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Covenants and law-codes - documentary forms

Documents in the ancient world - just as the modern one - tended to follow certain standard patterns or forms. Sometimes these forms persisted over a very long period of time, and so are of limited use for the purposes of dating. However, other forms are characteristic of particular eras and so give strong supportive evidence for a time of origin. Both covenant-treaties and law-codes have an exceedingly long history of development, and followed quite specific forms of composition. This is of great relevance when trying to establish a most-probable date of composition of the Pentateuch.

Formal structure

These structures should be compared to the overall structure of Deuteronomy indicated on one of the other pages in this set. It should be clear that the form most closely resembling Deuteronomy (and the degree of resemblance is extremely high) is the mid-late 2nd millennium form. The absence of the historical prologue in the later forms is very striking.

The following table summarises the varying structures involved, broken down in percentage terms of the whole document.

FormPattern
 
Law-code
           
Intermediate Syrian
     
Intermediate Hittite
         
Middle Hittite
               
Late Mesopotamian
       
Deuteronomy
               
 

Key
Title
Historical Prologue
Stipulations
Other elements - renewal arrangements, deposition, oath, ceremonies etc
Witnesses
Curses
Blessings

Law-codes

The documentation of codes of laws was a key element in the activities of Mesopotamian rulers from (in very broad figures) 2100-1700 BCE conventionally, or 2000-1500 NC. These codes have survived to varying degrees of integrity, and were extensively copied over the years. Two are complete, with others in a near-complete condition, and the form is uniformly as follows:

Law-code form
Title or preamble
Prologue
Laws
Epilogue
Blessings for obedience
Cursings for disobedience
 
Examples:Lipit-Ishtar (Isin)

Cursings were typically more extensive than blessings. The overwhelming majority of the requirements are known as casuistic - in other words based on example cases. Frequently one encounters the opening phrase 'If a man does... then...'. The other primary form used in law is known as apodictic, in which general principles of conduct are laid out, for example 'You shall...' or 'You shall not...'. This form does not typically appear in the law code forms, but does appear in the treaty forms and in Deuteronomy.

Covenant-treaties - evolution

The ancient middle east recognised a few standard patterns of treaty. The most commonly surviving type is the suzerain-vassal treaty, formulated between a Great King (the suzerain) and a lesser ruler (the vassal). Over 40 examples are known, ranging from the time of flourishing of Ebla (late 3rd millennium BCE) through to the late Assyrian period (1st millennium BCE). Many are in near-complete condition so allowing extensive study of the forms used. These show a clear pattern of evolution as follows:

  Early period  
Intermediate (Syrian)      Intermediate (Hittite)
     Middle
Late (Syrian)     
    Late (Mesopotamian) 

The different kinds will be reviewed below in more detail.

Early period (late 3rd millennium)

Early period (late 3rd millennium)
Witnesses
Requirements/stipulations
Other features eg curses, blessings, oaths
 
Examples:Ebla...Tudiya of Assyria
Naram-Sin of Akkad...Elam

Intermediate - Syrian

Intermediate - Syrian
Title or preamble(Brief)
Requirements/stipulations(Moderate)
Curses(Brief)
 
Examples: Niqmepa of Alalakh...Ir-dim of Tunip
Idrimi of Alalakh...Pilliya

The heading and preamble here are very short, for example "".

The stipulations primarily relate to commercial or legal matters rather than military or allegiance, for example dealing with escaped fugitives or criminals. ""

The curse section is very brief, for example "".

Intermediate - Hittite

Intermediate - Hittite
Title or preamble
Witnesses
Requirements/stipulations
Oath
Curses
[Lost section]
 
Examples: Arnuwandas...Ishmerrika-land

Middle (mid-late 2nd millennium)

Middle (mid-late 2nd millennium)
Title or preamble
Historical prologue
Requirements/stipulations
Deposition and renewal arrangements
Witnesses [in 2 examples this section is placed earlier]
Curses, blessings
Occasionally other elements eg oaths and ceremonies
 
Examples: Suppiluliumas of Hatti...Mattiwaza of Mitanni
Mursilis of Hatti...Duppi-Tessub of Amurru

Late (1st millennium) Syrian

Late (1st millennium) Syrian
Title or preamble
Witnesses
Curses
Requirements/stipulations
 
Examples:

Late (1st millennium) Mesopotamian

Late (1st millennium) Mesopotamian
Title or preamble
Witnesses
Requirements/stipulations
Curses
 
Examples: Esarhaddon

These structures should be compared to the overall structure of Deuteronomy indicated on one of the other pages in this set. It should be clear that the form most closely resembling Deuteronomy (and the degree of resemblance is extremely high) is the mid-late 2nd millennium form. The absence of the historical prologue in the later forms is very striking.

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