Suzerain-Vassal Treaties

God’s covenant/treaty with Israel was set forth in a form common in the ancient Near East, a format known as a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. In these treaties, the “suzerain,” or superior ruler, promised blessings for loyalty and obedience, and curses for rebellion. We can find archaeological evidence for these treaties in modern-day Turkey, which was once the home to the Hittite Empire. God speaks to humanity in terms we can understand. If He were to speak in heavenly terms we most likely would not understand. So He speaks to us in earthly terms (John 3:12). God uses this same treaty structure when He makes a covenant with Israel, because they will understand it.

The Sinai covenant reflects the pattern of the ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaty, particularly the Hittite treaty of the second millennium BC. In this kind of covenant, the suzerain (or ruler), such as a king or a superior, provides the stipulations of the covenant to the vassal who is the subject. The suzerain (ruler) offers blessings in return for the vassal’s obedience and curses for failure to obey the covenant’s stipulations. The pattern of the suzerain-vassal treaty with its parallel sections in Exodus can be outlined as follows:

  • The preamble: which identifies the initiator and recipients of the covenant (Exodus 20:2 “I am the LORD your God”).
  • The historical prologue which recounts the past relationship between the parties (Exodus 20:2, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”).
  • The stipulations to maintain the treaty (Exodus 20:3-23:19; 25:1-31:18).
  • The witness to the treaty (Exodus 29:46; 31:13, “I am the LORD their God”).
  • The Document clause: provisions allowing the writing of the document for future learning and reading (Exodus 24:4, 7, 12).
  • The blessings and curses as consequences for choices (Exodus 20:5-6, 12, 24; 23:20-31).

God had already made unconditional promises to Israel prior to them entering the Mosaic covenant with Him. The Israelites were granted land as a perpetual possession (Genesis 15:7-18). God also promised that Israel would be a perpetual people unto Him (Genesis 22:17-18; Deuteronomy 7:6-8).

The Mosaic covenant adds various conditional promises to these previously granted unconditional promises. A conditional promise depends on both parties for its fulfillment. Of course, God can always be depended upon to keep His end of the bargain. The open question is whether Israel will honor its end of the covenant. God will clearly spell out to Israel the consequences for disobedience, as well as the blessing for obedience.

In a conditional covenant, both parties make promises under oath to perform or to hold back certain actions. If one party fails to meet its obligations, the covenant is then broken. Thus, in the Sinai covenant—established between Yahweh and Israel—the obligations (covenant stipulations) are clearly spelled out and summarized in Exodus 19:4-6,


You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
(Exodus 19:4-6)

The first part of this statement sets forth the reality of God’s love for His chosen people in redeeming them out of slavery. The second part describes the basic agreement: if Israel will obey, they will be blessed. They will be a special priestly nation, demonstrating to their neighbors how to live constructively, in a “love your neighbor” culture rather than the “strong exploit the weak” culture of the surrounding pagan nations (Leviticus 18). Many of the blessings that stem from the Mosaic covenant are practical in their benefit. For example, it is much more beneficial to live in a community where no one steals or harms than to live in a neighborhood filled with violence.

It is made clear in this conditional covenant that Israel has a free choice whether to obey or not obey, and it will be they who determine whether they gain the conditional blessings. The unconditional blessings will continue notwithstanding their choices. Israel chose to enter into the covenant with God, as stated in Exodus “All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’” (Exodus 19:8a)

God’s retelling of the Law in Deuteronomy also follows the ancient format of a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. God, as the Suzerain (superior ruler), agrees to bless Israel, His Vassal (servant), for faithful service. But He also promised cursings rather than blessings for unfaithfulness. The primary thing God requires of Israel is to follow His command to treat one another with respect. To tell the truth. To care for the welfare of others as if it was their own. The Bible makes it clear that seeking God means changing our ways of treating one another. To seek good for others, rather than evil. To seek justice rather than bribes. To lift up and provide opportunity for the poor, rather than exploit them. If Israel does so, then they might gain great blessings. Of course, much of that blessing would be the culture that resulted from such living. All would thrive in such a loving and caring community. God also invokes a promise in Deuteronomy 4:25-27, to exile them from the land if they disobey God’s covenant laws, and do not seek God or repent.

In Deuteronomy 27 and 28, God gives the Israelites a ritual to perform once they enter the Promised Land that will pronounce the blessings and cursings associated with the Mosaic covenant, that mirrors the form of a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. It appears that this ceremony was intended to cement in the minds of Israel the very clear choice they would make whether to follow God’s laws, and what consequences would stem from that choice. If they chose God’s ordered path of loving their neighbors, they would gain great blessing. But if they chose to follow the pagan approach of exploitation, they would gain great cursing.

This is a pattern throughout scripture for God’s chosen people. In each case, the conditional offer does not affect God’s selection and provision of fully accepting His people as His children. Israel will always be God’s people (Romans 11:26-29). God never rejects His children. God is always the inheritance for New Testament believers, without condition (Romans 8:17a). However, New Testament believers only gain the reward of reigning with Christ if they suffer as Christ suffered, obeying His Father through the world’s hostility (Romans 8:17b; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 3:21). Being accepted by God is always a matter of grace, receiving a gift (Deuteronomy 7:7-9; Ephesians 2:8-9). It is an unconditional gift. However, gaining the blessings of God depends upon our choices.

It began with God giving Adam a choice that led to consequences of life and death. The Passover was offered as a choice to Israel, and led to a consequence of life and death. The Suzerain-Vassal structure of the Mosaic covenant presented a choice of obedience for blessing (life) or disobedience for cursing (death/loss) (Deuteronomy 30:19). The New Testament presents each believer as having a daily choice whether to walk in the Spirit, with consequences that lead to life, or walk in the flesh, with consequences that lead to death (Romans 6:20-23; Galatians 5:1, 13-15; James 1:14-15, 21). Death is separation, and sin separates us from the blessing God desires for us.

In Deuteronomy 27-28, the preparation for the ceremony to cement in the mind of Israel that they would choose whether to receive blessing or cursing began with a recital of the blessings and curses. Moses told six of the tribes to stand on Mount Gerizim, which was south of Shechem, and opposite Mount Ebal (see map on in the maps and charts section in the sidebar) . These tribes were tasked to bless the people. The tribes in view here were Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. These six tribes were all descendants of the two wives of Jacob: Leah and Rachel (Genesis 35:23–24). These six tribes made up half the tribes, which totaled twelve.

The six tribes that pronounced a blessing upon Israel made clear that this would be the consequence of obedience to God’s law to love one another. This represents the blessings that were set forth in the Suzerain-Vassal-style covenant that God entered into with Israel, that had just been ratified and renewed by the second generation (Deuteronomy 26:17). The people who are gathered to hear Moses are preparing to enter the land. This ceremony was to be conducted once Israel entered and secured the land, to remind them that they would now choose their consequences.

The ceremony appears to have been intended to cement in the minds of the participants that there were great blessings in store for following the statutes of God’s law. Many of the blessings would be the natural consequence of having a society based on a culture of mutual respect: loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. But God also promised divine blessings.

The other six tribes were to gather for the curse (Deuteronomy 27:13). The tribes that were to stand on Mount Ebal were Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. Mount Ebal lies to the north of Shechem. These tribes were descendants of Jacob’s concubines, Bilah and Zilpah (Genesis 35:23–26), except for Reuben and Zebulun who were sons of Leah (Genesis 29:32; 30:20). These constituted the other half of the twelve tribes.

These six tribes were to pronounce the curse upon Israel. This represents the adverse consequences for disobedience to the provisions set forth in the Suzerain-Vassal-style covenant that God entered into with Israel, that had just been ratified and renewed  (Deuteronomy 26:17).  This ceremony appears to have been intended to cement in the minds of the participants that there were great adverse consequences, curses, in store for violating the statutes of God’s law, for breaching the agreement they had entered into with God.

Many of the cursings would be the natural consequence of failing to advance their society based on a culture of mutual respect (loving our neighbor as ourselves), and in falling into a culture of mutual exploitation. But God also promised divine cursings.

Many times, in the Suzerain-Vassal treaty, the vassal would receive a new name as a reward, in addition to a grant of land and blessing. The Suzerain ruler would adopt the vassal as his own son, adding him as a member of the royal family. Jesus’ exaltation follows this pattern as well when He receives the name “Son” for faithful obedience. David, prophesying of Jesus, and using terminology found in many of these treaties, says,

“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’”
(Psalm 2:7-9)

The traditional Suzerain-Vassal treaty would be made between a high king and a lesser ruler. In the case of Israel, God made the treaty directly with the people (Exodus 19:8). This shows another pattern, that God will greatly bless any person who follows Him in obedience. New Testament believers are encouraged to follow Jesus’s example of obedience, and are promised the same type of reward for obedience, which includes this adoption as a son, to join the reign of Christ (Philippians 2:5-9; Timothy 2:12; Revelation 3:21).

By analogy, New Testament believers appear to live under a similar arrangement to this Suzerain-Vassal Treaty structure. God unconditionally accepts as His children those who receive Him by faith. Those who believe are given the gift of eternal life (John 3:14-16, How to Gain the Gift of Eternal Life ). Then God sets forth His statutes and encourages us to walk in them that we might have positive consequences that lead to a great experience of life, the reward of eternal life. If we overcome, we are given the reward and responsibility of “son,” reigning along with Christ.

God made the earth for humanity to rule over in harmony with Him, nature, and one another. Humanity failed to do so. Jesus came down from Heaven and became a man, made for a little while lower than the angels (Hebrews 2:6-9). By suffering death, He was then given rulership over the earth by God (Matthew 28:18; Revelation 3:21). By the grace of God He died for everyone and was rewarded with the inheritance of ruling the earth. The Son of God had to be born a man, and live with a human body, to complete His Father’s will by dying on the cross, so that the subjection of the earth would be given to Him, making Him king of the entire world.

By this suffering, as a man, He was crowned with glory and honor (Philippians 2:10-11; Hebrews 2:7,9). This phrase “crowned with glory and honor” in Hebrews 2 refers to Psalm 8 where humanity is said to have been crowned with glory and honor because God appointed humanity to rule over the earth. Christ has now been appointed to the proper place for humanity.

Christ did all of this, dying for all humans, out of obedience to God. What Adam squandered, Jesus restored; He proved that He was willing to walk in faithful obedience, and the honor of being called “Son” was awarded to Him.

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