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  • Writer's pictureRuss Meek

Covenant: the Suzerain Vassal Treaty in the Old Testament

If we’re going to understand Exodus and what it means for the rest of the Bible that God called his people out of slavery and crafted them into a nation, then we have to understand suzerain-vassal treaties and how they functioned in the ancient Near East. The following, which is an excerpt from a book I wrote with my colleagues James Spencer and Bryan Babcock, attempts to explain this concept and how it helps us to better understand who God is and how ancient Israel—and we—relate to him.

Creating a Nation

Exodus chronicles the story of Yahweh’s bringing Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt to make them a nation for himself. It is much more than a simple story of deliverance, though, for it shows the type of relationship—a covenant relationship—that Israel and Yahweh were to have. He was to be their sovereign and they were to be his vassal. As such, Yahweh would have certain obligations toward his people and they would in turn owe him loyalty and obedience. Reading the book of Exodus (and also Deuteronomy) alongside roughly contemporary examples of treaties between sovereigns and vassals shows that Yahweh established a covenant relationship with his people that included elements common to their broader culture.

The Meaning of Covenant

The Hebrew term berit, or covenant, is “an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.”¹ Sandra Richter points out that the concept of covenant is important in Israelite society and the ancient Near East because the level of responsibility between people is determined by their blood relationship, with ultimate responsibility falling on the family’s patriarch.² To establish a relationship between two unrelated parties, one must create a familial relationship.³ Thus,

on the individual, tribal and, eventually, national level, if you needed someone to act like a family member, and you were willing to give that person the privileges of family in return, you would invite that individual (tribe or nation) into a covenant agreement which created fictional kinship.

The ancient Near Eastern context of covenant making and its relationship to the Sinaitic covenant helps us understand Yahweh’s relationship with Israel.

In order to bind two parties together, such as Yahweh and the people of Israel, a covenant would be made whereby a kinship was created that was as strong as the bonds of a family. In modern society this idea is communicated most clearly in adoption and marriage. When two people become married, they create a family relationship—with all the attendant responsibilities—that previously did not exist. Likewise, when a family adopts a child, that child becomes as if she were physically born to the parents. Marriage and adoption join people as family members who were once not family members. Similarly, covenants in the ancient Near East made families out of those who were not family.

Suzerain Vassal Covenants/Treaties

Two basic types of covenants existed in the ancient Near East: the parity treaty (between equal parties) and the suzerain/vassal treaty (between a greater and a lesser party). In suzerain/vassal treaties, the greater party (i.e., the suzerain) provided benefits such as military protection and land grants to the lesser party (i.e., the vassal). In response, the vassal owed the suzerain financial tribute and “consummate loyalty.” Consequently, vassals could have only one suzerain, for to take another “lord” or “father” would be tantamount to treason.

The basis of the covenant was Yahweh’s gracious acts toward Israel, not their obedience to him.

The covenant Yahweh established with Israel at Mount Sinai exhibits striking parallels with Hittite suzerain/vassal treaties, which had six basic features: 1) a preamble that identifies the suzerain; 2) a historical prologue that recounts the previous relationship between the parties; 3) covenant stipulations to which the vassal must agree; 4) provisions for periodic reading and safekeeping of the covenant ; 5) witnesses to the covenant; and 6) blessings and curses should the vassal either keep or fail to keep the covenant.¹ᵒ The Sinaitic covenant contains all six of these characteristics.¹¹

The Mosaic Covenant as a Suzerain Vassal Covenant

First, Exod 20:2a and Deut 5:6a record the preamble that identifies Yahweh as the suzerain: “I am Yahweh your God.” Second, in Exod 20:2b and Deut 5:6b Yahweh reminds the people that he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Third, the covenant stipulations, or the requirements for relationship with Yahweh, are recorded in Exod 20:3–17 and Deut 5:7–21, among other places. Fourth, provisions for storing the covenant in the tabernacle and periodically reading it are recorded in several places (Exod 24:7; 25:21; Deut 10:5; 31:10–12). Fifth, Yahweh called heaven and earth as witnesses to the covenant (Deut 4:26; 30:19–20; 31:28). Sixth, Deuteronomy records an extensive list of blessings that accompany covenant faithfulness and curses that result from unfaithfulness to the covenant (Deut 27:11–28:68).¹² In sum, the Sinaitic covenant was a suzerain/vassal treaty between Yahweh and Israel.

Why All That Matters

The ancient Near Eastern context of covenant making and its relationship to the Sinaitic covenant helps us understand Yahweh’s relationship with Israel. In rescuing Israel from Egypt and entering into a covenant with them, he proclaimed that he was their suzerain, their Lord and Father, and as such he required their loyalty. He would protect them and give them land, and in response they were to be loyal and obedient to him. First and foremost, this loyal obedience meant that Israel would worship Yahweh alone. To worship anyone else would be treason. Moreover, Yahweh outlined how Israel was to act toward others in order to demonstrate their loyalty and obedience to him.

It is crucial to note that the covenant Yahweh made with Israel was of his own initiative. Their loyal obedience—the proper response to the covenant relationship—was required, but it was not the basis of the covenant. The basis of the covenant was Yahweh’s gracious acts toward Israel, not their obedience to him. In the same way, our response to God should be, must be, obedience; however, all the obedience in the world will not make us right with God—that comes only as free gift of God through faith in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, who alone has fully obeyed the Father and made a way for us to be God’s children.

¹ George Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” ABD 1:1178.

² Sandra Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 70–71.

³ Ibid., 71.

⁴ Ibid., 72.

⁵ Ibid., 73.

⁶ Richter, Epic of Eden, 73–74.

⁷ Ibid., 74.

⁸ Ibid., 74–75.

⁹ Hittites were an ancient Near Eastern people group. For discussion see Harry A. Hoffner, “Hittites,” in Peoples of the Old Testament World (ed. A. J. Hoerth, G. L. Mattingly, and E. M. Yamauchi; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 127–55; idem, “The Hittites and Hurrians,” in Peoples of Old Testament Times (ed. D. J. Wiseman; Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), 197–228.

¹ᵒ Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 49. Hahn also notes that these features and language used to describe them are consistent across ancient Near Eastern cultures.

¹¹ Not all scholars agree on this point. For discussion, see E. W. Nicholson, God and His People: Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), 56–82; H. J. Kraus, Worship in Israel (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1996), 136–40; C. F. Whitely, “Covenant and Commandment in Israel,” JNES 22 (1963): 37–43.

¹² See the helpful chart in Richter, Epic of Eden, 84. For further discussion and explanation of these aspects of the Sinaitic covenant and their relationship to ancient Near Eastern treaties, see Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: IVP, 1966), 90–102; Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Winston, 1985), 23–36.


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