The Theology of Israel’s Suzerainty Treatise

In the ancient near east there were two common forms of treaties.  One is the parity treatise, which happens between two social equals.  The other is the suzerainty treatise, which is between the suzerain and their vassal.  This latter form is the structure we see in the Sinai Covenant in Exodus 19-24.  The suzerain treaty consists of a combination of the following six characteristics, though not necessarily all of them: identification of the suzerain, history of relationship between suzerain and vassal, stipulations, provision where copies of treaty are kept, divine witness to treaty, and blessings for observing the treaty.  In Exodus 19-24, we see almost all these characteristics fulfilled, and see how Israel creates their own unique theological perspective on their relationship with their God, Yahweh.

When looking at the biblical text, Levenson has pointed out that the covenant language starts in Exodus 19:3.  In verse 4, we see a short historical relationship between God and Israel.  In verses 5-6, God promises Israel blessings of being his “treasured possession”, a “kingdom of priests”, and a “holy nation”.  We see a much more detailed version of the blessings associated with this covenant in chapter 23:20-33. Here God promises fertility, health, long life, land and more if they hold to this covenant.  The rest of chapter 19 functions as a preparation for the stipulations portion of the covenant which is started by the Decalogue.  

In what is considered the prolog to the Decalogue by Protestants, God identifies himself as Yahweh, and reminds Israel that it was he who brought them out of Egypt.  In the following verse, verse 3, Yahweh demands Israel to display absolute loyalty to him and forbids them to have any other gods before him.  This command is repeated multiple times throughout the covenant (Ex. 20:23, Ex. 22:20, Ex. 23:13, 24-25, 32-33).  It is standard for the suzerain to accept only absolute loyalty in a suzerainty treatise.  The rest of Yahweh’s stipulations are seen in chapters 21-23.  Here, we see the outworking of the idea that fellow vassals under the suzerain should not cause harm to one another.  

The other two characteristics of a suzerain treaty are not commonly seen as being a part of the text here in Exodus 19-24.  The provision of where to deposit the covenant isn’t addressed until Ex. 25:16, where God tells Moses to put the tablets in the Ark of the Covenant.  In regard to the divine witness, Levenson argues that this portion of the treaty isn’t really seen here but in Joshua 24 when God renews the covenant with Joshua.  He suggests that in verse 27, the rock that heard Yahweh’s words will serve as the witness.  That may be so, however, I do think we see evidence of calling to a witness, and even a divine witness to the covenant.  After giving the Ten Commandments, God says in chapter 20:22, “You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven.”  Here, it could be seen that God is calling Israel as a witness themselves to the formation of the covenant.  Beyond that, in declaring that they have heard him “from heaven”, God is calling attention to his divinity implying that he will serve as a divine witness.  For after making this proclamation, he reminds them again not to make any gods next to him.  If they can’t appeal to any other gods because they are pledged solely to Yahweh, then Yahweh is the only divinity that can serve as a divine witness to the covenant.  

The covenant then concludes with Moses restating God’s words through reading the “Book of the Covenant”, and Israel proclaiming that they agree to this covenant (Ex. 24:7).  It is clear from the language, structure, and form of Exodus 19-24, that we are dealing with a covenant being made between Yahweh and Israel.  The writers, being bound by their context, used the suzerain treatise to form and explain the sort of relationship Israel had with Yahweh.  That being said, Israel was able to make some very prominent and unique theological declarations about Yahweh and their relationship with him.  

First off, Coogan points out that Israel is the only known Near Eastern people to characterize their relationship with their deity with contract or treaty language.  This does two things for Israel.  First, it displays the unprecedented intimacy Yahweh has with his people. Yahweh making a covenant with Israel shows the rest of the world that this relationship is more than a slave/master relationship.  Yahweh has committed himself to the people of Israel and is invested in their flourishing.  Unlike other deities who only put obligations on their people, Yahweh has now put obligations on himself on how he must interact and deal with Israel.  

Even the word used for covenant, berit, implies an intimate relationship.  It is the word used for legal agreements like marriage, debt-slavery, and solemn friendships.  In a marriage and friendship, each party pledges to love and display loyalty to one other.  The bible frequently displays Israel and God as in a marriage.  Israel as the bride will have only one husband (i.e. one God) and will love him.  God as the husband will protect and care for his faithful bride.    

Secondly, this helps build the ground for the monotheism of Israel.  We see this enforced from two interrelated perspectives on the covenant.  Since Yahweh is a deity, there is no reason for there to be other deities to be called as witness to ensure each party fulfills their obligations.  Closely related to this, as suzerains do with their vassals, God demands absolute loyalty.  As a deity, this prevents Israel from appealing to any other deities for anything.  God is the only deity they follow, and he must fulfill all the roles of the divine since he is the only one.  Yahweh is now responsible for controlling nature, health, protection, food, fertility, etc.  All belongs to Yahweh.  That is why Yahweh tells them that “the whole earth is mine” (Ex. 19:5).  

The last theological implication I would like to focus on is the way the laws are viewed.  It is God himself that forms the laws that are to govern and guide the community of Israel.  In breaking a law, you are directly opposing how God has said Israel should act.  Beyond that, Coogan points out that it is Yahweh who is fashioning together this community.  So, any violation of his commands causes chaos in the community and disrupts communal order.  This is also an offense against Yahweh by unraveling what he has put together.

The Sinai Covenant we see in Exodus in 19-24 is instrumental to the faith of anyone who follows Yahweh.  In this covenant, the biblical authors worked to frame their understanding of how Israel relates to Yahweh.  This came through in the form of a suzerain treaty.  As such, this has important theological implications that deeply affected the Israelite community, who God specifically made this covenant with.  Most prominently, we see the way this covenant proclaims a monotheistic worldview that contains a deity that is intimately related too and concerned with those he enters into covenant with.  


Coogan, Michael David., and Cynthia Ruth Chapman. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Levenson, Jon D. Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible. Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985.

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