Understanding God’s Everlasting Covenant

Ann Walper

September 5, 2003


In this study we will discuss the two formulas for covenant-making found in the Bible. In an effort to clarify God’s everlasting covenant of salvation, we will first define, and then compare and contrast these two formulas. Endnote

A solid comprehension of the covenantal forms used by God is critical to our understanding of God’s covenant with His people. Throughout our history of discussion on the covenants there have been two major issues at work, each sometimes working to obscure truth on the other. The two issues deal with the nature of the covenants—Was it a contract or a promise; specifically, who was obligated by what? And history—Did God make a mistake with the covenant He made with Abraham, necessitating later adjustments and amendments with the children of Israel, which then required further adjustments when Christ came at the first advent? Is dispensationalism a reality—multiple methods of salvation in differing periods of time? Is the old covenant time-bound or continuing? What constitutes the “old covenant”? We will examine the covenants with these issues in mind by studying the formulas by which God made His covenant with Abraham and with the children of Israel at Sinai. One “genders to bondage” and one “is freedom.”

In Galatians 3:6-21, Paul sets forth the two covenants in contrast to one another; they do not agree with each other. He tells us that the covenant of promise was given to Abraham, while a covenant of “law” was created at Sinai with the children of Israel. Paul continues in 4:22-26 to further define the two covenants by telling us that the covenant made at Sinai “gendereth to bondage,” while the covenant made with Abraham “is free.” Paul clearly sees these two covenants as contrary to one another, being mutually exclusive of each other. In this discussion we will examine the two covenant formulas found in the Bible and study their effect on the experience of God’s people. The Decalogue nor the ceremonial law are at issue in this discussion. Neither are faulty in and of themselves, nor can it be said that either are “against us” in some way. What is at issue is the method by which God made His covenant with His people throughout history, beginning with Adam. One method was necessitated by unbelief, while the other was founded on faith in the Yahweh’s promises.

Part I

Suzerain Covenant Defined

Suzerain Covenant History

The first covenant formula we will examine is often referred to as a suzerain covenant, treaty, or contract. Briefly defined, the suzerain covenant was a means for establishing a relationship that otherwise did not naturally exist between two or more parties. The covenant stipulations were spoken or read before the parties and then sanctioned by the swearing of an oath of allegiance in a ceremony of ratification. Use of the word suzerain to specify this type of treaty is a relatively new idea, even though the process has been in existence for millennia.

“Suzerain” didn’t enter the English language until 1807. An early use of the word as found in the Oxford Dictionary, says: “The king was called the Sovereign lord; his immediate vassal was called the Suzereign” (1807). In Gosselin’s Power Pope of the Middle Ages, it is used to describe the position of the pope over his vassals concerning territorial lands: “They may hold it in peace, and maintain therein the pure Catholic faith, saving the rights of the suzerain lord [the pope] (1853).” According to the Oxford, the formal definition of suzerain is: “A feudal overlord. In recent use, with reference to international relations, a sovereign or a state having supremacy over another state which possesses its own ruler or government but cannot act as an independent power.”

While the word itself is relatively new to the English language, the concept has been traced to an ancient legal process used by the Hittites beginning c. 1400 B.C. This form of foreign relations treaty was used to control the activities of conquered foes. Through contract, the vassal nations were bound to the suzerain nation or king who possessed absolute authority over the conquered nations. The word came into English usage during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s subjugation of the European nations. It was later applied to the diplomatic relations between Britain and the South African Republic, and also to the agreements between Turkey and Bulgaria from 1878 to 1909. By the mid-twentieth century, the word had been dropped from use in diplomatic terminology. Endnote

How did the word suzerain come to be used in relation to the Biblical covenants? In 1954 George E. Mendenhall (b. 1916) Endnote published a series of articles in The Biblical Archeologist on the subject of the law and the covenant in Israel and the ancient Near East. His discussion centered on newly discovered archeological documents dating back to about 1400 B.C. which revealed techniques by which the great Mesopotamian cultures exercised their coercive power upon the communities within their domain. Mendenhall contended that these ancient documents provided the foundation for understanding the laws and covenants of the Bible.

The ancient Mesopotamian cultures believed that it was the function of the king to maintain justice and protection of the community at large. In most of the pagan cultures, the king was viewed as either a god or an earthly extension of a god. “What this meant in practice is probably that the legal policies were determined by the king and therefore received divine sanction.” Endnote These “divine” edicts could not be overturned so long as the king was alive. Endnote “The largest number of examples of the suzerain-vassal treaty—and the most complete—are to be found in the fourteenth- and thirteenth-century Hittite texts.” Endnote From his examination of the ancient documents, Mendenhall developed a basic six point formula that defined the treaties that the powerful Hittite kings made with their conquered foes.

Mendenhall had an agenda behind his discussion on the suzerain treaty formula. From the middle of the nineteenth century, the dominant higher critical view promoted through German theologians was that the books of the Pentateuch were the result of oral traditions written and edited over hundreds of years rather than being written by Moses during Israel’s wilderness sojourn. This was naturally disturbing to the more conservative evangelical theologians because it undermined the divine authorship and inspiration of the Biblical canon.

Through the works of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1919), and later through Walther Eichrodt, J. G. Eichhorn, Rudolf Bultmann and others, this new source criticism view of the Pentateuch became a dominant theological opinion and crept into the writings of many prominent evangelical theologians. Endnote From Genesis, Wellhausen dissected what he claimed was two distinct narrative structures, identifying them with the use of two names for God—Yahweh and Elohim. His determination was that these narratives were the oldest portion of the Pentateuch, while the laws and rituals of Exodus and Deuteronomy were elements that had been edited in and were from a much later period in Israelite history.

 Wellhausen claimed that these characteristics evolved over a long period of time beginning with ancient Israel’s early nomadic religion, continuing through the settlement period, and then to the formal giving of the law at about the time of major prophets (seventh century B.C.). Wellhausen believed that “Moses the law-giver at Sinai, through whom God gave to Israel the extensive and minute legislation of the theocratic community, is but the fictitious creation of much later periods, beginning in the writings of J [Yahweh/Jehovah] and E [Elohim], developing through the work of the redactor who combined these two documents (the Jehovist) and the book of Deuteronomy, and finding its culmination in the Priestly presentation of the Sinai events.” Endnote Thus, according to Wellhausen and other higher critics, the writing the Pentateuch took place over about seven centuries, instead of being written by Moses during the forty years of wilderness wandering. This was contrary to the traditional view on the writing of the Pentateuch, which followed the chronological format of the narrative structures presented in the Old Testament canon.

Wellhausen’s presentation of the Israelite religion declared that the development of a covenant between God and Israel was the result of the preaching of the later prophets rather than being given through Moses at Sinai, pushing the date forward to the time of Jeremiah. Endnote Because of the emphasis of the eighth-century prophets (B.C.) on God’s righteousness and His demand for social justice, Wellhausen claimed this as evidence for a shift “from a covenant as a natural bond [like that of a father and a son] to one of a pact or treaty. Commandments were understood as demands or conditions on which Yahweh’s continued relation to Israel depended. The natural bond between Yahweh and Israel was severed. Many scholars accepted Wellhausen’s covenant ideas and considered the issue settled. There was little debate among the scholars on the covenant for a while.” Endnote

Mendenhall sought a means by which he could counteract the reconstruction of the history of Israel’s religion. The discovery of the Hittite treaty documents provided him with this tool. Mendenhall’s agenda was an attempt to rescue the historical validity of the Biblical record from the higher critical attacks of Wellhausen’s theory of multiple authorship of the Pentateuch. By showing that the suzerain treaty formula was the foundation of the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, Mendenhall provided evidence for a fifteenth century B.C. authorship of the Pentateuch. Mendenhall “argued that the Hittite treaty was an early source of the Old Testament’s idea of covenant. [He] argued that the tribes of Israel were not bound together by blood-ties but by a covenant based on religion and modeled after the suzerainty treaty by which the great Hittite king bound his vassals to faithfulness and obedience to himself.” Endnote Believing that all religion is based on covenant, Mendenhall claimed that “a study of the covenant form as we know it in ancient legal documents may possibly serve to bring into the chaos of opinion some objective criteria for reconstructing the course of Israelite history and religion.” Endnote

Meredith G. Kline, establishing his thesis on Mendenhall’s studies, maintains that “The origin of the Old Testament canon coincided with the founding of the kingdom of Israel by covenant at Sinai. The very treaty that formally established the Israelite theocracy was itself the beginning and the nucleus of the total covenantal cluster of writings which constitutes the Old Testament canon.” Kline’s insistence that the suzerain treaty formula was the foundation of the covenant God made with Israel was, like Mendenhall, centered on combating the higher critical view of the Pentateuch. “Our conclusion in a word, then, is that canon is inherent in covenant, covenant of the kind attested in ancient international relations and the Mosaic covenants of the Bible. Hence it is to this covenant structure that theology should turn for its perspective and model in order to articulate its doctrine of canon in terms historically concrete and authentic. It is the covenant form that will explain the particular historical-legal traits of the divine authority that confronts us in the Scriptures.” Endnote

Suzerain Covenant Formula

In his articles, Mendenhall advanced his view that the Sinaitic covenant had a definite historical setting and he used the dates for the newly discovered Hittite treaties as the foundational support for his theory. Mendenhall argued that the Hittite treaty formula was used by God to define the covenant made with Israel at Sinai. He felt that the Hittite covenant was familiar to Moses and the children of Israel, and could have been appropriately used by God at Sinai to express His plans to them. By analyzing the suzerainty treaty documents, he found that there was an amazing correlation between the secular documents and the Sinai covenant tradition as written by Moses (Exodus chapters 19-24 and the whole of Deuteronomy). If the Israelite covenant could be shown to be based on the Hittite suzerainty treaty form which was known to exist between c. 1400-1200 B.C., then Wellhausen’s position that the Pentateuch was written over a seven hundred year period could more easily be refuted. Understanding the underlying agenda of Mendenhall’s study determines his focus, and reveals the theological environment that allowed and influenced the advancement of the secular suzerain covenant theory as the formula for the covenant God made with ancient Israel at Sinai.

Examining the various instances of covenant language throughout the Bible, Mendenhall determined that there was considerable variation in the order of the elements, the wording of the elements, and that some of the elements occasionally were not included. Working from the ancient Hittite tablets, Mendenhall identified six main elements to the suzerain treaty formula and included three more elements as conclusionary components. We will list the elements and then describe them more fully (Please note: the first six were used in the recent Sabbath School Quarterly lessons on Hebrews to define the covenant. See lesson comments for Sunday, August 10, 2003).

  1. Preamble
  2. Historical prologue
  3. Stipulations
  4. Provision for deposition and periodic reading of the covenant
  5. List of witnesses
  6. Blessings and curses
  7. A formal oath on the part of the vassal
  8. Solemn ceremony
  9. Formulation for initiating action against the rebellious vassal (guides for the lawsuit)

In the preamble the author of the document is identified, giving his title, territory, attributes, and his genealogy. The emphasis was always on the majesty and power of the sovereign (suzerain). In the pagan cultures that used the suzerain treaty pattern, the suzerain was often seen as a god who was writing his treaty to confer a covenantal relationship upon his vassals.

The historical prologue described in detail the circumstances of the previous relations between the two parties, listing the many great things the suzerain king had performed for the benefit of the vassal. Forming an essential element, the historical prologue was always found in the completely preserved Hittite documents. This section of the document was never stereotyped or impersonal, but rather listed specific descriptions of actual historical events that had taken place between the king and the vassal. Mendenhall stressed that “it is most important to see that the vassal is exchanging future obedience to specific commands for past benefits which he received without any real right.” Endnote Since the Hittite king was the author of the document, he spoke in the first person directly to the vassal in an “I—thou” form of address, indicating the personal and benevolent relationship between the king and vassal.

The third part of the treaty was the stipulations. The stipulations and obligations were varied depending on the situation, the condition of the vassal nations, and the whim of the suzerain. However, Mendenhall discovered several stipulation elements that usually occurred in the documents. These included:

  1. The prohibition of an alliance with any other foreign nation outside the Hittite empire.
  2. The payment of taxes to the suzerain lord.
  3. Prohibition of enmity against anything the Hittite suzerain decreed.
  4. The demand that the vassal nation answer a call to arms when the suzerain was planning war against another nation.
  5. The vassal was to guard the edges of the suzerain’s domain, being watchful for any invasion of foreign armies or spies.
  6. The vassal king must hold enduring and unbounded trust in the suzerain’s ability to rule. It was forbidden for a vassal to entertain any malicious rumor about the suzerain, or speak any evil words against the suzerain, for to do so was interpreted as the beginning of rebellion.
  7. The vassal was forbidden to give asylum to refugees from any source because these might be construed as foreign instigators or insurrectionists and therefore dangerous to the suzerain’s absolute rule. Extradition of criminals was expected.
  8. The vassal must appear before the Hittite king at least once a year and bring tribute (taxes).
  9. Any controversies between co-vassals in the suzerain’s kingdom were to be brought before the suzerain for judgment. The suzerain was sole judge of his realm.

It is clear from reading these stipulations that the suzerain intended to maintain not only a dominating position over this vassal lords and their nations, but also to maintain peace between the vassals themselves. Therefore the stipulations could be said to relate partly to the sovereign and partly to the residents of the suzerain’s domain.

Provision for the deposition of the document in the temple of the chief god, and the specification that the document was to be read aloud before the people on a periodic basis, ensured that the people would be reminded continually of their obligations to the sovereign. “Since it was not only the vassal king, but his entire state which was bound by the treaty, periodic public reading served a double purpose: first, to familiarize the entire populace with the obligations to the great king; and second, to increase respect for the vassal king by describing the close and warm relationship [he had] with the mighty and majestic Emperor.” Endnote By being deposited in the sacred temple, it imposed the idea that the treaty itself was under the protection of the deity and could not be breached without bringing the wrath of the deity upon the people.

Just as legal documents today are witnessed by a notary, judge, or other official of the community, the Hittite documents were attested to by the gods of the realm. “This section enumerates the deities who are invoked, usually a considerable number. Included are of course the gods of the Hittite state, but the pantheon of the vassal state is also included. In other words, the gods of the vassals themselves enforce the covenant.” Endnote Mendenhall noted that the deified mountains, rivers, springs, sea, heaven and earth were also included in the list of witnesses. In comparing the suzerain treaty to the Biblical covenant, he correlated this calling of nature “witnesses” to Isaiah 1:2 and Deuteronomy 32:1.

Though it was a secular and political document, the suzerain treaty was couched in religious terms. The blessings and curses included as part of the document indicated the divine beneficence or wrath that would be invoked upon the vassal for his behaviour—whether obedience or disobedience. Even though it was the Hittite king who would proceed with military force against the rebellious vassal, the idea was conveyed that the king was acting as an agent of the provoked deity. Mendenhall and Kline both see parallels between the suzerain treaty and the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy 28.

Because they took place during a formal ceremony, the final elements of the suzerain formula can all be packaged together. These included the ratification of the treaty by the recitation of a formal oath on the part of the vassal pledging his complete obedience to the sovereign. This was followed by a solemn ceremony which included sacrifices and feasts. Mendenhall insisted also that “it is quite likely that some form existed for initiating procedure against a rebellious vassal” Endnote to bring a covenant lawsuit for violation of the stipulations. Thus Mendenhall concluded a total of nine elements in the Hittite covenant formula.

Correlation of the Suzerain Treaty to the Sinai Covenant

Many detailed studies have been done that correlate the elements of the suzerain treaty to the Biblical traditions of the covenant at Sinai as recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus chapters 19-24 and the whole of Deuteronomy follow the suzerain pattern. Kline saw the “aptness of the broad identification of the pre-Messianic Scriptures as ‘the covenant’ or the ‘the old covenant’” by describing God as Israel’s heavenly King and Israel as Yahweh’s vassal people. “For all Israel’s life, cult, culture … stood under the covenant rule of Yahweh. A peculiar significance was imparted to the whole by Yahweh’s presence in the midst as God-King. His covenantal dominion, exercised from the nation’s cultic center, the royal site of the theophanic presence, claimed Israel’s life to its full circumference.” Endnote

Suzerain treaty expressions are noted by many theologians in the giving of the law in Exodus chapters 20-23 and in Deuteronomy. “In the ancient world, relationships between individuals as well as between states were ordered and regulated by means of covenants, or treaties. Numerous examples of such instruments of international diplomacy have survived, deriving from various parts of the ancient Near East. These divide into two basic categories: (1) a parity treaty, where the contracting parties negotiate as equals; (2) a suzerain-vassal treaty, where one party transparently imposes its will on the other. A study of these documents, particularly those of the later type, leaves no doubt as to the influence of the ancient Near Eastern treaty patterns on the external, formal, literary aspects of the biblical berit. The affinities are to be expected. In order for the berit to be intelligible to the Israelites, it made sense to structure it according to the accepted patterns of the then universally recognized legal instruments.” Endnote

Relying on statements from the Scripture itself, Kline states “The laws recorded in Exodus 20:22—23:33 are specifically identified as ‘the book of the covenant’ (Exod. 24:7; cf. 4). The fact that this covenantal collection of laws deals with matters moral and ceremonial, civil and cultic, individual and corporate, is indicative of how all Israel’s life fell within the purview and under the regulation of Yahweh’s covenant with them.” Endnote Two points need to be recognized here. Kline claimed that the “old covenant” has specifically to do with the nation of Israel, and with the laws regulating Israel’s conduct both toward God in religious matters and toward fellow men in civil matters. Following Mendenhall’s lead, Kline claims that the formula for this covenant was found in the ancient international suzerain treaties.

Proving his position by elaborating on the points Mendenhall developed, Kline finds correlation to the suzerain form in several sections of Scripture (in its broadest context, Kline claims that the whole of the Old Testament follows the suzerain covenant pattern). Endnote Specifically, the giving of the Decalogue and the entire book of Deuteronomy are seen by Kline as following the suzerain treaty contract form. “The pattern of the suzerainty treaty can be traced in miniature in the revelation written on the tables by the finger of God.” “Deuteronomy is precisely the treaty document given by Yahweh through Moses to be the canonical foundation of Israel’s life in covenant relationship with himself.” Endnote

At Sinai, Moses was instructed to prepare the people for their face to face encounter with their Suzerain Lord (Exodus 19:10-11). The preamble of the suzerain treaty is clearly stated in Exodus 20:2; and restated in Deuteronomy 5:6. “I am the Lord thy God.” Yahweh, the self-existent One, is God. The historical prologue follows immediately after this. “. . .which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2; and Deuteronomy 1:9—4:20, which gives an extended history for obvious reasons). In these statements God declares Himself as the only one responsible for their deliverance from Egyptian slavery, and for sustaining and protecting them during their wilderness journey. No one else could make this claim. God placed Himself before the Israelites as their only Saviour and Lord to whom they owned their very existence and safety.

Next, according to Kline, follows the stipulations of the contract (Exodus 20:3-17 and Deuteronomy 5:7-21). As Yahweh’s vassals, the corporate nation of Israel and, individually, the people were forbidden from forming an alliance with any other foreign deity. Enmity against the true God or showing disrespect for their Suzerain, was also forbidden. Lack of respect indicated a rebellious attitude and the Suzerain would not tolerate it. Yahweh knew that fraternizing with ideas and material things of the foreign nations would turn the minds of the people away from Him, so He included stipulations regarding just these situations. Paralleling the requirement of the vassal to appear before the Suzerain on a regular basis, we find that the Decalogue stipulates that each week the vassal was to appear before Yahweh and hear the reading of the words of the covenant. This would show enduring confidence in the Suzerain as their Lord and Master. It was understood that the word of the Sovereign Lord and Master could not be changed in any way. Tribute was also defined by Kline as taking the form of tithes and offerings, and sacrifices as set forth in the ceremonial laws.

The commandments regulating man’s conduct with his fellow man follow the format of the suzerain treaty as the reigning Monarch detailed specifics for His people’s civil and social interactions (Exodus 21:1—23:33; Deuteronomy 6:1-25; 12:1—26:1-19). Blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience are expounded in detail in Deuteronomy chapters 27 through 30. It is important to note that unlike the Hittite suzerain contracts where blessings and curses fell on both parties, “The covenant of Moses, on the other hand is almost the exact opposite. It imposes specific obligations upon the tribes or clans without binding Yahweh to specific obligations, though it goes without saying that the covenant relationship itself presupposed the protection and support of Yahweh to Israel.” Endnote

Continuing with Kline’s premise, the contract was ratified at Sinai through the blood of the sacrifice which was sprinkled on the people (Exodus 24:5-8) to purify and sanctify them. Then God called Moses, the priests, and the elders as representatives of the people to come up into the Mount for a covenantal meal (Exodus 24:9-11). During this event the selected men, corporate representatives of the vassal nation, were witnesses to the power and majesty of their Sovereign. Pertinent Biblical parallels that give definition from the perspective of a political suzerainty is the feast given by Ahasuerus for his vassals (Esther 1:1-9) and Nebuchadnezzar’s festival of the golden image (Daniel 3:2-3).

From these parallels it seems clear that the suzerain treaty formula was used by God when He gave His covenant to the children of Israel at Sinai. “All these elements in the traditions of Israel hold together and indeed make sense only on the supposition that there actually was a covenant relation at the basis of the system. The federation itself is almost certainly an adaptation of political devises which had been used by the peoples of Palestine and Syria for centuries before. It was the only way in which small political groups could have any hope at all for self-determination in the face of much more powerful enemies.” Endnote As the children of Israel were about the enter a land resistant and hostile to their takeover of the territory, they would certainly need the protection of a powerful Suzerain on their side.