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Theocalm XL

Posted February 15th, 2010 | Permalink

In the books of the Old Testament, the agreement that the god Yahweh makes with the Israelites is in the form of the type of suzerain-vassal covenant typical in the ancient Near East. These covenants would normally specify the terms of an agreement between a king and a people who would have to pay tribute to him. A section of these covenants would be devoted to the curses that would happen if the vassal breaks the agreement. Leviticus and Deuteronomy each have their own version of this part of the covenant with Yahweh, from which I've quoted in the picture.

One example of a similar covenant outside of the Bible is a treaty from 1280 BC between the Hittite king Muwatalli II and Alaksandu, king of Wilusa. See Dennis J. McCarthy's book, Treaty and Covenant: A Study in Form in the Ancient Oriental Documents and in the Old Testament for a comparison of each section of this covenant with Deuteronomy. The main difference is that, normally, covenants would have a section where gods would be listed as witness to the covenant, but since Yahweh himself was a god, there was apparently no need for this part of the Yahweh-Israelite covenant. Another example are the treaties of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon. Some of the curses in these are the same as those in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.

So, the covenant that Yahweh makes with Moses and the Israelites essentially states that Yahweh would be the Israelites' god, would protect them, make them prosperous, and help them defeat their enemies. The Israelites' part of the agreement was that they would have to worship no other god but Yahweh and obey all his commands. The punishments for the Israelites breaking the covenant included Yahweh making them eat their own children.

However, the view that only Yahweh should be worshiped was apparently either a minority view or a later literary invention. This can be clearly seen by reading Judges, 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, and 1st and 2nd Chronicles. In these histories, most Israelites are constantly worshiping many gods in addition to Yahweh, such as Baal and Asherah. Whenever a disaster happens to the people, such as being conquered by the Philistines, the compilers of these books blame it on the Israelites' worship of those other gods. Even as late as the fifth century BC, Jews were still polytheistic, as can be seen in the Elephantine papyri, writings written by a Jewish colony in Egypt. For example, one papyrus contains an oath sworn by a Jew to Anath (apparently the wife of Yahweh) and to another god.

The other passage I put in the above picture is from a chapter of Isaiah describing the “Day of Yahweh”, when Yahweh would gather an army and kill all the sinners in Babylon. This is part of the first section of Isaiah, which was written around the same time as the core sections of Deuteronomy— while Judah was a vassal state to Assyria, before they were conquered by Babylon.

For the quotes in this picture, I used the World English Bible translation, instead of translating it myself this time from the Septuagint..

Choose an English translation to read these passages in their contexts:

Leviticus 26:

World English Bible | English Standard Version| New International Version

Deuteronomy 28:

World English Bible | English Standard Version| New International Version

Isaiah 13:

World English Bible | English Standard Version| New International Version

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Questions? Comments? Email me at fred@bibletastic.com
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