Blessings and Curses – Some Background from Ancient Near Eastern Covenants

By Tim Hegg of TorahResource
When we read the Scriptures, it is immediately clear that we are reading ancient literature. We are taken into a world of past millennia where language and culture differed dramatically from our own.
And if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that often the greatest difficulty in understanding the biblical text is this chasm of time: we are very far removed from the world in which the sacred text took shape. I don’t mean to suggest that the words of the Bible are somehow without relevance to us—far from it! Because what distinguishes the Bible from other ancient literature is the fact that it is invested with the very breath of God. The Spirit brings the words and their meaning alive to the one who
entrusts himself by faith to the Divine Author of the Scriptures.
But still, the Bible is written in ancient themes and concepts. That is why we must work hard to understand the historical setting into which the Scriptures were born. This is all the more true for a book like Devarim (Deuteronomy). For it has been recognized as cast in the legal form of a covenant—a covenant patterned after the Ancient Near Eastern treaties between a Great King (called a Suzerain) and his Vassal. Understanding the literary form in which Deuteronomy is written will help us understand its
overall message. Conversely, to neglect the form in which it is written will inevitably detract from grasping its divinely intended meaning. So come with me, just for a moment, back into the world of the Ancient Near East, as we discover the Suzerain-Vassal treaty and see how it was used by God Himself to reveal His covenant with Israel.
In the civilizations of the Ancient Near East, it was common for nations to expand their territories through conquest. A Great King was one who had command of a well equipped and trained army, able to conquer smaller, weaker nations, and annex their lands to his. When the Great King would conquer a neighboring nation, he would most often enthrone a lesser King, called a Vassal, over the conquered region. The Vassal was obligated to rule in the absence of the Great King, and to do so in such a way as
to give glory and honor to the Great King.  The Vassal was to be, in every way, a representative of the Great King. It was in light of this governing relationship that the Great King would enact a covenant with the Vassal that would insure his faithfulness. This is because it was always possible that the Vassal might consider his own strength sufficient to eventually rebel against the Great King, and attempt to establish his own, sovereign rule. The covenant, or treaty, between the Great King and his Vassal, was
therefore written in language that would remind the Vassal of his obligation to the Great King, and even instill fear in him if ever he should entertain the idea of rebellion.
These Suzerain-Vassal treaties usually followed a set literary form (though the order of the varioussections was sometimes varied). They began with the identification of the Great King (called the “Preamble”) followed by a recap of his previous relationship to the Vassal (the Historical Prologue).
Next would come stipulations, which  often included the duties required of the Vassal, including allegiance to the Suzerain, payment of taxes or tribute, the requirement to join as an ally in times of war,and the return of criminals who might seek safe haven in his jurisdiction. Following the stipulations was an oath ceremony in which the Vassal would take a solemn oath to uphold the covenant, and witnesses
to the oath were named. Then were listed blessings and curses: blessings if the Vassal discharged his duties faithfully, and curses if he did not. It was here that a true incentive existed for the Vassal to remain faithful, for the blessings afforded by the Great King would maintain the Vassal’s rule and power, but the curses envisioned his sure demise in the worst possible scenarios. Finally, the treaty would conclude with the  requirement for the Vassal to deposit a copy of the treaty in the public
1 archives.
A good number of written examples of the Suzerain-Vassal treaty have been discovered by archaeologists, witnessing to the fact that the literary form of the treaties was more or less standard in the Ancient Near East, and that such arrangements between a Great King and his Vassals were common.
Many of these have been found in the remains of the Hittite nation.
It is therefore significant that each of these elements of the Suzerain-Vassal treaty are found in the text and structure of Devarim.  Note this general outline of the book:
Preamble: 1:1–5 (identifying the Great King) Historical Prologue: 1:6–4:43 (relationship between the Great King and his Vassal) Stipulations: 4:44–26:19 (specific requirements for the Vassal) Ratification/Oath: 27:1–26 (ceremony to enact the covenant)
Blessings and Curses (with some additional stipulations): 28:1–30:20 (consequences for obedience or rebellion)
Deposition of the Covenant: 31:1–29 (the legally binding nature of the covenant)
The fact that Devarim is given to Moses in the form of a Suzerain-Vassal treaty speaks volumes as to its meaning and interpretation. God is the Great King, and Israel is His Vassal. Thus, Israel is to govern and rule upon the earth as His representative, constantly upholding His glory and ultimate rule. Itis in this context that Israel is to be a “light to the nations.” When the nations see Israel, they are to recognize that God is the Great King, and marvel at His greatness. Moreover, as Israel discharges her
allotted authority, she will receive the blessings promised by the Suzerain.
However, if we look more closely at the manner in which the curses are listed, we discover that they are never considered final or irrevocable on a national scale. If Israel is disobedient to the covenant,and if she rebels against the Great King, she will feel the sting of the curses. However, if she repents of her sin and returns in faithfulness to the Lord, she will be restored in the covenant and the blessings will be reinstated (Deuteronomy 30:1–5). Thus, in the final analysis, repentance and obedience (or lack
thereof) are the bedrock issues that determine the administration of the covenant curses or blessings.
The fact that Israel’s relationship to her God is cast in a covenant or treaty relationship explains the sending of the prophets to Israel. In the Ancient Near East, it was common for a Great King to send officials to the lands of his Vassals to assess their compliance with the covenant. In the same way, God sends His prophets to Israel to remind her of the covenant obligations, and to rebuke her for her rebellion. Note, for example, the words of Hosea:
Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, for the LORD has a case against the
inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land. (Hosea 4:1)
Hosea, speaking the word of the Lord, and acting as the Great King’s ambassador, brings the legal  case against Israel: she has been unfaithful to the covenant. The three terms used,  “faithfulness” (
), “kindness” (
) and “knowledge” (
) are all covenant terms, signifying loyalty and faithfulness of a Vassal to the Great King. When the prophet proclaims that there is no “knowledge of God in the land,” he is not suggesting that Israel is unaware of God’s existence, or of her relationship  with Him as a covenant partner. Rather, in covenant contexts (such as this), “knowledge” should be understood as a term of relationship (Hosea 2:20). To say that there is no knowledge of God in the Land means that there is no intimate, covenant relationship displayed by the nation of Israel. She has rather


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