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Covenant and law in the old testament

a. The Hebrew word for covenant {berit} is of uncertain origin. The two best suggestions for its etymology are:

(i) from the Akkadian preposition birit, "between, among"
(ii) from the Akkadian noun biritu/birtu, "bond", "fetter".
The Akkadian term for treaty is riksu = literally "bond". In many ancient languages the metaphor of "bond" was used in treaty contexts. Therefore (ii) above is probably the better proposal.

b. There are different types of relationships gathered under the term "covenant" in the OT:

i) friendship - 1 Sam. 18:1-4 (David/Jonathan)
ii) marriage - Mal. 2:14
iii) international treaties - 1 Kgs 5:12 (Hiram/Solomon), Ezek. 17:4.
Different ceremonial elements are also associated with "covenant":
meals, Gen31:46, 54; sacrifice, Gen 31:54; symbolic actions, Gen 15:7-18; Jer 34:17-22.

Covenant Forms

A major contribution to our understanding of covenant was made by G. Mendenhall in the article "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition" BAR III 25-53 (1954). While there is no evident parallel to the Old Testament covenant between a nation and its god in the ANE, Mendenhall saw in the ANE political treaties the possibility of a parallel - at least a form for adaptation to the OT situation.

He focussed on the Hittite suzerainty treaties from the time of the Hittite empire (1600-1200 BCE). These were often military in nature seeking to establish a relationship between the Hittite overlord and subordinate nations. The vassal was bound to loyalty and the annual payment of tribute while the suzerain was not legally bound but nevertheless they were committed in the relationship, or at least it was in their interest, to oversee the welfare of the vassal.

Elements of the treaty (in its ideal form) with extracts from the treaty between Mursillis of Hatti and Duppi-Teshub of Amurru, a Syrian kingdom.

(i) Preamble - the suzerain king introduces himself, and gives his titles:

"These are the words of the Sun Mursillis, the great king, the king of Hatti-land, the valiant, the favorite of the storm-god, the son of Suppiluliumas, the great king" (ANET p. 203)
(ii) Historical Prologue - This tells how the suzerain has protected the vassal's ancestors, restored him to rule, overcame his enemies and potential usurpers to the throne (etc.). This is the basis for faithful observance of the treaty in the future:
"Aziras, your grandfather, and Du-Teshub, your father remained loyal to me as their lord. ... Since your father had mentioned to me your name with great praise, I sought after you ... and put you in the place of your father" (ANET p. 203-4)
(iii) Obligations - usually placed on the vassal only:
- prohibition on other treaties;
- allegiance to suzerain;
- can't attack other vassals;
- suzerain to adjudicate between vassals in disputes;
- vassals to appear regularly before suzerain with tribute.

"If anyone utters a word unfriendly to the king or the Hatti-land before you, Duppi-Teshub, you shall not withhold his name from the king" (ANET p. 204)

(iv) Deposit of the treaty document, usually in the sanctuary:
"A duplicate of this treaty has been deposited before the sun-goddess of Arinna. ... In the Mitanni land, a duplicate has been deposited before Teshub. ... At regular intervals they shall read it in the presence of the king of the Mitanni land and in the presence of the sons of the Hurri land" (ANET p. 205)
(v) Witnesses - usually the gods of the two nations:
"We have called the gods to be present, to listen, and to serve as witnesses: the sun-goddess of Arinna ... the sun-god, the lord of heaven, the storm god, the lord of the Hatti-land ... the mountains, the rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, heaven and earth, the winds and clouds" (ANET p. 205-6)
(vi) Blessings and curses if the vassal obeys or disobeys:
"Should Duppi-Teshub not honor these words of the treaty and oath, may these gods of the oath destroy Duppi-Teshub together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house, his land. ... But if he honors these words ... may these gods of the oath protect him with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house and his country" (ANET p. 205)
Several OT scholars have investigated parallels between the Sinai covenant and the Hittite Treaties and have argued that the first instance of the treaty structure appears in the Sinai covenant in Exodus. E.g. W. Beyerlin in The Origin and History of the Oldest Sinaitic Tradition (pp. 49-51).
Exod. 20:1-2                         = preamble + history
          20:3ff (Decalogue)       = obligations
          24:3-8 Words written  = deposit of Treaty
          "pillars set up"              = witnesses.

Other covenant elements appear elsewhere.
Deut. 10:1-2. The deposit of tablets in the ark (*deposit in the sanctuary)
Lev. 26, Deut. 28.  Blessings/curses at the conclusion of the stipulations.

The date of the Hittite treaties and the proposed parallels with the Sinai covenant strengthen the argument of those who see the covenant institution as early in Israel and not a later institution.

Not all scholars have agreed with this parallel, e.g. D.J. McCarthy Treaty and Covenant, pp.273-6. He argued many of the elements in the covenant at Sinai are not treaty elements, e.g. the theophany of the Lord (Exodus 19), Moses as mediator, and the meal which concludes the ceremony on the mountain (Exodus 24). The generic form of the treaty is old and widespread in the ANE. Therefore there is no a priori reason Israel could not know and use the treaty form from the earliest time. But neither did they have to. Therefore, McCarthy questioned if the treaty form was actually used early in OT literature for the covenant between God and Israel. Various elements may appear (history, law, curse-blessing) but when does it appear as a whole? He identifies the first appearance of the treaty elements as a whole in Deut. 4:44-28:68.

I still maintain the possibility of an early formulation of covenant ideas in Israel. We do not have to have exact parallels. We do not even get these in Deuteronomy. Covenant features are firmly fixed in the so-called JE material which is pre-Deuteronomy in my view, and at any rate from a different stream of tradition.

Conclusions on Covenant

i) Israel's covenant between its God and his people is a new twist on the treaty tradition.
ii) Sinai is a conditional covenant: "If you obey my voice and keep my covenant... you will be a treasured possession." Compare with this the unconditional nature of the Abraham and Davidic covenants. There is evidence that both of these have been altered at a late date for theological purposes. At Sinai, there is the expectation of the obedience, loyalty and faithfulness of the people to the covenant. Law is not a restriction over against the "grace" of God in giving the covenant but is a structure by which the response to that "grace" is formulated.
iii) Covenant is established by God, not the people. This demonstrates the compassion and love of God. Read Exod. 34:6-7

Law in the ANE

Scholarly views on biblical law changed in the last century with the discovery of ANE codes of law.

Oldest:     Sumerian code of Ur Nammu, king of Ur - 21st century BCE;
Others:     Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon  - c.1690 BCE;
                Hittite laws from Boghazkoy  - 14th century BCE.
The ANE view of law was one which involved the whole of the created order: the gods created the world and established an order for it that was just; law was given by the gods as a regulation of life within the world according to the divine order and justice. A law code was then not necessarily a full record of the legal practice of the day but rather an exemplar of the order desired and required by the gods. The king was the chief servant of the gods. He was responsible for the administration of divine justice.

Part of prologue to Hammurabi's code reads that Hammurabi was appointed king to:

"promote the welfare of the people ... to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppose the weak" (ANET, p. 164)
This seems to be the Israelite view of law too. R. Clifford, in his commentary Deuteronomy (p. 187), says: "If the Mesopotamian codes were primarily statements of divine justice and royal duty, the Israelite codes are probably to be interpreted in the same way. They defined divine justice for Israel. They do not necessarily record day-to-day legal custom."

This is more so the case in Deuteronomy.  Read Deut. 6:20-25

The Form of Israelite Law

A. Alt, "The Origins of Israelite Law" in Essays on Old Testament History and Religion, pp. 103 ff. identified two types of law in Israel.

a) Casuistic law ('If such and such then ...')

Deut 24:7 "If a man is found stealing one of his brethren from the people of Israel and he treats him like a slave and sells him, (then) that thief shall die, you will purge the evil from your midst".

cf. "If a nobleman has stolen the young son of another nobleman, he shall be put to death" Hamm. #14. (ANET, p. 166)
"If a nobleman has destroyed the eye of a man of nobility, they shall destroy his eye. If he has broken another nobleman's bone, they shall break his bone. If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner or broken the bone of a commoner, he shall pay one mina of silver." Hamm #196-8 (ANET p. 175)

Alt thought this type of law was adopted by Israel when it settled in the land. The situations presupposed in many casuistic laws had to do with agricultural life in a village setting. Biblical casuistic law has many close parallels to ANE law. Note the address generally in the 3rd person, although in the case above in Deuteronomy, the style is modified to suit the style of Deuteronomy, namely that of exhortation and sermon. So the 2nd person clause is added at the end as a justification for the law itself.

b) Apodictic law (Prohibition, prescription, or instruction)

Deut. 14:21 "You shall not eat anything that dies of itself".

Alt said these laws were concerned with fundamental issues and had a religious background, a rhythmic form, were in series, were concerned with religion and morality, and had a cultic origin. He saw no ANE parallels. He argued that the form could go back to the time of Moses.

There have been recent modifications to Alt's proposal (A.D.H. Mayes, Deuteronomy, pp. 74-5). Prohibitions have been found elsewhere.

In the edict of Ammisaduqa, King of Babylon in the late 17the century BCE, we read:

#4 "Whoever has given barley or silver to an Akkadian or Amorite as an interest bearing loan and had a document executed - if the king invokes the misharum for the land, his document is void".

#17 "A taverness who has given beer or barley as a loan may not collect any of what she had given as a loan" (ANET, p. 526ff)

This investigation of the types of law in ancient Israel points to the fact that at least Israelite law was not a unique thing. Moreover, there is no foundation for the traditional ascription of all law to Moses. Israel borrows from its neighbours both form and content in developing its own law. The distinctive features of Israel's law are to be seen in the worship of YHWH alone, and in the prohibition against symbols for YHWH.

G. Jansen "The Yoke that Gives Rest," Interpretation 41/3 (1987)

"The meaning of Israel's law is that it embodies the principle of the exodus: God cares for the oppressed, the insignificant, the powerless. This is signalled by the fact that the word Torah embraces both the provisions of Yahweh's law and the narration of Yahweh's saving acts. Law and story are two modes of one and the same agency: The Torah of Yahweh's life-giving action....Consequently, belief in the story and obedience to the law are two modes of one appropriate covenanted response."
H. Wallace
January, 2007