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  • Rıdvan Demir

THE SINAITIC COVENANT



In this workshop, I will discuss the special Sinaitic covenant between Yahweh and His people Israel within the context of the book named Sinai and Zion written by Jon D. Levenson. First, I will try to discuss whether the covenant at Sinai resembles a suzerainty/vassal treaty or a marriage as a relationship between Yahweh God and his people? Second, what are the different interpretations of Jewish and Christian traditions? Third and last, what is the theological significance of the Sinaitic covenant for today’s Muslims, or how can Muslims of our day understand this kind of covenant? Can we know what really happened on Mount Sinai? Honest historians must answer almost nothing in reply to this question. We do not even know, according to some authorities, if Mount Sinai and Herob are the same place, where God and Moses spoke.[1] Exodus 19:3-8 is accepted as an introduction to the entire revelation on Sinai. Yahweh and Israel conclude a bilateral relationship: he will grant them a special status, so only Israel, as the people of Yahweh, have to obey Him.


Soon after the giving of the Ten Commandments, we meet the “book of the covenant” (Exodus 20:22-23:33); later we see another law-code in Leviticus 17-26, which concludes thus: “These are the laws, rules and instructions, which YAHWEH established between himself and the Israelites on Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses.” (Lev. 26:46). ‘Modern scholars date Deuteronomy 12-26 and various codes to different periods in Israel’s history, all post-mosaic.’[2]


“In the Bronze Age (ca. 1500-1200 B.C.E.), the Hittite emperor… treaties, in the ancient world, were of principally two types, parity and suzerainty. Parity treaties were between equals; suzerainty treaties were between unequals, the great king whom we shall call the suzerain and the petty monarch, whom we term the vassal”[3] That is known as the covenant formulary that is so important for understanding biblical studies. When God decided to speak, His prophet Moses was mediator in the covenant relationship. Thus, Yahweh announced everything through Moses. Yahweh gives people Himself. Israelites’ special position was the status of royalty which was a kind of kingdom. Hence God and Israel were being two kings, which one of them was like an empire and one was like a province, as God decided and wanted. In other words, Israel was superior to all nations all over the world.[4] This kind of correlation was necessary for man according to the Hebrew Bible. Israel had become the vassal of Yahweh; Yahweh has become the suzerain of Israel.[5]


This relationship cannot be inconceivable but only as recognition of the love and law between Yahweh and his people. It is essential, nonetheless, that concepts of love from Yahweh to his people and law from his people to Yahweh become instrumental components through which to examine the valences. It is important to remember that this never means an opposite relationship is impossible. Now we must note, in addition, the relationship between God and His people’s beyond suzerainty and a vassal relationship, because, in my opinion, love is not necessary for political relationships, only law.


As is well known, Yahweh and Israelites relationship is not only of politics, but also involves love. At the heart of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh is a dialogue of love. In the Jewish wedding ceremony, the ketubbah, or marriage contract, connotes love. This relationship is clear in two passages, Exodus 19:3-8 and Joshua 24:1-28. God and Israel herself are in such a relationship. Israel accepts her place in the suzerain-vassal relationship. “Yahweh our God we will serve; him alone we will obey” (v.24). In Mal. 2:14, the prophet recognizes the institution of marriage as an instance of covenant, because Yahweh is the witness, and divorce is forbidden as treason. In fact, many prophets present Israel’s relationship with Yahweh as marriage. “The Prophet Hosea, for example, a man of the eighth century B.C.E., believed that Yahweh had commanded him to marry a prostitute in order to exemplify the apostasy and promiscuity of Israel.”[6]


There is only one deity, the suzerain Yahweh. Every god is a potential suzerain who might displace Yahweh, a potential paramour with whom the unimportant contact harbors the ominous capacity to destroy the covenant. Thus, if Israel has other suzerains or intermarriages, it would great affect the relationship between Israel and their Yahweh. The prohibition on polytheism is a corollary of the exclusivity of the suzerain-vassal and marriage relationships, different from other monotheistic religions’ understanding of monotheism. The most important parallels of the biblical texts are the covenantal proscription on intercourse with other suzerains.


Why Israel should have taken one of the other Gods as her suzerain? C. B. Labuschagne suggests the answer is in historical experience of Israelite: God Yahweh delivered His people Israel alone from Egypt. “Both Israel as a nation and the Israelite as an individual stand in the position of royal vassals of the divine suzerain.”[7] God and the state are not the same. So God has prohibited His people from governing themselves. The Sinaitic covenant serves as an eternal rebuke to man’s arrogant belief that he can govern himself. The state is not coeval with God.


“Law conceived in love, love expressed in law. The two are a unity. To speak of one apart from the other is to produce a parody of the religion of Israel. The love of God moves Israel to embrace the norms of Sinai”[8] The first verse of the shma clearly states: ‘listen, Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone’ (Deut. 6:4). This verse recognizes the old suzerainty treaties with one Lord alone. Hence, we can say the Lord is divine; the verse is a classical statement of covenantal monotheism, i.e., the prohibition of service to other suzerains.[9] In short, the recitation of the shma is a renewal ceremony recognizing that Mount Sinai is the intersection of love and law.


Can we say Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible are the same as Jewish ones? If they are the same, why is Christian faith different than the Jewish? We know that it is not the same which means both faiths have different interpretation each other. Christ as ‘the end of the law’ (Rom 10:4), but does the Hebrew Bible really suggest this interpretation? This understanding is not the same as Christian interpretation. For deliverance, in the Hebrew Bible, means collective and historical salvation, but it is not individual for people of Yahweh, Israel.[10] In short, Judaic interpretation and perspective is more different than Christian ones in law. In light of the biblical ideas, we can say that while there is retaliation in the punishment law in Judaism there is not so much in Christianity, because we know that to forgive is a main principal in Christian law system (or morality system).


Likewise, the covenant understandings are really different in the two traditions. While Jewish scholars say Yahweh has established a covenant with His people which is never ‘old’ and ‘ageless’ between their God Yahweh and themselves, Christian scholars believe that when Jesus the Messiah came then God reestablished the new covenant through Jesus in the New Testament. It is my contention, however, that Judaic understanding, in this event, is really against this Christian understanding which many Jewish have expected Malikh ha-Mashiah (the King Messiah) from line of David who is not Jesus in the Judaic perspective, although all Christians believe this person Jesus the Nazareth was the son of David. Finally, Sinaitic covenant, in Judaism is a covenant established solely between God of them, a lovely people of Yahweh.




For Muslims of today, the Sinai tic covenant is accepted and should be accepted. According to all Islamic scholars, the covenant established between Yahweh and his people is historical because this covenant was made when there was no religious tradition in place like the one of Judaism. Hence, Israelites were superior to other nations of paganism or other faiths that were not in adherence to the straight path of God. On the other hand, according to Islam Prophet Abraham, Moses (and also Jesus the Nazareth, peace be upon them) was prophets of Islam. In Islamic theology, Allah has sent many different prophets who were messengers of Allah. However, Allah has sent only one religion, which is Islam. Nevertheless, this religion has only one credo/belief and morality system although it had different law systems for different geographies and times until Allah sent only one religion, which is Islam. Thus, at least, in theory, it is possible that Yahweh has wanted to establish a covenant with His people who were to believe in only one God as monotheistic.


Today, any Jew can claim that all Jewish people are superior to all other nations who believe in one God only, whether in the Christian or Muslim world. Can Jews of our day say that God loves only them, and thus they are guaranteed a certain status with God? Probably many Jews who internalize justice will respond accordingly to the notions of salvation. If one believes in one God, then his name, Yahweh, God (God the Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit), or Allah can be understood as an expression of these various characteristics. God is an exalted being, more superior to things which has been created, everything of which God Himself created according to all Abrahamic traditions. He is the One who knows everything about the unknown (gayb); he alone is the one who knows about the future.

[1] Jon L. Levenson, Sinai and Zion, Minneapolis, MN, 1985, p.16-17. [2] p. 18. [3] p. 26. [4] p. 31-32. [5] p. 35-36. [6] p. 76 [7] p. 72. [8] p. 77. [9] p. 82-83. [10] p. 44-45.

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