Deuteronomy – Israel as a Vassal State to YHWH

Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar, as in ...
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Try to remember that this is only based on Weinfeld’s study and is for my class on Deuteronomy.

Weinfeld’s study on the formulation of Deuteronomy 28 surmises that it is derived from a variety of Ancient Near Eastern treaties, such as the Hittites, Mesopotamians, and the Assyrians. For this brief response, I will state the data as presented by Weinfeld and then follow-up with a brief conclusion in answering Weinfeld’s passive question raised on page 148, in which he writes, “The analysis of this relationship (treaty and law-code) may also serve as a point of departure for understanding the crystallization of the covenant form in the theology of ancient Israel.” The importance of Deuteronomy, not just to various historical groups, has been understated and often passed over for the more exciting and meaningful (to Christians) prophets. If Weinfeld and others are correct, then Deuteronomy stands as a very important piece in understanding the uniqueness of the relationship between YHWH and Israel, and indeed, just what is actually a biblical covenant.

Weinfeld notes that Deuteronomy mimics Hittite treaties (p60) which were not unique amongst the Near Eastern treaties of the time (Weinfeld goes further to note that Deuteronomy has resemblances to treaties formulated thousands of years before it came to be). He writes that the ‘elaborate and detailed formulation of curses and blessing correspond both in structure and content’ (p62) with Mesopotamian texts and draws our attention to the fact that in Exodus and Joshua 24, these features are missing from the covenants formed there. By comparing the structure of Deuteronomy with Exodus 19-24 and Joshua 24, it is found that the last book of the Torah contains the structure of the political treaties of the Hittites and Assyrians while the other two covenant making passages do not (p66); however, the connections to the Hittites and Assyrians aren’t in total. Weinfeld notes that unlike the Assyrian vassalage treaties which only requires loyalty from the vassal, both the Hittite treaties and the Deuteronomic text includes the exchange of love/loyalty between the holder of the treaty (or grantor) and the vassal (p69), although loyalty was conditional, based on the fulfillment of the law (p81). Beyond that, however, lays the fact that ‘The religion of Israel was the only religion to demanded exclusive loyalty (p81).’

The author goes on to note that what the relationship between a king and his subjects was patterned in Deuteronomy to be reflected between YHWH and Israel. This pattern was a political treaty which was prevalent in the Ancient Near East (p83). It is in this light, then, that Deuteronomy 13 and the proscriptions which we usually, and flatly, read against false prophets should be taken. If, as Weinfeld postulates, religious treason was treated the same as political treason, then this sets the prophet in the light of a treasonous instigator  (p92), and further unites the fact that Deuteronomy is a political treaty between YHWH and Israel but cannot be made distinct from the religious covenant between the two. This leads Weinfeld to accept Frankena’s suggestion that Josiah, in ‘finding’ the book of Deuteronomy, removed Israel from vassalage to the King of Assyrian and placed it firmly under the political vassalage of YHWH (p100). This sets up the need, then, for curses and blessings, which we do not find in Exodus or Joshua 24, but is found throughout other Near Eastern treaties of the time.

Weinfeld notes that Deuteronomy, while mirroring the standard treaties of the time, including the issue of leprosy and judicial blindness which was borrowed from the Mesopotamian treaty (p146-147)  and the current materializing of the ‘prophetic word’ which was akin to the Assyrian treaty (p121; 130), underwent several cycles of covenantal structuring. Of these structures which are found within the overall treaty form of Deuteronomy is the introduction of the law-code.  This is, as the author notes, an abnormal difference as treaties were concerned only about loyalty (external) while law-codes generally dealt with the way citizens act (internal) (p48). Further, law-codes were seen as a sign of reform, which is not unusual during this time. It generally included the liberation of a people, generally slaves, and required the proclaiming of the law (p149). Already, our internal mnemonic devices are triggering the different times throughout Deuteronomy wherein we find that the law proclaimed as a symbol of reformation. Further, in Deuteronomy, Weinfeld finds traces of a polemic against the Hammurabi code. It wasn’t enough that a law existed, but it to bring about righteousness and good works (p150-151), which is what the Deuteronomic code does. Weinfeld has made his case that the whole of Deuteronomy is a treaty, with various intrastructering to reflect other forms of written restrictions and that chapter 28, as the zenith of the political structure, which contains the curses and blessings for keeping the treaty with YHWH.

I now return to the suggestion of Weinfeld on 148. I have briefly analyzed the treaty structure of Deuteronomy and mentioned that it contains as well a law-code which is abnormal to treaties of the time, and not found in Joshua 24. A law-code was meant to be internal while the treaty of vassalage was meant to be external (p156). As Weinfeld notes, Moses is seen as bringing about the legal reform needed to bring Israel through the transition (p152) which the Exodus (exile) would have caused. What brought them through the transition was in fact the reform brought by the Torah. In the Exile, what held the Israelites together was very much the tradition as expressed in Deuteronomy and allowed them to establish the community upon return which Moses had told them should be established. Further, it kept in their minds their own history of being slaves (Deut 5.12-15) and the liberation brought by the perfect Lawgiver, Moses.

What may be lacking is why the two are incorporated together, especially when we see that it wasn’t historically done so in other Ancient Near Eastern treaties and law-codes nor in biblical history (Exodus 19-24 and Joshua 24). In Deuteronomy 4.8 we see that no other nation had the Law which was being delivered to Israel. In Amos 9.7, God equalizes Israel with its neighbors and notes that the exodus from Egypt was nothing spectacular or unique to the Hebrews. Throughout Amos, what makes Israel special is their system of Justice, the same system which Deuteronomy now proposes to call attention to, as to what makes Israel special enough to be given in vassalage to the Most High God, YHWH. Thus, the Law Code prepares for the vassalage, which as Weinfeld notes, is different in that it is not a treaty between Israel and Assyria any longer, but between Israel and YHWH. It is, for the first time, a divine betrothal which unites the political vassalage with the law-code of holiness, allowing not a foreign king to visit the land, but a Divine King to intermingle with Israel.  Although, I admit that this is based in part on my biases in seeing Deuteronomy as a covenant from the ground up, offered from Israel to God, as I have continuously expressed.

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