Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Covenant

BY:  Alex Tsykin

Our religious consciousness, as Jews, is pervaded by two separate perceptions. Indeed they are at some level contradictory. I write not of the much discussed (and hugely important) dichotomy between avinu and malkenu, our father and our king. What interests me here is the distinction between bris and tzivuy. The word bris translates into English as covenant whereas the word tzivuy means command. Both of these words are applicable to the Torah, as we experience it. It both constitutes a command to us, a series of directives which collectively form Hashem’s will, and a covenant or agreement between Am Yisrael and Hashem. The content of this agreement is, broadly speaking, that if we fulfill the Torah we will be rewarded in this world and in the next and if we do not we will be punished.

However, seemingly, these two realities are a tortology. Is it fair to distinguish between the reality fo being commanded and the promise of reward and punishment related to that commandedness? While the distinction does hold true logically, it seems to be overly technical and not capture the spirit of these two terms. To me, the term covenant implies the willing agreement to complete certain acts whereas the term command implies compulsion. If so, we return to the contradiction.

An interesting point of comparison to our covenant with Hashem might be the ancient suzerainty treaties of the Middle East. In essence these treaties stated that one party agreed to unquestionably obey another, becoming the second party’s vassal. Many scholars have suggested these treaties as a model for understanding the covenant between Hashem and Israel in the Tanach. The first of these, Korosec, identified six elements to the typical ancient suzerainty treaty:

1. Preamble

2. Historical prologue

3. The actual terms of the treaty

4. Placing the record of the treaty in a temple and regularly bring it out to read it

5. List of gods as witnesses

6. Curses and blessings.

As would seem obvious, this particular structure closely matches what we find in chumash. As such, it becomes immediately obvious that what we are dealing with in chumash, at least partly, is a sovereignty agreement between us and Hashem where we choose to place ourselves under his sovereignty. I think this perspective is useful to explain a number of mitzvos, midrashim and halachos, as I hope I will write about in the next few days. However, there is a theological problem. As any number of people have noted, simply by creating the world, God gains the right to command anybody within it. In fact, he does (in the form of the Noahide laws). Why does he need us to voluntarily submit in the form of a covenant? He could have simply told us what to do!

Part of the answer is probably the famous statement in Chazal that רחמנא ליבא בעי, that God desires our hearts, meaning that God desires not merely our adherence to his mitzvos but our willing adherence, something which is hard to command from above absent some agreement from below. However, this does not really answer the question. That statement seems most obviously to refer to and individual’s relationship with Hashem. It prima facie says little about our national perspective since a nation has no heart, both literally and metaphorically. The corporate entity of a nation, even if it is to be viewed as real legally, does not in any obvious sense exist in reality. Anyway, while I hope to write about this again as I think about the topic more and flesh out the ramifications of the perspective as a whole (again, it is not my invention, however, most of the people who wrote about it are Bible scholars and not theologians and were therefore uninterested in pursuing the more interesting theological ramifications), I would be very appreciative of any comments which help, either with the specific problem (I think) I identified here or anything else on the topic.


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