NOTE: The primary source for all covenant-related information in this series is two sources:  Kitchen, K. A. (1966). Ancient Orient and Old Testament. London: Tyndale Press; and  Mendenhall, G. (1954). Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East, The Biblical Archaeologist (XVII), Vol. 2 and 3.
Introduction to Suzerain Covenants
At the risk of oversimplifying the Bible, one could rightly argue that the key to understanding the entirety of Scripture is to understand the role of covenants. The very terms we use for Old Testament and New Testament should rightly be translated “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant”—the Bible is essentially a history of covenants between man and God. In modern times, we far too often forget the manner in which God the Father is described in the Bible—He is not described as a buddy who comes over to hang out and watch a football game. He is described as Lord, King, and Sovereign. The Bible portrays God as being the sovereign king of the entire universe, and we humans are His vassals—serfs whom He provides with protection, sustenance, and our very lives. Because God is a King and we are but subjects, the normal and proper method for interaction between these two parties in the Ancient Near East Biblical terms is a Suzerain Covenant—a treaty or contract between a greater party and a lesser party. It is no accident that every covenant of the Old Testament closely match the form of a suzerain covenant.
A suzerain covenant is a contract or agreement between a greater and lesser party—it might be a treaty to end a war, a business contract between two landowners, or a marriage commitment. The suzerain is the dominant party, the nation or lord who has legal (and often military) control over the other party. The vassal is the lesser party, who is dependent upon the greater party in order to survive.
One example of this relationship would be Israel and the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. The kingdom of Israel, fearing the Seleucid Empire to their east, made a covenant with the Roman Empire. The role of the vassal (Israel) in such cases is to show loyalty and respect, and honor the laws and commands given by the suzerain; the role of the suzerain (Rome) is to protect the lesser party and ensure that they are able to be a successful province. It is the same between man and God—man, as the vassal, owes God loyalty, respect, and obedience.
We do not owe it to Him because of anything He does for us—we owe it to Him purely because of His right to the Throne of the universe. In return, God (as a benevolent suzerain) pledges to provide His people with protection from evil, to provide for our needs, and to give us the opportunities to be successful. It is with this relationship in mind that we are to approach the Father, and through this relationship He has made several covenants with mankind throughout the ages.
Covenants in the Ancient Near East consisted of six parts, most of which were present in all covenants:
1. Preamble: preamble or title identifying the parties involved;
2. Historical prologue: a retrospect describing the previous noble actions of the suzerain party to the vassal (may not apply if these two parties have no prior history;
3. Conditions and terms: a list of stipulations to which the vassal agrees (often comes in two sections, one general and one detailed)
4. Deposition of the covenant: a presentation of the covenant to the vassal, either through a physical copy or a public reading (this was often, though not always, performed);
5. Witnessing of the covenant: in polytheistic lands, a list of gods who witnessed the covenant were listed; in Judaism, the witness was either other people, repeated events, or physical objects (rainbow, stones, Passover, “the people”, etc.).
6. Curses and blessings: description of curses for breaking the covenant and/or blessings for following the covenant.
For an example, let us look at a non-spiritual covenant from the Bible, in Genesis 31.
Here, Jacob flees his father-in-law Laban’s house with all of his family and wealth. When Laban tracks him down, they decide to make a covenant. As the father-in-law and head of the family (and the chief landowner upon which Jacob lived), Laban was the suzerain party and Jacob was his vassal. In this case, Laban had the right (in his society) to do great harm to Jacob for his betrayal, but because God warned him not to, the two decided to make peace. It follows the required sections:
1. Preamble: the parties are identified as Laban and Jacob, Gen 31:43-44: “The Laban said replied to Jacob…’So now come, let us make a covenant, you and I.’ “ Laban is the suzerain party, and Jacob is the vassal party.
2. Historical prologue: Laban reminds Jacob that Jacob’s family and wealth all came from Laban (Gen 31:43: “The daughters are my daughters, and the children and my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine.”)
3. Conditions and terms: Jacob is required to treat Laban’s daughters well, to avoid taking other wives, and to never pass by the stones in order to do Laban harm (Gen 31:50-52: “If you [Jacob] mistreat my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters [you break the covenant]…and [also promise] you will not pass by this heap and this pillar for me, for harm.”)
4. Witnessing of the covenant: A heap and pillar, as well as God, are called as witnesses to the covenant, Gen 31: 50, 52: “God is witness between you and me…This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness.”
5. Curses and blessings: In return for following the covenant, Laban also promises that he will not attack Jacob or enact his right to do him harm, Gen 31:29, 52: “It is in my power to do you harm…[but] I will not pass by this heap to you for harm.”
Note also that the proper method of a suzerain contract is for the suzerain to call for the covenant, as Laban does above and God does with every covenant of the Bible. This is the reason that Jesus tells us that God calls us to Him before we can be saved—cf. John 6:44, 15:16. Some people mistake the fact that God convicts us or calls us first as a sign of predestination, but this is not true. It is simply the proper method in which any covenant is fulfilled—the sovereign contacts the vassal, not the other way around!
Key Covenants of the Bible
The Bible contains five major covenants, some of which apply to Jews only, and some to all of mankind. We will look at each individually, and see how they are organized. Pay special attention to whom each covenant applies—you might be surprised to find out what you are already “signed up” for! The covenants are listed in chronological order. (Note: all Scriptural quotes from NASB.) We will discuss each in a separate post. The five covenants are:
1. Adamic Covenant
2. Noahic Covenant
3. Abramic Covenant
4. Mosaic Covenant
5. Christian Covenant