The other day I talked about how alien ancient Hebrew culture is to us. This caused me to reread an essay by Frank Moore Cross. The essay, which opens his book of essays, From Epic to Cannon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel, is about kinship and covenant.
The old Western Semitic tribes organized themselves according to an understanding of kinship far different from any modern understanding of democracy, individualism, or socialism. “Kinship was conceived in terms of one blood flowing through the veins of the kinship group” (p. 3). If someone killed a kinsman, your obligation was to kill him. Your own blood had been spilled.
You were supposed to love your kin. This had little to do with warm emotions. Concretely, it meant that you were supposed to buy back the land of a kinsman who lost it because of poverty. You were never supposed to lend at interest to a kinsman. You were supposed marry your near kinsman’s widow so that his line would go on.
Religion involved the idea of the Divine Kinsman.
“The Divine Kinsman, it is assumed, fulfills the mutual obligations and receives the privileges of kinship. He leads on battle, redeems from slavery, loves his family, shares the land of his heritage (nahalah), provides and protects. He blesses those who bless his kindred, curses those who curse his kindred. The family of the deity rallies to his call to holy war. . ., keeps his cultus, obeys his patriarchal commands, maintains his familial loyalty (hesed), loves him with all their soul, calls on his name” (p. 7).
This language of kinship was put to use in covenants and treaties. It eventually became the basis for Israel’s belief that God had entered into a covenant with them. It became the basis for the unity of the tribes. Close kinship applied only within a clan or a tribe. But military need encouraged alliances and the extension of kinship to apply to a league of tribes. Cross thinks the stories of family connections among the tribes were developed to promote the necessary military alliance of the tribes.
Israel was not unique in this. Other tribal groupings in and around Canaan also thought of themselves as kinship groups. Some of the kinship words go back to the Akkadian language.
Cross wants to make the point that this means that covenants were not unilateral. They were not just imposed obligations. Covenants were mutual, binding tribes to each other and binding the league god to the tribes. Even the Hittite and Assyrian suzerainty treaties “were mutual, at least in form and language, obligations being undertaken by all parties” (p. 16).
He says that the establishing of social obligations was the reason for the joining together of tribes under a covenant.
“The notion of a berit, ‘covenant’ in the era of early Israel without the mutual bonds of kinship-in-law between Yahweh and Israel, and between the tribes of the league, is not merely unlikely, but runs counter to all we have learned about such societies” (p. 17).
These kinship institutions called into question the idea of the state. They survived into the era of the state (the Davidic monarchy) as vestiges of an older way of organizing society. New royal institutions began to replace older kinship institutions. David’s professional army displaced the tribal militias. The royal temple and priesthood began to replace tribal sanctuaries and the local Levites. Royal officials began to run roughshod over the people of the land, subverting kinship claims to the land (see the book of Micah).
Prophets and others had a problem with the crown and temple cult. So the kinship idea never died out. In the late monarchy and in the exile there was a revival of the older ideas. From a historian’s viewpoint, the Deuteronomists and the priests reconstruction reflected in the Torah is flawed. We have to critically piece together what is truly ancient. But many scholars have given up t0o easily on the real possibility of tracing the stages of Israel’s covenant institutions.