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Abraham’s Covenant

14 April 2010

Science Daily April 13th (see also www.examiner.com ) … Canadian archaeologists have unearthed an ancient treaty that could have served as a model for the Biblical description of God’s covenant with the Israelites. The tablet dates to 670BC – roughly  just prior to the time the Bible is supposed to have been written. The Deuteronomist version of events is thought to have been compiled at about the time of the reign of Josiah (after 640BC) whereas the treaty is between Esarhaddon and a vassal king written in a highly formulaic language very similar in style to the story of Abraham’s covenant (of vassalage?) to Yahweh. Timothy Harrison of the University of Toronto made the comparison in a talk in Ottawa – where it was picked up by a news agency (I suppose). He claims he was not suggesting the Bible copied that particular treaty of vassalage, but such treaties could have provided the formulae for such a covenant (and Judah at the time was within the Assyrian orbit). Actually, why a fuss is being made about this is unclear as a similar such claim has been made in the past – on a number of occasions. What the archaeologist ignores is the fact that such treaties were made under the auspices of the gods (in this case those of Assyria and those of the vassal) and yes, the covenant was in all likelihood modelled on them – precisely because it bound one party to a deity. In all likelihood the Assyrians were themselves bound by a covenant – with the god Ashur for example. The covenant bound the king (as representative of the deity on earth) to the god (and the people as the subjects of said king). The fact that a treaty of vassalage written down in 670 bears similarities to a Biblical covenant does not mean, contrary to the hype, that the latter was written down in the 7th century BC. Why should that be so? The Assyrians had a common West Semitic origin with the people of Syria-Palestine – indeed, one of the twelve tribes is given as Asher. The treaty of vassalage/ covenant with a deity could well date long before the Assyrian Empire period – after all the Ten Commandments resemble in many ways the Code of Hammurabi and he lived a 1000 years prior to the Deuteronomist revision.

Having said that, and assuming the Deuteronomist used contemporary parallels it could well be the Biblical covenant is modelled on a contemporary treaty of vassalage. For example, in all likelihood Manasseh was bound by such an oath of fealty (act of obeisance to the god of Assyria) which is of course why the Deuteronomist was so opposed to him – the Assyrian god had been placed in a superior position to that of the god of Judah. It is likely that in the Deuteronomist history all those kings of Israel and Judah who were in any way bound by an oath of allegiance to a foreign power (and therefore foreign gods) were those he criticised – and this specifically applies to the House of Omri (as a block). Hence, such the fact such treaties that invoked the gods of one or both parties existed prior to 7th century BC must also be taken into consideration. It does not amount to evidence that the people of Syria-Palestine were confronted by an entirely new process as vassal states existed in the Bronze Ages. As early Hebrew writing developed somewhat earlier than the 7th century BC it is a leap of faith on the part of any archeologist or historian to assume that a covenant with a god of the Israelites did not exist prior to that time.   

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