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Gad Barnea

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2022

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Enforcing YHWH’s Covenant with Blessings and Curses—Imperial Style

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Gad Barnea

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Enforcing YHWH’s Covenant with Blessings and Curses—Imperial Style

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2022

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https://thetorah.com/article/enforcing-yhwhs-covenant-with-blessings-and-curses-imperial-style

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Enforcing YHWH’s Covenant with Blessings and Curses—Imperial Style

The blessings and curses formulae in Deuteronomy 27–28 reveal a rich, complex and innovative interaction with ancient Near Eastern and Achaemenid parallels.

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Enforcing YHWH’s Covenant with Blessings and Curses—Imperial Style

An inscription in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian, carved onto Mount Behistun in Persia, tells the story of Darius I, and how he became king of Persia, and what is required of loyal subjects. The tallest figure on the bottom is Darius, stepping upon a foe; in the middle is a winged divine figure, likely representing Ahura-Mazda, the Zoroastrian God. Wikimedia

Encamped in Moab, Moses instructs the Levites to perform a ceremony to formalize the covenant with YHWH, facing the twin mountains, Ebal and Gerizim.[1] The ceremony includes two very different lists of curses in Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28, each with its own distinctive traits. They echo the more compact description of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 11:26–30, thus closing a lengthy inclusio that brackets the main portion of Deuteronomy’s covenant.[2]

Deuteronomy 27 and the Šurpu Incantations (7th–6th c. B.C.E.)

The first list that the Levites are instructed to recite includes twelve curses (Deut 27:15–26), each beginning with the word אָרוּר, “cursed be,” followed by a brief description of a sin. This list shares several moral and social concerns with the Akkadian Šurpu (“burning”) incantations[3] for healing a patient by removing a curse (mamitu).

The known copies of the incantations date to the 7th–6th centuries B.C.E., but the ceremonies are probably much more ancient.[4] Also performed by priests, the incantations include long lists of potential misdeeds that may have offended the gods and thereby led to the patient’s illness.

  • Disrespect of parents

דברים כז:טז אָרוּר מַקְלֶה אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ.
Deut 27:16 Cursed be the one who insults father or mother.

Šurpu II l. 36 He despised his parents, offended the elder sister.[5]

  • Falsifying boundaries

דברים כז:יז אָרוּר מַסִּיג גְּבוּל רֵעֵהוּ.
Deut 27:17 Cursed be the one who moves a neighbor’s landmark.

Šurpu II l. 45 He set up an untrue boundary, (but) did not set up the [tr]ue bound[ary], 46 he removed mark, frontier and boundary.

  • Social injustice

דברים כז:יט אָרוּר מַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט גֵּר יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה.
Deut 27:19 Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

Šurpu II l. 18 [who ........ ], has oppressed the weak woman, 19 who turned [a ... woman] away from her city.

  • Sexual misconduct

דברים כז:כ אָרוּר שֹׁכֵב עִם אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו כִּי גִלָּה כְּנַף אָבִיו.
Deut 27:20 Cursed be the [man] who lies with his father’s wife, for he has removed his father’s garment.[6]

Šurpu II l. 48 had intercourse with his neighbor’s wife.

We do not know whether the author of the curse list in Deuteronomy 27 was making use of a Šurpu text, but the two lists certainly share a common gene pool (so to speak) of apprehension regarding the moral behavior of their respective societies.

Deuteronomy 28 and Ancient Near Eastern Curse Formulae

The second list of curses (in Deuteronomy 28:15–68) addresses the consequences that await those who break the covenant with YHWH. The chapter derives from a different genre: it anthologizes curse formulae used in different types of formal treaties and oaths spanning centuries of elaboration, from the 7th century back to the second millennium B.C.E., across the ancient Near East.

Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty (672 B.C.E.)

Ever since the discovery of Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty (EST) in 1955, scholars have noted the strong parallels between it and Deuteronomy 28.[7] The treaty, which was ratified in the month of Ayyar 672 B.C.E.,[8] sought to guarantee the peaceful accession of Esarhaddon’s son, Assurbanipal, to the Assyrian throne after the king’s death.[9]

EST was promulgated throughout the empire. It is thus likely, or even certain, that copies would have been sent to all provinces and vassal-states, including Judea (and probably Samaria), and that their kings/governors took the solemn oath prescribed in it.[10]

After an initial oath and a lengthy list of definitions and obligations, EST turns to elaborate curses that are reminiscent of Deuteronomy 28:15–68. The parallels are significant and can hardly be accidental.[11] For example:

  • Heaven, Ground, and Rains

דברים כח:כג וְהָיוּ שָׁמֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר עַל רֹאשְׁךָ נְחֹשֶׁת וְהָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תַּחְתֶּיךָ בַּרְזֶל. כח:כד יִתֵּן יְ־הוָה אֶת מְטַר אַרְצְךָ אָבָק וְעָפָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם יֵרֵד עָלֶיךָ עַד הִשָּׁמְדָךְ.
Deut 28:23 The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. 28:24 YHWH will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.

EST ll. 528–529 May they make your ground like iron [so that] nothing can sprout from it. 530–533 Just as rain does not fall from a brazen heaven so may rain and dew not come upon your fields and your meadows; instead of dew may burning coals rain on your land.[12]

  • Enemies

דברים כח:כה יִתֶּנְךָ יְ־הוָה נִגָּף לִפְנֵי אֹיְבֶיךָ.
Deut 28:25 YHWH will put you to rout before your enemies.

EST ll. 453–454 May Ištar, lady of battle and war, smash your bow in the thick of ba[ttle], may she bind your arms, and have you crouch under your enemy.

  • Wives and Possessions

דברים כח:ל אִשָּׁה תְאָרֵשׂ וְאִישׁ אַחֵר יִשְׁגָּלֶנָּה[13] בַּיִת תִּבְנֶה וְלֹא תֵשֵׁב בּוֹ כֶּרֶם תִּטַּע וְלֹא תְחַלְּלֶנּוּ.
Deut 28:30 If you [a man] pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it.

EST l. 428 May Venus, the brightest of the stars, before your eyes make your wives lie in the lap of your enemy; may your sons not take possession of your house, but a strange enemy divide your goods.

While Deuteronomy 28 seems to have relied on EST as its generic—direct or indirect—blueprint for its curses,[14] the chapter also includes curses with a more ancient lineage.

The Sefire Treaty (8th cent. B.C.E.)

Some of the curses of Deuteronomy 28 are reminiscent of a pattern known from the Aramaic Sefire Treaty between the kings of Arpad and the (not yet identified) land of KTK.[15] Both texts appear to have adapted and amplified an earlier, probably once very popular, curse formula, such as the one found in the Tell Fekheriye bi-lingual (Akkadian and Aramaic) inscription, which is at least one hundred years older, and possibly even dates to the 11th century B.C.E.[16]

The curses of this type have the following basic structure: “Even though an action is performed, that action will be for naught.”[17]

דברים כח:לח זֶרַע רַב תּוֹצִיא הַשָּׂדֶה וּמְעַט תֶּאֱסֹף כִּי יַחְסְלֶנּוּ הָאַרְבֶּה. כח:מא בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת תּוֹלִיד וְלֹא יִהְיוּ לָךְ כִּי יֵלְכוּ בַּשֶּׁבִי.
Deut 28:38 Though you take much seed out to the field, you shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it. 28:41 Though you beget sons and daughters, they shall not remain with you, for they shall go into captivity.

Sefire I l. 21 [… and should seven rams cover] a ewe, may she not conceive; and should seven nurses] anoint [their breasts and] 22 nurse a young boy, may he not have his fill.[18]

Tell Fekheriye l. 30b May he plant, (a field and) not 31 harvest! May he sow 1,000 (measures and) 32 get one sut! One hundred ewes would not satiate 33 a lamb. One hundred cows would not satiate a calf. 34 One hundred mothers would not satiate a child.[19]

The Sefire Treaty also includes a catchall curse that has the same force as one of the final curses in Deuteronomy 28:

דברים כח:סא גַּם כָּל חֳלִי וְכָל מַכָּה אֲשֶׁר לֹא כָתוּב בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת יַעְלֵם יְ־הוָה עָלֶיךָ עַד הִשָּׁמְדָךְ.
Deut 28:61 Moreover, YHWH will bring upon you all the other diseases and plagues that are not mentioned in this book of Teaching, until you are wiped out.

Sefire I l. 24b (And)[may Ha]dad [pour (over it) every sort of evil (which exists) 25 on earth and in heaven and every sort of trouble.

Blessings and the Hittite Treaties (late 2nd millennium B.C.E.)

In contrast to the Akkadian and Aramaic treaties surveyed above, which include curses for disobedience, but no blessings for obedience, Deuteronomy 28 opens with a set of blessings.[20] Moreover, the first set of blessings in the chapter (vv. 3–6) are mirrored in the first set of curses (vv. 16–19). We see a similar pattern of blessings and curses in Hittite treaties from the late 2nd millennium B.C.E., although in the treaties, the blessings follow the curses.

  • Blessings
דברים כח:ג בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בַּשָּׂדֶה... כח:ו בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּבֹאֶךָ וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּצֵאתֶךָ.
Deut 28:3 Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country… 28:6 Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.

Hittite treaty l. 21b May these gods of the oath protect him together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house (and) his country.

  • Curses
דברים כח:טז אָרוּר אַתָּה בָּעִיר וְאָרוּר אַתָּה בַּשָּׂדֶה... כח:יט אָרוּר אַתָּה בְּבֹאֶךָ וְאָרוּר אַתָּה בְּצֵאתֶךָ.
Deut 28:16 Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country… 28:19 Cursed shall you be in your comings and cursed shall you be in your goings.

Hittite treaty l. 20b May these gods of the oath destroy Duppi-Teššub together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house, his land and together with everything that he owns.

If the Hittite treaties served as a model for Deuteronomy 28,[21] it may be that an early version of the chapter existed that was substantially shorter than the one familiar to us, possibly limited to verses 3–6 and 16–19.[22]

The Behistun Inscription (520–519 B.C.E.)

The Behistun (Bisotun/Bisitun) inscription, recounting the victory of Darius I over a usurper to the Persian throne, is the most important Achaemenid royal inscription, primarily because its presentation of the same text in three languages—Elamite, Babylonian-Akkadian, and Old Persian—made it possible for scholars to decipher the cuneiform writing system.[23]

Like the Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty, the inscription was promulgated throughout the empire, but its purpose was pure propaganda. Darius I boasts in the text:

This inscription was sent by me everywhere among the provinces. The people universally were pleased.[24]

A very fragmented Aramaic version of the text was found in the possession of the Yahwistic community on the island of Elephantine, and a paraphrase of one paragraph was found in an Aramaic scroll from Qumran (4Q550) that contains a remarkable Persian court-legend.[25] This indicates that the inscription was relatively well-known in Yahwistic circles.

The Behistun blessing and curses sections also inherit from the same rich ancient Near Eastern traditions that undergird Deuteronomy 28. In terms of the external form, the Behistun inscription is closer to Deuteronomy 28 than the other potential sources—the curses follow the blessings, and they are embedded within a historiographic narrative. In addition, unlike the Hittite and Neo-Assyrian treaties and the Šurpu incantations, the blessings and curses in both Behistun and Deuteronomy 28 only refer to a single deity (Ahuramazdā and YHWH, respectively).[26]

  • Blessings[27]

דברים כח:יא וְהוֹתִרְךָ יְ־הוָה לְטוֹבָה בִּפְרִי בִטְנְךָ וּבִפְרִי בְהֶמְתְּךָ וּבִפְרִי אַדְמָתֶךָ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ־הוָה לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ.
Deut 28:11 And YHWH will give you abounding prosperity in your issue from the womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil in the land that YHWH swore to your fathers to assign to you.

Old Persian

Elamite

Bab.-Akkadian

Aramaic

§60 May Ahuramazda be pleased with you and may [you] have much family, and may you live long!

§49a May Ahuramazda befriend you and may your [descendant] and you live for a long time.

§49a May Ahurama[z]da protect you well. May he love you and may your descendents be numerous, (and) may [your] days be long!

§ 25 Col. XI. 70–72a Ahuramazda will bl[ess you and love you and your seed will be abundant and your days will be longlasting.

  • Curses

דברים כח:מא בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת תּוֹלִיד וְלֹא יִהְיוּ לָךְ כִּי יֵלְכוּ בַּשֶּׁבִי.
Deut 28:41 Though you beget sons and daughters, they shall not remain with you, for they shall go into captivity.

Old Persian

Elamite

Bab.-Akkadian

Aramaic

§61 May Ahuramazda strike you, and may you have no family!

§49 b [May Ahuramazda] kill you and may he not expand your family!

§49 b May Ahuramazda curse you and may you have no descendants.

§ 26 Col. XI. 72b–73 Ahuramazda will curse you [and you will not have (any) seed]

In contrast to the Hittite and Neo-Assyrian treaties, which were deposited in temples,[28] the Behistun inscription was covered with varnish,[29] and it was placed on a mountain situated along a major ancient caravan route,[30] for all passers-by to see, even though most could not read it. Deuteronomy 27 describes a similar display for the covenant: the Israelites are to inscribe the text on large, plaster-covered stones placed on Mount Ebal (vv. 2–4).[31]

Deuteronomy Reworks Its Sources

The curse and blessing formulae in Deuteronomy 27–28 share a genetic payload with the rich transmission history of text traditions that were popular in the ancient Near East, and beyond, for centuries.[32] Significantly, these formulae are relics of imperial covenant language from the Hittites, Assyrians and Persians, rather than simple every-day contractual vernacular.

At the same time, the author(s) and redactors of Deuteronomy reimagined and recomposed these formulae, creating a complex tapestry from various sources, adapting them to a Yahwistic context with its own underlying theology and ideology, and interspersing intertextual references to other parts of the Torah among them.[33]

While some of Deuteronomy’s sources date back as early as the second millennium B.C.E.,[34] the fact that these chapters also seem to have adopted elements of the Behistun inscription from the late 6th century B.C.E. warns us against using only these pre-exilic ancient formulae in dating these two chapters.[35]

Published

October 9, 2022

|

Last Updated

February 3, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. Gad Barnea is a research fellow at the department of biblical studies at the University of Haifa, where he did his Ph.D. He is currently working on a new critical edition of 4Q550 for Brill’s DSSE collection. Barnea is co-author of HoseaThe Word of the Lord that Happened to Hosea, for the collection “the Bible in its traditions,” and he is now working on the volume for Genesis.