Chapter 2 in Michael Horton’s book, Introducing Covenant Theology, is called “God and Foreign Relations.” In this chapter, anthropology comes into play as we learn about ancient treaties. We also learn that the covenants God made with his people were structured the same way as these treaties, but with some major differences. First, God as the deity was not called as witness, but he was the actual sovereign in the treaties. Second, the covenant, especially in Genesis 15 and 17, imposed no obligations upon Abraham, but it was God himself who promised to carry out his promises.
The form of the ancient suzerain-vassal treaty, or “suzerainty treaty,” was already well-established in the ancient Near East before the Bible was written. This was God’s providence at work in history, because it provided a cultural context for those with whom he made his own covenants. Horton explains, “A suzerain was a great king, like an emperor, while a vassal was what we would today call a ‘client state'” (p. 24). The treaties from the Hittite Empire seem to parallel the covenants we find in Scripture, even using the phrase “oaths and bonds.”
Horton gives examples of how such treaties would come about:
[T]he lesser king (vassal) could enter into a covenant with the great king (suzerain), or as often happened, a suzerain could rescue a vassal from impending doom and therefore claim his right to annex the beneficiaries of his kindness by covenant to his empire. They would be his people, and he would be their suzerain. (p. 25)
He then explains something that is quite foreign to us in the modern West:
What is often present in these ancient treaties and missing in modern analogies is the fact that these were not merely legal contracts but involved the deepest affections. The great king was the father adopting the captives he had liberated from oppression. Consequently, he was not simply to be obeyed externally, but loved; not only feared, but revered; not only known as the legal lord of the realm, but acknowledged openly as the rightful sovereign…. All of this is somewhat difficult for us to grasp, since for most of us, our day-to-day experience is shaped by life in liberal democracies in which personal choice and rights are enshrined. (p. 25, emphasis mine)
The features of the Hittite treaties included
- the preamble,
- historical prologue,
- sanctions, and
- deposit of the treaty tablets in the sacred temples.
Historical prologue in the Scriptural covenants is significant because our religion is not based on myth, but fact.
God claimed sovereignty over all of life and anchored this total claim in history rather than in myth or general principles of truth and morality He said, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exod. 20:2-3). It was because certain things had happened that Israel was obligated to him. (p. 26)
Israel was not first of all a nation, but a church, a community called out of darkness, sin, oppression, and evil to form the nucleus of God’s worldwide empire. Not only the politics, but the religion, was anchored in historical events that gave rise to faith that this covenant Lord would be faithful to his promises (p. 28)
Regarding stipulations, Horton reiterates the deep affections the vassal would have for the suzerain. “[T]his was to be a relationship of trust, love, and genuine faithfulness, not simply of external obligation and consent. Far from being arbitrary, merely legal dos and don’ts, the stipulations were an utterly reasonable duty” (p. 27). When Jesus quoted Isaiah and said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8, ESV), he affirmed that the Law was not designed for externals, but that the Lord was always after the hearts of his people, and obedience should have flowed from that love.
The deposit of the tablets was something we saw in Exodus when the tablets of the Law were placed inside the Ark of the Covenant. Horton said it was not only the placement of the covenant terms in a sacred place that was significant, but that there was also “periodic public reading, so that each new generation clearly understood its obligations” (p. 27).
Then Horton gives a statement that helps show us the depth of what we see in Genesis 15:
In addition to the treaty itself was the public ceremony that sealed it and put it into effect. Such ceremonies included an event in which the suzerain and vassal would pass between the halves of slaughtered animals, as if to say, “May the same fate befall me should I fail to keep this covenant.” In other rituals, the vassal king would walk behind the great king down an aisle as a sign of loyalty, service, and submission. (Hence, the language of “walking after” God in the Scriptures.) Celebratory meals at which the treaty was ratified were held as well. (p. 28)
In Genesis 15, it is Yahweh himself, in theophany, who passes between the carcasses, and not Abram, indicating that God is taking the full weight of the covenant upon himself. “May the same fate befall me”–It was Christ, God incarnate, our Redeemer, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who bore the covenant curses on behalf of the elect! This is radically different from the Hittite treaties, in which all the stipulations and sanctions were borne by the vassal and the suzerain did not take an oath. The fact that it was the Sovereign Lord God who was making these covenants gave his people great confidence.
The remainder of the chapter will be addressed in a later post.
Posts in this series:
- What’s “The Big Idea?”
- “God and Foreign Relations”
- Chapter 2.5: God’s Freedom in Covenant
- The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace