Sunday 20 June 2021



Suzerain Vassal Treaty, as found in the British Museum, calling the sun and the moon as witnesses to land grants. These stones were often placed at the boundaries of the land indicating legal ownership.


Maimonides (1135-1204) writes that if he had access to ancient historical works, he would have had a much better understanding of the laws and institutions in the Torah. He refers, in particular to the writings of the ancient Sabians:

“I…say that the meaning of many of the laws became clear to me and their causes became known to me through my study of the doctrines, opinions, practices…of the Sabians.”[1]

However, writing over eight hundred years ago, Maimonides expresses dismay that these works were largely lost to history:

“[T]hey have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws….”[2]

The fact of the matter is that only since the time of Napoleon, have these types of writings, known as the traditions of the Ancient Near East, been discovered and analysed. We now know more about the practices of the Ancient Near East than ever before.

This article, based extensively on the writing of Rabbi Professor Joshua Berman[3], deals with an interpretation of Torah based on an understanding of the writing style of the Ancient Near East of which we now know much about. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has described Berman as “one of the most original biblical scholars of our time.”[4]


NOTE: Ralbag writes in his commentary on Exodus, that “the prophet expresses himself through the conventions of the times”. We also know that the “Torah speaks in the language of man”. This being the case, let us now actually, emphatically and ardently explore this “convention” and “language” of man, in the most historical and literal sense possible. This attempt at reading the Torah in the “language of man” must be well understood at the outset, as some Readers may find this a ‘de-spiritualising’ of the Torah text, but that’s exactly what happens when one reads the Torah through the “conventions of the times”. Others, on the other hand, may find some these ideas as positive in terms of establishing and perhaps regaining intellectual and spiritual trust in difficult sections of Torah text.



The Torah contains many repetitions of the same event. These can be found, starting at the beginning with two creation narratives in Genesis, right through to the Book of Deuteronomy in particular, where - in what Berman (2020:77) describes as in a “serial and wholesale fashion” - it has different versions of much of the preceding Torah narratives. For example, did Moshe appoint judges before the giving of the Torah (Exodus) or after (Deuteronomy)? Did Moshe appoint the judges (Exodus) or did the people (Deuteronomy)? Who said that the land was good, Calev and Yehoshua (Numbers) or all the spies (Deuteronomy)? Was Moshe not allowed to enter the land because he hit the rock (Numbers) or because he was punished together with all the people for the sin of the spies (Deuteronomy)?



a) Rabbinic

For the most part, our rabbis attempted to resolve these differences by creating some form of harmonisation between these and other conflicting accounts. Thus, regarding the matter of who decided to send the spies, God or perhaps Moshe (Numbers 13:2), or the people themselves (Deuteronomy 1:22)? – Rashi suggests that both are true because Moshe gave in to the people’s demand to send spies. Sometimes these reconciliations work better than other times, but oftentimes no attempt at reconciliation is even attempted.

b) Academic

On the other hand, the academic world sees these discrepancies as indications that some later form of editing took place and various hypothesised accounts were woven together during the Persian or Second Temple period by returning exiles with different political agendas. This is known as source-critical methodology.

c) Reading in a cultural context

Berman (2020:82) admits that the rabbinic approach of harmonisation does not always deal satisfactorily with serious contradictions, and he also critiques the source-critical approach because no other ancient culture responds to disruptive events in their history by creating a tapestry of their written past. There are also no records of any of these alleged disparate biblical sources which an editor may later have worked with. He therefore suggests (2020:123) that this a case of a theory that creates the text, instead of the text giving rise to the theory.

Berman therefore suggest that we deal with the problems of the conflictory Torah accounts by reading them within the cultural context of its times.



The biblical covenant between G-d and Israel is unlike any other contract we are familiar with. In modern times, generally, both parties freely enter into a contract and no one is coerced into so doing. Israel, although it declared “we will do and obey” at Sinai, doesn’t seem to have had much choice in the matter. This does seem to be a very different type of contract to the one we are used to.



Berman (2020:87) explains that only one type of covenant matches the Sinai covenant, where it is “bilateral but fundamentally between non-equals” and that is the typical political covenant that was frequently entered into during the second millennium BCE. These were known as the Vassal Treaties between powerful and lesser kings and were common around the eastern Mediterranean rim. Berman is not the first to note these similarities as they have been discussed in scholarly literature for more than sixty years.[5]

The Israelites would have been familiar with those Vassal Treaties and the style would have well resonated with them on a simple literary level.



Evidence shows that most Vassal Treaties begin with what Berman terms a “historical prologue” which describes the events leading up to the treaty and setting out the necessity for such a contract. They often describe in elaborate terms how the greater king redeemed the lesser king either by sending supplies during a famine or by providing military assistance during a war. The lesser king acknowledges his earlier appeal for support during the crisis, and the greater king reminds him that salvation comes with conditions. Now that all is well, it becomes time to submit to the stipulations and conditions of the new contractual relationship.

This is exactly mirrored at Sinai. The account of the Sinai covenant in Exodus 19-24 is preceded by the historical prologue of the deliverance from slavery. The standard formula used in these Vassal Treaties began with:

These are the words of … [the name of the greater king is inserted]”, followed immediately by the details of the act of deliverance. 

In the opening of the Ten Commandments, we find a similar style: “G-d spoke these words, sayingI am the L-rd you G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.’”[6]

The covenant with Israel is not with the universal G-d who created the heavens and the earth, but with the G-d who delivered the nation - or better the “kingdom” of Israel, a “mamlechet Cohanim”, the kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) - from servitude. This opening verse of the Ten Commandments is clearly unnecessary after the story has already been going on for nineteen chapters, but it becomes necessary when we view it as a separate contract or covenant known as a “brit”.

The convergence between the Ten Commandments and Vassal Treaties becomes even more apparent when we see Israel beseeching the Sovereign King to save them. This point is made earlier on in the narrative (Exodus 2:23) and its record becomes a binding mechanism between the subservient nation and the Redeemer. Just like the Vassal Treaties make the point that the process was initiated by the weaker king, who once saved, becomes obliged to keep the stipulations of the greater king.



When the initial formalities have been dispensed with in historical prologues to the Vassal Treaties, a list of binding stipulations follows, which serve to secure the loyalty expected from the lesser king. The ancient Vassal Treaty between Suppiluliuma and Aziru, for example, warns:

“If you seek the well-being of another [king] … thereby you will break the oath”[7]

We similarly find in the Ten Commandments:

“You shall have no other gods before Me.”[8]

The audience at that time, would have well understood both the style and structure of the Ten Commandments as it indeed had spoken in the language of man”. The modern reader would not pick this subtlety up without understanding the style of the Vassal Treaties, and would simply read it saying the other gods were false. But this is more than an observation of the falsehood of other gods, it is demand for reciprocity in loyalty for deliverance in the past and a reminder that breaking this injunction is tantamount to religious treason.



In the Vassal Treaties there is often a demand for the lesser king to appear before the greater king at regular intervals. One treaty demands the lesser king appear before: “…His Majesty and look upon the face of His Majesty.

The Torah also calls upon the Israelites to appear before the face of Sovereign G-d:

“Three times a year shall all your males appear before the face of the Master, the L-rd G-d of Israel.”[9]

This too would have readily been understood as acceptable to an audience at that time that knew the “language of man”.

The Vassal Treaties contained the stipulation of a mandatory periodic public reading of the treaty to the people. The treaty between Mursili II of Hatti and Kupanta-Kurunta of Mira-Kuwaliya reads:

“[This tablet which] I have made [for you], shall be read out [before you three times yearly].”[10]

The Torah tell us:

“[Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people…”[11]


“When all Israel comes to appear before the L-rd your G-d, in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before Israel, in their ears.”[12]



The Vassal Treaties usually had to be held within the temple of the subordinate’s deity. This demonstrated the respect the lesser king had for the greater king. With Israel, the Treaty was held in the Sanctuary and Temple which housed the Aron haBrit or Ark of the Covenant.



One of the requirements of the Vassal Treaty culture was that if a treaty was damaged or lost, it had to be immediately replaced. We see that with Moshe, after the tablets were broken, a new set had to replace the old ones.



The Vassal Treaties called for the agreement to be witnessed, usually by the gods of the ancient world, and to exact punishment if the terms and conditions of the treaty were not met. One Vassal Treaty reads:

“The mountains, the rivers, the springs, the great sea, heaven and earth, the winds and the clouds. They shall be witness to this treaty and this oath… [I]f [name of vassal king] does not observe these words of the treaty and oath, but transgress the oath, then these oath gods shall destroy [name of vassal king].”[13]

Deuteronomy contains similar expressions:

“I appoint heaven and earth this day to bear witness against you that you will surely perish quickly from the land… you shall not have lengthy days upon it, for you will be destroyed.”[14]



Berman (2020:95) writes how the Torah uses a familiar motif as a means of pedagogy:

“[T]he Torah uses this model to help concretize for Israel what it means to be in a relationship with God, using a model that was readily familiar throughout the region at that time. We have always known that the Torah portrayed God as a sovereign, a king, The vassal treaty literature allows us greater definition in our understanding of God as king…”



Berman uses this Vassal Treaty idea, as a backdrop to try explain the larger question we started with, namely, how do we understand the conflictory accounts of major events, scattered through the Torah?

The main difference between Vassal Treaties and contemporary contracts today (besides the obvious differences such as the types of witnesses etc.), is the historical prologue, mentioned earlier. Nowadays, countries seek strategic alliances as a matter of course, but that was not always the case. It was first, during the second millennium BCE -  our very period of interest - that states started seeing alliances as a worthwhile political endeavour. 

During this time there were two main regional powers, the Hittites based in the north in what is today modern Turkey, and the Egyptians. These became the two main sovereign powers and smaller city-states throughout the Levant (Israel, Lebanon and Syria) would be the vassals. The Hittites were not aggressive in that they generally tried to make peaceful agreements with those under their dominion. The smaller city-states would sometimes play the Egyptians against the Hittites and vice versa. Alliances, in this sense were therefore fragile and needed to be nurtured. This political game-playing is borne out by as collection of over three hundred letters from vassals to the king of Egypt in the fourteenth century BCE, known as the El Amarna Letters.

Berman (2020:96-7) explains that when the scribes who drew up these Vassal Treaties wrote the required historical prologues to the agreements; they were not doing so in the interests of history. The notion of history, then, was very different from the scientific discipline it is today. They were politicians, not historians, and they were participating in diplomatic signalling. A tone of diplomacy had to be set in order to proceed with negotiations and a final agreement. To this end, certain aspects of their past association had to be emphasised or possibly even negated. Usually, the treaties were drawn up the powerful king and he would sometimes vacillate between being generous and openly intimidating. These historical prologues set the tone for, and put the political spin on, the future agreements.

When circumstances changed or when a vassal king died, a new treaty was established. Evidence points to the fact that often the historical prologues changed to reflect different political interests. It would show how the new vassal king’s father, or predecessor, came to establish the relationship in the first place. In one instance, there is a record of the original treaty between the Hittite king and a city-state called Amurru (Emori?), followed by three renewals of that treaty. In each successive case, the ‘facts’ of their ‘history’ changed. As a rule, the historical prologues are never the same with renewed Vassal Treaties, and sometime they are irreconcilable and contradictory. The treaty was about the message not the facts of the past. Archaeological evidence shows that old treaties were preserved even after new ones were drawn up, and it is clearly evident, therefore, that the historical prologues were not meant as an accurate history, but as a means of political signalling. And, importantly, this was understood by both sides at the outset. This was the style in which Vassal Treaties were made at that time and, interestingly, there is no record of the historicity being questioned or challenged even when the parties concerned knew of a different set of facts.



Berman (2020:102) then suggests that this is way we need to view some of the stories in the Torah that appear to retell events differently, particularly in the book of Deuteronomy. We need to read them in the way people would have read then in earlier times, in their cultural perspective, and not through the critical lens of our modern culture.

Berman (2020:105-6) throws in one final argument to buttress his support of the Vassal Treaty approach over both the competing histories approach (source criticism) and the classic rabbinic approach of harmonisation of diverse accounts:

Ramses II commissioned his Kadesh poem to commemorate the Battle of Kadesh. Across Egypt, Ramses got his workers to carve three accounts of the battle. The three accounts of the battle are also irreconcilable with each other and contradictory when viewed from a modern historical perspective. Yet each has something unique to offer. One represents Ramses’ gratefulness to his god Amun. The second represents his own valour in battle. And the third represents the bravery of his chariot brigade. Instead of three different accounts, where either Amun, Ramses himself, or his special chariot brigade was solely responsible for the victory, these were the three lessons Ramses intended to convey to his people even though they appear to contradict each other when taken out of context. Ramses was telling his people that all three components worked together to secure the victory.

On this view, Deuteronomy, also known as mishneh Torah, or a retelling of the Torah, should be viewed as G-d, the Sovereign King, renewing the covenant/treaty with the rebellious vassal nation of Israelites. Deuteronomy follows the same pattern as the Vassal Treaties with the historical prologue (chapters 1-11), the list of stipulations, or mitzvot (chapters 12-26), and the witnesses and curses if the treaty is not honoured, following at the end. Old stories are retold in another perspective with a new agenda. This is not meant as rewriting of history and was never understood on that basis. The changes were not in the history which everyone knew anyway, but rather in the subtleties of a renewed relationship with renewed emphases. Initially, with the first Treaty at Sinai, there was hope that all would be good, but forty years in the wilderness had strained the relationship. There was now a need for a renewal of the Treaty and therefore a new historical prologue in a generally more critical tone to that found in earlier accounts. This reflected the needs of the moment in a way that everyone present would have immediately and contextually understood - because “the Torah speaks in the language of man” and “the prophet expresses himself through the conventions of the times”.


[1] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 3:29. Translation by S. Pines (1963).

[2] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:49. Translation by M. Friedländer (1903).

[3] Berman, J., 2020, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, Maggid Books.

[4] From the blurb of Berman’s book.

[5] Berman, J., 2008, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Oxford University Press, New York.

[6] Exodus 20:1-2.

[7] Singer, I., 1997, ‘The Treaties Between Hatti and Amurru’, in The Context of Scripture II: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, Hallo, W.W. (ed.), Brill, Netherlands, Leiden, 95.

[8] Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 5:6.

[9] Exodus 34:23.

[10] See Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts, 81.

[11] Exodus 24:7.

[12] Deuteronomy 31:11.

[13] See Beckman, Hittite Diplomatic Texts, 58.

[14] Deuteronomy 4:26. See also 30:19 and 32:1.

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