Ancient Oil Jugs Shed Light on the Biblical Idea of the Covenant

November 15, 2018 | Joshua Berman
About the author: Joshua Berman is professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and the author most recently of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).

The recent municipal elections in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh have been in the news in Israel. But Joshua Berman points to other important news coming from the town, which is also the site of the largest ongoing archaeological excavation in the country. Among the findings are the remains of a 7th-century-BCE plant for the mass production of olive oil, unprecedented in size, littered with handles from large jugs bearing the inscription la-melekh, “for the king.” These words indicate that the oil was intended as tribute for the kings of Assyria, who at the time exercised their suzerainty over the kingdom of Judea. To Berman, the discovery sheds light on both biblical politics and biblical theology:

The covenant that God establishes with Israel at Sinai is patterned after the ancient Near Eastern vassal treaty. The idea was simple: when a weaker king fell into distress—such as siege or famine—he would call out to a greater king to provide salvation. When the greater king did so, both kings understood that they would enter an alliance of unequals—sovereign and vassal. The vassal would pledge loyalty and tribute to the sovereign, and in turn the sovereign would vouchsafe the vassal’s security. The idea is carried over into the Torah. . . . Israel cries out from Egypt. God delivers the Israelites and establishes a treaty with them: if Israel is loyal to God, and offers tribute—observance of the commandments—God will vouchsafe its security and prosperity. . . .

The foremost component of the ancient Near Eastern vassal treaty was that the vassal had to pledge loyalty to the sovereign king alone. He could not simultaneously strike another pact with a different power. Here, too, we see how the prophets of Israel converted a political idea into a theological one. Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel insisted that when Israel and Judah established treaties with foreign powers, they were, in fact, betraying God. They preached that Israel had to know that its security and prosperity depended upon one source alone—faithful commitment as a vassal to the sovereign, the King of Kings.

The new finds at Tel Beit Shemesh vividly show us why these prophets were so dead-set against the establishment of vassalage with foreign powers. Just imagine all those residents of Beit Shemesh in the 7th century BCE, filling up those oil jugs with the word melekh (king) on them. Every time they saw the word melekh they would be reminded that their security and prosperity were safeguarded by the Assyrian king. When your day-to-day reality is that you are dependent on the king of Assyria, what hope is there that you will really feel dependent on God?

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