Biblical Backgrounds: Covenant Steps

As I stated in the last post, I believe that covenant is the means by which every student of Scripture must understand Scripture. As noted, there are two different types of covenants: Suzerain Vassal and King Grant. The impact of these two covenant types has direct impact upon biblical relationships with Yahweh in Scripture. In this post I want to dive into the parties and rituals associated with ANE covenants.

As noted in the last post, there are always at least two parties involved in a covenant. The King Grant and Suzerain vassal always have one who is “clearly more powerful than the other and therefore had the right to demand submission on the part of the weaker party. As a result, in this sort of treaty the partners referred to each other either as ‘father and son,’ or as ‘lord and servant.’”(Sandra Richter, Epic of Eden, 73)

Through my research I have found several common elements are seen in both ANE covenants and biblical covenants; contract agreement, recitation, verbal oath, and animal sacrifice.

The first step to covenanting with another party is to have a written agreement. The treaty “comes into being” when the great king exhibits the treaty, seals it, and gives it to the vassal.(Klaus Baltzer, Covenant Formulary pg 16) In the Ancient context, the two copies of the covenant would be taken back to each parties’ respective temple and placed within, so that the god would help the party keep their side of the oath.

After the covenant had been written the Suzerain would recite the covenant to the vassal, highlighting what has been agreed upon. Later in the covenant’s life, the vassal and the suzerain at different times were to take out the contract and recite the oaths to one another.(Baltzer, pg 18) In the biblical text the covenant with Moses is brought out and read aloud (recited) before God to remind the people what they had agreed to. Later revivals such as the Josiah reform, consecrate solemn assemblies and spend the day reading the law aloud, Joel 1:14.

The last and possibly the most biblically uniform element is an animal sacrifice. Whether just a sacrifice, or a holy meal, animals were killed for the sake of reminding the covenant parties of the consequences of infidelity. An interesting parallel may be Jesus’ following of this ancient ritual by instituting the New Covenant (Luke 22:19–20) while at a meal.

THE SUZERAINThe first notable person who can become a suzerain is a King. The second person who could be a suzerain is a lord. A designation of lord shows that the suzerain had had authority over the land and people of the vassal nation. A lord focused covenant is most common among nations without royalty. Many pastoral societies utilize the term lord instead of king.The last person who could be a suzerain is a Father. As mentioned in the general background section, covenants formed connections between non-familial parties. However, as one reads through covenants, one will find that the greater party is sometimes called the father.Israel is called; child, bride, son, slave, and servant, all of which points to the fictive kinship that Yahweh shares with Israel through means of the covenant.

Saving the Covenant:George E. Mendenhall published a series of articles in The Biblical Archeologist on the subject of the law and the covenant in Israel and the ancient Near East.41 In these articles and later subsequent books, Mendenhall focused upon documents dating back to 1400 B.C. These documents showed how Mesopotamian lords asserted their domain over lesser nations, via covenants, much like the recent suzerain concept in Europe. Mendenhall contended that these ancient documents provided the foundational understanding of biblical covenants and even possibly the source of the biblical covenants.Wellhausen, a proponent of higher criticism, presented the covenants as a Persian prophetic suzerain construct and not genuine to the early Israelite history. Mendenhall wrote contra Wellhausen and other higher critiques so that he may rescue the historical validity of the text. Mendenhall found his saving model in the Hittite treaties. By showing that the Suzerain Vassal treaty formula was the foundation of the Mosaic covenant he rescued the text.

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