Treaty, Law, and Covenant in the Ancient Near East

In the corpus of Treaty, Law and Covenant in the Ancient Near East, Kenneth A. Kitchen and Paul J. N. Lawrence have collected the main witnesses of treaties, laws, and covenants in the pre-classical ANE from the last three millennia BCE. Even if it “is not intended to replace existing standard editions of any given group of texts here included” (xxii), its comprehensive focus goes well beyond previous collections and is therefore a significant contribution to scholarship.

Kitchen, a leading Egyptologist who after a prolific academic career hardly needs further presentation, explains in the introduction how this work has been in the preparation over half a century. It goes all the way back to G. E. Mendenhall’s publications in The Biblical Archaeologist 17 (1954), 26–46, 50–76 (reprinted as a booklet in 1955 as The Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East) where he argued for a structural parallel between the 14th/13th century Hittite treaties and the Sinai Covenant in the Book of Exodus. As Kitchen explains, it gave rise to some scholarly discussion. But the interest died off, “partly because the results clashed with long-held dogmas about the date and origins of the Hebrew covenant, partly because he had not done a sufficiently comprehensive and detailed study of either the Hebrew writings or the full range of Near Eastern documentation” (xx). It was then that Kitchen decided to undertake a comprehensive study of the entire field of relevant ANE source material. But it was not before a grant allowed Lawrence, a Near-East linguist, to be recruited for the project in 2003–5 that the project could be seen through to its publication.

With the publication in 1956 of the Neo-Assyrian treaties of Esarhaddon, dated to the 7th century, most scholars preferred dating biblical covenantal texts—especially the Covenant in the Book of Deuteronomy—relative to these treaties. While conservative scholars have tended to continue emphasizing parallels to the Hittite treaties, more critical scholars have emphasized parallels with the Neo-Assyrian treaties. Sound methodological controls have, however, often been wanting on both sides in the debate. The result is that the comparative studies have often been guided by a scholar’s preconceptions and assumptions about the dating of the Torah. Whatever one’s perspectives in regards to the dating of the Torah, the comprehensive scope of Treaty, Law and Covenant should be an aid for scholars in attaining sounder methodological controls in comparative studies. That said, it hopefully also opens news areas of studies so far neglected. The focus in Treaty, Law and Covenant is namely upon the ANE legal corpus itself, and not limited to the perspective of biblical studies. As Kitchen writes: “The emphasis was shifted away from centering on simply the biblical documents, and instead onto the entire Ancient Near Eastern corpus as a variegated whole in its own right, a fundamental point that should be constantly borne in mind by users” (xx–xxi).

The threefold distinction of treaty, law, and covenant in these volumes—and therefore the criteria upon which texts have been selected or left out—defines treaties as “used to govern relations (parity or vassals) between separate groups, or group(s) and/or a significant individual,” laws as “a device for regulating conduct within a given society or social group,” and covenants “used to define relations between individuals on the purely human level, or between individual(s) and deity” (xxii). Treaty, Law and Covenant “aims to collect and present the main basic documents on this threefold topic, and to study their history and interrelations through the last three millennia BC” (xix). This results in documents like CTH 46 and 47, which by scholars are called ‘edicts’ or ‘limited treaties,’ not being included among the documents despite their ‘family resemblance’ to treaties. At some point a demarcation line needs to be placed as to which documents are included and not, but this also illustrates how the genres of the texts might be somewhat fluid and therefore criteria for selection to a certain degree arbitrary.

Treaty, Law and Covenant sprung out of a study of the structures of ANE covenants. This explains why each component of a document is assigned a number and heading. These reflect what Kitchen and Lawrence see as 14 (they claim it is 15) possible components in the treaties, laws, and covenants: (1) Title/Preamble, (2) Prologue, Historical or other, (3) Stipulations or Laws, (4a) Deposit of the Document, (4b) Periodic Reading of Document to adherents of Parties, (5) Witnesses, (6b) Blessings, (6c) Curses, (7) Oath(s), (8) Solemn Ceremony, (9) Epilogue, (10) Additional Items, (11) Sanctions, (12) HRAF (Historical Report and/or Archaeological Flashback). Each is color-coded for use with the color-charts (‘chromograms’) visualizing the various structures of documents in the period at the end of vol. 2. This facilitates easy identification of a specific component in a given text, and also visually displays historical developments in the structure of treaties, laws, and covenants in the ANE.

The first volume includes 106 items in 10 languages. The documents are presented in transliteration with an English translation on the facing page. In contrast to a work like Context of Scripture that only offers English translations, the reader of Treaty, Law and Covenant is also able to work with a transliterated version of the original texts. While Martha Roth’s Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor also includes transliteration and translation of legal texts, Treaty, Law and Covenant includes more documents from a larger geographic circumference. In addition, the reader will find individual bibliographical introductions for the various documents presented, including sources, text editions, full translations, major extracts, and commentaries. Following a document is also a diagram of its format and content(s) intended as a textual key to the chromograms in vol. 2, part 3. Missing is an easier way to find a specific document on the basis of the assigned technical title given to the sources. It could have been consistently included either after the title of each document in the contents (as with e.g. CTH 138/1–CTH 140/1) or in a separate register. It would have made localizing a specific document easier. There are also some inconsistencies in fonts, like text no. 8 and 9A using a more unclear font, but in general the font used to display the text is very readable. Vol. 1 also includes Excursus I and II. Excursus I contains only English translations of texts, as transliteration in these cases was seen as superfluous since it is well presented beforehand or for other reasons. Excursus II provides a list of all the documents not included because they were not seen as belonging to the categories of treaty, law, or covenant, or because they are not currently available.

In the second volume the reader finds three parts. The first part consists of concise notes explaining choices made in the translation or useful background material to the respective texts in vol. 1. For more in-depth commentaries the reader is referred to the bibliographies. The second part includes topical indexes and longer notes addressing more general phenomena in content or format seen in groups of texts. The indexes include an alphabetic list of topics, statistical lists relating to prices, fines, and tributes, an index of deities referred to as witnesses in the blessings and curses, a list of blessings and curses in the documents, and notes on terminology found in the documents. These lists together with the readily available documents facilitate studies on specific areas in treaties, laws, and covenants for the entire period. This is, of course, very satisfying. Beside the chromograms mentioned above, the third part also has maps, but due to their graphics, they remain mainly useful for identifying the location of cities mentioned in the documents. Better maps should be sought for in other resources. Placing all this material in vol. 2 allows the reader to have both the primary texts and comments or other material open side by side at the same time.

Volume three is a chronological synthesis of the history of treaties, laws, and covenants in the ANE, with a differentiation of regional factors in a given period. This volume also has an excursus discussing form and functions in ANE legal texts. Kitchen’s approach of diagramming the structure of ANE laws as a basis for dating the Torah is already known from his “The Patriarchal Age—Myth or History?” Biblical Archaeological Review 21, no. 2 (1995) and On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003). In the latter, having compared the various ANE legal structures and with his typical frankness and Scottish wit, he writes: “Sinai and its two renewals—especially the version in Deuteronomy—belong squarely within phase V, within 1400–1200, and at no other date. The impartial and very extensive evidence (thirty Hittite-inspired documents and versions!) sets this matter beyond any further dispute. It is not my creation, it is inherent in the mass of original documents themselves, and so cannot be gainsaid, if the brute facts are to be respected” (287–88). And summarizing the question of who authored the Torah: “We would be obliged to invent a Moses if one were not already available” (312). As a result the biblical texts are placed, not where the scholarly majority would date them, but the Genesis stories are placed in the early 2nd millennium B.C. and the passages in Exod–2 Sam are placed among texts from the late 2nd/early 1st millennium BCE. Needless to say, these statements on dating are controversial. With the publication of Treaty, Law and Covenant at least one cannot accuse Kitchen and Lawrence for not having done their homework. The chromograms in vol. 2, 262–63 and 265 show a far closer affinity between the late 2nd millennium B.C. treaties and the Torah, than between the latter and early 1st millennium treaties. While form-critical studies have lately been somewhat discredited, on the basis of the structural development among ANE legal texts, the study of Kitchen and Lawrence strongly indicate an earlier dating of biblical material than is commonly accepted. It is of course possible to disagree with them, but their study cannot be easily dismissed or refuted by serious scholarship. With the lack of methodological controls in theories and speculations often proposed among scholars, Treaty, Law and Covenant will hopefully reawaken the debate after Mendenhall in the 1950s and create a more informed and sound discussion.

As mentioned, hopefully the discussion following the publication of Treaty, Law and Covenant will not be limited to questions of the dating of the Torah, but proceed to other issues as well. To mention one example, scholars like F. R. Kraus, J. J. Finkelstein, Raymond Westbrook, Shalom Paul, and Victor Hurowitz have shown that ANE laws in the 2nd millennium and earlier were not legal codes and stipulations as we understand modern law. Instead they are now rather seen as literary exercises, royal apologia, or judicial training texts. The question is then whether the definition of law in Treaty, Law and Covenant as laws as “a device for regulating conduct within a given society or social group,” would need some modification. It is well known that the idea of subjecting and regulating all of society under law, even the king, was a Greek invention (cf. Martin Ostwald). The question is when did this come to influence Jewish thinking? Do we see this stipulative understanding of law already in the Josianic reforms of the 7th century (Raymond Westbrook), first in the Persian period with the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah (Peter Frei), or only late in the Second Temple period during the Hellenistic era (Michael LeFebvre). Unfortunately, Treaty, Law and Covenant does not include classical texts (except the demotic laws from Hermopolis (ca. 5th century BCE), a treaty between Hannibal of Carthage and Philip V of Macedon (215 BCE), and a treaty between Rome and Lycia (46 BCE). A study of concepts of law in the last few centuries BCE will therefore need to be complemented with other sources. Still, Treaty, Law and Covenant will help in understanding the background of legal thinking—which of course did not arise in a vacuum—during the Second Temple period. If it is demonstrated that the idea of stipulative law did not become influential in Israel before the Persian period, or possibly as late as the Hellenistic era, a combined study of legal thinking in the ANE and the classical period might help us better understand the intense legal discussions in texts like the DSS, the NT, and the Mishnah.

Overall, Treaty, Law and Covenant is a much welcomed resource. It should be part of every library specializing in ANE and biblical studies. For those working on ANE legal history and materials, it is difficult to overestimate the value of this work. As a basic resource, it offers quick and handy access and an overview of the relevant materials, pointing the reader in directions where they can find more in-depth commentaries and discussions on the respective documents.

Kenneth Bergland, Andrews University
pdfRES 2015.08.07 Bergland on Treaty, Law and Covenant.pdf

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