The Big Biblical Covenants and their Relationship to Hittite Suzerainty Treaties
The four “major covenants”, with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David are reviewed with a particular eye to their possible relationship with the Hittite suzerainty form of treaty, in the ancient Near East. The formal features of the four covenants are compared to the Hittite treaty form, and also considered without that constraint for their context and significance.
The issue of whether the covenants are “conditional” or “unconditional” is developed, revealing that there are both elements in all of the covenants. The “unconditional” perspective is found to apply to the ongoing nature of the covenant and the availability of the promise to future generations. “Conditionally”, however, an individual transgressor may be excommunicated from the promise or suffer other specific “curses”.
A reasonable link with the Hittite treaty form is found in the Abrahamic covenant, but less so in the others. The New Covenant in Christ is then introduced to show a discernable “covenant tradition” in which God’s relationship is revealed across the whole body of Scripture. This paper stops short of declaring that all Biblical theology must be understood in terms of “covenant”, and does not attempt completely to harmonise the various covenants, but finds “a single, ongoing covenant-style relationship between God and His people.”
The four most recognisable covenants of the Bible are the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic. These covenants share some similarities but also have important distinctions in context and purpose. They represent formal agreements, possibly influenced by contemporary inter-tribal and international treaties. This discussion will reveal that each covenant is highly “conditional” in one sense, and absolutely “unconditional” in another.
What is a Covenant?
The term “covenant” (“berit”) in Scripture is used not only for divine agreements, but also those between humans, including marriage, and friendship. It is also used to describe the call to remember, refresh or re-establish a previous berit. The Septuagint translates berit as “diatheke” and subsequent English translations have worked hard to try and capture the word’s full meaning by using “Testament” and “Covenant”.
An enduring debate centres on whether divine covenants are “conditional”, containing “bilateral obligations”, in Alexander’s words, or “unconditional”, irrespective of the disobedience of one or more parties. Rollock’s catechism explored both conditionality and un-conditionality of the major covenants as early as 1596. In 2007, Hafemann identifies that God’s unconditional promise relates to perpetuity, but it does not excuse transgression.
Relationship to Hittite Treaties
Some scholars have denied that “covenant” was even a feature of Semitic religion until after the 8th Century BC, while others find that Hittite treaties from around the second millennium BC must represent a template. This treaty form had certain distinctive elements, which Hafemann identifies as:
(1) a preamble, in which the sovereign identified himself and sometimes summarized the covenant itself;
(2) a historical prologue, which gave the historical basis of the covenant, often centred in a great act of deliverance or provision on behalf of the vassal;
(3) the covenant stipulations, which mapped out the requirements that constitute loyalty to the relationship, by which the covenant is maintained;
(4) the covenant blessings or curses contingent on keeping or breaking the covenant; and
(5) the (often divine) witnesses to the covenant
This is not exhaustive. Fitzmyer adds the provision that the treaty be deposited in a temple and read in public periodically, and Beckwith adds that “The Hittite treaty might also include a religious ceremony to ratify it, and oaths by the vassal.”
The Noahic covenant (Genesis 6:18, Genesis 8:21-22, Genesis 9:1-17) is made with Noah and his “seed” (Genesis 9:9), on behalf of “every living creature on earth” (Genesis 9:10). It is promised (Genesis 6:18) before God’s saving action of the ark (Genesis 7:1; Genesis 8:1), and established in the immediate aftermath, with reference to the destruction caused (Genesis 8:21). God’s destructive action was addressing the violence which filled the earth (Genesis 6:11), and the covenant contains a pact of accountability for violence and responsibility for “the life of [everyone’s] fellow man” (Genesis 9:5), answering and restraining the first Lamech’s boast of his escalating violence of retribution (Genesis 4:23-24).
The Noahic covenant is established unilaterally by God (Genesis 6:18, Genesis 8:21, Genesis 9:3, Genesis 9:9, Genesis 9:17), and marked by a religious sacrifice (Genesis 8:20), although this is performed before the announcement of a covenant. It contains an unconditional ongoing promise (Genesis 8:21-22, Genesis 9:11, Genesis 9:15). The transgression of the violence-related stipulations will bring consequences to the individual but will not void the overall promise in perpetuity. It is therefore “unconditionally” promised to Noah and his “seed”.
There is no clear “preamble”, and although God’s promise not to repeat the destruction (Genesis 8:21-22) may be said to serve as an “historical prologue”, it is not immediately adjoining the announcement of the covenant (Genesis 9:9). However, there are “stipulations” to not eat blood (Genesis 9:4), and accountability for violence (Genesis 9:5-6). There is a general “blessing” of the continuing days and seasons (Genesis 8:22), and of “increase in number” (Genesis 9:1,7) for all living creatures (Genesis 9:10). The “curse” for violence is the shedding of one’s own blood (Genesis 9:6). The “witness” is the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-17). Therefore, although this covenant does not strictly rely on the suzerainty treaty form, if interpreted in that general sense, many of the key elements can be found.
The Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3, Genesis 15, Genesis 17), similarly to Noah’s, refers to “all peoples on earth” as ultimate beneficiaries (Genesis 12:3), but contains specific promises to Abram: many descendants (Genesis 15:5), and land (Genesis 15:7). It is promised in perpetuity to Abram’s “seed” (Genesis 12:7, Genesis 13:15, Genesis 22:18, Genesis 24:7, etc.), which is reckoned through Isaac and Isaac’s seed and not “Ishmael” (Genesis 17:19; Genesis 21:12), although as a member of Abraham’s household, Ishmael and his descendants are blessed (Genesis 17:20,23). God unilaterally announces the covenant (Genesis 12:1-3), and unilaterally performs the associated religious rite (Genesis 15:17). Failure to comply with the stipulations will not negate the overall unconditional, “everlasting” (Genesis 17:7,Genesis 13) nature of the promise, even though it will “cut off” the individual uncircumcised person from that promise (Genesis 17:14). It is therefore an “unconditional” covenant.
With reference to the suzerainty form, the “preamble” can be seen in Genesis 15:1, with the “prologue” in Genesis 15:7. The “stipulation” of circumcision is also the “sign” or “witness” (Genesis 17:9-14). The “blessings” are many descendants (Genesis 15:5) and land (Genesis 15:7), and the “curses” are in being “cut off” (Genesis 17:14) from the people of the promise. These close parallels with the Hittite treaties invite speculation of literary dependence on that tradition.
Distinctively, the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19, Exodus 20, Exodus 24) is not established with Moses himself, but with “the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:3,6; Exodus 20:22). Hence, Moses refers to the parties of the covenant as “the LORD”, and “you” (the people) in Exodus 24:8. There is a ritual sacrifice (Exodus 24:3-8) to inaugurate the covenant, but whereas in the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants it was God who took the oath, in this case it is the people.
The purpose of this covenant is said by Paul to be “because of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19), which is possibly, “to provoke”, or “to reveal” transgressions.
It is still the Abrahamic covenant which is cited for God’s clemency (Exodus 32:13) and ongoing providence (Exodus 33:1), when the newly ratified covenant is broken in Exodus 32. The Mosaic covenant arguably has no new material promises which are distinct from the Abrahamic ones, but does refer to a religious role for national Israel (Exodus 19:6). Further, the Sabbath was already established just a month beforehand (Exodus 16:29-30), without reference to a covenant at that time. Whatever the reasons, this covenant is observably different to the others (Noah, Abraham, David, and the New Covenant) in important ways.
Comparison with the suzerainty form might find both a “preamble” and “prologue” in Exodus 20:2. Stipulations are contained in the “book of the covenant” (Exodus 24:7 cf. Exodus 21-23, Exodus 25-28), and the covenant’s “sign” of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:13) is simultaneously also its primary “stipulation”, punishable by death or excommunication (Exodus 31:14). Whilst it is possible to interpret this covenant with reference to Hittite treaties, it is not actually presented in that form.
The Davidic “covenant” (2 Samuel 7) is not actually called a “covenant” in the primary text, but referred to as a declaration (2 Samuel 7:11), and a “promise” (2 Samuel 7:25). However, in 2 Samuel 23:5 and Psalm 89:3,28,34, it is referred to as a “covenant”. It is established with David and, in perpetuity, his “seed” (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 2 Samuel 7:15), with respect to their everlasting dynasty (2 Samuel 7:16). The people of Israel are also beneficiaries (2 Samuel 7:10). Arguably, the sacrifices in 2 Samuel 6:13, 2 Samuel 6:17 may be related to the covenant. God establishes the covenant unilaterally (2 Samuel 7:11c), citing His past benevolence (2 Samuel 7:8-10). It contains promises for the people of God, including land, security and peace (10-11), as well as warnings for David’s future descendants against wrongdoing (2 Samuel 7:14), but with an overarching “unconditional” promise of perpetuity (2 Samuel 7:15-16).
In the suzerainty tradition, a “preamble” can possibly be seen in 2 Samuel 7:5-7, a “prologue” perhaps in 2 Samuel 7:5-9a, “stipulations” in 2 Samuel 7:14, “blessings” and “curses” in 2 Samuel 7:14-15. David may be said to be referring to God’s fulfilment of the promises in the form of a “sign” in 2 Samuel 7:25-26, but that would be quite a stretch of the comparison with the Hittite suzerainty form. The text does not present this as a covenant recognisably in the Hittite tradition.
Importantly, throughout Scripture, it is the covenant with “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” which is referenced most. After Moses, and even after David, “the LORD was gracious to [Israel] and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (2 Kings 13:23), and Paul declared that, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the [Abrahamic covenant] promise”(Galatians 3:29).
The promise of a “new covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31) follows some of the identifiable elements of the now evident “covenant tradition” of the other four. It promises to unite “all the clans of Israel” (Jeremiah 31:1), ultimately including in-grafted Gentiles (Romans 11:17) in fulfilment of the “all nations” promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3, cf. Galatians 3:8-9). It contains stipulations, later revealed as baptism (Colossians 2:11-12), and the Lord’s Supper (Luke 12:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25), and provides for blessings (Jeremiah 31:2,Jeremiah 31:11,Jeremiah 31:12,Jeremiah 31:17,Jeremiah 31:25,Jeremiah 31:34). It involves a sacrifice, which we now know to be “Christ” (Hebrews 9:11-12). Its signs are natural phenomena (Jeremiah 31:35-36), and it is consequently unconditional (Jeremiah 31:36-37), although a person can be excommunicated from it (John 3:18). Being merely the promise of a covenant, the establishment of which is documented in the Gospels, it is difficult to analyse its form against the Hittite treaties directly.
The relevance of the Hittite Treaty
The suzerainty treaties of the Hittites provide a valuable reference point in history for the Biblical narratives, particularly for the patriarchs, and a helpful framework for understanding “covenants”, but they do not necessarily provide the literary source for all of the Biblical covenants.
The Nature of the Covenants
The covenants surveyed are all “unconditional” with respect to their perpetuity, but this does not preclude a person (and therefore their offspring), from being either excommunicated from the promise or being punished and remaining in the promise. The four covenants appear to relate to one another as a single, ongoing covenantal relationship between God and His people, providing specific features at particular phases of history as God sees fit. The actual relationship between the covenants is not necessarily linear, and not all interactions are through covenants, but God’s main dealings with humanity can be generally understood in “covenant” terms.
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