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Ten Commandments as Treaty

Religious Issues in the Ten Commandments


It has been suggested by some scholars that the Ten Commandments is best understood by comparing it to some of the treaties written during the same time period. Rather than a list of laws, the commandments are in this view actually an agreement between God and his chosen people, the Hebrews. A number of interesting features of the Ten Commandments become more understandable when we adopt such a perspective.

Conceiving of the Ten Commandments as a type of treaty is very sensible when we remember that even in the biblical text the laws given to Israel are described as a “covenant” (b’rit) between God and Israel. The relationship between the Jews and God is thus at least as much legal as it is personal.

Scholars are able to compare the Ten Commandments with a number of treaties that were created as far back as 2500 BCE in and around Mesopotamia. No one knows where the first international treaty was written, but even the earliest treaties testify that a long legal and treaty tradition preceded them. There is also evidence of a great deal of continuity in form and language used in the treaties over the millennia. There were even scribes who specialized in legal terminology, apparently, because the wording used in treaties was highly formalized and unlike conventional discourse.

Most of the treaties that have been found can be divided into two categories: parity treaties between relatively equal powers and suzerain-vassal treaties between parties of greatly unequal power. The latter type was, obviously, much more common and the Ten Commandments appear to follow their typical format. Even if the ancient Hebrews didn’t quite think of their covenant with God in the same way they thought of a treaty with a foreign power, it would have been natural to use some of the same language and concepts, given the great similarities in form and function.

In his book Exploring Exodus, Nahum M. Sarna explains that ancient Hittite treaties generally conformed to a standard pattern of six parts: a preamble (identifying the treaty’s initiator and attributes), a historical review (explaining the relationship between the parties and reminding the subordinate party of their dependance on the suzerain), the stipulations (what is expected of each party), a call for deposition (placing the treaty in a place of honor in the vassal’s city), a list of witnesses (usually gods), and finally a statement of curses and blessings (what will happen if the terms of the treaty are or are not followed.

The Ten Commandments follow this pattern remarkably well. They open with a preamble, continue with a historical review, and moves on to the list of stipulations (the main body of the commandments).At this point the Ten Commandments end and the final three elements don’t appear — but it is arguable that they can be found later in the biblical text. There are provisions for the Torah to be read out to the public who act as witnesses, the Torah is supposed to be kept safe in a place of sanctuary, and there is a multitude of curses and blessings that may be bestowed upon the Israelites, depending on how well they do at keeping up their end of the covenant.

None of this should be taken to suggest that the Ten Commandments were designed as an exact duplicate of any ancient treaties from the Near East. There are at least as many differences as there are similarities. The point is to understand that the Ten Commandments is a document that is very much rooted in specific historical and cultural circumstances. This is only to be expected because, as noted above, if people are going to hammer out an agreement between themselves and their god, then it’s natural that they might adapt models they are already familiar with.

It is interesting to think about the idea, though, that people today who are so vociferous in their defense of government displays of the Ten Commandments are, in a sense, defending the authority of their government to display an example of the sorts of treaties common to empires that have been dead for thousands of years.

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