On The Origin of the Suzerain-Vassal Covenant

Here’s a question for the readers.  Both of you.

Does God ever take a human invention and adapt it for His purpose?

Here’s why I ask.

Last night I tried to teach something about the similarities between the Old Testament covenant and similar covenants employed in the Ancient Near East.  The parallels, it seemed to me, were pretty clear.  What was controversial was the assertion I made that this form of covenant predates Sinai.

Now to be sure, what I did say I said badly.  I’m sure of that, or else the controversy could probably have been averted.  That said, I’m convinced of the premise.  Rather than inventing something new for His people, God took a form of law they were already familiar with and adapted it to suit His purpose.

The standard Suzerain-vassal covenant is older than Moses.  The archaeology indicates that even Abraham would have recognized one on sight.  In fact, God uses a Suzerain-vassal ritual to seal His covenant with Abram in Genesis 14.  The glowing torch passing through the pieces of animal would have been a familiar ritual to Abram.  He knew that meant God was saying, “May I be like this animal if I break my promise.”

The conrtoversy swirled around the question of why would God need to use a human invention to get this point across.  The simple answer is that He didn’t need to.  God could have used any method, ritual, form, or anything else that He wanted to if He so chose.  I do not question what God needed to do, or even what God could do.  The question is what God actually did.  And the evidence indicates that the Israelites knew what a Suzerain-vassal covenant was and what it meant before they arrived at Sinai.  The evidence also indicates that the covenant delivered on Sinai fits this standard form quite neatly.

What’s noteworthy is that while this might be the first time God employed a human invention (I can’t think of any others offhand), it wouldn’t be the last. 

Consider the synagogue.  There is no mention of that or anything even resembling it in the entire Old Testament.  The first evidence of synagogues being formed was in Babylon during the captivity.  During that time, Jewish worship shifted from a series of Temple-centered rituals to a community event, marked by Bible reading, singing, and prayer.

Again, nowhere in the Old Testament is this kind of worship prescribed or even authorized.  Yet, when the New Testament church worships, they follow the synagogue pattern almost to the letter.  In fact, I would argue that the apostles intentionally abandoned the trappings of the temple for the communalism of the synagogue.  The spirit of the synagogue and the worship it provides is closer to the Christian theology of restoration than anything that happened in the temple.  The temple was about keeping people out.  The synagogue was about bringing people together.

But who invented it?  If God did, He didn’t tell anybody.  More likely, ex-pat Jews got I the habit of gathering on the Sabbath day during the captivity.  They reflected on the Law, prayed, strengthened one another, and (probably) ate together.  Five hundred years later, virtually every Jew everywhere was a member of a synagogue.  And rather than invent something completely different simply for the sake of being different, God used something everybody was already familiar with and adapted it to suit the unique situation of the church.

Are there other examples?  Or am I way off base here?


19 Responses to On The Origin of the Suzerain-Vassal Covenant

  1. mcgarvey says:

    Hi Ben,

    i think you’re quite on track.

    Is language a human invention? If so, then why did God speak to us in human language (and in a variety of human languages).

    Although I’m not sure what you said that sparked the brother/sister, but your post seems well-reasoned and insightful. I hope you’re not delaing with someone who has a mind made up and won’t think throughthe evidence you produce. I think Livingston in “The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment” has some things about vassal treaties. Craigie in his commentary on Deut in NICOT also has some good things to say. I don’t have my OT stuff here at home or I could make a couple more suggestions.

    Grace and peace,

  2. I’m late commenting on this, but I only just now came across your blog. Just wanted to comment that certainly the Apostle Paul demonstrated in Acts 17 a willingness to, as I call it, “engage the culture” on several levels. This has been a real awakening to me over the years and it turns out that understanding God as a God who wants to participate with man in such a way informs our spiritual life in a distinctive way. I see it through out Biblical record–even the cross–think about it–was a Roman instrument of torture–the Savior willing to engage and spark a revolution from it! Much to say, but I think anyone who defends God’s need to be “original” has an inflated view of man’s independence!!! That is to say, all that seemed to come from man is under the scope of God’s creative initiative, at least in the beginning, and therefore availalbe to Him for inhabiting when he chooses. AND, he chooses more often than we realize!

    • benwiles says:


      If it’s any consolation, I don’t read my blog that often either.

      And you’re right. God uses whatever he needs whenever he needs it. He doesn’t have to invent something out of thin air to declare it holy.

    • Peter Haddad says:

      Hey Ben:

      I ran across your blog as I was studying for a message on various types of “boldness”. I was looking into suzerainty because part of the suzerain-vassal arrangement included audience by invitation only, and our coming “boldly before the throne” is a reference to the culture’s understanding of suzerainty, a concept in complete keeping with the idea of God using what exists culturally.
      Anyway, I read your post and it was in line with what I preached just last week (probably badly…) on God setting things up in the creation such that we experience the paradox of the simultaneous NECESSITY and INSUFFICIENCY of human activity in the carrying out of God’s intent. Some of that human activity is contemporary and some is historical, recent or ancient.
      If you’re interested, The sermon’s online on Oct 11 at the website, though I don’t suppose there’s anything in it you don’t know. Besides, it’s not an original idea, it’s just what the Lord laid on my heart to address with my congregation. There were some theological battles fought here in recent years, which battles’ ghosts still linger.

      best… iHs… pjh

  3. Sean says:

    I agree with the first comment, Human language would be one example. Though I do not believe it is entirely a human design (too many common word origins, etc.) God uses the language we know.

    He does it so that he will effectively communicate his intended message.

    It is a form of condescending, just like Christ in bodily form condescended so that we would understand God’s love for us in the most understandable, the most human manner.

    Keep on educating the people.

    Most Christians have flabby brains that need the workout. I know, I used to be one 🙂

    – Sean

  4. Sean says:

    A flabby intellect I mean… Still a Christian just a little better educated, thanks to God.

    But by my writing you’d never know it 🙂

    – Sean

  5. Tom Sturch says:

    Another late comment on a worthwhile subject.

    God gives all of mankind all the tools with which to employ and enjoy our humanity and create culture. Now and again God has entered history in Covenant-making to redeem culture for His own purposes.

    For instance, in the same way He redeemed humanity in the God-Man (Jesus), He redeems kingdom-making, language, religious rites, etc., etc. from their human origins in the physical world for His use in teaching us about the spiritual world. Hebrew, the Israelite language, has its origins in the Canaanite languages. Hardly “holy” beginnings.

    Redemption is the key idea here. Word, name, language, story, community, memory and hope all have historically human origins (though God ordained them) and God makes them “holy”; that is, He sets them apart for His purposes.

    It is the same with us – God takes us out of culture to make us holy – moving us from where we are today to where He wants us to be in His eternal presence.

  6. Tom Sturch says:

    One important edit on my above post:

    God does not “take us out of culture”. That connotes isolation. Better to say that He redeems us in culture. I echo Perrianne above that God calls people to engage culture and be transforming agents in it.

  7. I suppose in some way our discussion here which formed itself in the blogosphere is in some way an engaging of the culture! I realize I’m stating the obvious, but it just struck me that of all the motives and activities that fill cyberspace, this little community of communication actually in some way does represent God’s purposes connecting with human initiatives. Again, I know it is not a new thought–God on the internet and all that–but I am fascinated with it just now as I have read the recently added comments. (And I am moved to think that perhaps any real answer from God must have a current incarnational edge in it somewhere—I’m sitting in this one!) Yeah, he does fill every space, time and version of communication in which the door is cracked for him to enter….so much more to say….

  8. Dan Smith says:

    Just wanted to let you know that your blog helped me study for a seminary test. Much obliged!

  9. Richard says:

    The early church at the time of Acts did not adopt the synagogues style of meeting, rather they meet in their HOMES. They were more like house churches rather than “synagogue” churches. Read Acts 2:46 they meet “house to house” (literal Greek) No where do we read in the New Testament that the church assembly meet in special buildings. They primarily meet in homes of believers or rented a school (the church in Ehpesus). It wasn’t until 100 years or more later that special buildings dedicated for church gatherings were built. Thus in no way did the early Christians adopt the Jewish way of meeting in synagogues.

    • benwiles says:

      You are correct about the history of church architecture. But in this context, “synagogue worship” is distinguished from “temple worship” by what happens there, not by the type of building used. In fact, in Acts 2 & 3 the Christians are worshiping synagogue-style inside the temple itself.

      • Richard says:

        No “synagague worship” was NOT adopted by the early church either. They did not have rabbis (a single pastoral system) but rather the functioning of ALL the members within the assembly was encouraged. (See 1 Cor 14). Jesus forbade the apostles to use the title of “rabbi” (see Matthew 23). You are confusing the modern (19th-21st century) method of worship and transfering it to the early church practice. The modern Christian way of worship is a deviation from the pattern of worship revealed in the Scriptures. Christians worshiped by breaking bread and drink the wine in rememberance as ordained by the Lord and practiced everyone speaking and sharing God’s Word to one another. They did not have “sunday” services like we do today. The “sunday” service practice is a modern copying of the Jewish synagague way of worship but it wasn’t the way the early church in the Scriptures meet. They did not have a pastoral system back then as we do today.

  10. Richard says:

    I recommend this book by Watchman Nee, regarding the matter of the Covenant. The first Covenant God made was to Noah and it didn’t look anything like the Suzerain-Vassal type covenant. Although the Covenant made to Abraham did resemble it but the main difference was that only God pass through the animals, and not Abraham thus only God will fulfill it requirements not man.

    Also the book explains very well the reason why God gave a Covenant to man. Read it and you will find out it what that reason was.


    • Keith says:

      Chiming in even later here.

      I don’t know any reliable theologians who refer to Watchman Nee as a resource to understand covenants. The first covenant God made was with Adam, not Noah.

  11. According to what I’ve seen, the Tabernacle was based on, or “coincidentally” looks almost exactly like, the Egyptian pharaoh’s tent with its shape, different curtains, and even some of the paraphernalia. The pharaoh was considered a god and was worshipped as such. Did God use this same structure to show the Hebrews some aspect of his nature in terms that they would understand?

    One could also argue that, even though the covenants and tabernacles in other cultures predate the first examples in Scripture, they do still reflect a common understanding or oral tradition that stems from God, Himself. What I mean is that God could have established other such covenants that are not recorded but whose recipients passed down and used in other relationships, thus establishing them as right and useful tools for forming faithful relationships. Also, the tabernacle which is in heaven could be an influence on how different people groups established their own places of worship, either by knowledge handed down by tradition or some other intuitive understanding of the true nature of worship.

    Just some ideas.

    Oh, and regarding synagogues, Paul extensively used the synagogues to find God-fearers to share the Gospel with. What better people with whom to share the Good News that the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles had been destroyed in the person of Jesus Christ, and now they could have relationship with God without getting circumcised and converting to Judaism. While the early church did meet in homes, there was certainly an elder style of leadership that is modeled, at least in part, on the synagogues. And not every synagogue seems to have had a rabbi, so to say that the early church used them as a model does not mean that they had the equivalent of a rabbi. Besides, since when did God, or any one else, borrow a pattern already used without altering it for their purposes?

    So, in my opinion, you are absolutely right that, in contrast to a Temple with its centralized and formal worship, the church looked more like the synagogue with its local and individually empowering worship.

    • benwiles says:

      Thank you for the comment.

      I hadn’t considered the similarities between the tabernacle and Pharaoh’s tent. It raises an interesting idea — God using Egyptian “king” imagery to get His claim to be King across to the Israelites in a way they would understand?

      It’s a fascinating idea.

  12. […] of the relationships between peoples in the ancient near east and their subjects (see this short post on the Suzerain-Vassal Covenant, God, and […]

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