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Sunday Study: The Mosaic Covenant as a Vassal Treaty

August 9th, 2009 by Matt

The central event in the Old Testament is the enactment of the Mosaic Covenant. God and Israel (the descendants of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham) entered into a covenant during the time of Moses where Israel promised to worship God and obey his laws and God promised to give them land and protection. The covenant set Israel apart as a holy nation of priests through which the rest of the world would come to know God.

The following is an introduction or overview of the Mosaic Covenant that I wrote for the De La Salle College Religious Education program.

The Mosaic Covenant is first mentioned in Exodus 19-40. It was initially made at Mount Sinai, just after Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Renewals of it occurred on the plains of Moab 40 years later, just before Moses’ death (Deuteronomy 1-28) and again, after Moses’ death under the leadership of Joshua at Mount Ebal (Joshua 8) and also at Shechem (Joshua 24).

The exact date of these events is subject to some debate. Some scholars date the Exodus in the fifteenth century based on a fairly straight-forward reading of the statement in 1 Kings 6:1 which places the Exodus 480 years before Solomon began building the temple. This would place the Exodus and covenant at Sinai around 1440 BCE. Others note that ancient dating systems like that in 1 Kings were not meant to be interpreted literally and suggest that the number 40 symbolises a generation. They work with known facts about Egypt, such as the existence of particular Egyptian cities and compare how these fit with descriptions in the book of Exodus alongside the style in which the Covenant was written; these scholars place usually associate the Exodus with the reign of Ramses II in the 13th century BCE.

Historical studies of ancient documents strongly suggest that the Mosaic Covenant, as recorded in the bible, takes the form of a suzerainty or vassal treaty. A vassal treaty was a treaty or covenant between two parties of unequal social status, normally a powerful ruler and weaker land holder (the vassal). Occasionally, a village or nation that was being threatened or oppressed by a neighbouring king would enter into a vassal treaty with a great king to free themselves from this oppression.

After freeing them the king would offer protection to the vassal nation guaranteeing them control over their own property. In exchange the vassal nation would acknowledge the king as their sole legitimate ruler, swear exclusive loyalty and allegiance, agree to make no alliances to other kings and promise to obey his laws. If the smaller nation did not keep their part of the agreement then the great king would be free to not keep his part and they would no longer be protected from invading enemies.

From the period 1400-1200 BC vassal treaties were written in a certain style or genre. This consists of six parts:

[1] The title and or preamble.

[2] An historical prologue that set out the history between the vassal and the King, usually referring to the King’s generous liberation of the vassal from oppression by another king.

[3] Stipulations or laws that the vassal was required to follow.

[4] Instructions regarding the storage and regular reading of the treaty.

[5] Witnesses to the agreement.

[6] Curses for disobedience to the terms of the treaty and blessings for following them.

The biblical records of the Mosaic Covenant fit this genre:



Treaty Parts

Exodus

Deuteronomy

Joshua

1. Title / preamble

Exod 20:1

Deut 1:1-5

Josh 24:2

2. Historical prologue

Exod 20:2

Deut 1:6-3:29

Josh 24:2-13

3. Stipulations / laws

Exod 20:3-17

– Basic 10 commandments

Exod 21-23, 25-31

– Detailed stipulations

Deut 5

– Basic 10 commandments

Deut 6-26

– Detailed stipulations

Josh 24:14-15, 25

4a. Storing text

Exod 25:6

Deut 31:9, 24-26

Josh 24:26

4b. Reading text

Exod 24:7

Deut 31:9-13

5. Witnesses

Exod 24:4

Deut 31:19-22,26

Deut 32

Josh 24:22, 27

6a. Blessings

Exod 23:20-31

Deut 28:1-14

Josh 24:20

6b. Curses

Deut 28:15-68

Josh 24:19-20

Understanding the Mosaic covenant as a vassal treaty between God and Israel is helpful in understanding the covenant itself:

After freeing the Israelites from an oppressive king (Pharaoh), God promises to protect Israel and guarantees them control over the land of Canaan. In exchange, Israel acknowledges God as their sole legitimate God, swear exclusive loyalty and allegiance, agree to make no alliances to other kings and promise to obey his laws. If Israel did not keep their part of the agreement then God would remove his protection and Israel could be invaded and enslaved again by neighbouring armies. The remaining history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament is seen in this light; Israel disobeyed God and reneged on their part, they were conquered and enslaved by invading armies.

An important aspect of the covenant is that Israel was informed that if they kept it then “out of all nations” [they] “will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This suggests that part of the Covenant involved Israel taking on a special role as priests.

There are two signs typically associated with the Mosaic Covenant and the special role that Israel was granted by it. First was the Sabbath; Exodus 31 told Israel to observe the Sabbath and that it “will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever.” The second was the special food laws; in the covenant God made with the whole world through Noah God had allowed people to eat any animal for food. However, in Deuteronomy 14, because of their special status as a holy nation, different from all the other nations of the world, Israel were forbidden from eating certain types of meat. Sabbath observance and the observance of the food laws came to be seen by the Jews as special signs of the Mosaic Covenant between Israel and God.

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