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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Torah and Covenant

Richard Elliott Friedman

“Torah” is the term used for the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch. The Hebrew word tôrāh means “instruction,” which, as in English, connotes both teaching and rules/law. And the Torah is indeed a teaching, a body of learning that is conveyed both through specific commandments and through the telling of a story. The Torah tells the story of the initiation of the relationship between the deity Yahweh and the human community. The relationship is expressed formally through covenants, which are binding contractual agreements between Yahweh and human beings.

The Torah is the heart of the Hebrew Bible. The rest continues from it, ultimately depends on it, responds to it, and is constructed within the structure that it builds, namely the covenantal structure. There are three primary covenants in the Torah: the covenant between the deity and Noah, between the deity and Abraham, and between the deity and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Each covenant comes at a climactic moment in the Torah's narrative, a moment that is understood to be a turning point in history. Each involves a divine promise, a particular name of the deity, and a sign.

The Noachic covenant, narrated in Genesis 9 , follows the accounts of the creation and of the crisis in which the creation is nearly undone, as the “windows of the heavens” and the “springs of the great deep” open, allowing the cosmic waters to flood the habitable region (Gen. 6–8 ). It promises that the creation will not be so threatened again; the world is secure. The deity is identified in this covenant as “God” ('ělōhǐm). The sign is the rainbow.

The Abrahamic covenant, in Genesis 15 and 17, comes following Abraham's leaving his home and his settling in a new land at divine command, the act that narrows the focus of the story from the broad picture of the world in the primeval history (Gen. 1–11 ) to the more particular account of the destiny of a single family and the nation descended from it. The covenant promises that this land in which Abraham now resides will belong to his descendants, that Abraham will be the father of many nations, that kings will be descended from Abraham, and that the covenanting deity will be Abraham's and his descendants' God. The divine name that is explicitly associated with this covenant is 'ēl šadday. Its sign is circumcision.

The covenant of Sinai (also known as the Mosaic covenant or the Israelite covenant; Exodus 19–20 ) follows the exodus from Egypt. It is the moment of Yahweh's greatest revelation to human beings, in which Yahweh speaks aloud from the heavens over Mount Sinai to an entire nation; and the words that the deity speaks are precisely the text of the covenant. Those words are the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue. The covenant also is understood to include other laws, revealed to Moses at Sinai, at the Tabernacle during the next forty years in the wilderness, and in the plains of Moab at the end of the forty years' journey. The covenant promise is well-being in the land that was promised in the Abrahamic covenant. The divine name that is pronounced in the first verse of this covenant is Yahweh. The sign is the sabbath.

One of the most fruitful products of twentieth century research into the Bible was the recognition that the Sinai/Israelite covenant was written according to the format of a common type of legal document in the ancient Near East: the suzerainty treaty. These treaties, authored by regional kings (suzerains) and imposed upon the local city kings under their dominion (vassals), are composed of a series of textual elements. Individual treaties may lack one or another of these elements or vary the order, but they all include enough of the basic framework to establish that this was a known, established legal form. The textual elements are:

  • 1. Preamble. The suzerain is introduced by name.

  • 2. Historical Prologue. There is an account of past actions of the suzerain, actions which were in the interest of the vassal but which were undeserved; they were, rather, gracious acts of the suzerain. This serves to justify the demands that the suzerain is about to make upon the vassal. The vassal must acknowledge a debt of future loyalty to the suzerain.

  • 3. Stipulations. The nature of the vassal's future loyalty, i.e., the demands of the suzerain, are enumerated. These may be divided into (a) the prime stipulation, namely allegiance to the suzerain and to no other; and (b) the specific responsibilities of the vassal to the suzerain (e.g., contributing military support in time of war). The prime stipulation expresses the very essence of the treaty: a vassal cannot swear allegiance to more than one suzerain.

  • 4. Provision for the treaty document. (a) The treaty is to be deposited in a sacred place (the sanctuary of the vassal). (b) The treaty is to be read in public periodically.

  • 5. Witnesses. The treaty invokes as witnesses the gods of the suzerain and of the vassal as well as witnesses from the realm of nature, including heaven and earth and the seas.

  • 6. Blessings and curses. Blessings are directed to the vassal as encouragement for loyalty. And, in order to discourage disloyalty, a remarkable collection of curses is listed in which illness, death, destruction, and degradation are heaped upon a vassal who would break the treaty.

In addition to these textual elements, the vassal swears an oath of fidelity to the suzerain and to the requirements of the treaty.

The Sinai covenant (Exod. 20.1–17 ) exhibits striking parallels to the preceding structure, containing several of the treaty elements:

  • Preamble: I am [Yahweh] your God

  • Historical Prologue: who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

  • Stipulations

    • Prime: You must have no other god besides me.
    • Specific: You must not make a carved image … Remember to keep the sabbath day holy … Honor your father and your mother … Do not commit murder …

In addition to these basic elements of the treaty formulation that appear in the text of the covenant at Sinai, the other treaty components appear as well in subsequent texts of the Torah that relate to the Israelite covenant. There is provision for the covenant document, comparable to that component of the treaties. It is to be placed in a golden box (the “ark”) and kept in the nation's central sanctuary, the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting (Exod. 25.10–16; 26.33; Deut. 10.1–5; 31.24–26 ). Also, it (or at least a portion of it) is to be read publicly every seven years (Deut. 31.9–13 ).

Also comparable to the treaties, the Israelite covenant includes the invocation of witnesses. Since the Torah's monotheism excludes the possibility of divine witnesses, heaven and earth are invoked as witnesses (Deut. 4.26; 30.19; 31.28; 32.1 ).

Lengthy lists of blessings and curses, many of which are manifestly similar to their counterparts in the treaties, are found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 .

Also, corresponding to the oath of loyalty taken by vassals, the Israelites declare that they will be obedient to the words of the covenant (Exod. 19.8; Deut. 29.9–28 ).

The Noachic and Abrahamic covenants function differently, in some ways even in a manner which contrasts with the Israelite covenant. They focus less on the deity's past actions for Noah and Abraham than on their records of service to God. Further, it is the deity who makes a commitment to future action on behalf of Noah and Abraham rather than imposing codes of behavior upon them. Moreover, these two covenants have the appearance of being unconditional; that is, their future standing does not appear to depend on how the recipients or their descendants behave. The cosmos is unconditionally secure from future deluges; the land is at least eternally available (see below) to Abraham's descendants. These covenants, like the Israelite covenant, have a prototype in ancient Near Eastern practice, which helps to explain their special character. The prototype is the royal grant. The royal grant was a transaction in which a party, generally a suzerain, gave a gift of property and/or rule to some weaker party, generally a vassal. It was in wide use in the second and first millennia B.C.E. The elements of the grant almost all have counterparts in the elements already described in the treaties. Where the two differ is in the form that the elements take.

  • 1. Preamble. The introduction of the donor of the grant by name and title is functionally the same in the grant document as in the preamble of the treaties.

  • 2. Historical Prologue. The past relations of the donor and the recipient of the grant are described. The nature of the prologue depends on the reason for making the grant. If it is a case of a privileged vassal receiving the grant as a reward for having shown outstanding faithfulness, the prologue will deal with the meritorious record of the recipient. If it is a case of a suzerain making a grant for political purposes arising out of a specific situation, the prologue will deal with the beneficence of the do-nor.

  • 3. Stipulations. The distinction between an ordinary grant and a grant to a privileged vassal plays an important role in the type of stipulations that appear as well. If the recipient is a privileged vassal, the stipulations are formulated in the vassal's own interest, e.g., prohibiting other persons from interfering with the recipient's holding. Most prominent of the stipulations written in the interest of the privileged vassal is the matter of conveyance in perpetuity. Having demonstrated outstanding loyalty through past actions, the privileged vassal is now rewarded with a tangible show of trust by the suzerain. The suzerain declares the grant to be the permanent possession of the recipient and the recipient's descendants. The grant to an ordinary recipient contains stipulations written to the advantage of the donor, including forfeiture in the event of betrayal; but, for the privileged recipient, conveyance in perpetuity is an explicit guarantee against forfeiture.

  • 4. Provision for the grant document. (Comparable to treaties.)

  • 5. Witnesses. (Comparable to treaties.)

  • 6. Blessings and curses. This element in the grants is formulated in a way that protects the interest of the recipient. The curses thus may be formulated in either of two ways: (a) The text may curse any party who would interfere with the recipient of the grant. (b) The donor may even include a self-directed curse, to take effect in the event the donor violates the terms of the grant.

  • 7. Specification of granted territories. The donor names the boundaries of the grant.

As in the case of the treaties, the royal grants are affirmed by the taking of an oath. What is strikingly different, however, is that the oath to uphold the terms of the grant is taken by the donor, i.e., the suzerain, rather than the vassal.

Much of this structure is to be found in the Abrahamic covenant. Thus:

Preamble. “I am Yahweh” (Gen. 15.7 ); “I am 'ēl šadday” (Gen. 17.1 ). (The different names reflect the J (15.7) and P (17.1) strata.)

Historical Prologue. The Abrahamic covenant merges the language of grants to ordinary and privileged recipients. First, it deals with Abraham's record of loyalty, corresponding to the privileged recipient grant. In Gen. 15.6 we read, “Abram put his faith in Yahweh, who reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Based on this the covenant text immediately follows. It begins, “I am Yahweh who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land as your possession,” a wording that obviously resembles the prologue for an ordinary recipient (and, of course, Exod. 20.2 ); but the juxtaposition of v. 6 to this text still indicates that Abram's loyalty is the premise and prerequisite of the covenant. The presence of a statement of divine actions is not contradictory to this. Further, in Gen. 26.5 Yahweh tells Isaac that the reason for the grant of progeny and land is “because Abraham obeyed me and kept my charge, my commandments, statutes, and laws.” Of particular interest here is the phrase “kept my charge,” which is formal terminology that corresponds to terminology that is found in the grant texts. Therefore, both from the covenant text and from subsequent references to it in the biblical narrative, we should regard the Abrahamic covenant as most resembling the royal grant of the type made to a privileged recipient on the basis of proven loyalty. (The covenant text in Genesis 17 lacks a historical prologue and therefore sheds no light, at this point, on Abraham's status.)

Stipulations. The most common grant stipulations are those written in protection of “house” (i.e., descendants, dynasty) and land (i.e., property, rule). Thus we find in Gen. 15.4, 5 , “your heir will be a child of your own body … Look up at the sky, and count the stars, if you can. So many will your descendants be.” Here we have a grant of progeny, to which is added a gift of land, “I give to your descendants this land” ( 15.18 ). The narrative of the covenant in Genesis 17 also promises progeny and adds the element of dynasty: “I shall make you exceedingly fruitful; I shall make nations out of you, and kings shall spring from you” ( 17.6 ). The grant of land is also present: “I shall give you and your descendants after you the land … of Canaan” ( 17.8 ). Further, the grants of house and land to Abraham are attached to a stipulation of conveyance in perpetuity, as is found in the royal grants. The covenant narrative in Genesis 15 does not address this, but the Genesis 17 narrative emphasizes the eternality of the promise:

And I shall maintain my covenant with you and your descendants after you, generation after generation, an everlasting covenant … As a possession for all time I shall give you and your descendants after you the land.…( 17.7–8; cf. v. 19 )

The things that are promised in the covenant are available forever. If Abraham's descendants turn away from their God for generations and thus encounter disaster, a later generation which returns may yet be reconciled once again under the terms of the covenant and recover the land, for a continued line of generations (“house”) and possession of the land are conveyed in perpetuity.

The one stipulation that requires something of Abraham is the matter of circumcision ( 17.10–14 ). Since it is at the same time the formal sign of the covenant it has a singular status and need not be regarded as inconsistent with the notion that Abraham's status corresponds to that of a privileged recipient of a royal grant.

The elements of provision for a covenant document, witnesses, and blessings and curses are missing from the Abrahamic covenant. Their absence is most probably traceable to the essential difference between this covenant and the Near Eastern grants. The former is a theological document, regarding the deity not as merely a witness to the covenant but as a party to it. A written document with provision for deposit and public readings is unnecessary in a covenant between a God and a person who has already demonstrated trust in that God's word. In the royal grants the recipient's possession of a document was necessary protection against retraction by the suzerain's progeny after the suzerain's death. This is obviously not a factor in the case of a divine donor. (Provision for a document was necessary in the Israelite covenant, the Israelites having demonstrated anything but trust by their previous actions. Hence also their need for divine witnesses whereas none are needed in the Abrahamic covenant.) With regard to blessings and curses, in the royal grants these are either self-directed against the suzerain or aimed at those who would interfere with the recipient. In these texts blessings and curses as sanctions against Yahweh would have seemed ludicrous in biblical terms; and the cursing of third-party interference would be pointless in that foreign victories over Israel are regularly pictured as subject to divine control in any case.

Specification of granted territories. The Abrahamic equivalent of this grant element is found in Gen. 15.18–21 , “I give to your descendants this land from the river of Egypt to the Great River, the river Euphrates.” Genesis 17 states more generally, “I shall give you … the land .…, the whole of Canaan” (v. 8 ).

In the Near Eastern grants the suzerain swears the oath rather than the vassal. In one such text the recipient provides a sacrificial animal whose neck is then cut in the oath ceremony taken by the donor. In Genesis 15 Abraham provides animals and prepares them, and the divine promise is made as a smoking brazier and a flaming torch pass between the pieces of the convenantal sacrifices. The sacrifices, the holding of a torch, and the association with a furnace are all characteristic elements of oath ceremonies elsewhere. Genesis 26.3 , too, explicitly refers to God's having taken the oath on the occasion of giving the land to Abraham. In numerous particulars, therefore, the Abrahamic covenant coincides with a known legal form of the ancient Near East.

The Noachic covenant only occasionally coincides with this form. Its preamble does not name the deity, for the deity is identified only as God ('ělōhîm), not by name, at that point. It rather announces the covenant and specifies the recipients: Noah, his family, and their descendants (which is to say humankind), and all the animals who have been saved in the flood (Gen. 9.9–10 ). It has no historical prologue. Like the Abrahamic covenant, it has no witnesses, document, or blessings and curses (though it is preceded by a notation that God blesses Noah and his family, 9.1 ). It has no specification of territory since, after all, it covers the entire world. What it does contain are the stipulations that are the mark of the grant to a privileged recipient, i.e. stipulations that are formulated in the recipient's interest, namely: (1) The world will not be destroyed by the flood again. (2) Conveyance in perpetuity; like the Abrahamic covenant, this is declared to be an “everlasting covenant” ( 9.16 ). Arguably, the commandments given to Noah and his sons in 9.1–7 could be considered stipulations that require actions by the recipients, but this remains unclear because it is uncertain whether the covenant text properly begins at v. 1 or at v. 9 , in which the deity actually declares that the covenant is being established. Overall, the point is that the nature of the Noachic covenant, applying to an extraordinary circumstance in the infancy of the creation, renders most of the conventional from inapplicable. Nonetheless, it has enough in common with the Abrahamic covenant (reward of a faithful individual, a sign, conveyance in perpetuity, common language) that we can still speak of the two as representing a common class, to be contrasted to the Israelite covenant, which represents another type.

The combination of the two types of covenant is intriguing and effective. The existence of each of the later covenants is based on the preceding covenants. The covenantal structure offers security in that the existence of the world and the availability of the land are guaranteed forever; but it also demands good behavior, on which immediate well-being depends, namely: fidelity to Yahweh, together with performance of the rituals and living according to the ethical standards commanded by Yahweh as giver of the covenant. The Noachic and Abrahamic covenants, in rewarding two individuals, implicitly identify these individuals as models. It would appear from the narrative contexts that the quality that these two individuals share and of which they are quintessential models is, above all, obedience. With these two covenants lauding obedience broadly, the Israelite covenant then comes detailing the specifics that constitute obedience to the God of Israel. The specifics number 617 commandments (according to tradition), covering a range of ritual and ethical behavior from sacrificing a goat to providing for the poor, from celebrating sabbaths and holidays to loving one's neighbor as oneself. In sum, the Abrahamic/Noachic (royal grant) type of covenant may be said to focus on divine commitment, whereas the covenant of Sinai (suzerainty treaty) type focuses on human obligation.

By using the mechanism of known legal forms, and then by setting these forms in the context of narrative, in which the deity and the human beings are pictured in the process of making these contracts, the Torah merges story and law. The result is that law is grounded in history. The Torah, thus, does not merely contain a large number of laws. Far more pervasively, by the mechanism of covenant, in the Torah the very relationship between the deity and human beings is expressed in the legal terms of that era. Law codes never appear as independent documents in the Torah. They are always presented in the context of history. The covenants are pictured as events, formalizing divine-human relationships, stating explicitly what the deity expects of the human beings and what they can expect of the deity. Law, theology, and history all meet in the presentation of the covenants in the Torah, and that meeting is pivotal. The central shrine of the people, the mark of their God's presence among them, is the tent and box containing the covenant document. The conclusion and culmination of the Torah in Deuteronomy comes following a lengthy corpus of covenantal material and pictures the people poised on the edge of the promised land, prepared by virtue of the covenant they possess to begin the story that will unfold in that land.

Torah and covenant then figure in a variety of ways in the other books of the Hebrew Bible. In some cases the dependence of other biblical books on the Torah's covenantal grounding is direct, as in the case of the books of Kings, which allude to and involve the covenant of Sinai. In some cases it is implicit; at the very least, human events in all the biblical books are ultimately based in the Noachic covenant. With regard to the biblical books of historical narrative subsequent to the Torah, the connection is particularly strong. The Deuteronomistic history (the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings) and the Chronicler's history (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) base the destiny of the nation on the Israelite covenant. The Davidic covenant, which appears in the book of 2 Samuel, comes to figure in the nation's destiny as well, but it stands in a complex and sometimes uncertain relationship with the Torah's covenants, perhaps precisely because it comes later and is dependent upon those earlier covenants. Thus, for example, according to the Deuteronomistic history the promises of the Davidic covenant include the eternal security of the Davidic throne in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 7.13–16; 1 Kgs. 11.36 ), yet that history reports the demise of the kingship and of Jerusalem at the end of 2 Kings. The Deuteronomistic historian reconciles the seeming inconsistency by speaking of the fall of the kingdom in terms of the nation's violation of the Israelite covenant (1 Kgs. 9.6–9; 2 Kgs. 21.8–15 ). That is, the throne and Jerusalem may unconditionally belong to the royal family according to the terms of the Davidic covenant; but without the secure existence of the people in the land, promised conditionally in the terms of the Israelite covenant, the Davidic king has no people over whom to rule and Jerusalem has no land for which it can be capital.

Likewise in the books of the biblical prophets, covenant matters frequently and centrally in the prophets' oracles. A common genre of prophetic oracle is the covenant lawsuit (Heb., rîb), in which the prophet brings Yahweh's case against the people for violation of the covenant (e.g., Hosea 4; Micah 6 ). The form of the oracle resembles a litigation in court based on an existing contract, with the notable difference that in this case the plaintiff is also the judge, who can bring the charge, rule on the people's culpability, and impose a penalty. Further, the prophet's choice of which covenant to emphasize varies according to the issue and the historical situation. The rîb oracle is particularly suited to the Israelite covenant, which makes demands upon the human parties to the covenant. In general, when criticizing the nation or predicting a calamity the prophets are more likely to draw on the conditional terms of the Israelite covenant than on the guaranteed, assuring terms of the Abrahamic (or Noachic) covenant. Thus, notably, the prophets rarely, if ever, refer to the Abrahamic covenant prior to the defeat and exile of Judah by the Babylonians. Since the pre-exilic prophets are frequently pictured chastising the people or predicting a coming disaster, naturally their prophecies are grounded in the more conditional, Israelite covenant. They speak in terms of the covenant featuring human obligation when accusing Israel of a breach of obligation. But once the Babylonian army arrived on the scene, the people of Israel/Judah came to live with the reality of the curses of the Israelite covenant. From that time on, the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant featuring divine commitment, served as a source of hope, and so the Abrahamic tradition came to appear in the words of the prophets (Isa. 41.8–10; 51.2; Jer. 33.26 ).

Thus the combination of the two types of covenant in the Torah becomes a powerful mechanism in the subsequent books of the Bible and consequently in the life of the community thereafter. It provides security in that the existence of the world and the availability of the land are guaranteed forever. But it also demands good behavior—on which immediate well-being depends.

Most remarkably, the Torah itself comes to figure as an element in other books of the Bible. Not only is it referred to, alluded to, litigated upon, and quoted; the very document appears as an entity in the biblical account. In 2 Kings 22 (= 2 Chronicles 34 ), King Josiah of Judah has some portion of the Torah read publicly to the nation. In Nehemiah 8 , Ezra reads the Torah (in its entirety, it would appear) to the community who have returned from the Babylonian exile, and it becomes the people's constitution thereafter. That is, the first five books of the Bible come to be an entity that figures in the other biblical books. The Hebrew Bible thus becomes, in a sense, a book about itself. And the Torah thus comes to acquire a singular literary place in the Hebrew Bible as it acquires a singular status historically in the life of the community. It was not only at the heart of the Hebrew Bible but at the heart of Judaism, first in the biblical world itself and for over two millennia thereafter. In post-biblical Judaism, living according to Torah comes to be what the religion is about.

Thus, despite a history filled with calamities and suffering, the Hebrew Bible concludes with possibilities and optimism, with the Jewish people in possession of a precious document that bears both their history and a constitution for their future. It revitalizes the possibility of the ultimate fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham both before and after the covenant, that through Abraham and his descendants all the world will be blessed (Gen. 12.3; 22.18 ).

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