Understanding God’s Everlasting Covenant

Part VII

Suzerain Treaty Contrasted with Royal Land Grant

Hebrew Distinction Between Covenants

When compared to the suzerain treaty covenant, land grants have a different focus, function, and purpose. “While the ‘treaty’ constitutes an obligation of the vassal to his master, the suzerain, the ‘grant’ constitutes an obligation of the master to his servant. In the ‘grant’ the curse is directed towards the one who will violate the rights of the king’s vassal, while in the treaty the curse is directed towards the vassal who will violate the rights of the king. In other words, the ‘grant’ serves mainly to protect the rights of the servant while the treaty comes to protect the rights of the master. What is more, while the grant is a reward for loyalty and good deeds already performed, the treaty is an inducement for future loyalty.” Endnote

Since the mid-1940s, a debate has developed among Old Testament evangelical scholars as to the exact meaning of the word berit (Hebrew for covenant). Some, following the form-critical approach, have contended that Wellhausen’s view was correct, which claims that berit was not used until late in the history of Israel. “Perlitt reverted to the old Wellhausen view that all references to berit in the old Testament are late—no earlier than the Deuteronomic materials. Every mention of a berit in the Sinai accounts is eliminated by literary-critical procedures. For Perlitt, the account of Yahweh’s berit with Abraham in Genesis 15 in its present form was an early Deuteronomic document to be dated at the beginning of the seventh century.” After a thorough study of the word berit, Ernst Kutsch concluded that the primary meaning of the word was “obligation.” “It never means a relationship, an alliance, or a covenant, but always an obligation.” Endnote

However, other theologians took a completely opposite view of the meaning of the covenant. In 1944, Joachim Begrich published an article on the covenants in which he argued that “berit referred to a relationship between two unequal partners whereby the stronger gave to the weaker the assurance of friendly behaviour and protection. Only the stronger was bound by the covenant. The weaker remained completely passive. Begrich believed God’s covenant with Israel was originally a covenant of promise and assurance. Only after Israel settled in Canaan and adopted Canaanite conception of law was the donor berit changed into a contractual berit with obligations on both sides.” Endnote Alfred Jepsen agreed with Begrich that “berit carried the idea of assurance from the stronger to the weaker party. Jepsen insisted that the covenant between God and Israel was never understood in legal or contractual terms, no obligation was ever imposed on Israel except that of renouncing the worship of other gods. This was a ‘moral obligation,’ not a law.” Endnote

Though the word “covenant” (berit) is used in both the Abrahamic and the Sinaitic narratives, there is in the original Hebrew a distinct difference between the term when used for a grant and the term when used in the context of a treaty. “The grant and the treaty alike were named berit, a word which conveys the general idea of an obligation concerning two parties …” However, “as we have already seen, the deuteronomic sources refer to the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants as habberit wehahesed (‘the gracious covenant’) in contradistinction to the covenants of Sinai and the Plains of Moab which are referred to as berit only.” Endnote

Though sometimes equated with the suzerain covenant formula, the royal land grant contains some distinct differences which clearly distinguish it from the suzerain covenant. These differences include the fact that the suzerain covenant was written for the protection and rights of the suzerain and these are the only things guaranteed by the treaty. In the suzerain treaty, it is the vassal that makes the oath of obedience to the stipulations of the treaty (from the lesser individual to the greater). And the suzerain treaty invariably contained curses against the vassal for violation of the contract stipulations—disobedience or rebellion against the suzerain. “The primary purpose of the suzerainty treaty was to establish a firm relationship between the suzerain and his vassal, including military support from the suzerain. However, the interests of the suzerain were primary. Its form was unilateral. The stipulations were binding only on the vassal, although a prologue often related the suzerain’s benevolent deeds in behalf of the vassal.” Endnote

Contrary to these points of the suzerain covenant, the royal land grant covenant was written for the sole benefit of the recipient of the promise. The only curses contained in the land grant were against any individual who would dare to infringe upon the rights of the recipient of the land, and upon the grantor if he should fail to provide to the grantee what he had promised. Interestingly, the royal land grant covenant didn’t necessarily include an oath, but if there was an oath included it was made by the king giving the land to the favoured individual (from the greater individual to the lesser) and followed something along the lines of “May I be cursed if I take back what I gave you.” Endnote This is the point upon which Moses later chided with God: “Remember Thy servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; look not unto the stubbornness of this people, nor to their wickedness, nor to their sin: lest the land whence thou broughtest us out say, because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land which He promised them, and because He hated them, He hath brought them out to slay them in the wilderness. Yet they are Thy people and Thine inheritance, which Thou broughtest out by Thy mighty power and by Thy stretched out arm.” (Deuteronomy 9:27-29).

Compare and Contrast the Two Covenant Formulas

In summary of these discussions on the two covenant formulas, we are providing a chart which contains the elements of both the suzerain and the royal land grant covenants.

Suzerain Contract

Royal Land Grant Covenant

  1. Were instituted to protect the suzerain from rebellion and disloyalty on the part of his vassals
  2. Preamble
  3. Historical prologue
  4. Stipulations
  5. Provision for deposition and periodic reading of the covenant
  6. List of witnesses (gods who would carry out the curses)
  7. Blessings and curses
  8. A formal oath on the part of the vassal
  9. Solemn ceremony
  10. Formulation for initiating action against the rebellious vassal (guidelines for a covenant lawsuit)
  1. Were instituted for the benefit of the grantee (recipient)
  2. Unilateral gift and bestowal of real property for the vassal’s faithful and loyal service to the king
  3. Preamble that identifies the grantor
  4. Historical reason for the grant
  5. Grantee’s rights were guaranteed, defended and protected by the king
  6. Royal land grants were considered perpetual, inheritable, and “forever”
  7. If an oath was made during the ratification ceremony, only the king made the oath, which included the promise of protection to his vassal
  8. Land grants contained blessings for the grantee, but curses for anyone who would violate the grantee’s rights

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