Ancient Treaties and Biblical Covenant

For years I have spoken about the Biblical Covenants of the TaNaK (otherwise known as Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament) and how they contain eternal truths related to Israel both then and now. There have been many who assert that God has replaced Israel with the Church. They state that God changed His mind towards Israel who “failed to pass the test” and so He chose the Church who accepted Jesus versus the Jews/Israel who rejected Jesus as the Messiah (many times laying the blame on Jews as killers of the Son of God or typical Christian anti-Semitic label of ‘Christ-killer’). This is Replacement Theology or Supersessionism in a nutshell. It’s theology is shaped around the basic belief that Israel let God down, so He chose another, the Church. Replacement Theology can take two sides of the spectrum. #1. There isn’t anything individually special or unique about the Jews anymore, they are just like everyone else and God loves them, yet the covenant has still been transferred to the Church. #2. The Jews are a cursed race because they rejected Jesus and thus, they are damned without the possibility of salvation. This second theological stance may come across as extreme, and it is, but it is one that is held today by many professing “Christians” and was the foundational ideology preached by many of the Church Fathers, leading eventually to the Nazi Holocaust (Shoah) of six million Jews.

Also, woven into the fabric of Replacement Theology is the belief that all the blessings attached to the covenants intended for Israel, were given to the Church, yet of course the curses would remain with the Jews. However, one of the key mistakes to this reasoning, let alone the complete neglect and ignorance of understanding God’s nature and what covenant is, is that you cannot divide the blessings and the curses as they were exclusively bound to the very fabric of covenant! The blessings and curses only describe one particular type of covenant, that is the Mosaic Covenant, and this type of covenant, based off of the Hittite/Babylonian Suzerain-Vassal Treaty, always included blessings and curses. You cannot separate them. So it must be understood that there were other covenants given to Israel (Abrahamic and Davidic based upon the ancient Royal Grant Treaty) which Scripture declares are eternal and everlasting to Israel…this cannot imply the Church, for these promises to Israel were literal, physical promises to the physical descendants of Abraham, renewed through Isaac and Jacob and the rest of the Jewish race.

So, by much of the Churches reasoning concerning Replacement Theology, if we are to approach the Biblical covenants justly, with the belief that the Church indeed has in fact replaced Israel, then the Church must also be subject to the curses just as much as they believe they possess the blessings! This is certainly not a popular thought as Church history teaches us that the Church Fathers (Justin Martyr, St. Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairveux, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc.) believed firmly that the curses remained with the Jews. Once again, a total ignorance and rejection, on the part of the historical Church, to the nature of Biblical covenant. The Church cannot say, “We want the blessings but not the curses!” If they are attempting to hijack God’s covenant with Israel, the Church must accept the curses…which only means, that do to the imperfect historical record of the Church (Crusades, Inquisition, etc.) the Church is in danger of being cursed. This might come as a shock to many, but it is the truth. If the Church did indeed replace Israel, which I reject this theology outright, then the Church is subject to being cursed through disobedience. You see where this leads us with the sticky, chaotic approach for the Replacement Theologian. The Replacement Theologian cannot just believe that the Church has replaced Israel until they thoroughly study the Biblical, Hebraic, worldview. They must take into account the approach of covenant and what God meant when he forged covenant with Israel. To try to twist this into fitting the Church, upsets the apple cart and warps the Word of God. It creates problems that the only way to “fix” is to pollute and change the message of the Scriptures. It is religious theft and Biblical hijacking.

So let’s get some things clear before we dive into the historical relevance of the Abrahamic/Davidic Covenants and the Mosaic Covenant. God alone did the choosing and established covenant. Israel did not approach God, nor did Abraham, for he was a pagan before the Lord called to him (Joshua 24:2). As we see in Genesis 12:1, “Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.“” God chose Abraham and blessed him on account of his righteousness and faithfulness to God. This does not imply Abraham was a perfect man, but it does reveal Abraham as a man with great faith and love for God. He was willing to go against his own cultural norms in order to follow God and that was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3).

Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants and the Royal Grant Treaty

Therefore, God established a promise with Abraham through Genesis 12:1-3 “Now the Lord said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”” In Genesis 15:1-21 we see covenant in action where God called Abraham to cut apart certain animals and separate them, according to the ritual of ‘Cutting a Covenant’, an ancient Mesopotamian practice of establishing a covenant between two parties. In this practice, the two individuals making a covenant would cut apart animals and then walk between the pieces, often before witnesses. Regardless of social standing, the two people would be considered equal. The symbolism behind the halved carcasses was to announce to the world the stipulations of the contract, that if either person violated the covenant, they would become like the animal pieces. Essentially their lives were tied to the deal! However, in Abraham’s case, although he is obediently doing what the Lord has commanded him to do, it is possible he is thinking, “How can I pass between the pieces with the Lord? That would mean I am equal to Him? That is impossible!” Yet, Abraham still obeys. Then in verses 12-17 we read:

Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him. Then He (God) said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not complete.” And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces.”

God made the covenant alone with Abraham. This covenant would be bound to the very nature of God, based on who He is. Abraham could never have kept the covenant, but God can. Abraham is put into a deep sleep and has an incredible vision where God shows him the history of his people. They will be strangers in a foreign land, as Abraham had been, they will be afflicted and enslaved but after four hundred years they will come out of the land wealthy. God will uphold His promise by giving them the land of the wicked Amorites, who at the time of Abraham, were still being given time to repent. The land of enslavement is Egypt, and we know by the history of Exodus, that the Israelites were slaves. Moses delivered them and they plundered Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36) during their exit as the Lord had promised to Abraham. So God promises redemption and the sign of the covenant is ‘land’. He promises that the Israelites will come into the Promised Land, which was fulfilled under Joshua (Joshua 2) and God seals this covenant by passing between the pieces in a fiery motif that represents the glory of God. It is also relevant to note, that before God passes between the pieces, He states the purpose of the covenant which has the great reward of ‘land’ after four hundred years of affliction. This is so Abraham knows exactly what sort of covenant this is. Then once the glory of the Lord has passed between the carcasses, God states clearly the boundaries of the land in verses 18-21:

“On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates–the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”” God is specific about His covenant which includes blessing the descendants of Abraham with land. It is important to note that these boundaries are much larger than modern-day Israel, and the only time in history where nearly all of this was under Jewish control, was during King David/Solomon’s time. This goes to show that God had specific borders in mind and this would be given to Israel. However, when the tribes entered the land, they failed to take it all, mostly out of rebellion, unfaithfulness, fear, or making unholy alliances with the people groups who were subject to God’s judgment.

The passage in Genesis 15 is based on a Hittite/Babylonian treaty called the Royal Grant Treaty. This treaty was made between a king and his vassal as a reward for the loyalty in which the vassal demonstrated. In Tim Hegg’s book, ‘The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective’, he says: “In this kind of treaty the Great King would grant a parcel of land to the Vassal, declaring it tax-exempt and the possession of the Vassal through perpetuity. When the Vassal died, the land would become the possession of his family throughout their generations.” The Royal Grant Treaty is patterned directly off of what God establishes with Abraham. God uses a legally binding treaty, Abraham would have been familiar with, to cement His covenant with the patriarch of the Jewish people. This also shows God as the God of history. He doesn’t need to invent something never before seen, but uses a customary method of establishing a covenant and then perfects it. So God, as the Great King, entreats His Vassal, Abraham, to a covenant that consists of land (Israel) being given to Abraham and his descendants forever. As the stipulations of the Royal Grant Treaty dictate, even after the Vassal dies, the land is still retained as a possession to his descendants forever. Hegg continues with by saying, “No one could take the land from them, and no one could require a tax from it, even by the successor of the Great King.”

This covenant is permanent according to the Great King. Hegg says, “In this case, the rights of the Vassal were guaranteed in the treaty, and the Great King was the one who took the oath. There were no stipulations laid upon the Vassal, or measures to which he would need to perform in order to receive the gift. The whole matter was guaranteed on the word and oath of the Great King.” God established covenant with Abraham because He desired to choose a people in which to glorify Himself to the world, and He chose a man of great faith who was righteous and obeyed. Israel was not chosen by their own merits, as Deuteronomy attests in 7:6-8: “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” This election, this covenant oath which God swore to the forefathers of the Israelite nation, was everlasting and God vowed never to forget or abandon His people Israel. God also reaffirmed this covenant through King David (2nd Samuel 7:8-17, confirmed in Psalm 89) who He promised would forever reign upon his throne and which the Messiah would one day come through his line. “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever…And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” (2nd Samuel 7:12-13, 16) With David, was the reaffirmation of land and permanent ruling. How can a king rule without a kingdom? How can a king rule without land? Although Israel would be banished from the land, return, and suffer exile again, God will never be proven a liar and His promise with David stands. The State of Israel was reborn on May 14th 1948 and we look ahead to the return of Messiah who is from the line of David, where He will once again reign, but this time His reign will never end. So, God’s promises to David also echo a future, messianic promise of the restoration of Israel.

This is attested in Jeremiah 31:31-37 where God promises to renew His covenant with Israel by writing it upon their hearts, forgiving their iniquities, and affirming His covenant with them which is eternal. At Mount Sinai the people verbally agreed, “We will do all the Lord has commanded of us.” But this lip-service, for most of the nation, was never fully upheld as Israel chased after idolatry, forged alliances with pagan nations, and even committed pagan acts. Thus, they were judged with famine, drought, sickness, war, and exile. But this was not the end, and the prophets proclaimed messages of hope, restoration, and a future time of salvation.

The Apostle Paul also affirms this covenant based upon God’s oath with the fathers in Romans 11:28. Here, in greater context, Paul is speaking about how Gentiles have come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah based upon the blindness of the Jewish nation who do not see Him as Messiah. Paul speaks of some of these Jews as “enemies of the Gospel” but he reminds the Roman Gentile believers that, by the Jewish nation opposing the Gospel, it actually works out that it is for the sake of Gentiles. For if the entire Jewish leadership had recognized Jesus as Messiah, Jesus would have had to set up His kingdom and the world would have been judged. Yet, for God’s great love for the world, the gospel was intended to go out into the world. However, despite the fact that most Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, Paul still reminds his readers that concerning election, Israel is still the beloved of God. This word ‘beloved’ is a word synonymous with how a bride is seen in the eyes of her groom. God has not forgotten His people and loves them dearly, like a bridegroom. 

Mosaic Covenant and the Suzerain-Vassal Treaty

The other covenant we will examine before closing, is the Mosaic Covenant which had a strict outline of what God expected from Israel. This was given at Mount Sinai, preached to the people through Moses and outlined clear blessings and curses. The Mosaic Covenant is clearly based on the Suzerain-Vassal treaty found in ancient history. Archaeology has shed much light on this treaty. In Princeton’s priceless resource by James B. Pritchard, entitled, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, primary sources of the ancient period are consulted and arranged giving the scholar a glimpse into the mythologies, laws, edicts, treaties, funerary rites, and so on of the ancient world. In the “Treaty Between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub of Amurru” (Hittite) it clearly depicts an individual, Duppi-Tessub, who has been accepted and taken in by the kingdom of the Hatti Land. King Mursilis offers assistance to Duppi-Tessub whose descendants will inherit the land of Amurru. Mursilis looks on Duppi-Tessub as his faithful Vassal. There has been loss in Duppi-Tessub’s life and a legal obligation to the king on behalf of Duppi-Tessub, which prompts the King Mursilis to make a treaty with him (Mursilis often speaking in the third person in the treaty). The treaty spells out the commitment of King Mursilis to Duppi-Tessub and reveals the nature of the Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. Tim Hegg writes, “The Suzerain-Vassal treaty was made between a Great King and his appointed Vassal in order to safe guard the interests of the Great King and assure the loyalty of the Vassal. By their very nature, these treaties were bilateral, meaning that the blessings or rewards from the Great King were dependent upon the obedience and compliance of the Vassal.” If the Vassal fulfilled his duty and remained loyal, the king would reward him, but if the Vassal disobeyed or rebelled, then the Vassal was subject to the curses outlined in the treaty. This was all to ensure the loyalty of the Vassal and that the king’s interests were protected.

In the Mursilis/Duppi-Tessub treaty, the document reads: “When I, the Sun, sought after you in accordance with your father’s word and put you in your father’s place, I took you in oath for the king of the Hatti land, the Hatti land, and for my sons and grandsons. So honor the oath (of loyalty) to the king and the king’s kin! And I, the king, will be loyal toward you, Duppi-Tessub. When you take a wife, and when you beget an heir, he shall be king in the Amurru land likewise. And just as I shall be loyal toward you, even so shall I be loyal toward your son. But you, Duppi-Tessub, remain loyal toward the king of the Hatti land, the Hatti land, my sons (and) my grandsons forever!” It continues with a warning: “Do not turn your eyes to anyone else! Your fathers presented tribute to Egypt; you [shall not do that!]” The treaty outlines blessings upon Duppi-Tessub, evoking the power of the gods and their will, but concludes with the threat of curses should Duppi-Tessub be unfaithful in keeping up his end of the treaty with King Mursilis. “The words of this treaty and the oath that are inscribed on this tablet–should Duppi-Tessub not honor these words of the treaty and the oath, may these gods of the oath destroy Duppi-Tessub together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house, his land and together with everything that he owns. But if Duppi-Tessub honors these words of the treaty and the oath that are inscribed on this tablet, may these gods of the oath protect him together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house (and) his country.”

This is the summation of the treaty. In this case, the Great King Mursilis and his treaty with Duppi-Tessub can be compared to the covenant established by YHVH, the God of Israel, with Israel (representing Duppi-Tessub) through the Mosaic Covenant. In the Mosaic Covenant God gives strict instructions to protect His interests, which is, He is holy and wants to separate the people of Israel as a holy people, so they must worship God as He dictates and do what He says. The people, who are the Vassal of the Great King, agree to this covenant, which thereby means, they are agreeing to uphold the covenant given to them by God, the Great King. With this covenant are clear instructions of blessing and curses (Leviticus 26:1-46). If Israel meets the standards of the covenant and is faithful, God will bless Israel with rain, prosperity, childbirth, wealth, no sickness, the absence of war, and security. However, if Israel fails and disobeys the Great King, then curses will befall them in the form of famine, disaster, war, and exile. This is a Suzerain-Vassal styled treaty which God established with the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai. The people would understand the meaning of such a covenant and submit themselves under God’s authority, in a similar way, but magnified, as Duppi-Tessub would have submitted under the authority of King Mursilis of the Hatti Land.

Despite Israel’s rebellion in their history, and the breaking of the Mosaic Covenant on their part, not God’s, Israel has suffered greatly. However, God continues to uphold his promise to the Jewish people based on their election through the establishment of the Abrahamic/Davidic covenants where God pledged, unconditionally, that He will remember them forever and never forsake His chosen people. The Great King still upholds his royal covenant, and despite Israel’s failing, the Great King of Israel will restore His people, as the prophet Zechariah declares in 14:16-17, when all the nations will come up to Jerusalem to worship the Great King and honour Him through the fulfillment and celebration of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. And it shall be that whichever of the families of the earth do not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, on them there will be no rain.” Israel will be restored, the Law will be written on their hearts as Jeremiah prophesied, and Israel will lead the nations in worship in the city of Jerusalem, the city of the Great King!

By, Rev. Peter J. Fast, BA.IS, BA,BS

Sources Consulted:

All Scripture Quoted from: New King James Bible

Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective. Tacoma Washington: Torah Resource, 2008. Pg. 156-157

Pritchard, James B. ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1969. Pg. 203-205.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. USA: Harper San Francisco Publishers, 2003.

3 responses to “Ancient Treaties and Biblical Covenant

  1. It’s theology is shaped around the basic belief that Israel let God down, so He chose another, Jesus!

    So why don’t Jews believe Jesus as the Messiah? Why did they kill Him?

    • Thank you for your comments. As for your comments about why most Jews and the Jewish leadership rejected Jesus as the Messiah, with all due respect, this webpage is not the place for such a debate. However, please read my recently posted essay under “Essays” entitled: “Identifying Historical Differences Between Rabbinic and Christian Apologetics”. This may help you and give you some food for thought. Thank you for your time and have a great day.

    • Jews don’t believe cause their eyes are covered. Yet just as the first disciples were Jews….Jews do believe as do us gentiles. Only those that God draws to Jesus can know him. Lip service is a covering many hide under….some peoples hearts are not seperate frim their lips 🙂

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