First question ...

One of the hot new books on the subject (which just arrived on my doorstep from is Ara Norenzayan's Big Gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Have only just glanced at it, but it might give you a sense of how the Neolithic to Bronze ages changed (hunter-gatherer) humanity.

Thank you, Jane. I will consider the book. But, from the quote immediately above, this text, however interesting, was obviously not the source of your previous claim. So, again, could/would you cite two or three example supporting your claim concerning "the 'covenant' which all Big Gods (across the board in the ancient world) made with the people they shepherded"?

Thanks in advance.
The Holy Scriptures according to the Masoretic Text
A New Translation

The Jewish Publication Society of America

I got it from my grandfather.
I wish I had my grandfather's Torah. Treat it with care (as I'm sure you do).

I would still highly recommend picking up the Plaut Torah and Commentary mentioned above. I have accumulated a number of Torahs and Tanachs, and Plaut is typically my 2nd go-to resource - the 1st being the 5 volume JPS Commentary but, as you can see, it's pricy.

Shavua tov.

Hi Jayhawker Soule.

"Covenant" is just a fancy name for a "contract."
The ancient world operated, based upon contracts.
Look at any ancient Law Code (e.g. Code of Hammurabi). All laws (even criminal laws) are framed in terms of contracts. Jurisprudence by rulers involved settling disputes based upon the logic of Contract Law, even when addressing violent crimes (e.g. "eye for an eye").

For marginal herding peoples (like the early Israelites or Moabites), the contracts/covenants were few. Contracts between one clan and another establishing mutual grazing territory, marriage contracts (between one family and another, not between one person and another person as marriage vows are worded today), and contracts of military alliance between related clans when faced with a mutual threat. Simple tribal contracts.

But in large citystates, the contracts could run into the hundreds, head onf one family dealing with a variety of merchants and craftspeople and neighboring farmers and foreign traders and corvee agreements with public officials, etc. Important contracts were usually enacted in or near a temple to insure the deity's involvement and sanction of the agreement. Because in early days the city's principal temple was the place where surplus grain was stored (maybe 5 years worth, in case of future drought) and often where next year's seed grain was stored (last season's best grain was not eaten, but sorted out and "sacrificed" to the temple god/goddess, i.e. saved as seed grain for the next season), the city's main temple remained the chief locus for the larger social contract (tying one's family's destiny to the destiny of the city) with the temple's deity as chief guarantor of the ethics underlying this social contract. The temple's role changed over time, but the number-one covenant remained between each family and the citystate's patron deity.

When these ancient contracts were made, whether tribal or civic, there was always a ceremonial element to it. Called "cutting a curse" in ancient languages (see below).
Contracts might involve cutting a sacrificed animal in half and each party to the contract walking between the animal's severed halves. Before literacy, parties to an agreement did not sign a written contract plus adding signatures by two witnesses, as today. But they swore aloud an oath to each other, an oath witnessed before others. "Bad things will happen to the clan or to the head-of-the-clan if the oath/covenant is broken" (the flip side of the oath being a "curse").

With tribal peoples, they designated their mutual "god of the father" (e.g. the Israelites' Yahweh, the Moabites' Shamash, etc.) as party to - and guarantor of - this oath (as well as the one who would enforce the curse, if necessary). Tribal people regularly reaffirmed their covenant at seasonal ceremonies jointly held at one of the sanctuaries for their mutual "god of the father."

Civic populations also held large seasonal ceremonies which all citizens were expected to attend. But the local priesthood would frequently go door to door, like tax collectors, if a family had been remiss and not sacrificed recently at the local temple. "You wouldn't want to anger our Patron god/goddess, would you?" Going regularly to the temple and praising/thanking the deity, loudly and publically, then offering a grain or burnt-offering sacrifice was considered a civic obligation, part of the family's covenant with its city which ("remember?") provides a major source of your family's prosperity. Contractual piety or devotion was thus ethical in nature - the temple cult linked everyone to each other within the local society, as mediated by and witnessed by the Patron deity. This temple cult was thus the central covenant of agrarian citystates. If this contract with the Patron deity is not honored, the deity (it is thought) might abandon the city - prosperity ends, and the city may be sacked by marauders as your deity's punishment for impiety. (The oath/curse two-sided coin is applied - and magnified - here in civic society, as well.)

Both tribal contracts and civic contracts were seriously put to the test after the arrival of kings as rulers.
(Before kings came onto the scene, both tribal and civic people were ruled by holy-individuals - prophets or priests/priestesses - or their secular representatives, judges or ensi.)
Prior to the arrival of secular kings, the holy-persons who ruled came from the upper strata of tribal or civic society (affluent families). Kings arrived in times of great turmoil, and were probably thought of as an expediency, "a temporary fix." These "men" were strong-men (some former mercenaries) who either came from the lower strata of society (often from a minority racial group) or were very popular with the lower classes. That was their power-base (many lower-classmen becoming soldiers in the king's army), and once a king had been given the power he wouldn't let go.
Thereafter there would be continued strain between these secular kings (on the one side) and his kingdom's rich/religious landowners and temple-officials and merchants (on the other side).

Kings often tried to twist the ancient contracts into a form to serve their needs. And they often gave very pious-sounding lipservice to the ancient cult, to legitimize their position. (Make their position as ruler seem god-ordained.) But, under kings, much of the ethical basis of the old covenants fell by the wayside. And later rebellions from the countryside would largely be based upon a (somewhat nostalgic but ethically genuine) social need for a return to the ancient covenants.

{ references in the next post }


Jayhawker Soule,

Much of the above information you can get from rereading two remarkable essays by Frank Moore Cross collected in his 1998 book, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel.
--Chapter One: "Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel."
--Chapter Two: "Traditional Narrative and the Reconstruction of Early Israelite Institutions."
Also good is:
--John H. Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (2006), page 87-161.
--Alexis Q. Castor, Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia (2006), lectures 7-9.
--Ian Morris, Why the West Rules - For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal about the Future (2010), Chapter 4.
--Donald Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (1992), Part 4.
Yahweh was very much a god of his people and contained from the outset all the ingredients of a personal deity. A rigid code of ethics is strongly stressed, and becomes an integral part of Hebrew religion, as in all Near Eastern religions.
--Redford, page 381.
I have pulled another dozen books from my shelves, if you need more references. (Let me know.)
I think if you look at such copies of the Indian Rig Veda and the Chinese Book of Odes and Book of Documents which have been annotated by scholars, you will find much the same information about covenants, about ceremonially formalized social contracts and their ethical reinforcements. Definitely so in the Greek Homeric epics, possibly in the Celtic Book of Invasions (if there is any genuinely ancient material contained within it).
My go-to library is at Reed College. Open till midnight or 2am every day during the school year, it is closed on evenings and weekends all summer (which is rather inconvenient for me). So, if you want more specific titles and pages beyond the Near East, it may be a bit of a wait.

Cross in From Epic to Canon gives a good etymology of the word "covenant" (page 16-17).
Check out a much extended etymology of "covenant" in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament.
Or see Randy Soto's enlightening online elaboration which I have sampled below:

"Covenant in the Bible" (lecture) in Introduction to Sacred Scripture (2008).
by Fr. Randy Soto, S.Th.D. , Cardinal Glennon College.
The word for covenant in the Hebrew text is berith. The term used to express the action of making a covenant is karath berith, which literally means "to cut a covenant" (259, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament). There are many speculations to the root of this word berith. Some say it comes from the Akkadian word "birit" which literally means "between, among" (254, Theological Dictionary). Others speculate that it is related to the Akkadian word "biritu" which means "clasp or fetter" (255, Theological Dictionary). The most plausible explanation that I found is that in its root form "BRT," berith means "curse." Thus, karath berith means “to cut a curse.” This might sound quite peculiar to a western ear; nevertheless, for the people of the ancient world, the notion of cutting a curse was customary. What is astounding, in fact, is that many languages, some of which are not even Semitic, share this same terminology when they express their concept of covenant.

In Sumerian, the words "Nam Erim…Kud" are frequently found expressing the notion of cutting a curse. Nam and Erim form the idea for curse, while kud is the word for cut. The rituals for cutting a curse, which were typically public observances, were customarily performed in a temple or near a temple gate (cf. Kitz, 206-207). For example: "di-kud-e-xx kan nin-urta-se nam-erim kud-re-d[e] ba-an-sum-mu-u," which means, “The judges sent him to the gate of Ninurta to cut a curse” (Kitz, 206). In Aramaic, or Phoenician as some call it, the words "krt ’lt ‘lm" are found on a tablet from Arslan Tash in present day Syria and also express the idea of cutting a curse in relation to keeping some evil beings away (Theological Dictionary, 259). In Homeric Greek the words "horkon temnein" are found in the Iliad and the Odyssey in reference to some sacrificial ceremony (Kitz, 48). Thus, the same phrase is found in an agglutinative language, in a Semitic language, and in an Indo-European language. In addition to these languages, however, both Akkadian and Hittite have similar concepts, for instance: "risku u mamitu" which is the Akkadian for "agreement and conditional curse" and "ishiula lingais" which is the Hittite for the same (Kitz, 50-51). Thus, the fundamental concept of a curse being some sort of binding oath is almost universal.

The question still remains, however: why use the phrase “to cut a curse” in making a covenant? This is where the cultural context of how covenants were performed becomes essential. Covenants were made all the time. It was a common way of establishing relationships with people and deities. Covenants could be established between soldiers and their general, between man and wife, between a king and his people, or between a person and a local deity (Theological Dictionary, 264). A covenant usually included three main parts:
1.first, a ritual was performed which usually consisted of the cutting of animals and the passing between them;
2.second, the terms were pronounced which consisted of the pronouncement of all punishments in case of transgression;
3. finally, a sign was manifested which involved the erection of a shrine, the insertion of a bodily mark, or some kind of lasting testament to the promise . . .

It is in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham, the father of all Israelites and Ishmaelites, that we first see use of the words karath berith. After Abraham
(1) sacrifices six animals, God literally conditionally
(2) self-curses Himself and passes between the pieces in the symbol of a flaming torch (Gen. 15: 9-18). The covenant terms are God’s words to Abraham: “You shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:4).
(3) The covenant sign is circumcision which was thought to enhance fertility and therefore, ensure regeneration. This is significant because Abraham’s concept of God was probably that of a fertility deity, a deity that brought forth life.
With this sign, God communicates his desire to establish his covenant with His people forever.
Hope, Jawhawker Soule, these answer your questions.
(Though I am still a little vague as to what your actual question is.)


What I have to say about being jewish is that each of us has a counterpart.
and yes I did history research I am jewish. people always told me I looked jewish but now I know why

The "Kitz" cited several times by Randy Soto, above, is probably Anne Marie Kitz.

Her recent scholarly tome is titled:
Cursed are you! : the phenomenology of cursing in cuneiform and Hebrew texts (2014).

Nearest copy to me is in Montana, a 548-mile drive if I wished to glance though it.
Kitz is author of several articles (with titles like "Curses and Cursing in the Ancient Near East") in scholarly religious journals, one of these articles being from where the citation probably originates.
(Or from a PhD dissertation? Or from a very obscure book entirely out-of-print?)



What is the origin of the word "Hebrew"?

Hi Jayhawker Soule.
Another brilliant essay by Frank Moore Cross (Chapter 3 in From Epic to Canon) is:
"Reuben, the Firstborn of Jacob: Sacral Traditions and Early Israelite History."
(I recently reread it.)

Cross traces the origins of Israelite sacred traditions and earliest divine sanctuaries not to Sinai but to the southern highlands of Edom and Moab (the not yet settled ancient herding-grounds of Reuben's clan). But also (and significantly for the Moses-based priesthood, the Mushites) traces these traditions to the northern reaches of Midian (a small but prosperous urbanized civilization, based on the spice trade) - claiming Moses took some of his priestly cues from the Midianite priesthood.
(It is unstated in the essay, but there is not only no Exodus in this picture, but the Patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - arrive later in the historical picture, after Moses. Which itself is interesting! And - this is stated - Judah was likely an early place-name within the territory of Reuben and not a clan-name.)

What is the relation of these rather wild herding peoples (the Israelite clans) to the settled populations of southern Canaan?
Basically the same race, same language, same overarching culture.
And, at first, the same religion.
Yet the Moses tradition (Mushite priesthood) offered something new, which eventually won the day in southern Canaan. Not Monotheism, but halfway there.
(Yet ultimately - during the Monarchy - the Mushites would lose out to the Aaronid priesthood.)

On page 69 and Footnote 57, Cross says something particularly revealing. He believes that, linguistically, ibrim is derived from the ancient word Apiru.
"Apiru" is the "client class" in ancient Canaan. (Paid workers - fieldhands, soldiers, etc - but without land-holdings and thus without citizenship rights?) The underclass.
Ibri is, of course, the word for "Hebrew." (Ibrim meaning the Hebrew group or social class, not the Hebrew "race." To Cross, the linguistically-evolving word still implied "the underclass" well into the time of the kings.)
There is a strong anti-Canaanite, patriarchal-egalitarian, anti-feudal polemic in early Israel, which appears to be authentic, grounded in history . . .

The Apiru,
the client class, despised or feared by Canaanite nobility before Israel's appearance in Canaan,
in Israel become the ibrim,
a class or group - only later carrying ethnic overtones -
with whom Israel identified and who had special status in early Israelite lore.

Surely in the consolidation of the [Israelite] league, serfs, clients, and slaves were readily absorbed into the nation, imprinting Israel with the consciousness of being of lowly origins, outsiders in Canaanite society.
The Apiru/ibrim had little stake in Canaanite temple-worship. And later, relatively little stake in the Aaronid-style of temple-worship at Bethel and, ultimately, at Jerusalem.
(Too sophisticated: Yahweh as a Marduk-like one-god-with-many-attributes but invisible and abstract like Akhenaton's sundisk deity. In practice, too much like the animal-sacrifice-based Canaanite-style of temple-worship and the old-school ethical prerogatives, which mostly served the landed/moneyed classes during the time of the Israelite kings.)

That is why memories of Moses and the Tent of Meeting lingered within Israelite culture, as a social critique. Particularly in the Elohist narratives, the Deuteronomist histories, and (of course) the voice of the prophets. The "Exodus" is a great saga. Okay? About an enslaved population. But the Exodus story never actually happened, except as a metaphor. Metaphor for a very radical sea-change - during the time of the Judges - which did very much happen!

And it involved both the once-herding "Israelite" clans and the urban/agrarian "Hebrew" commonfolk.
Out of which, not just a new nation but a radically unique worldview, was constructed. An egalitarianism which stretched from end-to-end of Israelite culture.
Am I my brother's keeper?
The Moses tradition resides deep in ancient Israelite/Hebrew consciousness. The answer is easy:

I have a question. Cain was asked "Where is your brother?" I could infer that the answer to Cain's question is rhetorical, but is it really? Is it a question that is generally considered to have been answered implicitly? Perhaps the question asked does not imply a responsibility for his brother. To Cain it certainly didn't, so what other than our little bleeding hearts tells us that any responsibility is implied?

First of all, Cain was asked. It means that the question was not of Cain's. And yes, the question was rhetorical, real, but not literal as it happened as part of the allegorical Genesis account of Creation. The question was meant to grant man with the attribute of Freewill. (Gen. 4:7) Cain was being reminded of his desire to do evil and that he had a choice to make: Rather go ahead and do it or choose to become a ruler of his passions. He went ahead and did it to prove that man's passion would always try to overpower his "Yetzer hatove" aka good inclination.