Covenants can be found all through history. Even today covenants are created all the time between individuals and whole societies. The United States is under the obligation of covenants with nearly every nation of the world, either concerning military treaties or trade embargos. So too can covenants be found in the histories of all the world’s great civilizations. These historical covenants can very often be directly paralleled with other covenants throughout history. The covenants the Israelite community can be directly compared to the Hittite Suzerainty-Vassal treaties.
These covenants contain the same basic elements and were created to serve similar purposes. Both the Hittite and the Israelite covenants are agreements between greater powers (kings or God) and lesser people (lesser rulers or Israelites) created for the purpose of benefiting both sides of the agreement in one way or another. The Hittite Suzerainty-Vassal treaties contained six major parts, the Preamble, the Historical Prologue, the Stipulations/Organization, the Deposit and Reading, the Witnesses, and the Curses and Blessings.
These treaties were established between powerful kings of large societies and lesser kings of weaker societies. Both sides in the agreement stood to benefit in some way from the covenant. The greater power could promise military protection in exchange for exclusive trading rights with the lesser power. One of the stipulations of these treaties usually demanded monogamy from the weaker of the two powers (no other agreements with powerful societies). Just in learning about the layout and purposes of the Hittite treaties, it is easy to see how they are very similar to the treaties made between God and his followers.
Most important in the Hebrew Bible was the Sinai Covenant. God called upon Moses by way of a trembling mountain and an impressive display of smoke and thunder to come to the summit of Mount Sinai to be given the rules for living under God’s grace and protection. He had Moses bring Aaron with him to act as a witness (not to mention the thousands of Israelites waiting at the bottom of the thundering mountain). God begins his terms with Moses with his preamble (an expression of power) by stating simply, “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20, 1).
God follows immediately with his historical prologue when he speaks of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and when he says that he is a jealous God who punishes fairly those who are not loyal to him, but showing steadfast love to those who worship him. It is obvious that the 10 Commandments expressed in the Sinai covenant serve the purpose of the terms and conditions segment of the covenant. God then gives the provisions for deposit and reading and talks about how he prepared for the delivery of the commandments to the Israelites by causing the mountain to tremble and smoke.
Aaron was brought along at God’s discretion to serve as personal witness to the creation of the covenant, but the people gathered around the base of the mountain could be considered indirect witnesses simply by knowing what was really happening up on the mountain. The curses and Blessings of the Sinai covenant are found more at the beginning during the historical preamble when God speaks of being a jealous God who will judge the wicked, but show love to those who follow Him. The only blessing found after the stipulations had been established is found in Ex. 0, 24 when God says, “I will come to you and bless you” if you do as He has commanded.
The covenant with God is also an agreement between a higher God and lesser people. God promises his protection and love in return for obedience and worship. The Sinai covenant opened the door for many prophets to influence the Israelites. Because of this covenant, the prophets could relate bad things happening in the community to curses laid out by god because the society did not keep up its end of the bargain established within the Sinai covenant. Because of this covenant, prophets were given more validity and respect in the society.
This respect and validity eventually led to the anointing of Saul and David by Samuel. The anointing of David as king led to the next major covenant in the Bible, the Davidic covenant. The Davidic covenant is basically a continuation of the covenants that had been made with Abraham and Noah wherein the lineage of a race was to be the reward for some service to God. God came to Nathan and told him to relay to David that David was to build God a home, a temple, in the holy city of Jerusalem, and in return for loyalty and services rendered David’s lineage would forever reign over the people of Israel.
The covenants established in the Hebrew Bible changed the society and religion as a whole. The actual covenants were not unique in structure (as seen with the Hittite Suzerainty-Vassal treaties), but are still regarded by many to speak true today. The Sinai covenant is one of the best-known covenants in history, and I used to regard it as a completely original concept, but it followed exactly the structure of the covenants of the time period. Although it was not completely original, the meaning and implications of the Sinai covenant are some of the most important in history.