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Covenants and law-codes - covenantal forms

Documents in the ancient world - just as the modern one - tended to follow certain standard patterns or forms. Sometimes these forms persisted over a very long period of time, and so are of limited use for the purposes of dating. However, other forms are characteristic of particular eras and so give strong supportive evidence for a time of origin. Both covenant-treaties and law-codes have an exceedingly long history of development, and followed quite specific forms of composition. This is of great relevance when trying to establish a most-probable date of composition of the Pentateuch.


  1. Early period
  2. Intermediate (Syrian)
  3. Intermediate (Hittite)
  4. Middle
  5. Late (Syrian)
  6. Late (Mesopotamian)

Early period (late 3rd millennium)

Early period (late 3rd millennium)
Other features eg curses, blessings, oaths
Examples:Ebla...Tudiya of Assyria
Naram-Sin of Akkad...Elam

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Intermediate - Syrian

Intermediate - Syrian
Title or preambleBrief ( < 5%)
Requirements/stipulationsSubstantial ( > 90%)
CursesBrief ( < 5%)
Examples: Niqmepa of Alalakh...Ir-Dim of Tunip
Idrimi of Alalakh...Pilliya

Discussion of content
The heading and preamble here are very short. After the seal of Ir-Dim comes the brief assertion, "Text sanctioned by an oath to the gods, between Niqmepa, king of Mukishhe [and Alalakh] and Ir-Dim, king of Tunip; Niqmepa and Ir-Dim have now established [this agreement] between them as follows:".

The stipulations are fairly systematic but deal with commercial or legal matters rather than military cooperation. In order, the following items are listed: merchant agreements, reporting conspiracies, booty, runaway slaves, theft, criminals and future loyalty. The seal of Niqmepa follows the stipulations and precedes the curse.

The curse section is very brief, consisting of "Whosoever transgresses these agreements, Adad, [...] and Shamash the lord if judgement, Sin and the great gods will make him perish, [will make disappear] his name and his descendants from the lands, [...], they will make him forsake his throne and sceptre[...]". There are no blessings listed for adherence to the treaty.

The overall form of the agreement is very similar to the above, dealing for example with matters such as the return of fugitives. The curse section consists of "Whoever transgresses this agreement, Dim, Shamash and Ishhara and all the other [gods] will destroy him."

Historical background
Niqmepa was a vassal of Shuttama of Mitanni and was contemporary with the start of the Amarna period. The fact that he himself was a vassal may account for the prosaic and commercial (as opposed to primary allegiance and service) nature of the agreement. Idrimi was his father, another Mitanni vassal.

Later developments
A later development in the first millennium in Syria was to place the curses before the requirements. As with other first millennium forms, there was no historical prologue nor blessings for obedience to the treaty provisions.

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Middle (mid-late 2nd millennium)

Middle (mid-late 2nd millennium)
Title or preamble(One or two sentences)
Historical prologueModerate (10-20%)
Requirements/stipulationsSubstantial (50-60%)
Deposition and renewal arrangementsBrief ( < 5%)
Witnesses [in 2 examples this section is placed earlier]Short (5-10%)
Curses, blessingsModerate (10-20%, about equal size)
Occasionally other elements eg oaths and ceremonies 
Examples: Suppiluliumas of Hatti...Aziras of Amurru
Suppiluliumas of Hatti...Mattiwaza of Mitanni
Suppiluliumas of Hatti...Kurtiwaza of Mitanni
Mursilis of Hatti...Duppi-Tessub of Amurru

Discussion of content
The agreement opens with the following phrase: "These are the words of the Sun Suppliluliumas, the great king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant, the favourite of the storm god".

With this kind of treaty the historical prologue appears, making up a significant part of the whole. Here, the annual payment of 300 shekels of refined gold is stipulated, together with the background to the treaty. Among other statements we find "Formerly, in fact, the king of the land of Egypt, <a list of other kings follows here> - all these kings were hostile [to the Sun]. But Aziras, the king of [Amurru] land, parted from the gate of Egypt and became subservient to the Sun."

The stipulations begin with military support issues, dealing in order with assisting Hatti on campaigns, not joining with enemies of Hatti, not attacking Hatti troops, actively helping Hatti against rebellion, and showing willingness to ask Hatti for assistance in case of need. After this follows a shorter collection of other clauses, chiefly dealing with relationships with foreigners, such as seizing fugitives and how to treat citizens of either land going to live in the other.

The fourth (and final) column of the treaty is badly mutilated and largely unreadable: however a list of god's names (almost certainly witnesses) can be seen.

This treaty contains the later sections intact. Duplicate copies of the tablet were required to be placed before Arinna the Sun-goddess in Hatti, and Teshub in Mitanni. The contents were to be regularly read in the presence of the king of Mitanni and the Hurrian people.

The list of divine witnesses is very thorough and appears to give the names of gods associated with many countries across the Middle East.

The treaty ends with a curse section followed by a slightly shorter blessing section, the combined length being approximately the same as the list of witnesses. The curses start with, "If you, Kurtiwaza, the prince, and (you) the sons of the Hurri country do not fulfil the words of this treaty, may the gods, the lords of the oath, blot you out". They go on to specify that the women would be barren, the throne overturned, reputaion be lost, peace banished, and the soil unyielding. If, on the other hand, the treaty was kept, "may these gods protect you, Kurtiwaza, together with your wife, the daughter of the Hatti land, her children and her children's children, and also (you) the Hurrians, together with your wives, your children, and your children's children and together with your country. May the Mitanni country return to the place which it occupied before, may it thrive and expand, and so on, ending with the promise that throne and nation would persist.

The agreement opens with the following phrase: "These are the words of the Sun Mursilis, the great king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant, the favourite of the storm god, the son of Suppiluliumas, the great king, the king of the Hatti land, the valiant".

The historical prologue goes into considerable detail about relations between the two counties, going back to relations between Suppiluliumas and Aziras. It emphasises the continued loyalty shown between the two lands, and in particular the ways in which Hatti had assisted Amurru. A bridging section concerning future relations forms a transition between this and the stipulation part - "Do not turn your eyes to anyone else! Your fathers presented tribute to Egypt; you [shall not do that!]".

The treaty requirements begin with military clauses - assisting with specific actions, proactively helping to put down rebellions, asking for assistance in the event that Amurrus was threatened, and the treatment of prisoners and captives. A shorter section deals with relationships with foreigners, such as the arrest of fugitives, exposing traitors and providing assistance to friends of Hatti. One specific clause says "If the Sun gives you an order in secrecy (saying): 'Do this or that' (if) that order cannot be executed, petition about it on the spot (stating): 'This order I cannot execute and will not execute' and the king will reconsider it then and there". This indicates a level of mutual relationship and respect absent from the later treaty forms.

The treaty ends with a short section outlining first a curse and secondly a blessing, these being the consequences of breaking or keeping the treaty. In both cases the responsibility for the treaty rests on Duppi-Tessub - "should Duppi-Tessub not honour these words ... if Duppi-Tessub honours these words" - but the consequences apply to the people of the land as a whole - "may these gods of the oath destroy Duppi-Tessub/protect him together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house, his land/country"

Historical background
Suppiluliumas is contemporary with the Amarna period, and Aziras features in that correspondence. His changes of allegiance are recorded there as well as implicit in this treaty. Two of his sons succeeded: the very brief reign of Arnuwandas II was followed by Mursilis II, who began ruling at the same time as the start of the 19th Egyptian dynasty. Duppi-Teshub was the grandson of Aziras. The Mitanni kingdom was in decline at this stage.

Earlier variations of the Hittite form
A little before the main period of Hittite treaties, Arnuwandas established a treaty with Ishmerika-land. Arnuwandas ruled Hatti at a time when territory was being reduced on several fronts. This may explain both the conciliatory tone - for example willingness to considerably reduce the army contribution - and the difficult situation faced by Ishmerika itself. Presumably the retention of vassals even if they provided less resources was more important to the Hittites than the risk of losing them to others. Arnuwandas reigned during the 18th Egyptian dynasty, after Thutmose III and before the Amarna period. The structure of the treaty involves a witness section followed by requirements, an oath, and then curses for treaty breaking. The tablet is damaged and unreadable in parts. It is not clear whether this should constitute a separate treaty form in its own right, or a specific accommodation to difficult circumstances.

The agreement opens with the following phrases: "As follows (speaks) Arnu[wanda, the great king, king of the country Hatti: I made this] oath under God[. You are the opposite king, queen, prince,] and [preserve love] of the country Ha[tti]". A list of numerous gods then follows as witnesses.

The requirements are damaged in parts, but appear to contain many of the familiar elements from the later Hittite treaties. After religious concerns, the stipulations largely concern military affairs and the duty of the Ishmerrikans to maintain the reputation of Hatti internationally. Several clauses deal with the correct treatment of messengers or refugees from foreign countries. The duty of supplying troops for the Hatti army is evidently relaxed from an earlier treaty, seeemingly because Ishmerikan territory has been reduced: "And concerning your heavily armed soldiers, in former times in each case 150 people came from Ishmerika; now I have made [a new regulation for you], and it is for you to determine 60 heavily armed ones. To march however only free ones, which [...] A slave however and a mercenary under the heavily armed ones is not to be sent... If however the country becomes large again, it is added for the heavily armed ones that [again more will] be sent".

The oath section is quite thorough, naming a collection of specific individuals together with their home cities, and collectively also the people (including women and children) of the land. The curse is short and simply asserts that the house, field, wine garden and other possessions are "to be roasted".

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Late (1st millennium) Mesopotamian

Late (1st millennium) Mesopotamian
Title or preambleBrief ( < 5%)
WitnessesModerate (10-20%)
Requirements/stipulationsSubstantial (40-50%)
CursesSubstantial (40-50%)
Examples: Ashur-nirari V...Mati'ilu of Arpad
Esarhaddon...Baal of Tyre
Esarhaddon...Vassal treaties
Discussion of content
Ashur-nirari V...Mati'ilu
The treaty is partly damaged here, with several columns lost. The first readable part consists of a description of a sacrifice: "This spring lamb has been brought from its fold not for sacrifice, not for a banquet, not for a purchase, not for (divination concerning) a sick man, not to be slaughtered for [...]: it has been brought to sanction the treaty between Ashur-nirari and Mati'ilu". There follows a description of the actions to be carried out to the lamb, and parallel ones to befall Mati'ilu, his family members, his officials, or his people in the event of breach of the treaty.

The stipulations that follow are interlaced with curses relating to failure to adhere to that clause, rather than a collection of curses at the end. The first readable clause requires devoted loyalty to Ashur-nirari. After a break, there follows a military stipulation, "(If the Assyrian army) goes to war at the orders of Ashur-nirari, king of Assyria, and Mati'ilu, together with his officials, his army, his chariotry, does not leave on the campaign" - a long paragraph of dire consequences follows, cursing Mati'ilu and his people with sickness, famine, drought and destitution. This is the longest such stipulation, but several follow in connection with demonstrations of loyalty, and each paragraph consists of the requirement stated briefly with the terrible consequences of failure to adhere spelled out at length. There are no blessings listed at all.

The last preserved section contains a list of gods affirmed as witnesses and enforcers of the treaty - the tablet is broken part-way through this.

There is only a short heading: "[Treat]y of [Esarhaddon], king of Assyria, eldest son of [...], with Baal, king of Tyre".

This is followed by stipulations, with a high proportion describing trade arrangements and concessions for Tyre. An example is "If a ship of Baal or of the people of Tyre is shipwrecked off (the coast of) the land of the Philistines or anywhere on the borders of Assyrian territory, everything that is on the ship belongs to Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, but one must not do any harm to any person on board ship, they should li[st] their names".

The curse section - which follows the requirements rather than being interleaved as in the treaty above - forms about half the body of text, again with no blessings for obedience to the terms of the treaty. They apply both to Baal of Tyre as an individual and to the land as a whole. Extracts are "May Bethel and Anath-Bethel deliver to you a man-eating lion ... May Astarte break your bow in the thick of battle, and have you crouch at the feet of your enemy, may a foreign enemy divide your belongings".

The treaty ends with the short phrase, "Tablet of the treaty established with Baal of Tyre".

Esarhaddon...Vassal treaties
This was apparently a standard form of treaty, into which the particular name of the vassal concerned, and their city, was inserted. 9 of these have been found, all thought to date from a specific assembly of vassal kings at ***. The treaty opens with the formal phrase,
"Seal of the god Ashur, king of the gods, lord of all lands, which is not to be altered;
Seal of the great ruler, the father of the gods, which is not to be contested.
(This is) the treaty of Esarhaddon, king of the world, king of Assyria, son of Sennacherib, likewise king of the world, king of Assyria, with <here the ruler and their city is inserted>
". This is then followed by a lengthy title ascription for Esarhaddon.

After a list of divine witnesses, the stipulations make up just over half the document. The document is clearly focused on ensuring that the vassal acknowledges not only Esarhaddon as current ruler, but Ashurbanipal his son as appointed crown prince, and in most cases, Shamashshumukin as appointed ruler of Babylon as well. The need for continuity of succession is clearly a major theme. Each clause is stated in the form "If you do..." or "If you fail to do...", with the dire consequences left to the end. The first clause contains the basic requirement to uphold Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal as the chosen successor - "(If) you do not serve him in the open country and in the city, do not fight and even die on his behalf, do not always speak the full truth to him, do not always advise him well in full loyalty, do not smooth his way in every respect...". After that, the requirements cover remaining loyal and reporting the rebellion of others promptly (stated at considerable length and covering several potential situations), fighting for Assyria or in case of disaster fleeing to Assyria for aid, offering military assistance, and ensuring the loyalty of family offspring. An example is, "If you do not fight for the crown prince Ashurbanipal, son of your lord Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, if you do not die for him, if you do not seek out what is good for him, if you act wrongly toward him, do not give him sound advice, lead him on an unsafe course, do not treat him with proper loyalty...". Finally, there are requirements to honour the treaty tablet itself - "If you remove it (this tablet), consign it to fire, throw it into water, bury it in dust, or by some trick destroy, annihilate, or turn it face down...". Because of the thorough enumeration of different possibilities, the document is quite repetitious.

The curse section in the event of failure to keep the requirements is extremely thorough and makes up nearly half the document. It begins with personally-directed curses, such as "May Ashur, king of the gods, who determines the fates, decree for you an evil, unpropitious fate, and not grant you fatherhood, old age ... ripe old age". It then progresses to family members, "May Zarpanitu, who grants offspring and descendants, eradicate your offspring and descendants from the land". An affirmation evidently intended to be expressed by the vassal intrudes here, followed by more curses directed at the land and the people at large. "May all the gods who are named in this treaty tablet reduce your soil in size to be as narrow as a brick, turn your soil into iron, so that noone may cut a furrow in it". This section finishes with a series of symbolic actions carried out to objects (door hinges, a chariot, etc), to be duplicated for real in the life of a treaty-breaker.

The treaty ends with "Dated the 16th day of the month Ajanu, in the eponymy of Nabu-bel-usur, governor of Khorsabad. Treaty established (by Esarhaddon) concerning Ashurbanipal, crown prince designate of Assyria, and Shamashshumukin, crown prince designate of Babylonia".

Historical background
Ashur-nirari V ruled shortly after a time of weakness for Assyria, and immediately before the strong and expansionist king Tiglath-pileser III. Esarhaddon, son of Sennacherib, ruled while Assyria was at its zenith. He appointed his son Ashurbanipal as crown prince and joint ruler a few years before his own death. Assyria faced constant rebellions from vassal states, which probably explains the strongly-worded consequences of breaking oath and the thorough way in which possible cases of disloyalty are listed.

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