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Chapter One

The Organizing Principle of the Bible: The Covenants

Since the kingdom of God is one of the major themes of Scripture, it is important to understand as much as we can about it. To understand a nation’s government one studies its constitution, and the covenants of the Bible are the constitution of God’s kingdom.

[1] To study the covenants is to learn the principles by which God administers his kingdom and to trace the covenants throughout the Bible is to follow the course of the re-establishment of God’s kingdom.[2] The covenants divide Biblical history into epochs[3] in which the same pattern of events repeats itself and therefore gives the plot of the Bible its structure. In addition, an analysis of the covenants of Scripture provides a theological framework for understanding the Bible and insights into how it all fits together. From the covenants we learn the principles by which God deals with mankind.

An Important Discovery

In 1954-55 two scholars, George Mendenhall and Klaus Baltzer, independently made a discovery which has had a profound impact on subsequent Biblical scholarship.[4] Mendenhall, a professor at the University of Michigan, and Baltzer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Heidelberg studying under Gerhard von Rad, both discovered that the Mosaic Covenant found in Exodus 20, what we know as the Ten Commandments[5], was given in the literary form of contemporary international treaties.[6] From this initial observation have come many additional insights which can greatly enriched our understanding of the message of the Bible.

The Historical Background

The Near East of Moses’ day was very different from what it is today. In almost every era of ancient history there was one empire which dominated the region. At the time of the patriarchs it was the Hittite empire. It was followed by the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Media and Persia, Greece, and Rome. At various times Egypt also extended its sphere of influence into the Middle East and controlled Palestine.

The Near East at this time was filled with city-kingdoms, each with its own king. A typical city-kingdom was by modern standards a small walled town surrounded by unprotected fields and villages which were dependent upon it. The ancient cities of the Near East are still visible today as tells, mounds where a city was rebuilt time after time on its previous ruins. As an example of the tenacity with which the citizens of a city would keep rebuilding their city, the tell of the ancient city of Jericho is sixty feet high with the occupation of the site going back to about 7000 B.C. The political allegiance of the individual citizen was to his city and his religious commitment was to the gods of his city.[7]

It was relatively easy for the all-powerful emperor either to conquer these city-kingdoms or to coerce them without bloodshed to come under his dominion. But once he had them under his control, his challenge was how to control and administer them. Throughout ancient history down to the time of the Romans, the same general method was usually employed. The emperor would make a treaty with each city king. The emperor was called the “suzerain” or “the great king” and the king of the city became his vassal. Thus the treaties are referred to as suzerainty treaties when looked at from the point of view of the suzerain, or as vassal treaties when looked at from the viewpoint of the king of a city. The two terms can be used interchangeably or sometimes the treaties are referred to as suzerain-vassal treaties. (There were other types of treaties as well which will be introduced as we meet them.)[8]

International treaties appeared soon after writing was developed.[9] Over eighty suzerainty treaties have come down to us. Approximately fifty of these were from the Hittite empire in Anatolia, modern day Turkey. The Hittite kingdom was contemporaneous to Moses and it will be demonstrated below that as a result, its treaties are of special importance for understanding the covenants which God made with Moses.[10]

The Significance of the Treaties

The treaties were the suzerain’s means of administering his empire. They created relationships which had not previously existed.[11] In a treaty the suzerain declared his lordship over a vassal people, imposing his authority over them.[12] The treaty was not negotiated. The great king simply offered his terms. The king of a city could either accept it or, by refusing to do so, risk war with the all-powerful suzerain.[13] Yet the purpose of the treaty was peace, peace between Suzerain and vassal.[14]

The resulting treaty document became the constitution of the vassal kingdom. As in modern diplomacy, international treaties superseded the authority of all of a nation’s existing laws. The treaty was ratified by the oath of the vassal, although on occasion the suzerain added his oath as well.[15] From the viewpoint of the suzerain, the treaty was a declaration of his lordship over the vassal, consecrating a people to himself in a dictated order of life. For the vassal, his oath to the suzerain was a commitment of absolute allegiance and the treaty spelled out the details of how this allegiance was to manifest itself. [16]

In some ways a treaty can be understood as an elaborate oath.[17] The vassal’s oath placed him under the sanctions of the blessings and curses spelled out in the treaty. The lordship of the great king would result in protection for the vassal if the latter remained faithful to him but in destruction if he did not. As long as the vassal remained faithful, he would enjoy the blessings of peace and friendship with his overlord as well as his protection. However, if he proved unfaithful, asserted his independence, or switched his allegiance to another king, he would receive the curses spelled out in the treaty, curses which he had invoked upon himself in his oath of allegiance.[18]

God, being both the author of the Bible and the author of history, so designed history that, at the time when the Scriptures were written, the contemporary international treaties illustrated the covenantal relationship he wanted to enter into with his people. Since treaties were by definition cross-cultural, knowledge of them was pervasive throughout the ancient Near East.[19] To make absolutely certain that Israel would understand the covenants God made with them, he provided unique training for Moses who would be both the mediator through whom God instituted the old covenant and the author of the first five books of the Bible that record the foundational covenants of the kingdom of God. God prepared Moses for his role by having him adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as part of the royal family (Exod 2:10). As the grandson of the Pharaoh, Moses would have received the best education available in the ancient world and would have been trained in international diplomacy. Since he would have studied the form and significance of international treaties, Moses would have recognized that the earlier covenants God had made were in fact treaties. When Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on the top of Mount Sinai, he would not have been surprised to see that once again God’s covenant was in the form of a treaty. God had thoroughly prepared Moses for his role.

As with treaties between nations, the overall purpose of the covenants of the Bible was to create a relationship of shalom between the parties to the covenant (Gen 26:30-31; Num 25:12; Job 5:23-24; I Kgs 5:12; Isa 54:10). The English word “peace” is an inadequate translation of the Hebrew shalom. Shalom indicates a wholeness, a relationship of communion, a state of harmony and fulfillment.[20] This was the goal of the covenant.[21]

The Literary Form of the Treaties as Illustrated by the Old Covenant

Suzerainty treaties had a fairly uniform literary structure and it is in this form that God gave Israel the Ten Commandments. God made a treaty with Israel. The parallel between Exodus 20:2-17 and contemporary suzerainty treaties has been recognized by a preponderance of Old Testament Biblical scholars.[22] There were six standard sections in the text of a treaty, as illustrated in Chart 1, although any one treaty might have slight differences in its form. A section might be missing or the order of the elements might vary, but the basic pattern was normally present.[23] We will discuss the significance of each section of this literary form, give examples from international treaties and use Exodus 20:2-17 as an example of how Biblical covenants conform to this pattern.

Chart 1





The Literary Structure of Suzerainty Treaties
  Written Features    
  Historical Prologue    
    Major Stipulation    
    Minor Stipulation    
  Blessings and Curses    
  Instructions for the Disposal of the Text  
  Non-written Features    
  Ratification by Oath    
  Solemn Ceremony    


The Preamble – Exodus 20:2a

The first section of a treaty is called the preamble and its purpose was for the suzerain to identify himself. He did so typically in terms that would inspire fear and awe in his vassal. One example is the treaty of the Hittite suzerain Mursilis II, who controlled what is today central Turkey and the Syrian coast, with his vassal Duppi-Tessub, king of Amurru, which included the rest of Syria, Palestine, Edom and Moab, whose people the Bible knows as the Amorites.[24] The treaty begins:

“These are the words of the Sun[25] Mursilis, the great king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant, the favorite of the Storm-god, the son of Suppiluliumas, the great king of the Hatti land, the valiant.”[26]

Exodus 20:2a is the preamble of the Mosaic Covenant where God identifies himself stating:

“I am the LORD[27] your God.”

The Historical Prologue – Exodus 20:2b

The purpose of the historical prologue was to enumerate the past benefits that the vassal had received from the suzerain. This was to cause the vassal to be thankful and to give him a motive for keeping the provisions of the treaty. For the prologue to have its intended effect, it had to be substantially true.[28] The following is the historical prologue of this same treaty between Mursilis II and Duppi-Tessub:

Azira[29] was the grandfather of you, Duppi-Tessub. He rebelled against my father, but submitted again to my father. When the kings of Nuhasse land[30] and the kings of Kinza[31] rebelled against my father, Aziras did not rebel. As he was bound by treaty, he remained bound by treaty. As my father fought against his enemies, in the same manner fought Aziras. Aziras remained loyal toward my father [as his overlord] and did not incite my father’s anger. My father was loyal toward Aziras and his country; he did not undertake any unjust action against him or incite his or his country’s anger in any way. 300 (shekels of) refined and first-class gold, the tribute which my father had imposed upon your father, he brought year for year; he never refused it.

When my father became god[32] and I seated myself on the throne of my father, Aziras behaved toward me just as he had behaved toward my father. It happened that the Nuhasse kings and the king of Kinza rebelled a second time against-me. But Aziras, your grandfather, and DU-Tessub, [33] your father, [did not take their side]; they remained loyal to me as their lord. [When he grew too old] and could no longer go to war and fight, DU-Tessub fought against the enemy with the foot soldiers and the charioteers of the Amurru land just as he had fought with foot soldiers and charioteers against the enemy. And the Sun destroyed them.

(Gap in which the reign of DU-Tessub was dealt with)

(DU-Tessub recommends his son as his successor:) “[…When I die, accept my son] Duppi-Tessub as your vassal.”

When your father died, in accordance with your father’s word I did not drop you. Since your father had mentioned to me your name with great praise, I sought after you. To be sure, you were sick and ailing, but although you were ailing, I, the Sun, put you in the place of your father and took your brothers (and) sisters and the Amurru land in oath for you.[34]

The historical prologue is thus a summary of the past relations between suzerain and vassal, emphasizing in particular the benefits the great king had previously bestowed upon his vassal.[35] Mursilis II was endeavoring to create a sense of obligation in Duppi-Tessub for placing him on his throne.[36]

Exodus 20:2 follows the preamble, “I am the Lord your God,” with the historical prologue, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” referring to the wondrous salvation that God had just wrought for His people in the exodus. The purpose of the covenant’s historical prologue was to be a constant reminder to the Israelites to be thankful for their deliverance from Egypt and, in response, to be faithful to the covenant stipulations which are listed in the following verses.[37]

Major Stipulation – Exodus 20:3

Suzerainty treaties between nations contained one major stipulation and many minor ones.[38] The major stipulation was always a declaration of total allegiance to the suzerain by the vassal to the exclusion of all other alliances.[39] For the vassal to enter into a treaty with any other king made him guilty of treason and deserving of the death penalty.[40] In the treaty between Mursilis II and Duppi-Tessub we read:

“So honor the oath (of loyalty) to the king and the king’s kin! …But you, Duppi-Tessub, remain loyal toward the king of Hatti land, the Hatti land, my sons (and) my grandsons forever…. Do not turn your eyes to anyone else!”[41]

The Ten Commandments contain an obvious parallel to the stipulation section of the treaties. The major stipulation of the Mosaic Covenant is found in the verse following the historical prologue. There God states, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exod 20:3). A suzerain demanded absolute allegiance from his vassals and God demands absolute allegiance from his people.[42] Israel was to be loyal to Jehovah to the exclusion of all other gods. Since Israel was created by God and set apart for his purposes, their total commitment to him was fundamental to their relationship.[43] God does not tolerate rivals.[44]

The major stipulation’s command of sole allegiance to God was the equivalent of the New Testament’s command to believe (1 John 3:23) and to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). The “I-Thou” language of the stipulations indicates how personal the relationship was between God and his people. The recipients of his mercy are identified by God as “those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exod 20:6).[45]

Minor Stipulations – Exodus 20:4-17

The purpose of the minor stipulations was to indicate what allegiance to the suzerain was to look like. These stipulations were typically written as conditional statements, “If the following takes place, you will….” The vassal was required to pay annual tribute, make regular visits to the court of the suzerain and supply troops to the suzerain as needed.[46]

The minor stipulations between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub include the following:

As I, the Sun, am loyal toward you, do you extend military help to the Sun and the Hatti land….

If anyone should press you hard, Duppi-Tessub, or (if) anyone should revolt against you, (if) you then write to the king of the Hatti land, and the king of the Hatti land dispatches foot soldiers and charioteers to your aid—(if you treat them in an unfair manner[47]), you act in disregard of the gods of the oath.

If anyone of the deportees from the Nuhasse land or of the deportees from the country of Kinza whom my father removed and myself removed escapes and comes to you, (if) you do not seize him and turn him back to the king of the Haiti land, and even tell him as follows: “Go! Where you are going to, I do not want to know,” you act in disregard of your oath.

If anyone utters words unfriendly toward the king of the Hatti land before you, Duppi-Tessub, you shall not withhold his name from the king….

If a country or a fugitive takes to the road and while betaking themselves to the Hatti land pass through your territory, put them on the right way, show them the way to the Hatti land and speak friendly words to them! Do not send them to anyone else!

Or if the king of the Hatti land is getting the better of a country and puts them to flight, and they come to your country, if then you desire to take anything from them, ask the king of the Hatti land for it! You shall not take it on your own! If you lay hand on it by yourself or conceal it, (you act in disregard of the oath).

Furthermore, if a fugitive comes to your country, seize him![48]

The purpose of the minor stipulations was to indicate how Israel’s allegiance to God was to manifest itself.[49] The stipulations of the Sinaitic covenant were its torah section. The Hebrew word torah is typically translated “law” throughout the Old Testament, but this can give the wrong impression to the English reader of what the word meant. The meaning of the word torah is instruction, teaching, guidance or direction for life, rather than law with its modern connotations.[50] This view of law has fundamental differences from our contemporary view of law. In the West common law is not so concerned with what is right and wrong, but rather with what is permitted and not permitted. Law enforces a minimum standard of behavior which, if not met, brings punishment. Law generally provides a floor for acceptable behavior, not an ideal ethical ceiling to be striven for.[51] God’s expectations for his people are much higher than their simply not breaking specific laws.[52] In the torah, moral and ethical values undergird everything and in some cases are the very essence of the stipulations.[53] In the Old Testament, fulfillment of the law is not so much obedience to a legal demand as it is demonstrating by one’s life that he has entered the sphere of God’s blessing.[54] Israel is to love the Lord with all their heart, soul and might (Deut 6:5). Israel’s love for God is to mirror his love for them.[55]

Though we refer to them as the Ten Commandments, they are not commands. They are not written as imperatives (“Do not have any other gods before Me”), but rather as future indicatives in the singular (“You shall have no other gods before Me”). They indicate God’s expectations for those who have given him their allegiance (Exod 20:3) in gratitude for the great salvation (Exod 20:2b) that the Lord their God (Exod 20:2a) had just wrought for them.[56] Biblical law offers the outlines for personal conduct. It gives the principles by which life in the covenantal relationship is to be regulated.[57] Torah is relational. God is defining what is good and evil. [58] It expresses God’s will for his people.[59]

Education and understanding were vital aspects of the biblical meaning of torah. Yet understanding was in no sense an end in itself. Once the people understood the torah, they were required to live by it as an expression of their allegiance to God. They were to live under its authority.[60]

Some scholars have characterized the torah as a law code. It has significant differences from other ancient near eastern law codes in that it is in the category of covenantal stipulations. Certainly there are some similarities between the torah and contemporary law codes, but these are a result of addressing a common culture. The difference in intent makes the similarities modest at best.[61]

The minor stipulations of the covenant are found in Exodus 20:4-17:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them… (Exod 20:4-5).

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain (Exod 20;7).

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy (Exod 20:8-11).

“Honor your father and your mother… (Exod 20:12).

“You shall not murder (Exod 20:13).

“You shall not commit adultery (Exod 20:14).

“You shall not steal (Exod 20:15).

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exod 20:16).

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod 20:17).

In the last nine commandments God indicated what the allegiance demanded in the major stipulation was to look like. It was to direct Israel’s life within the covenant relationship.[62] The minor stipulations were not a means for entering the covenant. Salvation has never been the result of good works. Salvation came through faith, their wholehearted commitment of allegiance to God commanded in the major stipulation. The children of Israel were to be the faithful vassals of Yahweh the great king. The minor stipulations were the guide for citizenship in the kingdom of God.[63]


Just as we require witnesses to many of our legal documents, treaties also required witnesses. The witnesses to international treaties were typically the gods of both the suzerain and the vassal who were often enumerated in long detailed lists.[64] Every known god of both suzerain and vassal was called in as a witness to ensure that there would be no god to which the vassal could resort to for protection should he violate his oath.[65] In addition, mountains, rivers, springs, the sea, heaven, earth, wind and clouds were also summoned as witnesses.[66]

The copies of the treaty itself also served as witnesses to the treaty. The suzerain’s copy reminded him of the vassal’s oath-bound commitments to the treaties stipulations so that he might enforce them and, if necessary, punish the vassal for breaches of the covenant. The document was also a reminder to the suzerain of his commitment to protect his vassal and to fulfill any promises he may have made to him.[67] The vassal’s copy not only reminded him of the oath-bound commitments which he had made, but also of the curses that the divine witnesses would visit upon him, were he unfaithful.

The following is a partial list of those called as witnesses to the treaty of Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub:

Kulitta, the Haitian Warrior-god, the Warrior-god of Ellaya, the Warrior-god of Arziya… the gods and goddesses of the Hatti land, the gods and goddesses of Amurru land, all the olden gods… the mountains, the rivers, the springs, the great sea, heaven and earth, the winds (and) the clouds—let these be witnesses to this treaty and to the oath.[68]

Although it is not specifically mentioned in Exodus 20, the Holy Spirit was present as a witness to the covenant in the pillar of cloud (Exod 13:21-22; 19:9, 16). In addition, the covenant documents themselves also served as legal witnesses to the covenant. Israel’s copy was a documentary witness (Deut 31:26). It was a divine reminder of the obligations they had sworn to uphold, a declaration of their hope of covenantal beatitude and a pronouncement of the doom of the covenant’s curses if Israel proved to be unfaithful.[69]

Blessings and Curses – Exodus 20:5, 6, 12

The gods were not simply witnesses to the treaty. The role of the divine witnesses included their being the guarantors of the blessings and curses that were listed in the treaty.[70] It was their responsibility to ensure that both blessings and curses were faithfully executed.[71] The blessings and curses listed the consequences of obedience and disobedience.[72] If the vassal was obedient to the treaty, he and his descendants would receive the blessings. Treaty blessings typically included peace, joy, protection of the gods, abundant harvests, and an eternal reign for the vassal king.[73] If he was disobedient, he and his descendents would receive the curses. In the curses, death and destruction were threatened in every conceivable way.[74] The blessings and curses together provided powerful motives for the vassal to be faithful to the covenant.

The following are the curses and blessings of the treaty between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub:

The words of the treaty and the oath that are inscribed on this tablet—should Duppi-Tessub not honor these words of the treaty and the oath, may these gods of the oath destroy Duppi-Tessub together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house, his land and together with everything that he owns.

But if Duppi-Tessub honors these words of the treaty and the oath that are inscribed on this tablet, may these gods of the oath protect him together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house (and) his country.[75]

The blessings and curses were usually in a separate section, but on occasion were interspersed with the stipulations. Although they are in a separate section in Leviticus 26:3-33 and Deuteronomy 28:1-68, they are found among the stipulations in Exodus 20:5-6, 12.

Exodus 20:5 begins with a stipulation regarding idols, “You shall not worship them or serve them.” This is then followed by a curse, “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,” Jehovah is a jealous God who punishes great-great-grandsons for the sins of their ancestors.[76] The curse is then followed by a blessing, But showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exod 20:6).

Exodus 20:7 is a stipulation regarding reverence for God’s name, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” This is then followed by a curse, “For the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.”

Exodus 20:12 begins with a stipulation regarding parents, “Honor your father and your mother,” which is followed by a blessing, “That your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.”

In contrast to suzerainty treaties between nations, God’s covenant was one of salvation. It was one of “showing lovingkindness” (Exod 20:6) and not just to the third or fourth generation of those that love him, but, counter to the balanced blessings and curses of secular treaties, “to a thousandth generation” (Deut 7:9).[77]

Instructions for the Deposit of the Text – Exodus 25:1-22

In a treaty between nations two identical copies of the treaty were made. One was the suzerain’s copy and the other, the vassal’s. Both were to take their respective copy and place it in their temple under the protection of their chief god.[78] In the ancient Near East, it was the custom to place the document of a covenant with a city’s god in the footstool of the god’s throne in his temple.[79] The specific wording of the Hittite treaties for the specified location of the treaty document can be translated “under (the feet of) the god.” Enshrining the copies with the gods was emblematic of their roles as witnesses to the treaty and avengers of the oath.[80]

We all can visualize pictures from our Sunday school lessons of the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments being held by Moses. However, in light of the treaty analogy, when we read of “the two tablets” (Exod 31:18) of the law, these were undoubtedly duplicate copies: God’s copy and Israel’s copy. In a treaty between God and Israel, suzerain and vassal shared the same temple, the tabernacle which was about to be built. Thus when the instructions were given for the construction of the tabernacle, the very first plans given were for the ark of the covenant (Exod 25:1-22) and directions were given to place both covenant tablets in it (Exod 25:21). The very next verse describes God’s presence over the ark of the covenant, making the placement of the covenant documents under his feet (Exod 25:22).[81] The lid of the ark with its cherubim was God’s throne, as indicated in the phrases, “the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts who sits above the cherubim (1 Sam 4:4) and “the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned above the cherubim” (2 Sam 6:2; cf. Ps 80:1; 99:1; Isa 37:16). The ark itself was his footstool (1 Chron 28:2; Ps 132:7-8).[82]

Treaty Rituals – Exodus 24:1-11

In addition to the written sections of the suzerainty treaties, there also were typically non-written features: an oath, a sacrifice and a solemn ceremony. One Hittite text contemporary to Moses shows the relationship between treaty, oath, sacrifice and solemn meal:

They lead in a goat and the master of the house consecrates the goat in front of the table to Sanda[83] with wine. Then he holds out a bronze axe and says: “Come, Sanda, and let the Violent Gods come with you, who are clothed in blood-stained garments and girt with the cords (?) of Lulahhi men, who have a dagger in the belt, draw bows and hold arrows. Come and eat! And we will take the oath.” When he has finished speaking he puts the bronze axe down on the table and they slaughter the goat. He takes the blood and smears the drinking tube which is inserted into the tankard with the blood. They bring the raw liver and the heart and the master of the house offers them to the god and takes a bite. They do an imitation (?). Then he puts his lip to the tube and sips and says: “Behold, Sanda and Violent Gods, we have taken oath. Since we have bitten the raw liver and drunk from one (?) tube, therefore Sanda and Violent Ones, do not again approach my gate.” Then they cook the liver and the heart with fire and cut up all the -rest of the goat. . . . He takes the shoulder and breast. . . . Then they surround the table and eat up the shoulder and breast. Then [just as they wish(?)] to eat and drink, so he brings, and they eat [up (?) . . . ] and they drink [ . . . ]the tankard. [84]

The Oath and Sacrifice – Exodus 24:3-8

The vassal king’s oath of allegiance to his suzerain committed him to the treaty, invoking divine vengeance if he broke his oath.[85] This use of an oath is found very early in ancient near eastern international diplomacy. As early as the twenty-fifth century B. C., the “Vulture Stele,” a Sumerian text, records the oath of allegiance of the city of Umma to the great king Eannatum….[86]

Ancient oath ceremonies took many forms.[87] When we think of an oath, we think only of a verbal declaration, but in the ancient Near East an oath usually took the form of a ritual.[88] The most common form of oath ritual involved the cutting up of an animal in some way. The one making the oath was symbolically stating, “May I be cut apart like this animal if I am not faithful to this treaty.” An Aramaic treaty of the eighth century B.C. states, “Just as this calf is cut up, so may Matiel be cut up.”[89]

In the case of Israel’s taking the oath of the Mosaic covenant, they first made a verbal commitment: “Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!’” (Exod 24:3). The initial commitment of faith is not a self-maledictory oath; it is a wholehearted giving allegiance to God as he had revealed himself.

Next we read:

Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD.Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words (Exod 24:4-8).

Here we have a symbolic act in which the people identified with the sacrificed animals so that the fate of the animals was depicted as their fate, should they be unfaithful to the covenant. It was a self-curse in which they pledged their lives as a guarantee of their obedience to the covenant.[90]

At the same time that the sacrifice of the animals was part of the oath ritual of Israel, it was also an efficacious sacrifice. In Hebrews 9:18 the author writes, “Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood.” He then paraphrases Exodus 24:3-8 and concludes by saying, “And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). The sprinkling of the blood on those taking the oath of allegiance symbolized their spiritual cleansing.

Solemn Ceremony – Exodus 24:1-11

In the ancient Near East a treaty was put into effect by some type of solemn ceremony which often involved a meal between the treaty partners.[91] The meal was the final step in the covenant making process and was an ancient ritual and widespread.[92]

In light of the treaty analogy it is not surprising to find the final step in the making of the Sinaitic Covenant to be a meal:

Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. Moses alone, however, shall come near to the LORD, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.” (Exod 24:1-2)

Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel,and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. Yet He did not stretch out His hand against the nobles of the sons of Israel; and they saw God, and they ate and drank (Exod 24:9-11).

Which person of the Trinity “ate and drank” with the elders of Israel? It is God the Son whose role it is to represent God physically to man. John 1:18 states, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Thus the Old Covenant was instituted at a meal in which God the Son ate and drank with the elders of Israel. In the upper room the New Covenant was likewise instituted at a meal (Luke 22:20) at which God the Son ate and drank with the elders (cf. 1 Pet 5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1) of the church.

Jesus at the institution of the new covenant at the Last Supper paraphrased the words of Moses at the institution of the Old Covenant (Exod 24:8). Moses had said, “This is the blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:6). At the last supper Jesus said, “This is My blood of the covenant” (Matt 26:28). The only difference between the Greek of Jesus’ statement in Matthew and the Greek of the Septuagint[93] of Exodus 24:8 is that Jesus substitutes “My” for “the.”[94]

Israel’s Breaking of the Covenant

Immediately following the covenant meal, God invited Moses to come up to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the two engraved tablets of the covenant. Moses ascended the mountain with Joshua, leaving Aaron and Hur in charge of the camp of Israel. After seven days God called to Moses from the midst of the glory-cloud on the top of the mountain. Moses entered the cloud where he remained for forty days (Exod 24: 12-18).

Meanwhile back at the bottom of the mountain, things were not going well. The people became impatient that Moses had been gone for so long. They assembled around Aaron and said, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exod 32:1). Surprisingly Aaron acquiesced, forged the golden calf and built an altar in front of it. The people cried out, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (Exod 32:2-5). The following day Aaron presided over a feast before the calf which included burnt offerings and peace offerings.

There are at least two possible interpretations of what the calf represented. One explanation is that the calf was intended to represent Yahweh, the true God.[95] In worshiping it, God’s people were violating not the first commandment, but the first minor stipulation of the covenant, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them….” (Exod 20:4-5). The other explanation is that the people were worshipping a calf-god that they said had delivered them from Egypt, thus breaking the first commandment by giving their allegiance to a foreign god.[96] In either case, their apostate religion had both an altar and a high priest!


If a vassal broke the treaty with his suzerain, he was breaking a legal agreement. Just as in modern society when someone breaks a legal contract, the aggrieved party may bring a lawsuit to enforce the contract. Similarly in the ancient Near East, when a vassal violated a treaty, the suzerain would institute a lawsuit against him. There were two distinct phases in the lawsuit: the first was the sending of messengers by the suzerain to the rebellious vassal. If the messengers were not heeded, the lawsuit went into its second phase, a declaration of war by the suzerain upon the vassal.

The Sending of Messengers

The first stage of the lawsuit was conducted by messengers who were sent to the rebellious vassal. The messengers delivered threats which were couched in a form that reflected the pattern of the original treaty. They interrogated the vassal and reminded the vassal of the suzerain’s benefits and of the treaty’s curses. They demanded obedience to the provisions of the treaty and admonished the vassal to mend his ways. They confronted the vassal with the treaty’s curses which were now in the form of an ultimatum. The messengers warned the vassal of the vanity of hope to escape through recourse to any alien quarter.

In the covenants between God and his people the prophets are the messengers whom God sends to his covenant-breaking people.

Israel’s sin made God’s anger burn against them. God’s immediate response was to send Moses as his messenger to his covenant braking people. Since Moses was a prophet (Deut 34:10), it was entirely appropriate for Moses to be the messenger. Moses accompanied by Joshua descended the mountain, tablets of the covenant in hand. When Moses saw the golden calf and the people dancing around it, he threw the tablets to the ground at the foot of the mountain, shattering them and signifying that the covenant had been broken.[97] He immediately interrogated Aaron, asking him, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” (Exod 32:11-21).

Aaron’s weak response was, “”I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exod 32:24).

Declaration of War

If the messengers of the suzerain were rejected, imprisoned or especially if they were killed, the legal process entered its second phase, a declaration of war on the covenant breaker. The war was seen as an execution of the curses of the covenant. War was a visitation of curses of the treaty by the oath deities against the offending party. The war was understood as a trial by ordeal in which the god-witnesses to the treaty would vindicate the righteous by giving them victory.

In the case of Moses dealing with Israel’s breaking of the covenant with the golden calf, he saw that the people were completely out of control and so he called out, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!” Only the men of the tribe of Levi answered his call (Exod 32:26). As a result God declared war on his people. Moses announced, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.'” The sons of Levi did as they were commanded and killed 3,000 men of Israel that day (Exod 32:27-28).

The Recurring Pattern of Biblical History

There is a covenantal pattern that repeats itself throughout Scripture. God makes a treaty with his people. Then his people break the covenant. God’s response is to initiate a lawsuit against the covenant-breakers. First he sends messengers to them and, when the messengers are rejected, he judges them. This is summarized in Chart 2.


Chart 2
The Recurring Pattern of Biblical History
1 The Making of a Covenant    
2 The Breaking of the Covenant    
3 The Sending of Messengers to the Covenant Breakers
4 Judgment on the Covenant Breakers  


The Covenantal Administrations of Biblical History

There are seven major covenants in the Bible which each launch a new age of Biblical history. These covenants are listed in Chart 3. In each of these ages there is the recurring pattern of events. In some ages the pattern recurs more than once. In the remainder of the book we will examine each of these ages, noting the amazing way that the same pattern of events is repeated in each age. But before we commence a study of the seven ages, we will first learn of a covenant in eternity past.

The Covenantal Ages of the Bible
1 The Age of The Creation Covenant
2 The Age of The Adamic Covenant
3 The Age of The Noahic Covenant
4 The Age of The Abrahamic Covenant
5 The Age of The Mosaic (Old) Covenant
6 The Age of The New Covenant with the Church
7 The Age of The New Covenant with Israel




[1] Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Foundations for a Covenantal World View (Overland Park, Kansas, 2000), 10.

[2] Kline, Kingdom, 1.

[3] Kline, Kingdom, 7.

[4] Klaus Baltzer, The Covenant Formulary: In Old Testament, Jewish, and Early Christian Writings (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971), xi.

[5] The phrase “Ten Commandments” is never used in the original languages of the Bible (M. J. Selman, “Law,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 500). When versions of the Bible use the term “the Ten Commandments” in passages such as Exodus 34:28, the Hebrew is “the ten words,” from the Greek translation of which comes the word “decalogue” (J. W. Marshall, “Decalogue,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 171).

[6] The very first mention of the similarity between covenant and treaty was made by D. J. Wiseman in a paper he read before the Society for Old Testament Studies in January, 1948 (Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963],13). This was followed by E. Bickerman’s “Coupe une alliance” Archife d’histoie du droit oriental 5 (1951) 153f (Philip J. Calderone, Dynastic Oracle and Suzerainty Treaty: 2 Samuel 7, 8-16 [Manila: Loyola, 1966], 11); George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: Biblical Colloquium, 1955), reprinted from Biblical Archaeologist 17 (1954) 26-46, 49-76; Klaus Baltzer’s book The Covenant Formulary is the English translation of his Das Bundesformular (Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament, No. 4, ed. Gunther Bornkamm and Gerhard von Rad; 2nd rev. ed.; Neukikirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1964) which summarizes his original dissertation.

[7] Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1969), 25-26.

[8] Treaties were a universal means of creating and regulating relationships between different social groups throughout the ancient Near East (George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 1:1180).

[9] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 1:1180.

[10] Michael L. Barré, “Treaties in the ANE,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:654.

[11] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1180.

[12] Kline, Oath, 21.

[13] Hillers, Covenant, 49.

[14] Barré, “Treaties,” 6:654.

[15] Kline, Oath, 21.

[16] Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 17.

[17] Hillers, Covenant, 28.

[18] Kline, Oath, 21.

[19] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1180.

[20] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (New York: Harper, 1962), 1:130; G. Lloyd Carr, “shalem,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:931.

[21] Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: Westminster, 2002), 133.

[22] E.g. Kenneth L. Barker, “The Scope and Center of Old and New Testament Theology and Hope,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (ed. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 307-8; Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the First Half of the Bible (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 1996), 123-24; Craig A. Blaising, “The Structure of the Biblical Covenants: The Covenants Prior to Chris,” in Progressive Dispaensationalism (ed. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell Bock; Wheaton: BridgePoint, 1993), 142-43; John Bright, Covenant and Promise: The Prophetic Understanding of the Future in Pre-Exilic Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 36-40; W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants (Nashville: Nelson, 1984), 94-99; John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987), 40-41; David Noel Freedman, The Nine Commandments: Uncovering the Hidden Pattern of Crime and Punishment in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 48; Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (4th ed.; New York: Norton, 1997), 163-64; Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 140-41; R. K. Harrison, Old Testament Times (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 140-41; Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 143; Hillers, Covenant, 28-42; Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars (Nashville: Broadman, 1998), 117-21; William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 144-46; Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Harper, 1985), 26-42; Tremper Longman III, Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 60-71; Eugene H. Merrill, “Exodus: Deliverance to Covenant Privilege,” in The Old Testament Explorer: Discovering the Essence, Background, and Meaning of Every Book in the Old Testament (ed. Charles R. Swindoll; Nashville: Word, 2001), 59; K. A. Kitchen, The Bible in its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1977), 79-85; von Rad, Theology, 1:132-33.

[23] Hillers, Covenant, 29; Bright, Covenant, 36-37. The modern idea that all covenants had to be identical in form is a legalistic mentality which was quite foreign to that of the ancient world (Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1180).

[24] P. E. Satterthwaite and D. W. Baker, “Nations of Canaan,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 599.

[25] “Sun” was the term by which the Hittite suzerain was addressed (James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed., Princeton: Princeton University, 1969), 203.

[26] Pritchard, Texts , 203.

[27] The word LORD with the last three letters written in lower case capital letters is the translation of the Hebrew Yahweh, the personal name of God (Exod 3:13-15).

[28] Hillers, Covenant, 31.

[29] Aziras is a king of the Amorites who is well known from the Amarna letters (Pritchard, Texts , 203).

[30] The region between Aleppo and the Orontes River in what today is northern Syria (Pritchard, Texts , 203).

[31] A city on the Orontes River, now tell Nebi Mendo (Pritchard, Texts , 203).

[32] I.e. he died (Pritchard, Texts , 203).

[33] The pronunciation of the first syllable of the name is unknown (Pritchard, Texts , 203).

[34] Pritchard, Texts , 203-4.

[35] Kline, Treaty, 14.

[36] Hillers, Covenant, 31; cf. 49-50.

[37] Kline, Treaty, 14.

[38] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 196.

[39] Kline, Treaty, 14-15.

[40] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1180.

[41] Pritchard, Texts, 204.

[42] Hillers, Covenant, 50.

[43] J. W. Marshall, “Decalogue,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 175; Allan M. Harman, “Decalogue (Ten Commandments),” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 4:516.

[44] Margaret Elizabeth Bellefontaine, “A Study of Ancient Israelite Laws and their Function as Covenant Stipulations” (Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 1973), 92.

[45] Kline, Treaty, 24.

[46] Baltzer, Covenant, 13-14. The Suzerain was primarily just interested in matters affecting his relationship with his vassal (Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1181).

[47] Omitted inadvertently by the scribe (Pritchard, Texts , 204).

[48] Pritchard, Texts, 204-5.

[49] Cf. Selman, “Law,” 509.

[50] Dumbrell, Covenant, 91; R. K. Harrison, “Law in the Old Testament,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2d ed., 3:76; Peter Enns, “Law of God,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 4:893-97.

[51] Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2000), 80.

[52] Wenham, Story, 104.

[53] Harrison, “Law,” 3:76.

[54] Dumbrell, Covenant, 91.

[55] Wenham, Story, 81.

[56] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1184.

[57] Dumbrell, Covenant, 91-92, Selman, “Law,” 501.

[58] Dumbrell, Covenant, 91-92; Selman, “Law,” 511. A distinction can be seen between the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 and the legal material of commandments of Exodus 21-23. In the latter section the commands are termed “judgments,” the Hebrew mishpat which is equivalent to a judicial precedent (Dumbrell, Covenant, 92).

[59] Selman, “Law,” 509.

[60] Selman, “Law,” 499.

[61] Harrison, “Law,” 3:76-82.

[62] Dumbrell, Covenant, 91. According to Sailhamer, the laws of the Pentateuch were not intended to be a basis for legal action but were rather a statement of legal policy (John H. Sailhamer, An Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach [Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1995], 256-67).

[63] Kline, Treaty, 24.

[64] Baltzer, Covenant, 14.

[65] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1181.

[66] Baltzer, Covenant, 14.

[67] Kline, Treaty, 22.

[68] Pritchard, Texts, 205.

[69] Kline, Treaty, 21.

[70] Barré, “Treaties,” 6:654.

[71] Baltzer, Covenant, 14-15, Hillers, Covenant, 53.

[72] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1181.

[73] Baltzer, Covenant, 15.

[74] Baltzer, Covenant, 14-15, Hillers, Covenant, 53.

[75] Pritchard, Texts, 205.

[76] Hillers, Covenant, 53.

[77] Kline, Treaty, 22.

[78] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1181; Harman, “Decalogue (Ten Commandments),” 4:516.

[79] A. E. Steinmann, “Cherubim,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 112.

[80] Kline, Treaty, 19-20.

[81] Kline, Treaty, 19-20.

[82] Steinmann, “Cherubim,” 112.

[83] Sanda was a Hittite god.

[84] O. R. Gurney, Some Aspects of Hittite Religion, The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy 1976 (Oxford: University Press, 1977), 29-30 quoted in Lundquist, “Temple,” 301.

[85] In Akkadian treaties we called “(tablet of the) oath” (Barré, “Treaties,” 6:654).

[86] Hillers, Covenant, 28-29.

[87] Hillers, Covenant, 40.

[88] Gordon P. Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 194.

[89] Hillers, Covenant, 40-41.

[90] Mendenhall and Herion, “Covenant,” 1:1185.

[91] D. J. Wiseman, The Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon (London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1958), 88; Hillers, Covenant, 57; Kline, Treaty,16.

[92] John M. Lundquist, “Temple, Covenant, and Law in the Ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Bible,” in Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison (ed. Avraham Gileadi; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 301.

[93] The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament begun about 250 B.C. which served as the Bible of Greek-speaking Jews.

[94] Dale C. Allison, Jr., The New Moses: A Matthean Typology ( Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 258.

[95] Peter Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 569-70.

[96] R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1973), 214-15.

[97] Scott J. Hafemann, Paul, Moses, and the History of Israel: The Letter/Spirit Contrast and the Argument from Scripture in 2 Corinthians 3 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 202.