, I will honor, and as for those who despise me, they will be diminished, or dishonored.”69 This does not mean, of course, that God does not relate to Israel as a corporate body at all, but rather that individuals are not necessarily always subsumed within the collective in the terms of the covenant.
We may conclude, therefore, that to some degree the subordinate king with whom God forms a political treaty is, in fact, each individual within the Israelite polity; that every man in Israel is to view himself as accorded the status of a king—a servile, subordinate king under the protection of and in gratitude to a divine sovereign.
The proof of this may be seen in striking parallels between the stipulations and language used in the Hittite treaties regarding the subordinate king, and parallel biblical laws and commandments that bind each and every common man of Israel. We saw earlier the treaty with the subordinate king Sunashshura, in which he was obligated to “come before His Majesty and look upon the face of His Majesty.”70 Again, the visit of Sunashshura is a state visit replete with honor, as the Hittite king’s nobles must rise in his presence. We also note that such a formal court appearance is referred to throughout the Bible as well as an act of “looking upon his face.”71  
Yet precisely this language is used with regard to the common Israelite’s obligations with respect to God. We find it, for example, in the stipulations of the covenant narrative of Exodus. “Three times a year,” we read, “all of your males shall be seen by the face of the Lord”—referring to the duty to make a pilgrimage to the central shrine of Israelite worship.72 Nearly ubiquitous throughout the Bible is the notion that God may not be seen by mortals. Were they actually to behold God, they would die, as God explains to Moses, when the latter requests to see the face of God. “And God responded, you may not see my face, for no man may see me and live.”73 Thus it is highly unlikely that that which was forbidden even once to Moses, to see the face of God, is in fact mandated for every male of Israel for generations. Moreover, the particular term translated here as “the Lord” (ha’adon) is actually rare within biblical literature as a reference to God.
Yet when seen in the context of the Hittite treaties, the meaning is clarified. The command that each Israelite male make a pilgrimage is patterned after the requirement that a subordinate king visit the court of his sovereign, to “look upon the face of his majesty.” What is most instructive here is that this is enjoined upon all adult males—whereas in the Hittite political treaties, only the subordinate king is called upon to visit the sovereign. Indeed, it would be beneath the dignity of the sovereign to receive all of the commoners subject to the subordinate king.
A similar parallel with Hittite political treaties emerges with regard to the treaty stipulations that mandate the periodic reading of the treaty within the subordinate king’s court. One treaty, forged between one Kupanta-Kurunta of Mira-Kuwaliya and the Hittite king, states: “[This tablet which] I have made [for you, Kupanta-Kurunta,] shall be read out [before you three times yearly].”74 In another treaty, this time with a subordinate by the name of Alaksandu of Wilusa, the Hittite king states:
Furthermore, this tablet which I have made for you, Alaksandu, shall be read out before you three times yearly, and you, Alaksandu, shall know it.75
Once again, we see a parallel stipulation in the Bible, but one that is extended to include all the children of Israel. In the Late Bronze Age suzerainty treaty it is the subordinate king who is responsible to execute and follow the terms of the treaty, and thus he personally must be read its provisions, to reinforce in his own mind the covenant he has made with the sovereign. But the covenant between God and Israel is consecrated with each and every member of the polity, and thus each and every member must hear it read aloud, because each and every member of the people is responsible for its faithful implementation. Indeed, the terms of the covenant between God and Israel are read out before the whole people on a number of occasions. The first of these is at Sinai:
Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice saying, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” Moses then wrote down all the commands of the Lord…. Then [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will faithfully do!” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands.”76
The covenant is similarly read out to the entire people by Joshua at Shechem and by King Josiah during his reform.77

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