EXODUS 15-25; PSALM 7
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ANCIENT SUZERAINTY TREATIES AND THEIR RELATION TO THE TORAH.
Because of the discovery of ancient imperial documents in the Middle East, prominent Old Testament scholars in the 1950’s began to note striking similarities between the Covenant of God with Israel, and suzerainty treaties between powerful emperors and empires (Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian and Babylonian) and weaker, smaller, neighboring vassal states (Edom, Phoenicia, Moab, sometimes Israel and Judah). The suzerain, or powerful patron state or monarch, would claim certain powers over, and loyalty from, the smaller vassal, or client state, especially over foreign affairs of state, like trade, war or peace. In exchange for military protection, certain trade and treaty rights, and some leeway on religious and domestic policies, the suzerain would claim from the vassal state tribute, loyalty, some religious homage, and obedience to certain laws. The consequences for failure on the part of the client state included invasion, destruction, enslavement and even genocide, or at the least, withdrawal of protection from other enemy states. If the suzerain failed to enforce or keep up his or her side of the covenant, that reflected shamefully on him, and constituted an open invitation to neighboring raiders or empires to despoil or annex the client state. The usual features of a suzerainty treaty began with a declaration of the sovereign’s name, and then went on to an historical prologue, in which the suzerain laid out his claim to the vassal’s loyalty, based on his benevolence in the past and his power to protect. Then the terms of the covenant, binding upon both the suzerain and the vassals, were enumerated, followed by lists of consequences for various infractions, ending often with blessings for obedience and curses called down upon treason and traitors.
All these elements are found in our Old Testament readings thus far. The Ten Commandments begin with the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt….” Genesis can be read as a very long historical prologue laying out God’s case for his claim to the land and the people whom he will install there. This case culminates with God’s defeat of Pharoah and his armies at the Red Sea, and his liberation of his people. In this week’s readings we begin to read the terms of the treaty, or covenant, by which God will protect and rule his people, in exchange for their tribute, obedience and loyalty. Supreme to this part of the treaty are the Ten Commandments, in Exodus 20. Like most suzerainty treaties, it lays out boundary markers beyond which one shall not pass (“you shall not….”) rather than micro-managing Israel’s conduct with exact stipulations for each situation. The case laws we find in Exodus 21 and beyond are, to some degree, examples that elucidate the broader principles laid out in the Ten Commandment. In Exodus 24 we see the religious and liturgical elements of the treaty beginning to take flesh. In later sections of the Torah or Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) we will see the consequences of faithfulness and of disobedience in terms of blessings and curses respectively.
But the differences between God’s covenant with Israel and the suzerainty treaties of Israel’s neighbors are also quite instructive. The God of Abraham shows himself to be much more intimately concerned with his subjects’ treatment of each other, personally and individually, than were the Pharoahs or the kings of Assyria or Babylon in respect to their vassal, client states. Their treaters were made from one king to another, whereas The Fear of Isaac is making a covenant with the people of Isaac, not just with their king or priest. For they will be his “holy nation, and a priestly people.” Israel’s Suzerain is much more concerned with the weak, the poor, the orphans, the widows, the slave, the sojourner and the alien than other worldly suzerains ever were. He takes the treatment they receive personally, and reminds the Israelites that “you too were slaves, strangers and aliens” in Egypt.
Another difference was in the degree to which Israel’s God, on the occasions of Israel’s treason and disobedience, would seek to restore the broken trust and relationship, enduring their rebellion long beyond the point where the covenant called for punishment, going again and again the extra mile to call his people back, and doing infinitely more to forgive and to reconcile than any worldly suzerain would ever have done. Human disobedience not only provokes moral and spiritual consequences, it becomes the occasion to highlight God’s tender mercies, God’s patience and God’s power to restore and renew.
ON SACRIFICE: WHY SO MUCH BLOOD?
The attentive reader will notice a lot of blood flowing in our passages so far. Mostly animal blood, through the sacrifices of cattle, sheep and goats, every time a covenant is made or renewed. That startles and disturbs contemporary sensibilities, partly because whatever meat we may eat usually comes packaged in sanitary and bloodless ways, miles removed from the place of slaughter. And few of us have ever cleaned a fish, let alone slaughtered and processed a chicken or a goat (I’ve done the first two of the three, and I’m in no hurry to repeat it).
A common answer is that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22).” Thus, the sacrificial animal is either a payment for sin, or his death reminds us of the true nature and price of sin. I find some truth and power in that. But there are other dimensions to sacrifice, which include the symbolically and emotionally unifying act of eating together, as a way of experiencing and affirming the justice and trust between the two parties who have made this covenant, and have celebrated it with something sacrificial. Yes, it was sacrificial to the animal that was slaughtered, but also to the party that raised and owned it. God, as the giver of the land and the livestock, was understood to be present and sharing at the sacrificial feasts that marked the making and the renewing of the covenant.
Another meaning of sacrifice, applicable to both worldly and divine suzerainty treaties, is to give both parties a chance to say, “May this so happen to me should I betray my part of this covenant.” After the Jerusalemites released their slaves in the year of Jubilee, to try and win God’s favor, and then promptly re-enslaved them, God recalled his covenant and said, “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. (Jer. 34:16-18).” This should have come as no surprise to them: the regular sacrifices for festivals or for purification would have reminded them of the seriousness of the covenant and of the costs of disobedience.