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 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.

In order to grasp this revolution, it is necessary to examine the relationship between ancient Near Eastern notions of kingship and the manner in which they are reworked within the biblical covenant between God and Israel. The first step toward this is to explore the royal ideology that surrounded these institutions elsewhere in the ancient Near East.
In his seminal work on the sociology of religion, The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger describes religion as a self-interested, politically motivated distortion that masks the construction and exercise of power.5 A despot, he argues, could seek to legitimate his control of power by declaring that he was an agent of the gods, and was chosen by them to lead. Yet as Berger notes, ancient cultures took this a major step farther: The political institutions in the earthly realm, they maintained, paralleled heavenly institutions. The institutional order “here below” manifested the divine order of the cosmos “up above,” establishing what Paul Ricoeur called “the logic of correspondences.”6 In his account of the parallelism between the earthly political realm and the divine realm, Berger characterizes the activity of human royals as a “mimetic reiteration” that stands in place of a cosmic reality. Royal authority, in essence, mimes the authority of the gods.7
Two representative cultures from the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia and Ugarit, each displayed this mimetic dynamic of the logic of correspondences. With regard to the former, it was after the great conquests by Sargon, king of Akkad, in 2300 B.C.E. and by Hammurabi in 1800 B.C.E. that the political structure of the exalted sovereign emerged as the central model of Mesopotamian civilization and was mirrored in its conception of the heavenly realms. Within the earthly realm, the king presided over a vast hierarchy, a pyramid of lesser authorities. And so it was in the supernal realm. The realm of the gods had a king as well—Enlil, who presided over an elaborate pantheon of Mesopotamian gods corresponding to the range of lesser authorities that served under earthly kings like Sargon and Hammurabi. Enlil, like his earthly counterparts, ruled by delegating responsibilities to lesser dignitaries and functionaries. He presided, like his earthly counterpart, over a large assembly. He, like the earthly king, lived in a palace with his wives, children, and extended “household.”8
The mimetic dynamic of the logic of correspondences was evident, too, in Ugarit, a much smaller society that flourished between 1450 and 1200 B.C.E. on the shores of the Mediterranean in what is modern-day Syria. In Ugarit the highest level of association was the family, the clan. Because of its relatively modest size, society in Ugarit consisted of nuclear families within a multi-tiered clan structure. Typically, the structure of the patriarchal household was headed by the oldest male relative, the patriarch, who presided over multiple nuclear families headed by his sons and other male relatives. It was the task of the patriarch to mediate interactions and conflict within the household and to negotiate relations between his household and other households in the society. His ultimate task was to ensure the welfare of the household and to guarantee its perpetuation, its holdings, and its good name.9
The structure of the patriarchal family also lay at the root of Ugarit political structures. The sovereign monarch was considered the ultimate father, and in Ugarit, kinship and kingship went hand in hand: To be king over all was also to be father over all. As in Mesopotamia, the power of the central metaphor to legitimate the earthly polity did not imply a reign of tyranny.10 Here, despotism and benevolence naturally coexisted. On the one hand, the patriarch king had the right to dominate all individuals, goods, and services. Yet in return for filial loyalty came the expectation that the patriarch or king would treat the members of his household with benevolence. The staying power of the construct of the patrimonial household rose from the intra-household loyalty that was at its core.11
The model of the patriarchal household, and of the royal household in particular, was thus integral to the depiction of the divine sphere within Ugaritic texts. The social models for the leading gods manifestly reflected the patriarchal experience in households, non-royal and royal alike.12 To use Berger’s phrasing, in Ugarit the earthy realm was a mimetic reiteration of the heavenly—a central element in legitimizing the exercise of power.
Other cultures went even further. Instead of articulating a series of correspondences between earthly and heavenly leaders, some cultures went as far as elevating the king to demigod status. Nowhere was this more evident than in Egypt. The metaphysical status of the king is the subject of the best known and the most highly developed of all the Egyptian myths, the myth of Osiris, which relates that the king in ancient Egypt is both the living son and the immediate divine reincarnation of his predecessor.13
There is much debate as to the precise nature of the king’s divinity in Egypt, but at the very least it seems clear that the king is the visible image of a god and assumes a divine role on earth.14 Only the king has access to the world of the gods, and indeed he is a ubiquitous figure in scenes of worship inscribed upon temple walls. Like the cult image of the gods, the king was steadfastly hidden from the view of his subjects. When he would enter the public arena, however, he would be surrounded by signs of power and protection, and would represent for the public the presence of the gods. His decrees were considered “the utterances of god himself,” his actions “not the work of men.”15
The key player in each of these cosmic narratives is the king and, to a lesser degree, the human hierarchies that surround him. It is thus no surprise that in most cultures of the ancient Near East, power was concentrated in the hands of the king. This routinely included the administration of justice, the capacity to order the remission of debts, service as the high priest, and service as the military commander in chief.
The emphasis upon the king came, perforce, at the expense of the metaphysical role of the people. In Mesopotamia, portents of evil, such as an eclipse or an earthquake, would mandate human action to placate the gods. But the action mandated was solely that of the king. It was only he who would recite prayers, offer sacrifices, or shave his body in obeisance. Nothing was required of the people at large. It was not the people whom the Mesopotamian gods held accountable, but rather their king. In Egypt this was expressed even in graphical terms: The symbolic representation of the community from the earliest dynasties is simply the figure of the king.16

The proposition of kingship in the Hebrew Bible looks rather different. At first glance, the same “hermeneutic of suspicion” employed by Berger with regard to ancient religion as a tool for the legitimization of power structures might be applied to the biblical description of monarchy, as well, at least in some passages. Yet even in those passages that grant the greatest legitimacy to Davidic rule, some fundamental differences are apparent. For example, in Psalm 2, perhaps the most pro-monarchal of the so-called royal psalms, the identification between God and king is not nearly as strong as was seen elsewhere in the ancient Near East. The claim here is a relatively modest one: The king is legitimate because he has been chosen by God. The concluding phrase of the psalm, in which God says, “You are my son, I have fathered you this day,”17 does not necessarily imply deification of the king; the phrase “you are my son” is a legal term found in the Code of Hammurabi, implying adoption.18 “I have fathered you this day,” perhaps, implies the adoption of the king by God at the king’s coronation. Certainly, the king as depicted throughout the Bible is not meant to be the “visible image of a god” as in Egypt. Nor does his rule mimetically resemble that of the King of Kings to nearly the extent that we saw in Ugarit and Mesopotamia.

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