The Theology of Covenant: Tracing the Pattern of Ancient Treaties in Deuteronomy

Forthcoming in Bible Study Magazine, Spring 2017

In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are encamped on the plains of Moab, waiting to cross the Jordan River and enter the promised land. The previous generation had left Egypt and entered into a covenant with Yahweh at Mount Sinai, and now their children are renewing the covenant. Moses delivers Yahweh’s instructions for this new generation about how to stay faithful to their covenant with God in the land.

More than most biblical books, Deuteronomy relies on a literary structure that is central to the text’s meaning and purpose. When we compare Deuteronomy to treaty/covenant documents from the ancient world, we see that the book exhibits the same conventional form. This means that Deuteronomy is a treaty document; its purpose is to record the renewal of the covenant between God and the new generation about to enter the land.1

Understanding ancient treaties

Treaties were common in the ancient world. Therefore, we can learn much about the biblical covenants if we understand how treaties worked in the broader culture.

Many ancient treaties were between a superior, sometimes called a “suzerain,” and an inferior, or “vassal.” The great empires of the Near East, most notably the Assyrians and the Babylonians, used vassal treaties to subjugate the less-powerful nations around them. The vassal nation would pledge loyalty to the suzerain, including regular payments known as “tribute.” The suzerain promised protection in exchange for the vassal’s allegiance but threatened destruction if the vassal were to rebel.

Often the parties entering a treaty produced a document that detailed the terms and served as an official record of the agreement. Many surviving treaty documents from the ancient Near East share common elements and a similar structure. In biblical studies, the most fruitful comparisons have involved Hittite treaties from the second millennium B.C. and Assyrian treaties from the first millennium B.C.

These ancient treaty documents contain six primary elements:

  1. The preamble introduces the speaker or author, usually the suzerain.
  2. The historical prologue summarizes the background that led the two parties to the agreement.
  3. The stipulations are the heart of a treaty, defining the terms of the agreement, usually the obligations of the vassal.
  4. The blessings and curses list consequences for faithfulness and unfaithfulness to the treaty.
  5. A statement about the document itself gives instructions about its storage, display, or periodic recital.
  6. Witnesses are called to observe the agreement and, if necessary, to witness against a party that does not keep its terms.

Deuteronomy’s treaty form

Deuteronomy contains each of these six elements. The book begins with a preamble identifying Moses, who represents the suzerain, Yahweh (1:1–5). Then a historical prologue highlights Israel’s recent rebellion against God in the wilderness (1:6–3:29).

The largest section of the book, Moses’ speeches in chapters 4–26, details the stipulations of the covenant agreement—in this case, Israel’s obligations as the vassal.

Chapter 28 contains the blessings and curses, which spell out representative “good things” that will happen if Israel keeps the covenant and “bad things” if they do not. For Deuteronomy, the ultimate covenant curse is exile: Yahweh would expel his people from the promised land (28:36, 64; also 4:25–28).

Chapter 31 provides the statement about the document; Moses instructs the people to read the covenant publicly every seven years (31:9–13) and to place it by the ark of the covenant (31:24–26). Lastly, Moses calls on “heaven and earth”—every part of creation—to serve as witnesses against Israel (30:19; 31:28).

Implications for understanding the biblical covenant

Recognizing the form and function of ancient treaties can help us understand the biblical covenant in several ways. First, unlike the kings of Assyria and Babylon, whose goal was to subjugate their neighbors, Israel’s suzerain was benevolent. According to Deuteronomy, Yahweh delivered the Israelites from bondage and was bringing them into the promised land despite their rebellion. Why? Because of his love for them and his promise to their ancestors (7:8; 9:4–5). Now that Yahweh had delivered them from service to another suzerain (Pharaoh), the Israelites owed Yahweh their exclusive allegiance in this suzerain-vassal covenant.

Second, to properly understand the Mosaic law (the Torah), one must understand its function within the covenant: The laws are Israel’s covenant obligations. The law does not stand by itself, but is inseparable from the covenant agreement. Consequently, keeping the Torah is what it means to keep the covenant.

Third, like other ancient people, the Israelites knew that covenants had built-in consequences for faithfulness and unfaithfulness (“blessings and curses”). They would have understood the seriousness of the agreement and what would come if they did not keep the covenant obligations. Moses clarifies these consequences toward the end of the book, where he presents Israel’s two options: Keeping the covenant will result in goodness and life, while breaking the covenant will result in evil and death (30:15–18). Moses exhorts the people on the brink of the land: “Choose life!” (30:19).

Understanding Israel’s fate

The covenant agreement gives us the lens to understand Israel’s history. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings tell of Israel’s time in the land. The biblical historians evaluated Israel’s faithfulness in the land according to Deuteronomy’s covenant obligations—which makes sense because, among the laws in the Torah, Deuteronomy’s laws are uniquely portrayed as instructions for life in the land. This is one reason why scholars call these historical books the “Deuteronomistic History.”

Based on Israel’s pattern of disobedience thus far, Moses predicts Israel will be unfaithful to Yahweh in the land. In the closing chapters of Deuteronomy, he speaks of future disobedience and subsequent dispossession of the land as inevitable (29:21–27; 31:16–20, 27–29):

I know well how rebellious and stubborn you are. If you already have been so rebellious toward the Lord while I am still alive among you, how much more after my death! … For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, turning aside from the way that I have commanded you. In time to come trouble will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands. (31:27, 29)

As Gordon McConville explains, the end of Deuteronomy “takes for granted that the people will indeed fail to be the true people of the covenant and that this will result in the full force of the curses of ch. 28 falling on them.”2

Indeed, the historians who wrote Joshua–Kings describe a pattern of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant. Most notably, they indict Israel for not keeping two of Deuteronomy’s main instructions: to avoid worshiping idols, and to make sacrifices only at Yahweh’s chosen place, which later was the Jerusalem temple (12:5–6, 13).

After centuries of unfaithfulness—demonstrating that Yahweh was indeed “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6)—disaster finally came. The biblical historians and prophets unanimously interpret the fall of Israel as God’s judgment for Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant—first the collapse of the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17), then the destruction of Jerusalem (2 Kgs 25). In light of the covenant that defined Israel’s relationship with God, these national catastrophes should be understood as the enactment of the covenant curses.

Both disasters delivered the ultimate covenant curse: Yahweh expelled his people from the land of promise. Without the land, the temple, and the Davidic king, the people of Israel were left to wonder whether God was done with them. Yet Deuteronomy itself offered reason for hope. According to the predictions of Deuteronomy 30:1–10, even when the Israelites are eventually scattered among the nations, after the blessings and curses have come upon them, if they return to Yahweh, he will “restore [their] fortunes and have compassion on [them],” gathering them and bringing them back to their land (30:3).

 

1 In this article I use “covenant” and “treaty” synonymously.

2 J. Gordon McConville, Grace in the End: A Study in Deuteronomic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 135.

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Northern Seminary in the Holy Land

Published Oct. 31, 2016 at Northern Seminary’s Blog

In June 2016 I had the pleasure of traveling to Jerusalem University College (JUC) with four students from Northern Seminary. For all of us it was the experience of a lifetime!

Although I have studied the Bible academically for fifteen years, this was my first trip to Israel. It didn’t disappoint! For too many Christians the Bible is simply words on a page and its key people simply characters in a story. While certainly the Bible does present a story with characters, it is easy for Christians to forget that the Bible reflects real people, events, and places. Visiting Israel brings all this to life.

The geographical space of the biblical story is not incidental. The “promised land” is one of the most important themes of the Old Testament. God gave Israel this land for a particular purpose: to establish a people that would be a light to the nations. He revealed himself to Israel and sought to make himself known to other nations through them. For this mission the land was strategically located at the crossroads of the world, situated between continents and the major empires of the ancient world.

God dwelled among his people in this land, first in the tabernacle and later in the Jerusalem Temple. For this reason, Jerusalem—or Zion, Yahweh’s chosen city—is a unique place in the world. It was surreal to spend time in the old city of Jerusalem, particularly the area of the Western Wall and Temple Mount. It is here where Solomon prayed that if a “foreigner … comes from a distant land and prays toward this temple,” God would “hear from heaven … so that all the peoples of the earth may know [his] name and fear [him], as do [his] people Israel” (1 Kings 8:41-43). Not only was Jerusalem the city of David and the later kings of ancient Israel, but this was also where the Messiah Jesus spent the last week of his life. He entered the city lauded as Israel’s king, was crucified and buried outside the city walls, and rose on the third day.

Jerusalem University College couldn’t be better located for visiting the biblical sites. Located right outside the current city walls of Jerusalem (but within the walls during King Hezekiah’s time!) students live a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem’s most historic sites, including the likely location of the Upper Room. Additionally, because Israel is such a small country, our group could get from Jerusalem to most other biblical sites within an hour or two. The highlights for me were Bethlehem, Bethel, Shiloh, Shechem, Jericho, the Dead Sea and the caves of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the area of Galilee including Nazareth.

This is the land from which the knowledge of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ originated and went out to the whole world. So while Christians live in every part of the world, we cannot lose sight of the importance of this land for Christian faith. Visiting these biblical sites has grounded my faith in the concrete realities of God’s mission in the world, and I pray that many Northern Seminary students have the same opportunity in the future.

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Prophetic Rhetoric in Ezekiel 16

Published in Bible Study Magazine, January 2017

In the years before the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, the prophet Ezekiel charged the people of Israel with grave offenses against God and warned of imminent disaster. Rather than simply relaying information to his fellow exiles in Babylon, Ezekiel employed rhetorical devices to reach his audience at a deeper level, so they would internalize his message and grasp the seriousness of Israel’s rebellion against God.

A noteworthy example is the prophet’s description of Israel’s unfaithfulness in chapter 16, where he uses metaphor, vivid imagery and strong language, and allusions to scriptural texts—all for rhetorical effect.

A Shocking Image of Sin

Like his prophetic predecessors, Ezekiel portrays idolatry against Yahweh in terms of a wife’s adultery against her husband. Building on the metaphor of Israel as Yahweh’s wife, the prophet tells a vivid story of Israel’s relationship with God. As Ezekiel describes it, “Jerusalem” was a newborn cast into the wilderness and left to die, but Yahweh rescued her and tenderly cared for her, adorning her with the finest clothes and jewelry and feeding her with the finest flour, oil, and honey, so that she rose to royalty (16:3–14). In this story, Israel owes her very existence and all her blessings to Yahweh’s abundant grace.

The tone changes dramatically in verse 15: “But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by” (NRSV). Jerusalem forgets all that Yahweh has done for her and turns to other “lovers” (vv. 33, 36). She takes the fine things that Yahweh had given her and uses them in her “fornications” (vv. 15–22).

The prophet’s vivid imagery and strong language in this metaphorical story would have shocked his hearers. Ezekiel 16 contains some of the most explicit language in the Bible. The text repeatedly refers to Jerusalem’s “whorings,” “lewd behavior,” “lust,” and “insatiable” desire for her lovers. In verse 25, the prophet says: “At every street corner you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, spreading your legs with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by” (NIV). The language in a similar passage, Ezekiel 23, is even more graphic, referring to the genitals and sexual functions of her lovers (23:20).

Why would Ezekiel describe idolatry in such overt sexual terms? In confronting his hearers with the shocking nature of “Jerusalem’s” fornication, the prophet intends for them to be taken aback by the gravity of their own unfaithfulness to God. This rhetorical technique is similar to that in 2 Samuel 12, where the prophet Nathan used a story to infuriate David and show him the severity of his sin. If Ezekiel’s fellow exiles in Babylon were apathetic about Israel’s idolatry, perhaps explicit imagery would shock them into remorse.

Living an Ancient Oracle

To confront the people of Israel with their sins, Ezekiel also alludes to earlier scriptural texts. In particular, his depiction of the rise and fall of Israel in chapter 16 is a prophetic transformation of the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. Ezekiel adopts the structure and themes of this passage and infuses them with the prophetic motif of an adulterous wife.1

The argument for Ezekiel’s creative use of the Song of Moses is based on the remarkable similarities of plot and themes in Ezekiel 16 and Deuteronomy 32. Both texts exhibit virtually identical plot structures, depicting the rise and decline of Yahweh’s people:

  • Yahweh discovers destitute Israel in a barren location.
  • He delivers her and renders lavish care upon her, so that she prospers.
  • Israel in her prosperity forsakes Yahweh, pursuing other gods and forgetting her origins.
  • Israel’s disobedience provokes Yahweh to anger.
  • Israel is punished for her sins.
  • Finally, Israel is restored by Yahweh.

At the same points in this plot structure, the two texts display parallel language, synonyms, and rare motifs. Significantly, the idea that Yahweh discovered Israel as a foundling in a barren location is found only in these two passages in the Hebrew Bible. In Deuteronomy 32, Yahweh’s care for Israel is portrayed as an eagle spreading (פרש; prsh) its wings (כנף; knp) over its young; in Ezekiel 16, when Yahweh enters into a marriage covenant with Jerusalem, he spreads (פרש; prsh) his “wing”/garment (כנף; cnp) over her.

In addition, both passages speak of Israel eating honey (דבש; dbsh) and oil (שמן; shmn) while in Yahweh’s care, and both describe Israel turning to “strangers” (זרים; zrym) and “provoking Yahweh to anger” (כעס; c’s). Lastly, both texts speak of Israel’s restoration with the word כפר (kpr; “atone”)—an uncommon word in restoration oracles—to describe Yahweh’s renewal of his people.

Deuteronomy itself suggests that the Song of Moses would testify against Israel in the future. In the narrative framework of the passage, Moses predicts that “when many evils and troubles have come upon [the people], this Song shall confront them as a witness, for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring” (Deut 31:21). Moses’ words were fulfilled in the prophetic judgment announced by Ezekiel. 

Since the Song of Moses was well-known in ancient Israel, Ezekiel’s audience would have recognized his many allusions to it. The song foretells a coming fall into idolatry, and Ezekiel effectively declares that Moses’ prediction of sin and punishment has come to pass in the current generation.2 Ezekiel’s hearers surely felt the force of this rhetorical technique, as he applied the judgment in their treasured song to their current circumstances as exiles in Babylon.

Getting God’s Message

The diverse rhetorical techniques we find in Ezekiel would have instilled the prophet’s message deep in the minds of his audience. By using explicit sexual language and imagery to portray Israel’s idolatry as adultery, Ezekiel caused his hearers to feel the weight of their sins. And by applying the Song of Moses to his own day, he showed that the turn away from Yahweh described in Deuteronomy 32 had come to pass.

Through examining these rhetorical techniques, we learn that Ezekiel’s messages were designed not simply to inform, but to persuade the Jewish exiles to grasp the seriousness of Yahweh’s judgment.

 

1 Jason Gile, “Ezekiel 16 and the Song of Moses: A Prophetic Transformation?” Journal of Biblical Literature 130 (2011): 87–108.

2 Compare the Egyptian Admonitions of Ipuwer: “What the ancestors foretold has now happened” (COS 1:94).

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