Saturday, March 14, 2020

Deuteronomy and Ancient Near Eastern Treaties

Adopted from J. A. Thompson's The Significance of the Ancient Near Eastern Treaty Pattern.

In 1954, G. E. Mendenhall (1954) recognized that the treaty pattern and language of the ancient Near East (ANE) is often repeated in the Old Testament covenant passages. The Hittites as early as the second millennium BCE formulated the basic structure of suzerainty (or vassal) treaties. This basic structure was later revised by the Assyrians in the 750s BCE – the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon's succession (VTE).

The standard elements in these treaties were

  •   the preamble, which gave the names and titles of the parties involved,
  •  the historical prologue which outlined the events that led up to the treaty,
  •  the stipulations, which were of two kinds—the general principles on which future relations were to be built, and the specific stipulations which arose out of these general principles,
  •  the divine witnesses and guarantors of the treaty, and
  •  the associated blessings and curses for treaty keeping and violation. 

Other elements appear in many of the ANE treaties such as
  •   the requirement to deposit the treaty in the temple,
  •    to read it periodically in a public assembly, and
  •    to secure the continuity of the treaty by a suitable succession on the vassal's throne.

 There is also a good deal of evidence that a religious ceremony accompanied the ratification of a treaty. Quite commonly blood sacrifices were offered on such an occasion. The formal oath, of acceptance and the preparation, sealing, handing over and acceptance of the treaty document were also essential elements in the total proceedings.


The book of Deuteronomy is organized around the ANE vassal treaty structure.
  • Preamble: Deuteronomy 1:1-5
  • Historical prologue: Deuteronomy 1:6-4:40
  • Basic stipulation of allegiance: Deuteronomy 5-11
  •  Covenantal clauses: Deuteronomy 12-26
  • Invocation of witnesses: Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 31:28
  • Blessings and curses: Deuteronomy 28

 Deuteronomy "ends" with a covenant renewal ceremony described in Deuteronomy 29-30, where the assembled Israel "renews" the vows from Sinai.  This is followed by the succession of Joshua to Moses' leadership role of Yahweh's vassal people, Israel.

This covenant renewal ceremony is repeated at Shechem under the leadership of Joshua following the "conquest" of the Canaanites (Joshua 24) and again at Gilgal under the leadership of Samuel (I Samuel 14).

Later Jewish practice associated the giving and renewal of the covenant (specifically, the giving of Torah and Israel's renewed commitment to it) with the feast day of Shavuot (Pentecost).

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