Covenant framework

The framework of covenant described in Deuteronomy was used throughout the ancient Near East. Whenever a king expanded his empire and conquered other countries he would make what was known as a ‘suzerain treaty’. This was an agreement which in basic terms said that if the conquered behaved themselves, the king would protect them and provide for them, but if they misbehaved, he would punish them. Numerous examples of such treaties from the ancient world have been uncovered by archaeologists, particularly in Egypt. The pattern of the treaties is exactly the same in outline as the book of Deuteronomy.

Presumably Moses saw and studied these treaties when he was educated in Egypt. Moses presents the covenant to the people of Israel in the form of a treaty since the Lord was their king, and they were his subjects. The pattern of the suzerain treaty went as follows:

  • Preamble: ‘This is a treaty between Pharaoh and the Hittites…’
  • Historical prologue summarizing how the king and his new subjects came to be related to each other
  • Declaration of the basic principles on which the whole treaty would be based
  • Detailed laws as to how the subjects were to behave
  • Sanctions (i.e. rewards or punishments): what the king would do if they did behave properly, and what he would do if they did not
  • Witnessed signature, normally calling on ‘the gods’ to witness the treaty
  • Provision for continuity: what would happen if the king died and naming a successor to whom the people would still be subject

All would be settled in a ceremony when the treaty would be written down, signed and agreed by the king and his new subjects.

It is easy to see the parallels between this form and the form and content of the law given in Deuteronomy:

  • Preamble 1:1–5
  • Historical prologue 1:6–4:49
  • Declaration of basic principles 5–11
  • Detailed laws 12–26
  • Sanctions 27–28
  • Invocation of divine witness 30:19; 31:19; 32
  • Provision for continuity 31–34

The sanctions are a key part of the book and concern our understanding of later events in biblical history. There were two things that God would do in terms of sanctions if the Israelites did not live the way he told them to.


The natural sanction he could impose was the absence of rain. The land they were entering was between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian desert. When the wind blew from the west it would pick up rain from the Mediterranean and drop it on the Promised Land. But if the wind came from the east, it would be the dry, hot desert wind which dries up everything and turns the land into a place of desolation. During Elijah’s day, therefore, God punished the idolatry of the people with a drought for three and a half years. This was a simple way of God rewarding or punishing the people.


If the natural sanction failed, he would move on to something rather more fierce. He would use human agents to attack them. Amos 9 tells us something very significant in this regard. We read that when Israel was crossing the Jordan, God brought another people at the same time into the same land from the west. These people were called Philistines. Thus God brought a people who proved to be Israel’s greatest enemy into the same land at the same time. Israel settled in the hills and the Philistines on the coastal plain (now the Gaza Strip). If Israel were faithful in keeping the laws they would enjoy peace. If they misbehaved God would send the Philistines to deal with them. It was as simple as that.


The land of Canaan was inhabited by a mixture of Amorites and Canaanites. God told the Israelites to drive out these nations and possess the land. This point has given rise to a common objection to the Bible. Such apparent genocide seems barbaric to the modern mind. How can we reconcile a God of love with a God who tells the Jews to slaughter all the people living in the Promised Land? It seems immoral and unjust.

The answer is found back in Genesis. God told Abraham that he would keep his family and their descendants in a foreign country for 400 years until the wickedness of the Amorites was complete. God actually waited 400 years for those people to become so bad that they no longer deserved to live in Canaan – because they did not deserve to live anywhere on his earth. God does not allow people to go on occupying his earth regardless of what they do. He is very patient with them, but eventually he will act in judgement. Archaeology has revealed evidence of just how wicked the Amorites were. Sexually transmitted diseases were commonplace amongst them, for example.  If the Israelites had mixed with these people it would have been like living in a land where everybody had AIDS, quite apart from the generally unhealthy influence of their corrupt lifestyle.

In Deuteronomy God says, ‘It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’

Some ask why it was necessary for the Israelites to slaughter them. Could God not have destroyed them himself? The answer is very clear. He needed to teach the Israelites the importance of living the way he said. If they behaved like the Amorites, they would go exactly the same way.

When we read Deuteronomy we must realize that we are reading a mirror image of life in Canaan. Everything God tells the Israelites not to do is what was already happening in Canaan. We can build up a picture of what was happening in the Promised Land before they got into it. This can be summarized in three words.


We have noted already that there were sexually transmitted diseases in the land. There was fornication, adultery, incest, homosexuality, transvestism and buggery. There was also widespread divorce and remarriage. Deuteronomy outlines how all such behavior was strictly prohibited.


Deuteronomy also addresses injustice. ‘The rich were getting richer and the poorer getting poorer.’ The age-old sins of pride, greed and selfishness were evident, leading to exploitation of the poor. Those with disabilities, the blind, the deaf, were not cared for. Many people were unable to break the shackles of poverty caused by usury. God said the Israelites were to be selfless. They were to look after the deaf, the blind, the widow and the orphan. People mattered.


Canaan was full of idolatry. There was occultism, superstition, astrology, spiritism, necromancy, and fertility cults. They worshipped ‘Mother Earth’, believing that sexual acts had links with the fertility of the land. In the pagan temples there were male and female prostitutes, and worship included sex. These practices were reflected in the monuments throughout the land: asherah poles (phallic symbols) were frequently seen on the hills as a witness to the pagan rituals which predominated.

Deuteronomy makes it clear how God viewed such behavior. It was his land and it was now totally corrupt, defiled, debased. It was disgraced and God could not let it go on. Are things so different now?