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Old Testament Covenants and law-codes - Deuteronomy

The broad divisions of the book are:
  1. Preamble ... 1.1-5
  2. Historical Prologue ... 1.6 - 4.49
  3. Stipulations ... chapters 5 - 26
  4. Curses and blessings ... chapters 27 - 30
  5. Succession and renewal arrangements ... chapters 31 - 34

The book is presented in the form of a series of addresses by Moses to the people, during which from time to time a response is required (for example, 27.15-26). It is therefore probable that it was delivered over a period of time, being compiled into a single volume shortly after. Other ancient sources also contain such verbal acknowledgements (for example Hittite soldiers' oaths of allegiance to their king). This does not conflict with the overall treaty structure - rather it gives insight into how the benefits and obligations of the covenant would have been conveyed in practical terms to the people. Thus, Deuteronomy combines the formal structure of a mid-second millennium treaty with the ceremonial words of the intermediary. The details of the stipulations are a blend of law-code and treaty obligations - instructions concerning the lifestyle of the emerging Israelite nation are akin to the law-code form, and relationships with Yahweh as Great King are akin to the suzerain-vassal treaties. Each section will now be discussed briefly in turn.


The opening words of Deuteronomy, "These are the words of...", are in fact highly illuminating. As explained on one of the companion pages, this was the standard introductory formula for the Middle Hittite treaty form. This is the case in every such treaty where we have the starting lines - examples from the treaties of Suppliluliumas and Mursilis are given. The Hittite treaties routinely began with the word umma, used for introducing discourse. So, the Deuteronomy preamble identifies Moses as the vice-regent of and spokesman for Yahweh, and hence the one responsible for imparting the covenant details to the people.

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Historical Prologue

In the Hittite treaties this section reviews former relations between the parties and highlights how the great king has been a benefactor to the vassal, thus bringing to the fore the reasons why the treaty should exist. Mursilis reminds Duppi-Tessub of how his father and grandfather had been vassals, of their loyalty to the just oversight of Hatti, and how Mursilis had (true to his promise) helped secure the throne for Duppi-Tessub on his father's death. This part of Deuteronomy fulfils exactly the same purpose, by recounting the build-up to the present from the time of Abraham (1.8) through to very recent events. Moreover, chapter 4 contains a microcosm of the whole pattern, with the identity of the speaker, the appeal to history, the primary stipulation of allegiance, blessings and curses, witnesses, and arrangements for renewal all encompassed. This perhaps gives us a clear insight into the clarity of thought and overall aim of Moses' series of addresses. The prologue section is uniquely present in the mid-late 2nd millennium Hittite treaties, and not in earlier or later ones.

The law-code form also typically had a prologue, though in this case not relating the historical background but rather the benefit of having laws and the merits of the lawgiver. The Deuteronomy prologue fits the covenant form and not the law-code form: however there is a passage reminiscent of this in Deuteronomy 10:17-11:15. This begins by extolling the virtues of Yahweh - "Yahweh your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. he defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing". The passage then alludes to the difficulties of living in and escaping from Egypt and dwells on the benefits of accepting the requirements as a rule of life - "So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today ... then I will send rain on your land in its season, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil". This passage forms a bridge between the primary stipulations of allegiance, and the secondary ones relating to lifestyle.

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This division is identified with chapters 5 -> 26. Some authors have taken chapters 5 -> 11 as a secondary introduction, with chapters 12 -> 26 as a catalogue of requirements, and presumed that this implies a fusion of separate sources. However, this overlooks the fact that the earlier chapters also form a presentation of the covenant way of life, highlighting the basic stipulation of consecration to Yahweh before moving on to the detailed outworking. This same organisation may be found in the treaties, where the basic demand for tribute and allegiance precedes details of military support, social relations etc. Interestingly, the Deuteronomy 7 requirement of removal and destruction of rival gods and forms of worship parallels treaty clauses for cooperation in military activities. Similarly, the Deuteronomy 12 requirement parallels the typical treaty requirement not to pay tribute to any but the suzerain. Some of the stipulations are expressed in standard casuistic law-code form - for example "If there is a poor man among you ... If a fellow Hebrew, a man or woman, sells himself to you...". However, others reflect the apodictic form present in the treaty form but not the law code form. For example Mursilis, as part of a demand for 300 shekels of gold in tribute, says to Duppi-Tessub, "Do not turn your eyes to anyone else! Your fathers presented tribute to Egypt; you [shall not do that]". This may be likened to "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol". The laws are set out in more detail in Exodus and Leviticus, and here the casuistic form predominates.

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Curses and blessings

As discussed elsewhere, curses were a standard feature of treaties from the 3rd millennium to the 1st. However, blessings for obedience are restricted to the Middle Hittite form and are absent from both earlier and later examples. The length of this section, as a proportion of the whole, is as expected for such a treaty. The ceremonies associated with standard treaties are largely unknown, but in some cases the vassal made an oath after the stipulations, and in the light of the curses and blessings. This is the place in Deuteronomy where the active participation of the people's Amen is required.

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Succession and renewal arrangements

Authors supporting a late authorship of the Pentateuch have often presented the last few chapters as appendices of limited relevance and value. However, from the treaty point of view they are crucial in terms of making provision for renewal and succession. Heaven and earth are appealed to as witnesses, together with the song to be recited by the people themselves. There are arrangements for how and where the treaty is to be deposited and periodically renewed. Classically we find a similar scheme in many different treaties - this is not a feature specific to the Middle Hittite form.

Finally, arrangements are laid out for the succession process from Moses to Joshua. This has something of the air of a dynastic succession, though in this case there was no biological connection between the two. Similar concerns with succession were a prominent feature of treaties over many years, in both second and first millennium examples. Chapters 27-30 can in fact be seen as a final review of the entire covenant pattern - a historical review is followed by the prohibition of other alliances, invocation of heaven and earth as witnesses, and finally a call for decision.

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