One of the most basic and essential rules of hermeneutics is understanding that the Torah is written in language that is to for humans to read and understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this means that the Torah writes in terms of human understanding, not objective truths known only to God.
The Rambam takes this theme pretty far, to the extent he suggests that the Torah adopted animal sacrifices because they were culturally familiar methods of worship, and correctly speculated about certain similar practices in the Ancient Near East. The Ralbag also emphasized the value of understanding the ancient world the Torah was given in to give context and enhance our understanding of the Torah’s teachings.
One of these shared themes is the form of the covenant that spans large chunks of the book of Devarim.
In the Ancient Near East, kings would formalize their diplomatic relations with a treaty. These treaties were drafted between equals, and sometimes between a superior and an inferior state, or suzerain and vassal. The structure of the Torah’s covenant has striking parallels to a suzerain-vassal treaty. If we unpack the layers to the structure, we can unlock a deeper appreciation for it.
The main elements of the Hittite suzerain-vassal treaties are the identification of the treaty-maker (the superior); a historical introduction (prior beneficial acts done the superior has done for the inferior); the stipulations (the primary demand is for loyalty); a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was recited, a ceremonial meal eaten, and the treaty deposited at a holy site. There would be a public reading periodically to remind the public of their duties.
The similarity between the Torah’s use of the covenant structure and other treaties existing in the Ancient Near East isn’t just interesting trivia – it’s political dynamite.
For most of ancient history, the head of state was also the head of the cult – god-kings and priest-kings were standard. The king or the priestly class had a monopoly on the rituals of religion, and the common serfs were passive observers living vicariously through these holy men.
Contrast that with the Torah’s rendition of a covenant. The party God seeks to treat with is not Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. It’s not even the Jewish People. The party is every single individual, which is dynamite because it’s shocking enough that He would care for humans in general, let alone each of us in particular. And by making a covenant with us, God goes even further and asks us to be His partners.
A covenant between God and individuals also bestows a second facet to our identity – by elevating common people into vassal-kings, we are all royalty – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים. This also echoes a broader ideological theme that idealized a community of educated and empowered citizens – וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ / וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ.
R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed to community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually, because it’s not obvious at all – בשבילי נברא העולם. This tension between God as distant yet close is captured in our blessings, where we call Hashem “You” in the second person, indicating familiar closeness, and then “Hashem”, with titles in the third person, indicating distance.
Striking a covenant with individuals democratizes access to God and spirituality, creating a direct line for everybody. Parenthetically, this echoes the Torah’s conception of creating humans in God’s image – everyone is, not just a few “special” people.
We are all royalty in God’s eyes, and we are all God’s partners.