One of the most basic and essential rules of interpretation is understanding that the Torah is written in language humans can read and understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this means that the Torah writes within the boundaries of human understanding, and not objective truths known only to God.
The Rambam utilizes this theme prominently, famously suggesting that the Torah co-opted animal sacrifices only because they were culturally familiar methods of worship in the Ancient Near East. The Ralbag similarly recognized the value of understanding the ancient world of the Torah to give us enhanced context and understanding of the Torah’s teachings.
Apart from animal sacrifices, another ancient practice that would be culturally familiar was the notion of the covenant.
In the Ancient Near East, kings would formalize their diplomatic relations with treaties or covenants. These treaties were drafted between equals and sometimes between a superior and a subordinate state, or suzerain and vassal. The structure of the Torah’s covenants has striking parallels to the suzerain-vassal treaties. If we unpack the layers to the structure, we can unlock a deeper appreciation for it.
The main elements of suzerain-vassal treaties are identifying the treaty-maker, the superior; a historical introduction, such as prior beneficial acts the superior has done for the subordinate; the stipulations, typically the demand for loyalty; a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was proclaimed in public along with a ceremonial meal, and the treaty was stored at a holy site. There would be a periodic public reading to remind the subordinate citizens of their duties.
The similarity between the Torah’s use of covenants and other treaties extant in the Ancient Near East isn’t merely 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.
In sharp contrast with that background, the Torah’s rendition of a covenant is striking not in its similarity but also in its difference.
God does not seek a covenant with Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. God does not even seek a covenant with the Jewish People; the party God treats with is no less than every single individual, which is explosive because it’s shocking enough that a God would care about 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 doesn’t just illustrate the dignity of every single person; it 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.