Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Koch, Christoph,Vertrag, Treueid und Bund: Studien zur Rezeption des altorientalischen Vertragrechts im Deuteronomium und zur Ausbildung der Bundestheologie im Alten Testament (BZAW, 383; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008). Pp. xii+522. Hardcover. US$ 177.00, ISBN 978-3-11-020245-8.

Christoph Koch sets himself to deal with three questions in this engaging and detailed study:

  1. the origins of Ancient Near Eastern treaty imagery and speech-forms incorporated into biblical covenant texts;
  2. the era in which biblical covenant theology was formed;
  3. the reception process which resulted in the Bible's covenant theology.

A survey of previous scholarly literature indicates that these issues can be addressed by focusing on the book of Deuteronomy. In particular, study of Deuteronomy 13 and 28 is called for, as it is generally accepted that both texts show the influence of ancient Near Eastern treaty traditions.

Chapter 2 contains a lengthy discussion of vassal treaty and loyalty oath practices in the ancient Near East. It is divided into four sections, each of which leads to results that K. will draw on later in his argument. The first section briefly surveys treaty practices in both the second and first millennia. Of importance is the recognition that loyalty oaths and vassal treaties possess similar characteristics; therefore, it cannot be readily determined if biblical covenant theology is dependent on one model as opposed to the other. An ensuing discussion of the Aramaic treaties from Sefire shows that both Assyrian and Hittite treaty traditions were known in Syria during the Iron Age. This conclusion is anticipated by an excursus which identifies North Syrian Neo-Hittite states as the conduits of Hittite legal traditions from the late second millennium into the early Iron Age (pp. 27–29). A third section focuses on Esarhaddon's famous succession treaty (EST).  Koch describes the EST as a typical representative of the Neo-Assyrian (NA) treaty tradition despite its length and seeming unusual features. This is of importance in assessing its relationships with Deuteronomy, as it raises the question as to whether Deuteronomy's associations with the EST are unique or represent less determinable connections with NA treaty rhetoric. The fourth and final section discusses the etymology of Aramaic ‘dy, Akkadian adê and Hebrew ‘dwt. In K.'s opinion, both the Hebrew and Akkadian cognates were derived from Aramaic. This points to the interpenetration of ancient Near Eastern treaty traditions in general, and the mediating influence of Aramean treaty practice in particular during the Iron Age in Mesopotamia and the Levant.

The lengthy third chapter is the heart of the book. Divided into two major sections, it discusses in detail literary and tradition-historical issues involved in an analysis of Deut 13 and 28. In the case of chapter 13, K. discerns additions in vv. 3b, 4–6, 8, 10, 16–18, which can be excised in order to identify its original form. The most decisive evidence for dating the core of the chapter is the fact that in both composition and theology it assumes the first commandment of the Decalogue (Deut 5:7). Following T. Veijola in identifying Deut 5:1–6:3* as a secondary insertion in the book, K. argues that Deuteronomy 13* cannot be prior to the activity that added the Ten Commandments to Deuteronomy. This points to an exilic and Deuteronomistic origin for the core of Deuteronomy 13 (pp. 138–42). A tradition-historical analysis of Deuteronomy 13* shows that this text is closely related to the theme of “incitement of rebellion against the overlord,” which appears in both vassal treaties and loyalty oaths. Moreover, Deuteronomy 13* is an amalgam of different treaty traditions. While dependency on NA treaty vocabulary is visible in the phrase dbr srh (“to speak treachery”) in 13:6 (cf. dabābu sarrātu in Akkadian), the most striking parallel to vv. 13–19* is preserved in the Aramaic treaties from Sefire. Therefore, there is no single document such as the EST on which the chapter is based.

Deuteronomy 28 is subjected to detailed scrutiny from several vantage points. Koch concludes that the core of the chapter is to be found in 28:1–6*, 15–44*. This core, however, must have been composed in the exilic era as it has elements that reflect both the fiction of the Mosaic delivery of Deuteronomy (a secondary feature of Deuteronomic composition according to K.) and anticipate the defeat and exile of Judah. The original form of Deut 28* was added to an earlier version of the book at the same time as expansions now found in 26:17–18(19) and 27:9–10. This edition may have concluded its insertion of Deut 28* with 30:15–20*. There are impressive discussions of parallels between material in 28:1–44* and both West Asian and Assyrian treaty traditions. Congruences with West Asian traditions include the alternation of blessings and curses in 28:1–6*; 15–19* and the futility curses in 28:30–31, 38–41*. Koch discusses putative parallels with the NA treaty tradition with reference to EST §§ 39–42, 56, and 63–64. He concludes that the most certain evidence of dependency on Assyrian sources appears in 28:25–36* in which it is possible to find a row of curses (in palindromic form) that reflects the order of a god list containing Sîn, Šamaš, Ninurta, and Venus/Ishtar. Although this list is found in the EST, it is not unique to this Assyrian document but appears to be a convention of NA treaty rhetoric (cf. the row of curses in Esarhaddon's treaty with the Baal of Tyre). Consequently, Deut 28 reflects knowledge of NA treaty rhetoric that cannot be traced to a particular text.

On the basis of this detailed work, K. brings his volume to a conclusion by drawing out the implications of his literary analysis with respect to the three questions posed in his introduction. Deuteronomy 13* and 28* are exilic in origin; therefore, the creation of covenant theology was an innovation in the religion of Israel that took place in that era. Supporting details include the absence of covenant vocabulary in preexilic prophetic literature (following L. Perlitt and W. Thiel, pp. 250–51) and the fact that the ancient Near Eastern treaty tradition assumed the mediating role of the king. The substitution of God for a human king as overlord points to a time in which Israel no longer had a human monarchy. Knowledge of Aramaic and Assyrian treaty rhetoric probably reached Judah in the 8th century, as it is the 8th cent. prophets who bring to expression ideas of Yhwh as an historically effective deity. Acquaintance with ancient Near Eastern treaty rhetoric may have also affected the composition of loyalty oaths to Judah's king in the preexilic period. Knowledge of this tradition was transmitted to the exilic period by court scribes whose training made them familiar with the language and content of treaty and loyalty oath. In the exilic period, they modified this concept to compose covenant texts which were directed immediately to Israel's god rather than mediated by a human king. It is possible, however, that the marriage metaphor which appears in Jer 2–6 may have been a precursor to the emergence of Israel's covenant theology during the exile.

Koch has produced a thought-provoking and thorough study. Future work on the interface between ancient Near Eastern treaty rhetoric and the book of Deuteronomy will need to take his book into careful consideration. There is much to be appreciated here. His detailed discussion of parallels between biblical and extrabiblical parallels is noteworthy. For example, K. points out a close convergence between the series of insect names in Sefire I A: 31–32 and the lexical series ur5-ra = ḫubullu XIV. Sefire I A: 30 shares a list in common with EST 85:559–600; and there is a parallel between Sefire I A: 27–28 and the row of pests named in Deut 28:38–42*; cf. Hebrew ’rbh, tl‘t, ṣlṣl and Aramaic ’rbh, twl‘h, twy. Interestingly, similar names of pests occur in the same order although not in contiguous lines in ur5-ra = ḫubullu XIV: erbû (l. 227), tūltu (ll. 271–73), dayye (l. 359). In K.'s view, these parallels suggest a shared scribal culture across the ancient Near East that was mediated by Aramaen scribes (pp. 284–86). Other comparative work points to the same conclusion. His work, therefore, represents a significant contribution to the perception of a culture of political rhetoric and instruments that ancient Israel's intellectuals shared with other ancient Near Eastern peoples.

Koch's discussion of parallels between Deuteronomy and the EST is both extensive and important. It is incontestable that Judah's scribes would have had several opportunities to encounter the NA loyalty oath tradition.[1] Future scholars will have to wrestle with the implications of his strong challenge to the idea that the Deuteronomy borrowed uniquely from the EST. The recent discovery of a new exemplar of the EST at Tell Tayinat now brings this famous treaty much closer to the biblical world than hithertofore. It will be important to bring K.'s conclusions into dialogue with this new data when it becomes available.

An extensive interaction with this rich and insightful book is beyond the scope of a review; however, this writer would like to take issue with the claim that covenantal thought only appears in the exilic strands of Deuteronomy. According to K., Deuteronomy shows three theologically distinct strands in its history of composition (p. 141):

  1. Urdeuteronomium (a mono-yahwistic base layer): Deut 4:45*; 5:1a*; 6:4; 12:13-26:16*
  2. Monolatrous (covenant theological) layer(s): Deut 5:1–6:3*; 13*; 26:16–19; 28*
  3. Monotheistic layer(s): Deut 4:1–44; other additions such as 13:4b, 5, 8

Presumably, K.'s Urdeuteronomium may be dated before the exile, as it is prior to the insertion of materials including Deuteronomy 13* and 28*.

Unfortunately, K. does not say how he conceives of the first layer of Deuteronomy in terms of its genre membership beyond designating it as “legal corpus” (e.g., p. 201). But in the debate as to whether Deuteronomy was originally intended to be a law book or a treaty document, a phenomenon that must be accounted for in Urdeuteronomium is the characteristic use of the second masculine singular indicative in paragraphs of instruction (including 12:13–19*; 14:22–23; 28–29; 15:1–3; 16:1–20*; 17:7–13*; 18:1–6*; and 26:1–11*). If parallels to Mesopotamian literature are to be taken seriously, Deuteronomy's pronounced use of second person instruction language is an important indicator that the preexilic version of the book had a rhetorical relationship to the treaty genre. Throughout these stipulations the overlord/Yhwh is consistently referred to in the third person and the vassal/Israel in the second person. Although this kind of syntax is not found in second-millennium treaties, it corresponds exactly to the most common form of composition in seventh century NA adê-texts.[2]

The impression of a proclamation of stipulations that called for collective consent is reinforced by the implied context of Deuteronomic speech. Koch himself thinks that 26:16 may have concluded Urdeuteronomium (p. 201). Deut 26:16 is noteworthy with regard to its temporal points of reference. The time frame is given as hywm hzh, “this day.” Promulgation formulas in Deuteronomy that use hywm draw attention to the idea that the instructions are being conveyed in a speech by a covenant mediator.[3] This impression is reinforced by the form of the verb in 26:16: the participle suggests that readers are participants in a situation where the laws are being delivered in the present moment.

While the origins of unconditional second person instructions in Israelite usage (so-called “apodictic law”) remain disputed, in the earliest version of Deuteronomy a number of rather brief apodictic requirements have been elaborated into paragraphs of cultic obligations incumbent upon all the people.[4] K.'s reconstruction of the original form of Deuteronomy does not allow for the fact that, as stipulations in a loyalty oath, they would have been accompanied by sanctions. For this reason, the extensive section of curses and blessings in Deut 27–28 needs to be reexamined to determine which materials originally stood as the sanctions for the cultic obligations listed in Urdeuteronomium.

I do not want to minimize the importance of K.'s observation that elsewhere the overlord referred to in ancient Near Eastern treaties and loyalty oaths is the king, whereas in Deuteronomy it is clearly the god, Yhwh. Nevertheless, once the form of Urdeuteronomium is recognized as possessing a relationship with the loyalty oath tradition, this unique feature of biblical law requires another explanation than an appeal to the exilic period. In this regard, Eckart Otto's perspective is one that has much to recommend itself: The NA empire based its identity on imperialistic expansion of the kingdom of its god, Asshur, and his high priest, the Assyrian king. Its claims to political preeminence posed a direct threat to the prophetic claim that Yhwh was the determining factor in the history of ancient Israel and Judah. Consequently, Deuteronomy was first composed in the late monarchial period as a subversive document meant to undermine Assyrian pretensions to domination over Judah. Loyalty to the NA empire required the payment of imposts and the performance of services for the crown. It is no coincidence that much of Urdeuteronomium addresses the obligations of Israel to pay its cultic dues to Yhwh (12:13–19), including tithes (14:22–23), firstlings (15:19–23); the Passover sacrifice (16:1–6), grain offerings (16:9–11), harvest offerings (16:13–15), and first fruits (26:2). In a period of NA hegemony, Deuteronomy is subtly reminding its readers that Yhwh remains the true king of Judah.[5]

Norbert Lohfink has shown that the covenant idea in Deuteronomy pervades the book in ways which are much more profound than simply the use of certain technical terms such as berît. In part, such conclusions are the result of an investigation into the ritual performances described in Deuteronomic narratives. Deuteronomy describes covenantal actions in Deut 27; 29–31 that appear to be based on older traditions. It remains useful, however, to make a distinction between the presence of a comprehensive covenant theology and the “covenant idea”.[6] Even if K. is correct to claim that there was no fully articulated covenant theology in the preexilic period, there are signs of the “covenant idea” in Urdeuteronomium. Nor is the concept that a whole people might enter into a treaty-bond with a deity confined to late monarchical Israel. Evidence from the second millennium involves the treaty-like bond suggested by the zukru ceremony from Emar.[7] In the first millennium, the 7th cent. Phoenician incantation text from from Arslan Tash shows that a human community could imagine itself in a covenant relationship with several deities.[8]

In summary, K.'s book will be an important point of reference for future analysis of Deut 13 and 28. He has also provided a number of thoughtful observations about the complex relationships between treaty rhetoric in Israel and other ancient Near Eastern traditions, especially the EST. His historical inferences about the origins of Israel's covenant theology, however, need to be re-examined in light of the fact that relationships exist between the ancient Near Eastern loyalty oath tradition and the earliest recoverable form of Deuteronomy. Despite this caveat, Vertrag, Treueid und Bund represents a significant contribution to the study of Deuteronomy which is sure to stimulate future scholarship on this biblical book and the history of covenant theology in biblical literature.

William Morrow, Queen's School of Religion, Kingston, ON

[1]Karen Radner, “Assyrische ṭuppi adê als Vorbild für Deuteronomium?" in Die deuteronomistischen Geschichtswerke: Redaktions- und religionsgeschichtliche Perspektiven zur “Deuteronomismus”-Diskussion in Tora und Vorderen Propheten (ed. M. Witte et al.; BZAW 365: Berlin: de Gruter, 2006), 374.reference

[2]William S. Morrow, “Fortschreibung in Mesopotamian Treaties and the Book of Deuteronomy,” in Recht und Ethik im Alten Testamentum (ed. B. M. Levinson and E. Otto; Altes Testament und Moderne 13; Munster: LIT, 2004), 113–14.reference

[3]Georg Braulik, “Die Ausdrücke für ‘Gesetz’ im Buch Deuteronomium,” Bib 51 (1970): 42.reference

[4]See William S. Morrow, Scribing the Center: Organization and Redaction in Deuteronomy 14:1–17:13 (SBLMS 49; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 214–16.reference

[5]Eckart Otto, Das Deuteronomium: Politische Theologie und Rechtsreform in Juda und Assyrien (BZAW 284: Berlin: de Gruter, 1999), 74.reference

[6]Norbert Lohfink, “Bund als Vertrag im Deuteronomium,” ZAW 107 (1995): 216–20.reference

[7]Daniel Fleming, “Emar: On the Road from Harran to Hebron,” in Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations (ed. M. W. Chavalas et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 237.reference

[8]Theodore J. Lewis, “The Identity and Function of El/Baal Berith,” JBL 115 (1996): 408–10.reference