On The Origin of the Suzerain-Vassal Covenant

August 21, 2008

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?