The heart of Deuteronomy is the covenant between God and Israel. Parashat Nitzavim (Deut. 29:9-30:20) depicts the signing of this agreement in Moab, prior to Israel’s entry into Canaan: “Ye are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and thy stranger that is in the midst of thy camp, from the hewer of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water; that thou shouldest enter into the covenant of the Lord thy God – and into his oath – which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day; that he may establish thee this day unto himself for a people, and that he may be unto thee a God, as he spoke unto thee, and as he swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day” (Deuteronomy 29:9-14).
A covenant, or treaty, is a civic legal institution known to both the Bible’s authors and its readers, who use it to describe Israel’s relationship with the Almighty. It is a dramatic theological event, of which Deuteronomy is a prominent, but not exclusive, representative. To understand the covenant’s significance as symbolizing a theological relationship, we must first characterize the covenant in its biblical and ancient Near Eastern contexts as a treaty between individuals or nations.
Genesis describes a bitter family dispute between Jacob and his uncle and father-in-law, Laban. Following a heated discussion, Laban proposes: “And now come, let us make a covenant, I and thou” (Genesis 31:44). Jacob agrees; Laban establishes the terms: It is principally a non-aggression pact, and in proposing it, Laban he summons his and Jacob’s gods: “no man being with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee” (Gen. 31:50). Laban continues: “The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor … judge betwixt us” (Gen. 31:53); the narrator explains: “the God of their father” (Gen. 31:53). Jacob, swearing by his God, arranges a banquet.
It appears that, even in a non-theological agreement struck between individuals, the gods play a role, having been called in as witnesses and guarantors. The summoning of the gods resembles the signing of a contract before a lawyer. Their appearance affirms the contract’s official status and recognizes the authority of the sovereign – the gods or the state – to intercede, if necessary, and compel the parties to honor its terms. We can also define a covenant as a contract defining the relationship between two parties, whose enforcement the gods guarantee.
Such agreements also exist between nations. In the book of Kings, Solomon enters into a covenant with Hiram, King of Tyre. Like the covenant between Laban and Jacob, this is a treaty between equals: “and they two made a covenant together” (1 Kings 5:26). The prophet Amos will later call it “the brotherly covenant” (Amos 1:9).
However, the most important treaty in terms of the present discussion, which is well documented in the Bible and the ancient Near East, is the covenant between unequal parties: the vassal treaty.
The kingdoms of Israel and Judah entered into such agreements, usually as the weaker party. An empire interested in consolidating control of a region would turn to smaller kingdoms with an offer they could not refuse: The emperor would protect the vassal king in return for absolute fealty and tax payments, threatening to severely punish the vassal kingdoms for disloyalty. The empires meant what they said: When Israel rebelled against the Assyrian Empire, the latter permanently exiled its residents. Judah also rebelled against Assyria, and was saved by the skin of its teeth, although Judah was ultimately devastated after rebelling against the Babylonian Empire.
A classical example of a vassal treaty is a document from the 7th century B.C.E., in which Esarhaddon, King of Assyria, lays down terms for an agreement with other states. It can be reasonably assumed that the kings of Israel and Judah had to abide by similar treaties. Here is an excerpt: “[You swear that] you, while you stand on the place of this oath, swearing the oath with [your] lips, will take responsibility for your sons who shall be after the treaty. [You swear that] you will not place on yourselves…. You will enter into the treat which Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, [has made] concerning Ashurbanipal, the crown prince. For the future and for ever, Ashur is your god, Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, is your lord. Your sons [and] your grandsons will revere his sons” (“Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon,” lines 385-396, translation by D. J. Wiseman).
The vassal king must swear wholeheartedly to comply with the conditions laid down and to teach future generations to comply. The conditions extend over hundreds of lines, specifying the curses that would befall disloyal vassal states. In last week’s reading, Ki Tavo, a list of curses almost identical with those in the Assyrian treaty is presented.
The treaty quoted above resembles the opening of this week’s reading, Nitzavim. In both texts, the sovereign demands that the vassals present themselves and solemnly accept the proffered treaty. Despite the parties’ inequality, the sovereign requires the vassals’ consent for cementing the relationship. In both texts, the treaty is also binding not only on the present generation but on future ones as well. These are the typical characteristics of such an agreement: They were not invented by Esarhaddon or Deuteronomy, which biblical scholars assume was written during the same era. However, when we compare Deuteronomy with Esarhaddon’s treaty, we discover the background and innovation of Deuteronomy’s covenant: the use of human accords to express Israel’s unique relationship with God.
The gods were always witnesses to treaties, but in the Bible, God is a party to the pact. Alongside other biblical images of Israel’s relationship with God – son-father, wife-husband, subject-king – Deuteronomy likens this relationship to a treaty between the ruler of a powerful empire and the citizens of a small state that establishes a connection based on mutual commitment: protection and support in return for absolute loyalty. The characteristics of this relationship are also those of the covenant that the Bible transfers to the religious context: God is the initiator of the covenant but the nation must consent, while the terms are binding on all future generations.
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