Sojourn, Exodus, Conquest
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Old Testament Covenants and law-codes - overview

The twin themes of covenant and law form one of the crucial unifying strands through Old and New Testaments. There are several covenants explicitly described in the Old Testament, and a considerable proportion of the words and actions of the later prophets were implicitly based on their existence. The longest and most developed of them forms the book of Deuteronomy. From here the theme of covenant can be explored insofar as it relates to cultural and chronological issues. Covenants provide chronological information as the documentary form went through certain quite specific changes of structure over the years. Law-codes are of a much more static form, but the content and details contained evolve in a systematic way from early to late. Each of the forms is studied in detail within these pages, comparing OT passages with extracts from the nonBiblical texts. Considerations from both law codes and covenants strongly support a mid-second millennium date of original composition for the Mosaic law. In the case of covenants, this is because the structure of Deuteronomy bears most resemblance to the Middle Hittite form. Indeed, this structure largely precludes a composition date outside of the second millennium. In the case of law-codes, it is because the details of regulations in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are transitional between the earlier codes (from the start of the second millennium) and the later ones (from the end of the second millennium).

There were two kinds of treaty relevant to the Old Testament era - parity treaties and suzerain-vassal treaties. These were typically set up at specific transition times in the relationships between nations, and formalised the nature and obligations of the relationship. There are clear differences between them, as shown by examples outside of the Biblical text. Parity treaties were made between two essentially equal parties. Typically they refer to each other as 'brother' and contain details of mutually beneficial actions. As a non-Biblical example we have the treaty made between Ramesses 2 and Hattusilis 3. Happily, both the Hittite and Egyptian versions of this still survive for study and comparison. The second major kind of treaty was made between two unequal parties. The suzerain or Great King imposed conditions on the junior or vassal party. If on good terms, the two might be called 'father' and 'son', if not then 'lord' and 'servant'. Such a treaty typically set obligations on both parties (for example military protection would be provided to the vassal by the suzerain) but the disparity of the two parties was always evident.

The content of treaties is reasonably well-known to us from a wide variety of sources, as are the arrangements for periodic renewal and succession in the event of one or other ruler dying. However, we have little information as to the rituals and practices accompanying either the initial establishment of a treaty or its renewal. Slaughtering of animal sacrifices and the sharing of a ritual meal between both parties and their gods were, however, common elements in binding agreements in the middle east. In some of the surviving treaties there is an obligation on the vassal to visit the suzerain annually to renew the vows, and it is possible that this underlies the requirement on the Israelites to assemble annually at the great festivals.

Law-codes were established by rulers, partly as a genuine move to structure the national life of the people, and partly to establish their own credibility as a wise leader. The decisions made by the formal legal system of a nation - either by local officials or as a judgement on a wider scale - appear to have been based on the same general principles, though it is not usually possible to determine a specific requirement in a law code pertaining to this. The law-codes show how different nations addressed common themes of life in the ancient Middle East. They typically outline a pattern of life considered acceptable to others and desirable to the gods.

The Mosaic law, therefore, forms a bridge between these two kinds of document. The overall form of Deuteronomy is structured like a vassal treaty with Yahweh as the suzerain. The treaty was established at a key transition time for Israel and sets out a basic principle that Yahweh is both a ruler to whom obedience is due, and a protector able and willing to provide help in case of need. The detailed provisions of the law share much in common with the law-codes. They describe how covenant life is to be conducted on a practical level, and so establish a detailed pattern of life within the overall framework of the covenant.

Sojourn, Exodus, Conquest