Epic of Eden — Treaty

We did our best to unpack the Ancient Near East practice and understanding of covenant last week, and today we’ll dig into that concept further. We’ll look at the ancient practice of treaty SO THAT we can see how God met His people where they were and spoke to them in a way they would understand what He wanted for and from them.

But first – let’s review:

  • Our three lands: Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan/Israel/Palestine
  • Our five people (guys): Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David
  • What are the two types of treaty from the Ancient Near East? Parity and Suzerain/Vassal

In your high school history classes, did you ever learn about famous treaties? Ones like the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I?  I was pretty good at “cramming” for those history tests, but I didn’t do a very good job of really learning history in those high school days. However, I have really enjoyed learning biblical history – really learning it…so that I might apply what I learn.

Crazy thing – treaties of old have much to teach us about God and the way He interacted with His people. Even us!

Turning Secular Concept into Biblical Context

We get a little “heady” in this section, but please hang in there because I promise it is worth it. Dr. Richter does some more amazing “connecting of the dots” here – it gives us such a better understanding of what happened on Mt. Sinai and of who God is. Here we go!

Last week we looked at the content of the berit. Now we’ll look at how the berit’s format as it would have been found in the Ancient Near East. In her video lesson and her book, Dr. Richter takes some time to give some specific secular examples of this to help illustrate how this format would have looked, but trust me when I say, for the most part they all included:

  1. Preamble — where the suzerain is introduced
  2. Historical Prologue – where the suzerain rehearses or lists all the grand things he has done for the vassal
  3. Stipulations/Obligations Imposed – the things the vassal has to do to keep the treaty valid
  4. Curses and Blessings – as described earlier, as long as the vassal upheld his end of the treaty, blessings were listed; and curses were listed so that it was clear what would happen if the vassal failed to keep the treaty
  5. List of Witnesses – witnesses were always called to validate the treaty/contract/covenant; and they were always the deities (gods) of the covenanting parties, who were “called upon to ensure the loyalty of the parties involved” (page 81); the list could go on for pages and pages (they had lots of gods!)
  6. Deposition and Provision for Periodic Reading of the Treaty Before the People – treaties were always written in duplicate so each party had a copy
    1. The suzerain always put/deposited his copy in the temple (because he swore to his god)
    2. The vassal would do the same
    3. Then the document would be pulled out and read to the entire vassal nation (however many times a year the document dictated) so that the vassal would remember the covenant and remain loyal to the suzerain

Here’s where the dots connect. Let’s take an up-close look at the covenant God made with Moses on Mt. Sinai (aka: the Ten Commandments) and see if you recognize anything. J

Mt. Sinai – the first stopping place of Moses and Israel’s exodus. Recall that this crowd of hundreds of thousands of people are considering monotheism (one god) but have only ever known polytheism (multiple gods). They’ve heard of Abraham and Yahweh, but would not have been able to define their God.

So, Yahweh had the difficult job of explaining who He is to these ex-slaves, people who would’ve been illiterate, and helping them become a nation, though they would not have organized themselves in hundreds of years.

In His brilliance, He speaks to them in a way they would have recognized, using the secular idea of treaty.  Dr. Richter in her video lesson “quotes” God, “I will make you somebody by forging this alliance. I will be your suzerain. You will be my vassal.”

“By means of their association with Him as suzerain, Israel would become a nation – a vassal nation. And by selecting the berit as his medium, Yahweh seizes upon a form through which He can teach Israel volumes about Himself and His expectations” (page 83).

To see how God did this, let’s go to those famous Ten Commandments in Exodus 20/Deuteronomy 5 (as well as, references in Deuteronomy 28, 30, 31 and Exodus 24, 32). You’ll notice God used the above format to communicate all these new ideas to His people!

  1. Preamble – “I am Yahweh your God.” (Ex 20:2a; Deut 5:6a)
  2. Historical Prologue – “…who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Ex 20:2b; Deut 5:6b)
    1. We as Christians use similar language of freedom of bondage to describe the transformation we experience with Christ…though “bondage” is more metaphorical.
    2. For Israel, this was a record of real events from which Yahweh rescued them and provided their obligation to the covenant.
    3. Israel was asked to obey Yahweh’s stipulations because He had already acted on their behalf (which is very different than demanding a vassal to obey in order to obtain grace/favor). This gives us insight into who God is! “Sinai teaches the same truth as the gospel: God’s actions on our behalf precede our actions on his behalf” …Therefore, “the truth of redemptive history is that we obey because we have been loved” (page 85).

Push Pause:

Y’all – this is amazing! I had never looked at this old covenant of the Ten Commandments as being so similar to the new covenant. With Christ, we don’t have to earn grace. It’s given freely! All we have to do is believe/obey in response to what Christ has given us.  I’d always seen the Ten Commandments as a list of Do’s and Don’ts, but it’s so much more than that!  God was freely giving Himself to His people. All they had to do in response was obey! Wow!

Without understanding the context of these commandments, I was missing a BIG part of what God was doing…and WHO God was…even waaaay back then.  Imagine — “God is the same yesterday and today” holds true!

Let’s get back to it:

  1. Stipulations/Obligations – “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex 20:3-17; Deut 5:7-21)
    1. Remember that the most critical expectation of a suzerain/vassal treaty was that the vassal was to be exclusively loyal to the suzerain – to do otherwise was to commit treason. Notice how Yahweh began his berit with this very same expectation.
    2. Exodus 20:4-6 lists every possible way Israel might have tried to rationalize this away.
    3. Simply put, God was saying NO OTHER SUZERAINS!
  2. Curses and Blessings –
    1. Blessings (detailed in Deuteronomy 28:1-14) can be summarized: “If you obey, you will keep the land.”
    2. Curses (detailed in Deuteronomy 28:15-68) can be summarized: “If you disobey, you will lose the land.”
  3. Witnesses – “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today…” (Deut 4:6; 30:19; 31:28)
    1. In this new monotheistic society, the only deity standing between Yahweh and Israel was Yahweh himself…so He called on His creation as witnesses.
  4. Deposition and Provision for Periodic Reading of the Treaty Before the People –
    1. “After oaths are made and sacrifices performed, the written record of the covenant is deposited in the ark” (page 87).
      1. Recall that Moses had TWO tablets as he came down the mountain (Ex 32:15) – probably because “a treaty required two copies, one for each covenant partner” (page 87). (This was a big “OH!” moment for me – how about you?)
      2. In this case, there is only one deity between both suzerain and vassal (Yahweh), so they were both placed in the ark, which would have been God’s “temple” at that time.
    2. “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing” (Deut 31:11).
  5. And, never fear, Yahweh even included an OATH for the ratification of this covenant.
    1. Oath — In Exodus 24:3, Moses came down from Mt. Sinai to recount all the words and ordinances of the Lord – “and all the people answered with one voice and said: ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.’”
    2. Ratification Ceremony – Exodus 24:5-8 details all that Israel did to ratify this covenant – things like burnt offerings and the sprinkling of blood on the altar. Moses said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (verse 8).

BTW, there’s a really great chart that compares the secular treaty with this covenant with Moses on page 84.

This secular form of covenant/treaty serves to teach Israel several things:

  1. The idea of national identity
  2. The idea of monotheism – Yahweh is their king, their only suzerain
  3. The idea of canon – the contents on the tablets were stored and read and unchanged…these became the “seedbed of canon” – words of God to be cited and memorized but not changed.

If you are at all familiar with the new covenant, the one Jesus ushered in, you might have recognized a few similarities to what we’ve been looking at in the old covenant:

  1. At the Last Supper, Jesus is saying goodbye as He celebrates Passover (one of those three feasts) with His disciples.
  2. But after supper was over, He did something new! He took the cup and said, “this is my blood of the covenant”
    1. Jesus was quoting Moses!
    2. This indicates something greater than the Exodus is about to happen and a new sacrificial victim will shed His blood – a new covenant is about to be sealed.
    3. This time the new covenant is not just about delivering the children of Abraham from Egypt but about delivering the Sons of Adam and the Daughters of Eve from hell and death itself. (This is how Dr. Richter ended her video lesson – I wanted shout AMEN!)

So, I know today’s post has not been an easy one, but in the introduction of the Treaty chapter in her workbook (taken from pages 90-91 in her book), Dr. Richter gives the best summary of everything we’ve been submerged in today. I can’t help but quote some of it to conclude:

In his covenant, Yahweh declares to Israel who she is (his vassal), what she will do (his law), and when she will do it (his calendar of holy days). If she “loves” Yahweh, she will be blessed with peace and prosperity. If she “hates” Yahweh, she will be cursed with exile. …as with any berit, Israel will be expected to pay tribute (the laws of tithe and sacrifice), give unquestioned loyalty to her suzerain, fight his wars, obey his laws, teach his stipulations of the covenant to the next generation, and maintain a king who is faithful to the suzerain. Yahweh has become Israel’s sovereign lord and Israel is his servant. Although Israel will make use of the land, it is Yahweh who actually owns the land and produce. And Israel will demonstrate this reality three times a year, every year, when every male is required to appear before Yahweh with his treaty in hand (ie: the three pilgrim feasts to the tabernacle/temple). Moreover, if Israel fails to obey the stipulations of the covenant, their sovereign lord will surrender Israel to her enemies. But if Israel is faithful, Yahweh will defend her against all military and economic afflictions. In this manner, the nation of Israel will retain the land grand of the great king – what we know as the Promised Land.”

You’ll be glad to know we move away from all this “heady” learning next week to take a look at the Garden of Eden – otherwise known as “God’s Original Intent.” Basically, with our foundation laid, we can go back to the beginning. Creation. And, I promise, you won’t want to miss what Dr. Richter has to show us about Creation and Eden!!

Connecting the dots along with you,

Shelley Johnson

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

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