Covenants in Context

The base of Shalmaneser III’s throne from Nimrud, c. 845 BCE, detail from the central register. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The theme of covenant is central to the Hebrew Bible. It provides the background to many of its most memorable stories where Yahweh establishes alliances with figures such as Noah (Genesis 9), Abraham (Genesis 12; Genesis 15; Genesis 17), Moses (Exodus 19; Exodus 24), Aaron (Exodus 29; Numbers 18:19), and David (2 Samuel 7).

Yet modern biblical scholarship has marginalized the covenantal aspects of the Hebrew Bible in favor of the many individuals and events associated with such arrangements, which are generally reduced to their legal aspects and interpreted as obligations subsumed under the law (Hebrew: torah). The word torah even serves to designate the first major division of the Hebrew Bible. Reading the Bible in its wider Near Eastern context, however, rehabilitates the covenant as a crucial factor in diplomacy as well as political and private alliances.1

Archaeological discoveries in the Levant and Mesopotamia have brought to light numerous figural depictions of covenant-making. These depictions are often “mirror representations,” in which the featured figures are arranged symmetrically around a vertical axis that serves to illustrate the intermediary space of the alliance. Such imagery first appears in several richly decorated cylinder seals from the Old Babylonian period (beginning in the 18th century BCE). The same arrangement can be found on a 14th-century BCE stela from Ugarit, which attests the iconography’s presence in the Canaanite sphere.

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In Assyria, a frieze on a small alabaster vase from the Jazirah region of northern Syria reproduces, in simplified form, the larger, monumental version we find reflected on the base of King Shalmaneser III’s throne at Nimrud (see image above). The vase probably served in a ritual of covenant-making that included the rite of anointing, as referenced in Hosea 12:1 and attested already in the third millennium BCE from a tablet found at Ebla. This cuneiform treaty tablet bears a simple title, “tablet of the oil offering,” which illustrates the importance of this rite in covenant-making.

In Jerusalem, a clay seal impression (bulla) was excavated in 2018 at the Western Wall Plaza (see image below). Dating from the seventh century BCE, it depicts two standing persons, facing each other in a mirror-like manner, clad in striped knee-length garments, and jointly holding a crescent. The bulla’s Old Hebrew inscription reads lsrʿr, “belonging to the governor of the city.” This find shows that the long-standing ancient Near Eastern iconographic theme of alliance was present in ancient Judah’s capital as well.2 The “governor” was the city’s highest official, who ruled over Jerusalem on behalf of the king. The scene probably depicts a loyalty oath.

Bulla found at the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem, seventh century BCE. Courtesy of Benjamin Sass.

This scene represents the crystallization of a particular vision of the world, one conveyed by both texts and images. Such iconographic and textual evidence leads me to suggest that the Hebrew term for covenant, berit, does not mean “binding” or “obligation,” as it is traditionally interpreted, but rather “alliance,” probably derived from the Babylonian preposition biritu, “between,” which describes the space in-between two parties who are in an alliance. This latter term better captures the idea of intermediary space, with all the elements of an agreement or pact, implying both sincerity and ethical obligations. Such expressions of sincerity are well attested in early Mesopotamian treaties, with the stereotypical Old Babylonian formula ina libbim gamrim “in the fullness of heart,” which also appears in the Shema Israel in Deuteronomy 6:4–9: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”

In the ancient Near East, the theme of alliance is historically rooted in Syrian and Mesopotamian covenantal traditions that date well before the Mosaic law and the “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:7). If we understand the Hebrew word berit as “alliance,” rather than “obligation,” it shifts our focus from legal commitments to the space in-between and the relationship between two parties.


1. Adapted by Daniel Bodi, Professor of History of Religions of Antiquity at Sorbonne University, Paris, from two studies of Jean-Georges Heintz: “Nouvelles recherches sur l’Alliance dans le monde de la Bible,” Hokhma 116 (2019), pp. 133–146, and “Nouvelles recherches sur l’Alliance dans le monde de la Bible: Entre Dieu et nous, l’espace de l’Alliance,” L’Almanach Protestant (Strasbourg: UEPAL, 2021), pp. 72–77, which, in turn, are popular versions of studies published in Jean-Georges Heintz, Prophétisme et Alliance: Des Archives royales de Mari à la Bible hébraïque (Fribourg and Göttingen: Academic Press and Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015), pp. 265–349.

2. Tallay Ornan, Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, and Benjamin Sass, “A ‘Governor of the City’ Seal Impression from the Western Wall Plaza Excavations in Jerusalem,” in Hillel Geva, ed., Ancient Jerusalem Revealed: Archaeological Discoveries, 1998–2018 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2019), pp. 67–72.

Jean-Georges Heintz is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at the Faculty of Protestant Theology, University of Strasbourg, and of Semitic Epigraphy at École du Louvre, Paris.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

The Ark of the Covenant in its Egyptian Context

The Biblical Moses

Read more in the BAS Library:

“My Blood of the Covenant”
Continuity & Change in Israel’s Convenant with God

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