Archaeology and Biblical Covenants

How have archaeological discoveries helped us understand biblical covenants?

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The faith of Israel, just like the Christian faith, is unique. It doesn't fit with any other religion in the world. But that's not to say that there aren't parallels between the Christian faith or Israel's faith that we can find in other ways of life, other religions, other cultures, even cultures that haven't been deeply influenced by the faith of Israel or by the Christian faith. And that's the way it is when it comes to the parallels that scholars often point out between biblical covenants and documents that we have discovered in recent history from the ancient Near East. There are parallels. That's not to say that Israel's covenants are simply like those things in the ancient world. They're not. They're different from those things, but there are some similarities, and these similarities do help us, in some respects, understand the workings of God's covenants in the Bible, because you always have to remember that the people living in the days of the Bible knew about these other things. They were common knowledge. And because it was common knowledge to them, they didn't need the help that we often need, living so long after those times and so ignorant of those general cultural norms that everyone in that day understood. Well, in recent history there have been discoveries of texts from all over the ancient Near East, from the Hittites, and from Egypt, and from the Babylonians, and from the Assyrians, and all around, where you can find parallels that exist between documents that were given by ancient Near Eastern emperors and great kings and the ways that they regulated their kingdoms through these documents. Now, oddly enough, when God regulates his kingdom in the Bible, he regulates them by means of covenants, and these covenants have parallels, or have similarities, to the kinds of documents that we've found that ancient Near Eastern kings used. Again, that's not to say that God's just another ancient Near Eastern king or that Israel is just making this up because everybody believed it in these days. Rather, it's to say that God actually revealed himself this way to Israel, but in a unique and different way, still with some parallels and some similarities. Now, one of the great controversies these days has to do with, what are those parallels? And what kind of documents from the ancient world actually give us those parallels? And sometimes people will say, "Well, there are these documents called "royal land grants" — or "royal grants," because there's a variety of them — where great kings or great leaders would grant land or offices or privileges to people. And we have these documents because, often, they're on the sides of these kudurri, these boundary markers that mark them off, and the words were there, and we've discovered them, and we can read them. And they do sound in many respects, many times, a lot like the kinds of things you find in Bible covenants. Another set of these documents from the ancient Near East is what we often call now "suzerain-vassal treaties," and these were treaties that were made between great kings and lesser kings establishing what their relationship was going to be and how things were going to be run in this big empire that the great king was establishing through these little kingdoms that he had conquered. And there are lots of parallels between those documents and biblical covenants also. Again, that's not to say that the biblical covenants can be reduced to these things or that they are simply products of that ancient Near Eastern world, but rather that God revealed himself in ways that people could understand. And the way they understood things in their day was represented, in some respects, by these kinds of ancient Near Eastern documents. And so, it's just very helpful to be able to look at those documents so long as we don't fall into the trap of thinking that because there are some parallels, everything is parallel, or because there are some similarities, everything is similar, because the Bible tells us that God is our great divine king. He is not a human king, he's a divine king, and that he is wise and that he's holy, that he's not like any other king you can possibly imagine, not even like the other gods, so-called "gods," that he is greater than them all, and that he has his ways that he does things. And so, his covenants stand out for Israel and the new covenant for the Christian church. They stand out as distinct from all these other ancient Near Eastern documents that we can find and that we can study. As much as they can help us, they can only help us a bit, because the only resource that gives us reliable, absolutely reliable understanding of what biblical covenants are is the Bible itself.

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.