MemberApril 18, 2021 at 7:22 am
In the Levant at this time period a covenant always defined a lord and a vassal. In this case Abimelech was the lord, and Abraham was the vassal.
Ken, I don’t think this claim is supported by accounts of biblical covenants. You would need to demonstrate it from both biblical and extra-biblical sources. I agree the suzerain-vassal covenant is helpful in understanding the culture of the times, but it is unlikely to be the total picture of what went on. Jacob and Laban did not have such a covenant. It seems they never saw each other again, and Jacob was not liable to Laban for tribute nor Laban to Jacob for military support in case of attack as they would have been if they had a suzerain-vassal covenant. Nothing in the Abraham-Abimelech account suggests an unequal covenant. Like the Jacob-Laban covenant, this was an agreement to not attack each other, followed by a contract about ownership of the well. As Thomas notes, Abimelech seems scared of Abraham and is protecting himself from a wealthy pastoral-nomadic tribe that is a possible threat to his settled agricultural interests. This issue was a pressing problem of the times, the farmers vs the herders, squabbling over land and water resources. Abraham’s wealth and potential military ability is emphasised throughout all his transactions in these chapters. So I reject the suggestion that this was a suzerain-vassal treaty. If anything, it is Abimelech who feels afraid.
In the ANE cultural context, I understand there were all sorts of covenants, not just suzerain-vassal. We have to remember these are pre-legal times: no justice system, no penal system, no High Courts, no police force, no debt collectors, no credit scores, no centralised documentation, or any other official forces to make us keep our word. If you had to make a contract with someone you didn’t have much come-back if/when they reneged, other than with force and retribution which you had to be able to apply yourself with all due risk. So successful covenants relied on the honour of the parties involved; hence they were public affairs in the hope that peer-group pressure would later be applied by the parties called to witness. They also variously involved gifts, oaths, feasts, sacrifices, and the raising of monuments (gal-ed, masseboth), as in the examples of Abraham/YHWH (Gen 15), Abraham/Abimelech, Jacob/Laban (Gen 31), and Jacob/Esau (Gen 32). These ceremonies were necessary to develop some goodwill and solemnity around the occasion so it would be remembered as fair and therefore binding on the parties. All of this palaver is testimony to how insecure people felt regarding the agreements they made, as is evident in Abimelech’s speeches. The Abraham/Abimelech treaty seems much more similar to the Jacob/Laban treaty (which was a treaty of equals agreeing to not harm each other) than to any vassal agreements which applied more in the time of the Judges (Jdg 3:15), and Kings (2 Sam 8:2, 6 etc) between competing kingdoms.
So sorry, I think the idea will not ‘fly’ that the start of the 430 yrs is hidden in the technicalities of the Abimelech story.