The Novel Introduction of Blessings into our Treaty with God
The Bikkurim Declaration as a Form of Liturgy
Parashat Ki Tavo prescribes a ritual for a farmer harvesting his first crops, Deuteronomy 26:5-10:
My father was a renegade Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there as a small band of people that became a great and very numerous people. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us. They forced us to do hard labor. We cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our appeal and saw our extreme misery. The LORD took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awe-inspiring deeds and with signs and portents, and he brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Now I have brought the first crops of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.
It is clear that the farmer’s recitation was meant as liturgy because the passage presents the recitation as the liturgy at a ritual event: the farmer travels to the central sanctuary (in Jerusalem) with his crops, the priest takes them from the farmer and places them before the altar, and the farmer recites this passage.
In this case, the context tells us that the recitation is liturgy, a specific literary genre. But more often than not, when we read biblical passages, their genre is implied rather than given explicitly. Understanding the genre of a text is vitally important. As native speakers of English (or whatever language is our native language), socialized into our specific cultures and their idioms, we know how to identify in which genre(s) a text participates and thereby know how to interpret it.
We know the difference between a love letter and a business letter, between a store receipt and a prescription for medication, between a newspaper article and a poem, etc., and we interpret these texts differently. We have expectations as to what these texts usually include and how to react to them. However, a person who does not have this knowledge (let’s say a non-native speaker with no experience of the life setting of different kinds of texts) may misinterpret these texts.
For example, a reader unfamiliar with certain polite conventions may confuse a business letter with a love letter, for example, because it most likely begins with “Dear” and contains words like “please” and “thank you,” which mistakenly could be understood as terms of endearment when in fact they are conventional parts of a letter signifying politeness.
Identifying a text’s genre is vitally important to the study of the Bible because we must understand with what genres of texts it participates in order to understand why certain elements are included.
The Genre of the Blessings and Curses
The latter section of Parashat Ki Tavo contains a very elaborate set of curses, and readers have wondered why the curses are so much more extensive than the blessings. The reason for the vast space devoted to curses is the genre that has served as a model for the book of Deuteronomy, a treaty between an overlord and a vassal, called by scholars “a vassal treaty” or “loyalty oath”.
These vassal treaties are composed of a number of parts, including 1) a recounting of the historical relationship between overlord and vassal; 2) the rules that the vassal must obey; 3) oaths by the vassal to obey the treaty; 4) curses about what will befall the vassal if the vassal violates the stipulations of the treaty. The curses are elaborate, and one vassal treaty in particular, the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon, may have served as a model for the curses in Deuteronomy 28.
The Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon and the Curses in Deuteronomy
The order of the punishments in Deuteronomy 28:27-34, which otherwise may seem random, follows the order of punishments in the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon (681-669, BCE) sections 38A-42. Judah was a vassal state to Assyria during this period and the Judahite scribes would have been familiar with this text. The order of the curses in the original is far from random but reflects the position in the pantheon of the gods who are invoked in the curses.
|38A May Anu, king of the gods, rain disease, exhaustion, sleeplessness, anxiety, and poor health upon all your household. 39 May Sin, the brightness of heaven and earth, clothe you with leprosy; and thus may he forbid your entering into the presence of the gods or king (saying): Roam the desert like the wild-ass and the gazelle. 40 May Shamash, the light of the heavens and earth not judge you justly. May he blind you; (may you) walk in darkness. 41 May Ninurta, chief of the gods, fell you with his swift arrow; may he fill the plain with your corpses; may he feed your flesh to the eagle (and) jackal. 42 May Venus, the brightest of the stars, make your wives lie in the lap of your enemy before your eyes; may your sons not possess your house; may a foreign enemy divide your goods.||May the LORD strike you with the Egyptian disease, with hemorrhoids, boils, and itch, from which you will never recover. The LORD will strike you with madness, blindness, and stupefaction. You shall grope at noon as the blind grope in the dark. You will not prosper in your endeavors but shall be abused and robbed, day in and day out, with none to offer help. If a woman is betrothed to you, another man shall lie with her. If you build a house, you will not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you will not harvest it. Your ox shall be slaughtered before your very eyes, and you shall not eat of it. Your donkey shall be seized in front of you, and it shall not be returned to you. Your sheep and goats shall be delivered to your enemies, and there shall be no one to recover them. Your sons and daughters shall be delivered to another people, with you watching. Your eyes shall pine for them, but you will be helpless. A people you do not know will eat of the produce of your soil and of your labor. You shall be abused and oppressed, day in and day out, and you shall be driven mad by what your eyes see.|
The author of the biblical curses has reworked the model by omitting the deities but retaining the punishments in the order of the treaty: disease, blindness, and loved ones and possessions taken by others. While it is possible that the punishments appear in this order by chance (and therefore the biblical author was not echoing another text), the appearance of these punishments in this close order in both Deuteronomy and the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon suggests a deliberate echo.
The author has also integrated other features of Israelite culture and makes the culmination of the curses the undoing of the Exodus, the return of the Israelites to bondage in Egypt but with an insult. They would be so unwanted and valueless that no one wants to purchase them as slaves.
The Addition of the Blessings
Beyond reshaping the curses, the author of Deuteronomy has added one significant element to the vassal treaty model – blessings. A section of blessings bestowed on a vassal if the vassal follows the regulations of the treaty is foreign to the political culture of the age, but the integration of blessings in Deuteronomy reflects a fundamental difference between the overlordship of God as envisioned by the Deuteronomist and the overlordship of the Neo-Assyrian emperor.
To be sure, the Neo-Assyrians thought that their deities would be benevolent to them, but that aspect of overlordship was not extended to relationships between human overlords and vassals. The ideology of the Neo-Assyrian empire emphasized military power and force: royal inscriptions of the emperor emphasized his military exploits over his building projects, and going on military campaign yearly was expected of him. The source of his sovereignty over subjugated lands was the threat of the return of his army. None of the treaties enumerates the benefits that would accrue to vassals for abiding by the terms of the agreement. The Deuteronomist, however, envisions benevolence as an essential aspect of the relationship between the divine overlord and the Israelites.
דברים כח:ג בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בַּשָּׂדֶה. ד בָּרוּךְ פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי אַדְמָתְךָ וּפְרִי בְהֶמְתֶּךָ שְׁגַר אֲלָפֶיךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרוֹת צֹאנֶךָ. ה בָּרוּךְ טַנְאֲךָ וּמִשְׁאַרְתֶּךָ. ו בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּבֹאֶךָ וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּצֵאתֶךָ.
Deuteronomy 28:3-6Blessed shall you be in the town, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and of your cattle, the offspring of your herd and the lambs and goat kids of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings.
Just as the Israelites would be punished for disobeying the covenant, they would be blessed for obeying the covenant. The nature of the relationship between God and the Israelites was multi-dimensional, and their conception of divine sovereignty included positive features in the relationship between God and the Israelites. The Deuteronomist therefore reshaped the vassal treaty model to reflect the positive aspects of the relationship by including a section of blessings.
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September 8, 2014
April 11, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Pamela Barmash is associate professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a B.A. from Yale University, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of Homicide in the Biblical World, the co-editor of Exodus: Echoes and Reverberations in the Jewish Experience, and the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law (forthcoming).
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