Treaties in Tanakh and the Ancient Near East

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Archaeological finds have revealed many treaties from the Ancient Near East which share much in common with their Biblical counterparts.  As such, these documents can shed light on specific aspects of Biblical covenants which are otherwise obscure or overlooked.  At the same time, the differences between the sources serve to highlight some of the unique features of Israelite treaties, and especially of Hashem's covenant with the nation.

Treaties in Tanakh

The term ברית,‎1 or treaty, appears 284 times in Tanakh, suggesting that a significant number of relationships in Tanakh are covenantal in nature.  In some cases, the term refers to treaties between individual people or countries, such as the treaties between Avraham and Avimelekh (Bereshit 21) or Achav and Ben Hadad (Melakhim I 20).  At other times, it refers to a covenant between Hashem and man, such as Hashem's covenant with Noach (Bereshit 9), Avraham (Bereshit 15), or the Nation of Israel. 

These covenants / treaties fall into two main categories:

  • Promissory treaties – In these, the more powerful party unconditionally promises something or obligates themselves to the less powerful party.  An example would be Hashem's unconditional promises to Avraham or David.2 
  •  Obligatory treaties – These treaties, in contrast, are conditional on the fulfilling of certain stipulations.  These include both suzerainty treaties between unequal parties, in which a vassal is expected to fulfill certain conditions in obedience to an overlord (who, in turn, might promise protection or the like), and parity agreements where two equal parties agree to obey the same set of conditions. Hashem's covenant with Israel exemplifies the former, while Yaakov and Lavan's treaty (Bereshit 31) illustrates the latter.

Treaties in the Ancient Near East

Second and first millennium (BCE) treaties have been found involving many countries including Egypt, Assyria, Mari, and Babylonia. However, the vast majority of discoveries stem from two eras and locales: the Hittite kingdom of Anatolia (15th-13th c. BCE),3 and the Neo-Assyrian Empire (8th-7th c. BCE).

Covenantal Form: The Ancient Near Eastern treaties, and especially the Hittite suzerain treaties,4 tend to share the same basic format, and include the following six elements:5

  • Preamble – The opening introduced the person who composed the treaty, giving his title and attributes.6
  • Historical introduction – The prologue recounted the events leading up to the decision to make the covenant.  These often focused on the benefits bestowed by the suzerain on his vassal and provided the basis for the expectation of obedience.7
  • Stipulations – These included both general and specific obligations of the vassal to his overlord. Though these vary from treaty to treaty, some common duties included the payment of tribute, provision of military aid, and extradition of fugitives.  The subordinate king was also often prohibited from entering into alliances with kings other than the sovereign.
  • Deposition and Public Reading – In several treaties,8 provisions for depositing the treaty in the temple (of both the vassal and suzerain) and for periodic public readings thereof were laid forth.9 
  • Divine witnesses – Various gods and the natural elements (perhaps also perceived as deities) were called upon to witness the treaty and, sometimes, to  punish those who did not keep its terms.10
  • Curses and Blessings – The treaties usually ended with a list of curses and benedictions.

Covenantal Ceremony – In addition to the above, treaties were often accompanied by a ratification ceremony, which included:

  • An oath of acceptance in which the vassal swore to keep the conditions of the treaty.
  • Sacrifices or slaughter of an animal11 – In several first millennium texts, simile curses,12 in which a potentially offending vassal is compared to a slaughtered animal, suggests that this part of the ceremony served not only to ratify the treaty but to warn the vassal of his fate were he to violate the agreement.

Covenantal Form: Relationship Between the Sources

I. Similarity in Form– The treaty format described above has clear echoes in Tanakh.  The most striking parallel is to Hashem's covenants with the Nation of Israel.  In each of the three covenants, at Sinai (Shemot 19-24), in Moav (Sefer Devarim), and in Shekhem (Yehoshua 24), many of the above components appear:

  • Covenant at Sinai – The Decalogue opens with a short preamble and historical prologue as Hashem introduces Himself: "‎‎אָנֹכִי י"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים."‎13 The next 11 verses list various stipulations, including the prohibition against other gods,14 the imperative to keep the Sabbath, and interpersonal directives.15 In contrast to Hittite treaties, the Sinai covenant does not conclude with the calling of Divine witnesses.  These are replaced by the Tablets (לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת) and the Ark (אֲרוֹן הָעֵדוּת) which themselves serve as testimony to the covenant. Similarly there is no distinct unit of blessings and curses; these are instead interspersed into the stipulations. Shemot 24 describes the nation's ratifying of the covenant with an oath of obedience ("נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע"), sprinkling of blood, and sacrificial meal. Finally, Hashem commands that the Tablets be housed in the Mishkan (Shemot 25).
  • Covenant in Moav – Sefer Devarim as a whole can also be seen to follow the treaty pattern. Chapters 1-3 constitute the historical prologue, Chapters 4-26 include the various stipulations, while Chapters 27-28 list the various blessings and curses (cf. Vayikra 26). The following chapters of Sefer Devarim discuss the covenantal oath (29:8-14), the directive to read the covenant every seven years (31:10-13),16 the deposition of the covenantal text near the Ark of the Covenant (31:24-26) and witnesses in the form of the heavens and earth (30:19-20).
  • Covenant in Shekhem – Yehoshua's renewal of the covenant in Yehoshua 24 follows the same general format.  After introducing the speaker (2a), verses 2b-13 review various benevolent deeds done by Hashem for the nation throughout their history.  Verses 14-15 stipulate exclusive worship of Hashem, while verses 19-20 warn that disobedience will result in calamity (curses).  The nation promises obedience (24:16-18, 21) and are themselves set up as witnesses to the covenant (24:20), alongside a monumental stone erected as testimony (24:26-27).

II. Unique Features – Despite the overall similarity in form, certain features stand out as unique in the Biblical covenants:

  • Stipulations – In all Ancient Near Eastern treaties the conditions laid forth are aimed solely at the benefit of the overlord and never deal with the interpersonal behavior of the members of the vassal state. Hashem's covenant is thus unique in that He expects His vassals to observe laws not only aimed at Him but also their fellow man.
  • Witnesses – Since monotheistic belief in Hashem precludes the existence of other gods, no individual deities are called as witnesses, and substitutes in the form of natural elements, the people themselves, or Tablets of the Covenant are found.
  • Deposition in Mishkan – Ancient Near Eastern treaties were written in duplicate, with a copy to be placed in the temple of the gods of both the sovereign and vassal. In Tanakh, as well, there were two Tablets made, but since the sovereign and Deity are one and the same, both copies were deposited in the same place, the Mishkan. According to this, each Tablet constituted an entire copy of the covenant and contained all ten utterances,17 and not five as is commonly suggested.18
  • Blessings and Curses – In the Hittite treaties, the list of curses tends to precede the blessings,19 and normally call for total destruction of the disobedient party.20 In contrast, in both Vayikra 26 and Devarim 28, the blessings precede the curses. In addition, in Vayikra 26:44-45 Hashem explicitly states that he will not totally destroy the nation.  Though no such promise is made in Devarim, there, too, Hashem allows for the people's repentance and for restoration of the relationship.
  • Focus on individual layman – Ancient Near Eastern treaties are made between two kings, each representative of their state. In contrast, Hashem makes His covenant with the nation as a whole. This both symbolically raises the stature of every individual to that of king, and highlights the personal nature of the covenant.

III. Other Points of Contact

  • Breaking the Tablets – Many question what led Moshe to break the Tablets when seeing the people sin with the Golden Calf, and how he would dare to do so, given their holy status. In light of the above, it would seem that once the nation broke the terms of Hashem's covenant, the document of that covenant (the Tablets) became null and void.  Breaking the Tablets was the equivalent of tearing up a contract. For this and other approaches to the breaking of the Tablets, see Sin of the Golden Calf.
  • Aliyah LaRegel (Shemot 23) – The command to make a pilgrimage to the Mikdash three times a year ("שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כׇּל זְכוּרְךָ אֶל פְּנֵי הָאָדֹן י"י") might relate to similar stipulations in secular treaties,21 where the subordinate king is required to visit the court of his sovereign, to “look upon the face of his majesty."  Though the demand is similar, where the Hittite treaty speaks of the vassal seeing the face of the Lord, Tanakh demands that males be seen before the face of the Lord, Hashem. As Hashem cannot be seen, the object of the verb is reversed. This difference turns the pilgrimage into not simply an act of homage to a superior, but an opportunity for the superior to look after the subordinate.
  • The mitzvah to "love God" – The nature of the command to love God (Devarim 6:5) is disputed, with some suggesting that it is emotional or cognitive in nature, and others assuming that the command is action-focused.  Looking to parallel language in Ancient Near Eastern treaties, where "to love" means to demonstrate loyalty and obey a master,22 it is possible that in Tanakh, too, Hashem is not commanding man to feel an emotion but to obey His commands.23 See Ahavat Hashem for further discussion.

Covenantal Ceremony: Relationship Between the Sources

The Ancient Near Eastern practice of ratifying a treaty with animal slaughter or sacrifice and accompanying simile curses,24 might shed light on several passages in Tanakh where these practices might be paralleled or hinted to:

I. Allusions to Simile Curses:

  • Language of "לִכְרוֹת בְּרִית" – The etymology of the word "בְּרִית" is debated. Some25 have suggested that it comes from the root ברה and relates to the shared meal that would have accompanied the treaty, while others posit that it might relate to the verb ברא used in Yehoshua 17:15 and Yechezkel 23:47, meaning "to cut".26  This together with the fact that the verb "כרת" also means to cut, suggests that the term might have stemmed from the fact that slaughtering of animals was a key feature of covenants.27
  • Passing through animal pieces – Two covenants in Tanakh mention the cutting of an animal and passing through the split pieces:
    • In the Covenant Between the Pieces (Bereshit 15), Avraham splits several animals and a pillar of smoke and fire pass through the pieces. At first glance, the ceremony seems bizarre and unrelated to the promises being discussed, but in light of the Ancient Near Eastern parallels, it seems that this was simply the conventional method by which to seal a promise. This covenant, however, is unique, for it has Hashem, the superior king, rather than the vassal, pass through the pieces, taking upon Himself the potential curse for non-compliance.
    • The covenant in the time of Tzidkiyahu (Yirmeyahu 34) involved a similar ceremony of cutting a calf and passing through its pieces.28 Here it is explicit that breaking the terms of the covenant was to result in punishment, supporting the idea that the whole ceremony was symbolic in nature, serving as a warning against transgression.29
  • Blood at the Covenant at Sinai – The Covenant at Sinai (Shemot 24) is accompanied by sacrifices, the sprinkling of blood, and eating of a meal. The fact that the blood is sprinkled on the people and not just the altar, might also be understood in light of simile curses, cautioning the nation that breaking the covenant might lead to punishment.
  • Circumcision – Hashem's setting of circumcision as the sign of His covenant might relate to the above ratification ceremonies as well (Bereshit 17). Circumcision might be seen as an oath of allegiance, with the cutting symbolizing the repercussions of disloyalty.30 The text itself shares that one who does not circumcise himself has broken the covenant and will be cut off.  The language of "וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ" is the same as that used "לִכְרוֹת בְּרִית", strengthening the message.
  • Cutting up body parts outside of treaties – There are two cases in Tanakh, outside the ritual of a treaty, in which body parts are similarly cut up as a warning.  To encourage the nation to join the war against Amon, Shaul cuts his cattle, telling the nation that so will be done to their animals if they do not fight (Shemuel I 11). Similarly, after the concubine of Givah is raped and left to die, her husband cuts the body into twelve pieces, sending them throughout the country to raise outrage at the despicable act (Shofetim 19).

II. The Role of Sacrifices: As in the Ancient Near East, treaties in Tanakh are often sealed with a sacrificial meal. Sometimes both a sacrifice and meal are mentioned; at other times only one or the other is noted:

  • The descriptions of the treaty of Yaakov and Lavan (Bereshit 31)31 and the covenant at Sinai (Shemot 24.) mention both a sacrifice and the sharing of a meal.
  • The covenantal ceremony on Mt. Gerizim and Eival (Yehoshua 8) speaks only of sacrifices, yet since these included "שלמים" which are partaken of by humans, eating might have been part of the ceremony even if it is not mentioned.
  •  Tehillim 50:5 similarly speaks of "אִסְפוּ לִי חֲסִידָי כֹּרְתֵי בְרִיתִי עֲלֵי זָבַח"
  • The treaties of Yitzchak and Avimelekh (Bereshit 26) and David and Avner (Shemuel II 3.) make no mention of sacrificial offerings, but speak of a shared meal.
  • Several other stories in Tanakh, where there is no explicit mention of a treaty, have been understood to relate to one due to the presence of these features: