Exegeting Under the Influence: Is it Time to Abandon th Hittite Treaty Structure of Deuteronomy?

In his 1954 article, “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition,” George E. Mendenhall argued that both the Decalogue and the covenant renewal ceremony in Joshua 24 were structured according to the pattern of Late Bronze-Age Hittite vassal treaties. It was not until the early 1960s, however, that several scholars, including Dennis J. McCarthy, J.A. Thompson, and Meredith Kline suggested that Deuteronomy— or the pre-Pentateuchal version of Deuteronomy (D)— was structured according to this pattern. Similarly, in the early 1970s, Moshe Weinfeld argued that Deuteronomy was structured according to the pattern of Hittite treaties through the mediation of Neo-Assyrian and Aramean treaties, with the lack of a historical prologue in these treaties being due to gaps in our knowledge. Though of marginal significance in German biblical scholarship, the idea that Deuteronomy follows the structure of Hittite treaties soon became the dominant position in English-speaking biblical scholarship. This paper argues that the Hittite treaty structure of Deuteronomy needs to be abandoned in favor of a structure that takes more seriously the rhetorical function of the individual sections of Deuteronomy. The paper proceeds in three parts. First, it will show that despite the objections of scholars such as Bernard Levinson and Jeffrey Stackert, a plausible case can be made that the author of D could have had access to Hittite material, whether directly or mediated through other sources. Second, using criteria developed to analyze the parallel between Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty (EST) and Deuteronomy 28:20–44, it will show that despite the possibility of influence, the Hittite structure of Deuteronomy can only be established through imprecise summarization and unwarranted exclusion of contrary evidence. Finally, it will show that an appreciation for the rhetorical and theological function of the individual sections of Deuteronomy, particularly Deuteronomy 5–11, produces a far more productive and plausible framework for interpreting Deuteronomy than the Hittite treaty structure. Rather than functioning as either a historical prologue or part of Deuteronomy’s stipulations, Deuteronomy 5–11 serves to legitimate the divine authority of the Deuteronomic Code and create conditions under which Israel will be able to obey the Deuteronomic Code once settled in the Promised Land.

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