Q&A: Various Types of Treaties

Various Types of Treaties

What are some of the differences between an ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaty and parity treaty?

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Answer

We see in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Genesis, two different types of treaties exhibited in Scripture. First, we see what we call a "parity treaty" between two people of equal ability, equal authority, in which they make an agreement that is mutually beneficial to both. So take for example Abraham and Abimelech, or even later on with his son Isaac. Abimelech reinstitutes a covenant with him because the covenant ends with the death of one of the two party members. And so, in cases like that, you have a treaty that is intended to benefit both, perhaps and most likely through the purpose of peace between the two parties so that neither party gets hurt, and that way they can both coexist or at least reasonably coexist with each other without any future issues. The second kind of treaty that we see is actually between what some people in the ancient Near Eastern called the "suzerainty-vassal treaty," and that's usually between unequal powers, one who is stronger and greater, who most likely has already overtaken you and conquered you and would now like to be in a relationship in which the greater person, the suzerain, receives all the benefits from the vassal. So, most often, it requires allegiance from the vassal to continue to pledge their allegiance to the suzerain. But most importantly, it actually also requires taxation. So, the suzerain, for the most part, will come yearly to the vassal and exact from it all the necessary animals, oil, all the wheat and barley that the suzerain will require for the coming year. And so, as a result, the vassal will typically tax his own people to make up for this relationship. But there is a benefit for the vassal and that is the suzerain will in turn come to its rescue whenever there is any conquering army or invading army that is in their presence, and so they had that kind of mutual protective relationship there as well.

Answer by Dr. Daniel Kim