Ancient Near Eastern Covenants -- By: Roy E. Beacham
JMAT 15:1 (Spring 2011) p. 110
Ancient Near Eastern Covenants
Professor of Old Testament
Central Baptist Theological Seminary
The topic of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) covenants is formidable. Volumes have been written, and conclusions vary. Unfortunately, much of the conversation surrounding the New Covenant of Scripture seems either to ignore or to discount the covenant form of the ANE.1 The purpose here is not to compare all of the similar components of the two. Rather, the purpose is to examine and summarize important elements of ANE covenants as those elements provide clarity for the interpretation of the New Covenant in text of Scripture.2 A
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better understanding of ANE covenant forms should assist in eliminating some of the misunderstandings regarding the New Covenant. As Mendenhall suggests, “A study of the covenant form as we know it in ancient legal documents may possibly serve to bring into the chaos of opinion some objective criteria.”3 The study of any text of Scripture divorced from its cultural setting and historical context is insufficient for formulating conclusions with regard to meaning. Such failure is particularly notable in the study of the New Covenant, both in its Old or New Testament settings.
Covenant Genre: The ANE
Foundationally, ANE covenants were legal instruments. Like any formal, contractual document, stringent conventions surrounded their creation, implementation, execution, and perpetuation.4 Covenant enactment was precise. Covenant terms were precise, detailed, and unified. Deviation or
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contravention often incurred severe penalties as specified in the agreement. Covenants, like any legal instruments, were to be taken quite seriously. They were not ambiguously formulated, lightly contracted, indifferently enforced, or inconsequentially breached.5
Covenant Terminology: The ANE
Specific terms were attached to covenants and covenant making in the Semitic world of the ANE. In Akkadian, biritu meant “to clasp” or “to fetter.” Similarly, the Hebrew term בֲּרִית denoted “a bond, pact, treaty,” or “accord.”6 It signified a formal agreement between parties that effec...
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