AAOTB: Ancient ‘scecs’ and The R-V Contract

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Anthropological Aspects of the Bible:
Ancient ‘scecs’ and The Royal-Vassal Contract (Covenant)

One example of ancient ‘scecs’ found within the Bible is found in Genesis 15 where God cuts a contract (covenant) with Abram in a manner consistent with Abram’s awareness of his (Abram’s) ‘scecs’.

In other words, God presented to Abram a contract (covenant), and performed a ceremony keeping in harmony with the ‘scecs’ that Abram had familiarity with.

God did that in order for Abram to understand that which was happening to him.

In part, that ancient ‘scecs’ ceremony required the sacrifice of animals. The animals were not sacrificed as an offering, but sacrificed as symbols, which I will describe in a moment.

Importantly, in the ancient ‘scecs’ ceremony, once the animals were slaughtered, the animals were divided into equal parts with an aisle in the middle of the pieces. Then each participant of the contract (covenant) would walk the aisle between the pieces of slaughtered animals. Once each participant walked through the animals, the contract (covenant) had been sealed and was formalized as a contract (covenant).

The symbolic purpose of that is important. In cutting that ancient contract (covenant), each party would walk the aisle between the slaughtered animals. Walking down the aisle was to demonstrate from one party to the other that each side had a thorough understanding of the contract (covenant) and each side showed their commitment to being faithful to that contract (covenant).

In walking the aisle between the animal pieces, the understanding was that if one of the parties failed to keep their vow of their side of the contract (covenant), then the faithful party could bring a slaughter upon the party who failed to keep their side of the contract (covenant).

In effect, by walking the aisle each party declared: If I am unfaithful, you as my contracted (covenanted) partner may slaughter me as we did these animals.[1]

The significance of the symbols of the ancient ‘scecs’ within the Scriptures is to reveal that God performed an ancient ‘scecs’ ceremony all in order for Abram, and subsequently the nation of Israel, to understand that God would deliver on his (God’s) promise to Abram (Genesis 15.4-8).

God had Abram prepare specific animals for the ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant) ceremony (Genesis 15.9).[2]

In practicing the ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant), Abram prepared the animals (Genesis 15.10-11).[3]

It becomes a powerful image that God did not require Abram to walk through the animals.

Instead God declares specifics to the contract (covenant, Genesis 15.12-16, 18-21), then God is seen as the only one who walked through the pieces (Genesis 15.17).[4]

Therefore, the symbolism of the ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant) ceremony conveys that God revealed to Abram that if God failed to keep his (God’s) part of the contract (covenant), then Abram could slaughter God.

Anthropological history and Biblical history have established that God kept his part of that ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant) ceremony.

Biblically, the narrative reveals that God was willing to utilize ancient ‘scecs’ practices to convey practical ideas.[5] Those ancient ‘scecs’ where everyday occurrences in Abram’s day.

Yet it is evident that type of contract (covenant) contracting is not practiced in the modern West, and is why it is difficult for readers unfamiliar with that ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant) ritual to adequate see the significance of that moment.

Interestingly, a common Biblical interpretation that some (many?) believers presuppose is that faithfulness requires replicating some of the ancient practices contained in the Scripture. Yet, the contract (covenant) ritual of Abram’s day has fallen into of disuse.

Importantly though, Genesis 15 represents only one type of ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant) ritual, and it is not required that modern believers utilize that ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant) ritual to demonstrate their fidelity to their contract (covenant).

Therefore, what can be understood is that even though God performed an ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant) ritual with Abram, Bible students and believers can make a contract (covenant) with someone, expect mutual fidelity, and be just as serious about fidelity and commitment as the symbolism of that ancient ‘scecs’ ritual reveals, all without actually conducting the ritual itself or without bringing an actual slaughter to a party if they were unfaithful.

In other words, imagery matters, and God’s commitment to Abram is clearly seen when the ancient ‘scecs’ contract (covenant) ceremony is understood.

Yet it is the knowledge of the ancient ‘scecs’ that permits us to more fully see the symbolic nature of God walking the aisle and not Abram.

That is the power of knowledge and awareness of the ancient ‘scecs’.

[1] [Genesis 15.]9-11: The ritual of cutting animals in half and passing between them is found both in the Bible and in Mesopotamia. The parallel in Jeremiah 34.17-22 makes it likely that the essence of the ritual is a self-curse: Those walking between the pieces will be like the dead animals if they violate the covenant [i.e. contract]. In the case at hand, remarkably, it is the LORD, symbolized by the “smoking oven” and “flaming torch” ([Genesis] 15.17) who invokes the self-curse, and nothing is said about any coventanal [i.e. contractual] obligations that Abram is to fulfill. This type of covenant [i.e. contract] is called a covenant of grant, which is a reward for past loyalty, and does not involve any obligations upon the grantee. The same pattern is prominent in texts about the covenant with David (2 Samuel 7.8-16; Psalm 89.20-37). The Jewish Study Bible, Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh Translation, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-529751-2, pp. 35-36.

[2] [Genesis 15.]9. He answered In response, God enters into a covenant [i.e. contract] with the patriarch [Abram]. The covenant [i.e. contract] is modeled after the royal land-grant treaty common in the ancient Near East, by which a king bestowed a gift of land on an individual or vassal as a reward for loyal service. Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, Travel-Size Edition, 2001, ISBN 0-8276-0804-7, p. 84.

[3] [Genesis 15.]10. cut them in two The cutting of the animals in Mesopotamian sources is a warning that the violator of the covenant [i.e contract] treaty would be sliced in half, as criminals were. Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, Travel-Size Edition, 2001, ISBN 0-8276-0804-7, p. 84.

[4] Completing the Covenant (vv. 18-21) God, the principal party to the covenant [i.e. contract], passes between the pieces. As in a legal document, the nature of the instrument of transfer is defined, its promissory clause is specified as concerning a land grant, and the extent of the territory involved is delineated. Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, Travel-Size Edition, 2001, ISBN 0-8276-0804-7, p. 85.

[5] [Genesis 15.]8. how shall I know that I shall inherit it? In this instance, Abram’s doubt is to be assuaged by a formal pact. Covenants [i.e. contracts] in which the two parties step between cloven animal parts are attested in various places in the ancient Near East as well as in Greece. The idea is that if either party violates the covenant [i.e. contract], his fate will be like that of the cloven animals. The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, 2004, ISBN 978-0-393-33393-0, p. 75.