Archaeology and the Word “Covenant”
ONE of the outstanding words in the Hebrew Scriptures is the word berith, which appears at least 279 times, 82 of which are in the five books of Moses. Berith has been translated variously as “covenant,” “confederacy,” “league,” and some suggest “arrangement.” So far the New World Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures has consistently translated this Hebrew word as “covenant” although there is one notable exception where, instead of a literal translation “owners of a covenant,” two Hebrew words are translated by the one word “confederates,” which is derived from the Latin word foederis, meaning “of a covenant, compact or agreement.”—Gen. 14:13, marginal reading.
Jehovah’s witnesses for the past seventy years have attached the strictest sense to this word berith, accepting its meaning as referring to a covenant compact, a legal contract in the modern completest sense, a binding agreement between two parties where one or both are legally bound to fulfill certain terms or obligations. However, most religious expounders have taken a milder view of the Bible’s use of berith, watering down its force by claiming that it was used mostly as a comparison with the sense of denoting certain relations between God and man, expressions merely of will (unilateral or one-sided covenants) or announcements of new arrangements.
Biblical archaeology has now come to the vindication of Jehovah’s witnesses in their stricter understanding of berith. In 1927 some fifteen cuneiform tablets were found at the ancient non-Israelitish city of Qatna, southeast of Hamath, which latter place is named in the Bible as being located on the northern boundary of the Promised Land. (Josh. 13:5) These Qatna documents or tablets appear to have been written about two hundred years after Moses’ time. It was not until 1950 that the French Assyriologist M. J. Bottéro completed publishing their transcriptions and translations. The American Schools of Oriental Research gives the following report of two of these tablets containing the first non-Biblical occurrences of this important Bible word’s being used legally even by Israel’s neighbors shortly after Moses’ day.
“The contents of the two tablets are simple. Tablet A contains a list of names . . . Tablet B is a ration list, with rations of barley meal, etc., payable to men bearing similar names. Both tablets were written by the same man, Kida son of Akbite, whose name also appears in the first list, indicating that he wrote the tablet on behalf of the group of men in question. List A is thus a compact in which the men in question, together with their scribe, agree to enter someone’s service or to carry out certain obligations. List B, written by the same scribe, then illustrates the nature of the compact; the men were to receive specified rations in return for their services. Needless to say, we have here an extremely interesting new point for biblical scholars since the Israelite concept of berith, ‘covenant,’ was a central theme in Yahwist theology. Here we have the first published extra-biblical occurrence of the word from early times—not later than the first third of the fourteenth century B.C.”*
So in the future one can use the Bible word translated “covenant” with full assurance it had an ancient meaning comparable to our modern legal word “contract.”
Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, February, 1951, p. 22.