Another Thought about Covenant

BY: Alex Tsykin

George Mendenhall wrote in “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition” about the relationship between the biblical text and Hittite suzerainty treaties. In that piece he had the following paragraph:

The primary purpose of the suzerainty treaty was to establish a firm relationship of mutual support between the two parties (especially military support), in which the interests of the Hittite sovereign were of primary and ultimate concern. It established a relationship between the two, but in its form it is unilateral. The stipulations of the treaty are binding only upon the vassal, and only the vassal took an oath of obedience. Though the treaties frequently contain promises of help and support to the vassal, there is no legal formality by which the Hittite king binds himself to any specific obligation. Rather, it would seem that the Hittite king by his very position as sovereign is concerned to protect his subjects from claims or attacks of other foreign states. Consequently for him to bind himself to specific obligations with regard to his vassal would be an infringement upon his sole right of self- determination and sovereignty. A most important corollary of this fact is the emphasis upon the vassal’s obligation to trust in the benevolence of the sovereign.

I wonder if these words are applicable to our relationship with Hashem. We are sworn (מושבע ועומד מהר סיני) to obey His will. However, seemingly, he is not (formally, legally) bound to reward us in any specific incidence (as opposed to the general oath he swore to give us the Land of Israel). We simply hope and trust that he will keep his word to us and reward us for our good deeds.

As proof for his analysis of the nature of the obligations in the suzerainty treaty, Medenhall points out that the covenant was actually referred to as an oath. However, the oath seems to have only been taken by the vassal. In his oath, he include the promises of protection from the suzerain. The interesting point in favor of this analysis is that in the covenental ceremony between Hashem and Am Israel (meaning Har Sinai), we  don’t find an explicit promise from Hashem, only commandments. This stands in sharp contrast to Arvos Moab, for example, where the goal seems to have been the areivus and not the covenant with Hashem. It is true that the relation at Sinai, which would seem to be the oath in this case (or perhaps parashiyos Behar and Bechukosai as they might be the sefer habris refered to in Mishpatim according to some Rishonim), was said by Hashem to Israel, and in the classic suzerainty treaty the wording is of the vassal committing to his obligations to the suzerain. Nevertheless, this analysis does seem to hold some promise.

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