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 terminology of the treaties and of the dynamics that governed the relationship between their partners is especially illuminative of several biblical passages. What does it mean to “love God” as the book of Deuteronomy demands?37 Medieval thinkers understood that one was required to yearn for God even as a man yearns for an unattainable woman.38 The term “love” (ahav), however, plays an important role in the language of ancient Near Eastern political treaties. To love, in the political terms of the ancient Near East, is to demonstrate loyalty. In the El Amarna letters of the fouteenth century B.C.E., the king of Byblos (in Phoenicia, present-day Lebanon) writes to Pharaoh about the rebellion in his own city: “Behold the city! Half of it loves the sons of ‘Abd-Asir-ta [who fostered the rebellion], half of it loves my lord.”39 In another letter, a vassal king writes to Pharaoh, “My lord, just as I love the king my lord, so do the [other kings].”40 The converse is seen as well: Ancient Near Eastern treaties speak of breach of covenant as an act of hate.41
Turning to the Bible, we encounter the same sense of the words “love” and “hate.” According to the book of I Kings, Hiram, the king of Tyre, sent representatives to the newly anointed Solomon, “for Hiram had always loved David,” that is, had always been loyal to him in covenant.42 To love God, then, may be understood not as an emotional disposition, but simply as a noble command for steadfast loyalty. In the Sinai narratives, love and hate bear these precise meanings, as in the following references to the prohibition of following other gods:
You shall not bow down to them, or worship them; for I am the Lord your God, a jealous God, who visits the sins of the father upon the sons unto the third and fourth generations for those who hate me. And who gives kindness unto the thousandth generation for those who love me.43
Those who are said to love God are not necessarily those who reach an ecstatic experience of God’s presence, nor even in the contemporary sense of having a profound emotional attachment to God. To love God is simply to demonstrate fealty to him through steadfast performance of his commandments. To violate those commandments is to breach the terms of the treaty, or in other words, to display disloyalty, here called “hate.”
Beyond the question of loyalty, the terminology of suzerainty relations in the Late Bronze period (fifteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C.E.) may also elucidate a preferred status enjoyed by the subordinate in the eyes of the sovereign—parallel to a charged theological concept in the Bible, the notion of Israel as a chosen people. The biblical term for “chosen” people is segula.44 In a Ugaritic document, a favored vassal of the king of Ugarit is called the sglt of his sovereign, a term that implies both subordination and distinction.45 Indeed, this tension between distinction and subordination seems to be implicit in the first biblical reference to “chosenness” in the opening verses of the covenant narrative of Exodus 19: “Now then, if you obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession (segula) among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine.”46 Entering into covenant renders Israel a subordinate. But the Israelites are promised favored status among God’s subordinates, so long as they remain faithful to the terms of the subordination treaty.
Many of the Hittite subordination treaties, moreover, also delineated the responsibilities of the sovereign toward the subordinate: Protection against invasion; a pledge to honor the heir of the subordinate king; cementing of the alliance through royal marriage; the grant of land; a pledge to support the subordinate king even if his own people request his deposal.47 Typically the sovereign pledges to furnish the subordinate with sustenance. Mutual affective and supportive gestures were often an integral part of these political treaties.48 In like fashion we find that the Sinai narratives are explicit concerning God’s responsibilities as sovereign to protect Israel the subordinate.49
This convention is not merely adopted, moreover, but indeed reworked in accordance with the theological agenda of the Sinai narratives. Within the Hittite treaties, the stipulations enjoined upon the subordinate all relate to actions that directly serve the interests of the sovereign king. In the Sinai narratives, as we have seen, we indeed find prohibitions against serving foreign gods, the requirement to rest on the Sabbath as a recognition of God’s sovereignty in the world, and descriptions of ritual obligations, all of which could be said to reflect God’s own “personal” interests.50 Nonetheless, we see that the scope of the stipulations enjoined upon Israel is greatly expanded compared with those ordinarily incumbent upon subordinate kings. The second half of the Decalogue and the better part of Exodus 21-23 enjoin stipulations upon Israel in the realms of public welfare and justice.
(iii) Deposit of the Treaty in the Temple.The next typical element of the Hittite suzerainty treaty is a clause calling for a copy of the treaty to be deposited within the temple of the subordinate’s deity to affirm that the local deity of the subordinate was interested in the fulfillment of its terms.51 It also sent an implicit message to the inhabitants of the subordinate state that the treaty was now to occupy a central place within their value system.
The same trope, transformed to accord with the new theological agenda, is witnessed in the Bible as well. The text of the treaty, or at least a symbolic representative part of it, was deposited within the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies.52 In this fashion, Israel the subordinate would publicly recognize the place of the treaty with the divine sovereign within its own value system.53 Again, the motif is reworked to accord with the Bible’s theology. Within the logic of the Hittite treaty, of course, the deposit of the tablets in the temple of the subordinate king’s own god was a public display that that local god attested to the binding nature of the treaty. Within the Sinai narratives, the “god” of the subordinate king is none other than the sovereign King himself.
(iv) Witnesses to the Treaty.Late Bronze Age treaties typically included a long list of divine witnesses who were called upon to enforce the treaty and to punish the subordinate in the event of violation. These were often gods of the natural world, and on occasion elements of the natural world itself were invoked such as the skies, the earth, mountains, or rivers. Thus we find one representative text that reads:
The mountains, the rivers, the springs, the great sea, heaven and earth, the winds and the clouds. They shall be witnesses to this treaty and this oath. All the words of the treaty and oath which are written on this tablet—if Tette does not observe these words of the treaty and oath, but transgresses the oath, then these oath gods shall destroy Tette….54
The trope is again transformed within the biblical context. It would be incongruous, of course, for the Bible to call upon other gods to bear witness to the treaty between God and Israel. Instead, we find on one occasion that it is God himself who plays the role of both the sovereign king and the divine witness (’ed): “Take to heart all the words to which I attest (me’id) that I have enjoined upon you today.”55 More often, however, we find the vestige of the earlier ancient Near Eastern trope: It is not God who attests to Israel’s commitment, but the natural elements of the heaven and the earth who are appointed by God to serve in this capacity.56 In the Sinai narratives as well, the tablets are described as symbolic proof or public testimony of the covenant between man and God. The tablets are called simply “the testimony” (ha’edut) and the Ark is referred to as the “Ark of the Testimony” (aron ha’edut).57
(v) Blessings and Curses. Finally, the Late Bronze treaties typically concluded with a list of blessings that would be conferred upon the subordinate by the gods in exchange for his loyalty, and conversely a list of curses that would befall him, in the event he was in breach of the treaty. These were usually juxtaposed, and located at the end of the treaty, as in the following passage:
If you… do not observe the words of this treaty, the gods… shall destroy you…. They will draw you out like malt from its husk…. And these gods… shall allot you poverty and destitution…. Your name and your progeny… shall be eradicated from the earth…. The ground shall be ice, so that you will slip. The ground of your land shall be a marsh of [indecipherable]… so that you will certainly sink and be unable to cross.
If you… observe this treaty and oath, these gods shall protect you… together with your wife… her sons and grandsons…. And the land of Mittanni shall… prosper and expand. And you… the Hurrians shall accept you for kingship for eternity.58
Whereas the Sinai narrative in Exodus does not have this feature, it is presented elsewhere in the books of Moses, notably in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. A series of blessings of prosperity and bounty open with the phrase “If you heed… then…,” followed by a longer, more elaborate series of curses, which likewise open with the phrase, “if you do not heed… then….” Indeed, as Edward Greenstein has suggested, the overall structure of the Pentateuch is that of a political treaty between God and Israel that is patterned after the Hittite political treaty. Broadly speaking, the first part of the Pentateuch outlines just what God had done for the children of Israel to earn their loyalty: He took the patriarchs under his wing, and later liberated Israel from the bondage of Egypt. As in Hittite political treaties, such favors leave the subordinate king-in this case, Israel-indebted to the sovereign, who demands unswerving fealty in the currency of fulfillment of the commandments, laws, which take up the bulk of the Tora.59 The Tora then invokes a lengthy list of blessings for Israel in the event that they fulfill the terms of the covenant, and curses in the event that they do not, at the end of the book of Leviticus. The motif of blessings and curses at the conclusion of a treaty is amplified at the close of Deuteronomy, with a very extended list of each.60
Taken as a whole, the similarities between the Sinai covenant and the Hittite treaties are too striking to be dismissed as coincidence-though their significance remains to be addressed. It is worth noting, however, that much the same pattern emerges later in the biblical narratives, for example in Joshua 24, which tells of the covenant ceremony that Joshua enacted with the Israelites at the close of his career. It opens with a historical prologue detailing the acts of favor that God had bestowed upon Israel across the generations. The chapter continues by stating the commitments of loyalty and exclusive devotion that Israel is called upon to ratify. The treaty is written down for posterity, and witnesses are called to testify to the commitment. In the place of divine witnesses, the people themselves are called as witnesses as is a great stone monument erected in the shrine there. Joshua warns of a curse that will befall the people in the event of disobedience.61

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