What does it mean to “make a covenant”? Often times, people recognize that a covenant is an agreement between two parties. It is a type of treaty between a stronger party and a weaker party. In the Hebrew Bible, those two parties are Yahweh and Israel. A more literal translation of the text, though, would be to “cut a covenant.” Growing up I’ve heard many explanations for why the Hebrew text uses a verb meaning “to cut.” One explanation is that a covenant is “cut” with regard to tablets on which are the ten commandments. In other words, Yahweh “cut” a covenant by writing on stone and cutting the stone out of the mountain. For a while, this was satisfactory. There is, though, a more likely explanation. Here, I hope to demonstrate how the underlying concept behind “cut a covenant” is that of sacrificing an animal.
Because the Hebrew Bible was developed and composed within the ancient Near East, it is helpful to look toward other literary evidence from (1) the Near East more broadly and (2) more localized evidence. One text from the 8th century BCE offers such evidence. It is from the ancient Near East more broadly because it was produced by the Neo-Assyrian empire. It is more localized because the treaty is between the Neo-Assyrian empire and a king in Syria-Palestine. As an Aramean king, it was local too a certain extent because the Hebrew Bible speaks about interaction between Arameans and Israel. This means they would have experience intercultural exchange and shared ideas between their respective cultures. Thus, the treaty may help us to better understand notions of “covenant” because the Hebrew Bible and treaty are within a similar geographic region (Syria-Palestine), time period (8th century BCE), and there is evidence for interaction between Aramean kings and Israel.
The Neo-Assyrian Treaty
The treaty is between a Neo-Assyrian king and an Aramean king in Northern Syria (Arpad). It dates from about the 8th century BCE. The Neo-Assyrian king is Assur-nerari V. The Aramaean king is Mati’-ilu. In the treaty, the sovereign figure, Assur-nerari V, demands the support of subordinate figure, Mati’-ilu and his kingdom. In order to cement the treaty, they bring out a lamb: “[This lamb] has been brought to conclude the treaty of Aššur-nerari, king of Assyria with Mati’-ilu.”
The text, though, is careful to note that the lamb is not for sacrifice or a basic meal; rather, the lamb seems to symbolically represent Mati’-ilu and his kingdom. Rather than acting upon the lamb, the treaty compares head of the lamb to Mati’-ilu:
“This head is not the head of a spring lamb, it is the head of Mati’-ilu, it is the head of his sons, his magnates and the people of [his la]nd. If Mati’-ilu [should sin] against this treaty, so may, just as the head of this spring lamb is c[ut] off, and its knuckle placed in its mouth, […] the head of Mati’-ilu be cut off…” (SAA II 02, lines 21-28).
Likewise, the shoulder of the lamb is compared to Mati’-ilu:
“This shoulder is not the shoulder of a spring lamb, it is the shoulder of Mati’-ilu, it is the shoulder of his so[ns, his magnates, and the people of his land. If Mati’-ilu] should sin against this[treaty], so may, just as the shou[lder of this spring lamb] is torn out and [placed in …], the shoulder of Mati’-ilu, of his sons, [his magnates] and the people of his land be torn out and [placed] in[…]” (SAA II 02, lines 29-35).
In other words, the head and shoulder of the lamb are metaphorically Mati’-ilu. In order to cement the treaty, the parties slaughter this lamb. This is the treaty says “just as the shoulder of this spring lamb is torn out.” In both cases, the treaty seems to symbolically represent the consequences of breaking the treaty. The slaughter of the lamb is a representation of what will happen to Mati’-ilu if he opposes the Neo-Assyrian empire.
From Neo-Assyrian Treaty to Covenant in the Hebrew Bible
Previously, we discussed how a Neo-Assyrian text utilizes the cutting of an animal in order to vividly illustrate the consequences of breaking the treaty. If one breaks a cut covenant, they will be destroyed and cut like the animal. One narrative in the Hebrew Bible which expresses a similar sentiment is Genesis 14-15. In Gen. 14:22-24, Abram (Abraham) expresses his devotion to Yahweh:
22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Let them take their share” (NRSV).
In this passage, Abram declares his dedication to Yahweh, who is the superior figure. While Mati’-ilu agrees to support the Neo-Assyrian empire in the treaty, Abram is demonstrated as supporting the deity Yahweh. Furthermore, this occurs after Abram defeats a series of tribal leaders. In Near Eastern thought, military victories were often understood as evidence of support from the divine realm. Whereas the treaty is an agreement to be dedicated to the Neo-Assyrian empire, Gen. 14 illustrates that Abram is dedicated to the deity. Both texts express the same notion of supporting the superior with whom a treaty is made, albeit in different ways. Gen. 14 occurs in the genre of a narrative, while Neo-Assyrian text occurs in the genre of a treaty/covenant.
In Gen. 15, Yahweh makes a series of commitments to Abram. Abram responds with a question: “how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (NRSV; Gen. 15: 8). So, in accordance with the will of Yahweh, Abram gathers animals for sacrifice and he cuts them. This serves as a way to cements the treaty/covenant between Yahweh and Abram. Likewise, the lamb serves as a way to cement the treaty/covenant between the Neo-Assyrian empire and Mati’-ilu.
What Genesis 15 doesn’t express clearly, though, is the underlying significance of Abram’s cutting of the animals. In light of treaty between Assur-narari V and Mati’-ilu, the cutting may be representative of what happens if the subordinate party, namely Abram, does not uphold his side of the treaty. Although the text is not necessarily implying that Abram will be cut like the animals if he breaks the treaty, the Neo-Assyrian treaty at least suggests a possible explanation for why an animal would be “cut” in context of a covenant or treaty.
SAA 02 002. Treaty of Aššur-nerari V with Mati’-ilu, King of Arpad (AfO 8 17+)