Another Suzerein Treaty (Josh. 24)

After more than a few boring verses, the Book of Joshua returns to interesting territory (so this blogger thinks) in chapter 23. There, Joshua, who is by now nearing the end of his life, exhorts the Israelites, and presses them, among other things, not to marry outside of their ethnic group (Josh. 23:12-13). This is in an effort for Israel to “not be mixed with these nations left” and to ensure the Israelites don’t “make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow [themselves] down to them” (Josh. 23:7). This occasions Joshua to gather all the tribes together to renew their covenant with Yahweh.

The form of their “renewal” is a familiar one to close readers of the Old Testament. Indeed, we have examined it here on Holey Books: Joshua 24 essentially takes the exact structure of ancient suzerain treaties. Here’s what I wrote before, about how the Ten Commandments were likely modeled on these treaties:

Without delving too much into the history, scholars have found that the form of the Ten Commandments bears a striking resemblance to ancient agreements called “suzerein treaties,” which were basically treaties between a dominant party (“suzerein”) and a subservient part (a vassal state, etc.). These treaties, which predate the Ten Commandments and were found throughout the Near East, took a generally standard form, specifically noting at the beginning a self-identification of the speaker and a demand for loyalty. Self-identication/loyalty demand is exactly what is going on in the First Commandment. Hence God not holding forth that he is the only God (as a king wouldn’t argue that he was the only King) but rather that his people must be loyal to him, as he is their king.

In Joshua 24, we have all of the elements of a suzerain: the self-identification (24:2), a historical prologue (23:2-13, where Joshua talks about Abraham, Jacob and Esau, and others); a demand for exclusive loyalty (24:14-21); witnesses (24:22; here the Israelites “are witnesses against” themselves); and the text being at a public site (24:26-27). Scholar James Kugel—whom I relied upon for the citations here—concludes:

All these instances, scholars said, could leave little doubt: God’s covenant with Israel followed a standardized treaty form, and his demand of exclusive loyalty, that is, monolatry, was nothing more than the translation into the divine sphere of a demand that any ancient emperor might have made of his vassal.

So what do we make of this? Independently, not too much. But reading this in its historical context, we see that, once again, the primary issues with these demands of loyalty and prohibition against intermarrying are cultural—specific, as the suzerein elements of Joshua 23 are, to the Israelites (as with a other verses of the Old Testament, Joshua 23 has been used by proponents of segregation and proponents of making miscegenation illegal). This is another example of the emerging monotheism in the Old Testament—another example that Israel transitioned into monotheism from a formerly mololatrous belief structure.

That is why it is foolish to use this passage—or others that racist segregations have used it—to argue about contemporary policy. To the Israelites, the suzerein treaty structure was used out of necessity: they were assailed from without constantly, and so it perhaps understandable that, at least at the time of this passage, intermarrying could become a matter of (what we would call now) “national security.” Joshua’s demands are those of—we should remember—a military leader, foremost. Was it the theology that led to these claims or the “national security” that led to the theology? That’s probably beyond the purview of this short post to debate.

But at least now we’re not just detailing land allocations.

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