Loyalty, Treaties, Covenants, and Sinai

Ancient Treaties and 10 Commandments

Before we launch right in, I’ve got to lay some groundwork. There are two types of treaties that are common in early Biblical times: 

1) A parity treaty – an international agreement/covenant between two equals

2) A suzarain/vassel treaty – an international agreement/covenant between a greater (suzarain) and lesser (vassal) king

In a parity treaty, each king (similar in strength and size) commits to protect and help the other. A king of a city/state may have several parity treaties going at once.

A vassal bows to his suzarain.

The suzarain/vassal treaty is a bit more nuanced. The suzarain (greater king) commits to protect and look out for the interests of the vassal (lesser king), as long as the vassal pays tribute and looks out for the suzarain’s interests. Since the vassal has so little power in comparison, he is at the mercy of the vassal and must be careful to adhere to his commands precisely. In this treaty, the vassal must remain loyal to the suzarain and would be considered treasonous if he made any other treaties.

Now that we’ve laid that groundwork, let’s start (like Sandra Richter does in her video series Epic of Eden) with Joshua 9 – The Gibeonite Deception. God has been using Joshua to conquer the promised land. The people in the land are hearing stories about how God is empowering Joshua and they are fearful. Several kings have joined together to defend themselves against Joshua. (These would be parity treaties among similar lesser city/state kings.) Gibeon is one of the city-states involved with this group, but they have decided to try to work out a new deal.

In Joshua 9, they venture off on their own with a plan to deceive Joshua and make a suzarain/vassal treaty (vs 9:6) with him. In vs 11, we read that they  tell Joshua, they will be His servants. (This tips us off that they are seeking a suzarain/vassal treaty.) Unfortunately, Joshua doesn’t consult God and he ends of falling for their trick. (He wasn’t supposed to make any covenants with people in the promised land.) Believing that they were from another country a long way off, Joshua makes a covenant with them in vs 15. When He realizes that he had been tricked, he was upset, but since he had made the covenant before God, he had to honor it. Now, when the other city-states discover what Gibeon had done and realize that they will no longer be able to fulfill their parity treaty commitment/covenant with them, they are rightfully angry. Gibeon had committed treason against them. Joshua 10:1-4 explains that  this alliance of kings decide to attack Gibeon. This puts Joshua in a precarious position. As the suzarain, he must defend and protect his vassal (Gibeon) even though they had tricked him into the treaty. In the end, this is how God continues the campaign to conquer the promised land. These kings are defeated and Israel advances forward in the conquest of the promised land. 

This is a great story on its own, but pay attention to the role that the treaties played and how they influence the lives of the ancients. A covenant was serious. It meant risking your life to defend those with whom you had committed. In the suzarain/vassal treaty, it also meant complete and total loyalty to the suzarain.  

Here’s the format of an ancient treaty: 

1) Preamble/Title – Suzarain is introduced. No one cares about the vassal.

2) Historical prologue – Suzarain records all the things he has already done for his vassal.

3) Stipulations/Obligations imposed – this is where the responsibilities of the vassal are spelled out – sending tribute, sending armies for support, and absolute loyalty (more than one suzarain and you have committed treason

4) Deposition and provision for reading of the treaty before the people. – This section determined how often the treaty would be read so that the people would be be reminded of the agreement  – so they would be reminded of their obligation to remain loyal. 

5) List of witnesses – most of the time, these lists were gods and since most were polytheistic, there were many pages of witnesses.

6) Curses and Blessings – Listed the benefits of keeping the treaty and the consequences of breaking it. A suzarain used this section to threaten the vassal if they ever rebelled.  

There were always two copies of the treaty drawn up – one for each party. They would then be placed in their respective temples because these oaths were made before their gods.  (those listed as witnesses in the treaty)

Now, with this structure in mind, let’s look at Moses, Israel, and Mt Sinai. 

Moses is on top of the mountain and that’s the story, but for a moment, let’s also consider the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain. All they have ever known (and their grandparents for generations) is slavery and the polytheism of Egypt. They are considering monotheism, but are probably skeptical and tentative about it. They have most likely heard of Yahweh and Abraham, but probably couldn’t explain this faith to anyone. They are God’s chosen people, but their choice to leave Egypt was quite possibly more about getting out of slavery than it was about becoming God’s people. God chooses Sinai as the place to try to explain who He is to them. They’ve seen Him deliver them through many miracles, but in this place God will describe His expectations of them. How can He do that to this secular ungodly rabble of a people? What can He say that will make sense to them? 

He will use this form and a model which they would have already understood – the suzarain/vassal treaty. God speaks to them and reveals Himself in a way that would have made sense. The context of this model, helped them to see the implications of His words and allowed the message to be more clearly communicated/understood. 

1 Peter 2:10 – “…..for once you were not my people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  

God chooses Sinai to make a treaty with Israel. He will be their suzarain. He is great and mighty and will work on their behalf against their enemies even though they have little to offer. They are just a crowd of people with no home, no land, with very few possessions. They are wondering the desert. They are vulnerable and exposed, easy prey for attackers. They are spiritually confused and are swaying between worship of Yahweh and worship of the Egyptian gods they had known all their lives. However, God chooses them.  He acts, before He requires anything. At Sinai, we see the grace of Yahweh. Many think Yahweh is different in the OT from what we see in the NT, but we see grace throughout the whole of the Scriptures. The Law itself is grace. It will set them apart and keep them healthy. It will lay a foundation for their future and set boundaries that will lead to success. The Law is an expression of love as it offers these homeless, broken down spiritually confused slaves an opportunity to become a people, and not just a people, but THE people – the people of God. He calls them into a relationship before the rules are made . . . . much like we are wooed and courted into relationship before the rules get changed when we can’t have any other boyfriends/girlfriends. By that time, your desire is to make those changes, you want to change, because your relationship is so important. The relationship outweighs the responsibilities. It doesn’t feel like a requirement as much as an opportunity. A child is loved first and then disciplined for the same reason. Sinai doesn’t happen until after the people have been delivered from slavery.  

Compare the format of a Suarain/Vassal treaty to that of the Covenant at Sinai. It’s clear that God was speaking to them in the language of treaty. 

 

Once the treaty was drawn up, the people had a ratification ceremony or covenant ceremony to bind the oath. This is the way they signed the document in front of their witnesses. Since this oath was made before their gods, animal sacrifice was always a part of the covenant ceremony.    

Exodus 24:3-8 – Moses sprinkles blood from the sacrifice on the people. 

New Covenant – Matthew 26:27-28 – Jesus reminded the disciples of Moses and the old covenant during the Last Supper which celebrated the Passover.  

 

Covenant

Hebrew word for covenant = “beryth”

Here are the Hebrew letters

 

and here is what each letter means:

shelter representing God’s family
head – nothing is more important than God’s family
God’s hand reaching down – God has the will, authority, and ability to grow relationship
Pole to expand tent – expand God’s family

I posted this ’cause I’m amazed by the variety of ways that God has chosen to speak to us. He spoke to Israel in a way that they would understand, and He does the same for each of us. How is He speaking to you today? 

 


Ideas from Sandra Richter’s “Epic of Eden” book and video series. (5th week lesson)  

Look

Check out Charles Spurgeon’s conversion story in his own words.

I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair until now had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm, one Sunday morning, while I was going to a certain place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a side street, and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there may have been a dozen or fifteen people. I had heard of the Primitive Methodists, how they sang so loudly that they made people’s heads ache; but that did not matter to me. I wanted to know how I might be saved, and if they could tell me that, I did not care how much they made my head ache.

The minister did not come that morning; he was snowed up, I suppose. At last, a very thin-looking man,* a shoemaker, or tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed; but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say. The text was,—

“LOOK UNTO ME, AND BE YE SAVED, ALL THE ENDS OF THE EARTH.”

He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter. There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in that text. The preacher began thus—”My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Ay!” said he, in broad Essex, “many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some on ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.'”

Then the good man followed up his text in this way:—”Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! look unto Me!

When he had gone to about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes or so, he was at the end of his tether. Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I daresay, with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable.” Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made from the pulpit on my personal appearance before. However, it was a good blow, struck right home. He continued, “and you always will be miserable—miserable in life, and miserable in death,—if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.” Then, lifting up his hands, he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist could do, “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said,—I did not take much notice of it,—I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before, “Trust Christ, and you shall be saved.” – Taken from Charles H. Spurgeon: His Faith and Works, H.L. Wayland, 1892.

God used a snowstorm to keep a pastor from making it to a service so that another preacher would be there for Spurgeon to hear the exact words that He needed in order to be saved. “Look.”

John 3:14-15msg

“In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.”

Numbers 21:4-9msg

They set out from Mount Hor along the Red Sea Road, a detour around the land of Edom. The people became irritable and cross as they traveled. They spoke out against God and Moses: “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to die in this godforsaken country? No decent food; no water—we can’t stomach this stuff any longer.”

So God sent poisonous snakes among the people; they bit them and many in Israel died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke out against God and you. Pray to God; ask him to take these snakes from us.”

Moses prayed for the people.

God said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a flagpole: Whoever is bitten and looks at it will live.”

So Moses made a snake of fiery copper and put it on top of a flagpole. Anyone bitten by a snake who then looked at the copper snake lived.

Look my friends. LOOK upon Jesus. In Him, you will find everything. You will find salvation. You will find peace. You will find truth and light and life. Look upon Jesus and be saved!