Admonition And Curse: The Ancient Near Eastern Treaty/Covenant Form as a Problem in Inter-Cultural Relationships by Noel Weeks (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series: T. & T. Clark Publishers) In the history of scholarship focus changes from decade to decade. Topics become popular: topics fade from popularity. The reasons for such changes are complex and outside of the main interests of this work. What is significant is that they may fade from view before there has been a definitive resolution, or the resolution reached may be faulty. Yet who wants to return to an old, tired and exhausted topic?
A number of arguments can he raised in defense of revisiting the no longer-fashionable. Often it is only in retrospect that the unexamined assumptions which prevented resolution become clear. While the topic may have been dropped those very assumptions may linger on to influence other debates which may also end without proper resolution. It may even be that the old topic needs to be revisited, not so much for the original topic's sake. hut so that the lurking assumptions might become the focus.
As the bibliography of this work illustrates, the topic of treaty and covenant was a major concern of Ancient Near Eastern scholarship in the 1950s, 1960s. After that it virtually disappears. While some primary texts continue to emerge and to undermine older claims, the topic is sufficiently dead that corrected versions of older theses fail to appear.
The reasons for the changing fashions are complex. Two may he mentioned here but many more might be conjectured. First, the increasing specialization of the field discourages explorations which of' their very nature are comparative. Second, as will emerge clearly, much of the interest stemmed from attempts to resolve certain issues in the biblical field. When these issues appeared to he resolved in other ways. the topic lost its immediate relevance.
The focus of the older investigation was not just on treaties as such: it was on treaties of a definite and fixed form. For it is not hard to argue that treaty making could well arise independently in different cultures. If there was independent origin, then similarities are more psychologically significant than historically significant. They point to the tendency of the human mind to create similar solutions to similar problems.
Only towards the end of the period of discussion did the suggestion of independent origin arise. The failure to investigate this possibility initially was probably connected to the history of the discussion. It began with the observation of significant similarities between biblical covenants and Hittite treaties on the one side and Assyrian treaties on the other. These similarities were seen as sufficient in each case to postulate a real historical link. From there it was a short step to the belief that there was a common treaty covenant pattern throughout the Ancient Near East. That the links were real and historical did not need to he argued because the discovery of commonness was the starting point of the whole investigation.
However there was a question which might have been posed at the beginning. Is not the commonness with respect to treaty form in itself surprising? What is the historical explanation for it? In many other respects the cultures of the area show diverse forms. Why is this element common over such an expanse of space and time?
One may suggest various reasons for the non-asking of the obvious question but the most likely reasons are that answers already existed or were perceived to exist in commonly accepted positions. There was a general tendency to suggest Mesopotamia as the origin of culture in the region. If the treaty form was common and if some of our earliest attested examples came from Mesopotamia, then the obvious solution was that it had originated in Mesopotamia and spread from there, that treaties from different areas showed differences was not an obstacle to this explanation because those differences could be ascribed to development over time. The fact that the large collections of relatively securely dated treaties came from two distinct locations in time and space made such an explanation plausible. They were the second-millennium Hittite treaties and the first-millennium Assyrian treaties. Similarities between these two groups and between each group and biblical covenants could he ascribed to the common origin of the treaty form. Differences were seen as a consequence of development over time so that one would expect second-millennium treaties to differ from first-millennium ones. Such differences could then be used to date the biblical covenants whose dating was controversial. Thus the similarities of treaties became not a problem to be investigated in its own right but a given which was assumed to be uncontroversial. The controversial aspect of the debate became the way in which arguments from treaties were inserted into controversies regarding the dating of portions of the biblical text.
Returning to the topic after a hiatus, what are the questions which must he posed? The obvious one is whether the similarity of form is of such a nature that a common origin, of some sort, must be postulated — that is, a historical common origin as opposed to similarities which might be ascribed to similar situations. Immediately we confront the problem that there is no objective answer to such questions. Does X look similar enough to Y to exclude accidental resemblance and prove historical connection? Whether we ask the question for a literary form or an artistic style we confront the same difficulty. Convincing similarity is in the eye of the beholder.
It is my conviction that there is enough similarity between treaty/ covenant forms from different cultures that one is justified in asking historical questions about that similarity. The attempts to argue to the contrary will be dealt with in the appropriate place later.
Taking the similarity as real, two questions follow. One concerns the original source. Yet asking the question in that simple form might lead to a misleading answer. It is tempting to find the earliest attested reference to a treaty and to make that the source. Given the origin and dating of extant written texts, that narrows the options to a few civilizations.
This problem interconnects with another. While the similarities in treaty forms are real, there are also differences. How are the differences to be explained? Obvious models spring to mind: transformations imposed by the different cultures which took over the treaty form concept; the process of change through time; the invention of forms unrelated to the original form. When these possibilities are combined with the question of the ultimate origin of treaties they generate a further set of quandaries. Are our oldest extant treaties close to the original source or are they already significant transformations of the original? Our oldest treaties or references to treaties are in written form. Was there an earlier oral stage?
What balances similarity and difference? It will be argued below that there are styles of treaty which are characteristic for a particular civilization and that these styles change over time. And yet the underlying similarity is not destroyed. Something is operating to keep changes within limits.
The subsequent chapters will treat the data for treaties and their development in more detail. For the moment my concern is to give a panoramic view of the evidence and the problems.
If we take the three cultural units of Mesopotamia. the Hittites and Israel, we find in each extensive evidence of treaties. Nevertheless each presents distinctive problems and puzzles.
In Mesopotamia we have attestation of the use of treaties from the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period to the Neo-Babylonian Period. Yet the attestation is sporadic with tendencies to the clumping of evidence in certain periods. In the early period it clusters around Lagash. From then it is sporadic until the late Old Babylonian Assyrian Periods. Due to the larger amount of documentation from Assyria. in subsequent periods we can follow the development better in Assyria than in Babylonia. If we take the evidence at face value, treaties go in and out of fashion in Assyria.
Outside of Mesopotamia. treaties seem closely connected to a use of history to persuade — that is, the attempt to use the previous history of relationship as an argument for preserving the relationship being formalized in the treaty. This use of history appears periodically in Mesopotamia. Yet it is not as pervasive there as it is in other places.
After a gap in attestation that follows the end of the Old Babylonian Assyrian Periods, treaties appear to re-emerge in Mesopotamia in the Kassite Period. The royal land grant or kudurru appears at the same time. Formally and conceptually there are resemblances between treaties and grants. For example, both treaties and grants make use of divine sanctions. This similarity raises two separate issues. Should we see royal grants as a sub-variety of treaties? The second question concerns the interrelationship between national internal and external policies. Generally speaking. land grants belong to internal policies and treaties to external. If grants and treaties are formally and conceptually linked, is it because there are connections between what a state does internally and what it does externally? is that likely to be the case anyway. irrespective of whether treaties come into the picture? This question will arise repeatedly because there are many other cases where a study of treaties and related forms forces us to consider the relationship of internal and external government policies.
There is clear but sporadic attestation of treaties throughout the history of imperial Assyria. Towards the end of that history we encounter, both in the annals and the treaties. a shift of emphasis. The 'good' that Assyria has done for others becomes, for the first time in Assyria, the motive for vassal obedience. Along with that goes an appeal to history.
The persuasive use of history that has already been mentioned is pervasive in Hittite history. We can attest it for Old Middle and New Kingdoms. Yet concrete evidence of treaties comes from the Middle and New Kingdoms. Common, but not universal, in those treaties was the use of history. It is in the Middle Kingdom or very late Old Kingdom that we have our first good evidence of Hittite treaties. It is also in the Middle Kingdom that we have evidence of royal land grants and of instructions to. or oaths by, Hittite subjects which show strong resemblance to treaties. Once again the relation of internal and external arises.
The material so far presented raises questions about the relationship of Mesopotamia and the Hittites. If the persuasive use of history is less prominent in Mesopotamia than amongst the Hittites, what replaces it in Mesopotamia? That is, what induces loyalty to the relationship? The simple answer is found in the far greater emphasis on the curse in Mesopotamia. Nevertheless a simplistic contrast between Hittite use of history and Mesopotamian curse does not do justice to the complexity of the material. In certain circumstances Mesopotamians appeal to history and Hittites bring the curse into prominence.
Already. then. questions arise about the interrelationship of Mesopotamia and the Hittites. Did each develop in a distinctive way a common tradition? Or did the Hittites add their distinctive interest in history to a Mesopotamian cultural item? Or do we see appealing to history and cursing transgressors as so 'natural' that it could have arisen independently in the two centers? Such questions cannot be answered in abstraction from detailed consideration of the history of treaties within each culture. and the relation of internal and external policies.
When we turn to Israel we confront questions arising not just from the history of Israel but also from the history of biblical studies. While the Bible attests many treaties between men, the most distinctive use of a treaty in the Bible is the covenant between God and man. In that covenant history and curse both play a role. Further, biblical monotheism is frequently expressed in treaty concepts; biblical law is encompassed within a covenant. Thus any history of the treaty in Israel becomes a history of concepts basic to Israelite religion, namely covenant, monotheism and law.
Every theological school tends to develop and to depend upon its own history of Israelite religion. Thus the history of the debate about treaties in biblical studies parallels the history of theology this century.
Generally overlooked in these theologically-coloured debates are some peculiarities in the biblical data about treaties. We have biblical evidence for unwritten covenants. In some biblical covenants the 'sign' of the covenant plays a role for which analogies are hard to find outside of Israel. A sacrifice sometimes accompanies covenant making. That is not without analogies but the good analogies do not come from Mesopotamia or the Hittites. They come from Syria and Greece.
The biblical data complicates immensely the tracing of cultural interrelationships. Some scholars have emphasized the historical element of biblical covenants to relate them chronologically to second-millennium Hittites treaties. Others have emphasized the curse element to relate them to first-millennium Assyrian treaties. Others again have denied all relationship in order to preserve their particular theological version of the history of Israel. The tradition in critical biblical scholarship. of dividing and re-dating portions of texts facilitates the arrangement of evidence to prove these quite contradictory positions.
Yet any comprehensive theory of cultural interrelationships has to take into account the ways in which biblical covenants at least appear similar to treaties from different areas while maintaining some peculiarities of their own. The simple borrowing models that have been used, whenever they fix the time of borrowing, do not do justice to the complexity of the data.
The Bible names as 'covenants' arrangements which deviate from what is normal in treaties in one significant aspect. Normally the weaker party, or vassal, has obligations imposed upon him. In some biblical covenants, however, there are no obligations imposed upon men but God. the suzerain, takes obligations upon himself. God takes an obligation on himself by promising to do something and. in traditional theological terms, divine promises are closely related to divine grace. On the other hand obligations upon men constitute what is commonly called law'. Thus the perennial theological question of the relation of grace and law is involved in these different sorts of covenants. This then in turn colours the debate in biblical studies about the relationship of these two covenant emphases.
For our purpose there is another interesting fact about such covenants of promise. They have their closest analogies outside of Israel in royal land grants. Once again the relationship of treaty and grant arises.
So far Egypt has not been drawn into the discussion. That is because Egypt presents its own set of problems. An argument can be constructed that Egypt did not normally use treaties. and certainly not with its vassals. The well-known treaty between Ramesses II and Hattusilis III shows strong evidence of a Hittite origin. One therefore wonders whether the other treaties with the great powers referred to in the Amarna letters are Asian in form and inspiration. Despite the frequent claim that Egypt, during the New Kingdom, bound its Palestinian and Syrian vassals by treaty, the evidence is very weak.
Before dismissing Egypt from consideration we must ask whether there is any evidence for the concepts and practices which typically accompany a treaty. For, given the state of the evidence, we might not have a reference to a treaty but evidence of' the accompanying phenomena might alert us to the existence of one.
One of the associated phenomena is the persuasive use of history. Generally we do not see a tendency in Egypt to argue a course of action from history. Yet there are some significant cases. The intriguing fact is that the best examples come from the First Intermediate Period. That is a period of pharaonic weakness. The compositions in which we have appeal to history belong to the instructions genre, Instructions seems to arise from the scribal class. We may add this to a little hit of New Kingdom evidence, which again connects officials rather than pharaoh with treaty terms.
This admittedly tenuous line of inference raises the question of whether a pharaonic style of rule has tended to suppress treaties and associated concepts. However, the tenuousness of the argument must also be considered. That leads to the question of the 'naturalness' of arguments from history. Is it possible that such argument arose in Egypt quite independently?
So far the Syrian evidence has not been considered. Do we attach this sparse evidence to one of the major areas so far considered or do we see Syria as a cultural centre in its own right?
There is a peculiarity about the Mari data. We have a number of references to treaties with no reference to a written text of the treaty. Were these treaties unwritten? That certainly does not fit our picture of Mesopotamian procedure. Yet once again the argument is from silence. In order not to prejudge the question I have chosen to treat some of the evidence from Mari separately from Mesopotamia.
The treaties from Alalakh show affinities with both Hittite and biblical material. Premature attachment to either body of material would be unwise. They attest the use of history outside of Hittite territory. There is also a possible reference to sacrifice in connection to a treaty.
The Sefire material from the eighth century seems easier to relate. It has clear parallels to Assyrian material and to biblical material in its use of curses.
Some writers have pursued the treaty trail to Greece and Rome.' This study does not do that, although it attempts to take into account the results of such investigations.
When one takes the total data of attestation of treaties, whether we have copies of these treaties or merely references to them in other texts, then a certain pattern emerges. Treaties are much better attested in certain civilizations than others. Even within a civilization there are gaps in the attestation. Are these gaps significant or are they merely the result of the incompleteness of our evidence? The way we answer that question will have a significant impact on our conclusions. The assumption that the treaty form was uniform across cultures in a particular epoch is treating the gaps in evidence as purely due to the accidents of discovery. The problem is that the gaps could be due to a failure to use the treaty form in a particular culture or era.
The only way to deal with this problem is to argue the case for the various possibilities in each instance. Does the other evidence we possess lead us to assuming a lack of use of treaties or to assuming that the evidence has simply been lost?
A similar problem confronts us with the first manifestations of treaty concepts in individual states. Since the forms from different civilizations look sufficiently similar to have a common origin, there must have been links, direct or indirect, between the different manifestations of treaties. We lack the concrete proof of those links. That means that there are crucial issues for which there is no direct evidence. Do all national treaty traditions come from a common source which is unattested? Do they derive from a known culture, specifically Mesopotamia? When and why do the changes occur which are characteristic for the individual national treaty traditions?
Once again the only possible route is that of consideration of the possibilities. This necessity to argue possibilities at so many different points results in a total impression of tentativeness, but better that tentativeness than the definiteness that results from ignoring valid possibilities.
Subsequent chapters will work through the data and problems from the main cultural centers. Tendencies and patterns emerge so that we might speak of typical approaches to treaties in respective cultures. Yet each national tradition relates to the others in complex ways. The obvious distinction between traditions consists in whether history, especially the history of beneficence, is seen as an important motivating factor. Those who do not argue in this way are probably seeing fear, whether of the suzerain or of the oath-observing gods or of both, as a more significant motivational factor. Where fear of the suzerain is important, a consequence is that the suzerain needs sufficient control of power to induce such fear. One can therefore postulate a rough correlation between centralization of political power and seeing fear as motivation versus the resort to appeals to history to motivate when there is not such centralization.
In terms of the treaty form this difference manifests itself in the difference between placing a historical argument for loyalty before the stipulations in order to motivate obedience to those stipulations or placing a god list and consequent threat of divine punishment in that position.
Both approaches will commonly place a god list and curses at the end but the difference might be conceptualized as being between the gods punishing those who are so hard-hearted as to lack gratitude, and the gods punishing those who are so foolish as not to feel fear.
While this distinction is a useful conceptual device it is not a rigid rule. Both devices exist in different measure in each culture. Specific historical circumstances may produce an approach which is not the common one for that culture. The differences are thus differences of tendency, but they are still marked.
The investigation raises the question of whether some societies may dispense with the treaty notion or whether there are periods in which it falls out of fashion. The argument in these cases is flimsy because it is an argument from silence. Nevertheless it raises a significant issue. Parties which enter into treaties, even the meanest vassals, are seen as having some freedom of movement and subsequent responsibility. Freedom of movement of the vassal is contrary to absolute power on the part of the suzerain. Might centralization of power, or at least the desire to project an image of total power, prove hostile to the establishment of treaty relationships? Alternatively there might be a situation in which treaties are pragmatically useful but the reporting of them would not suit the projected royal image. Should we seek a reason for the unevenness of our evidence of treaties in an explanation of this sort? It is a tempting hypothesis.
How Firm a Foundation: The Dispensations in the Light of the Divine Covenants by Hal Harless (Studies in Biblical Literature, 63: Peter Lang Publishing) Do covenants or dispensations structure the biblical revelation? The historic conflict between Covenant and Dispensational theology has resulted in a neglect of biblical covenants in Dispensationalism. As a corrective, this book offers a variant of Dispensationalism—designated Covenantal Dispensationalism. Analyzing both ancient Near Eastern and biblical covenants, this work clearly demonstrates that the character of each dispensation is the sum of the stipulations of the operative covenants. Therefore, this book concludes that covenants structure the biblical revelation and that resulting structure is Dispensationalism.
Due to recent archaeological discoveries, there has been an explosion in our understanding of ancient Near Eastern covenants. Excavations of the city of Bogazköy (ancient Hittite Hattusha) in Turkey have unearthed thousands of cuneiform tablets from the third millennium BC. These tablets contained many covenant documents including a treaty between the Hittite King Hattusha III and Pharaoh Ramses II.' G. Herbert Livingston, a biblical historian, explains that
the new knowledge about the covenants current in the ancient Near East during the patriarchal and Mosaic time span has aided our understanding of the Scriptures. Scholars of all theological persuasions have admitted their debt to this new information, for it is not too strong to say that the religious faith and life of the Old Testament men and women cannot be understood apart from a careful study of the covenant relationship in the Old Testament.
This wealth of information has illuminated the relational world of the ancient Near East.
Covenants could take many forms in the ancient world. Two friends might covenant together to always be faithful each to the other. Marriage was a covenant binding a couple together before God. Moreover, a king might impose a covenant of loyalty on his subjects. Men related to each other by means of covenant, but, more importantly, humankind related to God by covenant. The concept of covenant was foundational and integral to all of life in the ancient Near East. Therefore, the concept of covenant is critical to the understanding of the cultural and historical context of the Scriptures.
When God promised Abraham an heir, he simply believed and God "reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:1-6).3 However, in the next verse, when God made a grant of the land of Canaan to Abraham, he responded with an intriguing question, "O Lord GOD, how may I know that I
will possess it?" (Gen 15:8, emphasis mine). God's response was to perform a well-known ritual, the covenant. In that culture this was the most solemn and binding of commitments. It was in the context of a covenant that God confirmed to Abraham that he could "know for certain" (Gen 15:13) that God's promises were true.
In 1954 George E. Mendenhall introduced the importance of the Hittite covenants to biblical understanding in a seminal article entitled "Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East." Four years later J. Dwight Pentecost published his important dispensational work, Things to Come.' In his section "The Biblical Covenants and Eschatology" no mention is made of the Hittite discoveries and only the Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, and new covenants are dealt with. Mal Couch comments concerning this dispensational dispensing with the covenants:
Few writers have addressed the relationship between the dispensations and the biblical covenants. Rarely do you find dispensationalists discussing this issue. Be-cause of this, often there are statements that seem to miss the mark and confuse the specifics that make dispensations and covenants different.
Unfortunately, dispensationalists have often shown a lack of interest in the light that archaeology has shed on the biblical covenants. Dispensational scholars, such as Pentecost, have done a wonderful job of deducing from the text many of the theological characteristics of biblical covenants. However, the Hittite treaty documents and other discoveries can reinforce or modify their conclusions. Since the first element of the sine qua non of dispensationalism is a consistent literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic, dispensationalists must consider this evidence.This body of evidence has largely been abandoned to liberal scholars, such as Mendenhall, or covenant theologians, such as Meredith G. Kline' or O. Palmer Robertson'. This information is invaluable and should not be neglected. Therefore, I will seek to examine the biblical covenants and relate them to the dispensations. First, I will consider the concept of covenant in the cultural context of the ancient Near East and more specifically the cultures of the Bible. Then I will explore the biblical covenants exegetically. Finally, I will investigate the dispensations in light of the biblical covenants and offer some conclusions.
insert content here
insert content here