G. Herbert Livingston

G. Herbert Livingston is Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore KY, and a regular contributor to Bible and Spade.


The modern Turkish village of Boğhazkoöy (recently renamed Boğazkale) is now located on the site of the capital of the ancient empire of the Hittite people. The location of this historic place is 200 km (125 mi) by road east of Ankara, the modern capital of Turkey. The ancient capital was located on a bend of the Halys River that cuts through a mountainous region. A mountain stream also joins the Halys River, forming a high ridge. The ancient city walls enclosed this ridge with the main temple and palace at the highest point.

This site was first settled in the Early Bronze Age (3000–2100 BC) as attested by artifacts found in some areas, but no inscriptions. The earliest inscriptions found refer to the settlement as Hattus. Indo-European people took over the central part of Turkey, also called Anatolia, sometime before 1850 BC. These people are known as the Hittites, whereas scholars refer to the earlier people as Hattians. The Hittites added an “as” to the end of the name of their capital. They slowly built an empire that dominated central Anatolia, and stretched east into the upper Euphrates valley and south to Syria. During the New Kingdom (Empire) period, covering about two centuries (1400–1190 BC), the Hittites reached the height of their power.

Early Discoveries

The French explorer Charles Texier was the first European to view the ruins of Hattusas in 1834. Other Europeans

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stopped by while traveling in the Ottoman Empire, but it was another Frenchman, Ernest Chantre who first thrust a spade into the ground to bring to light more of the ruins. This happened in 1892–93, during which time he and his crew found the first clay tablets inscribed with a cuneiform script. The language was a mystery, but the similarity with the Arzara letters found in Egypt at Tel el-Amarna was soon noticed by scholars. This correlation motivated Hugo Winkler of Germany and Theodore Makridi of Turkey to begin new excavations in 1906. In that season they found 2,500 portions of tablets. They returned in 1907, 1911, and 1912. In 1907 another German archaeologist, Otto Puchstein, concentrated his excavations on the

Plan of Boghazkoy (Hattusas).

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fortifications and a number of temples. Very little of the residential district was touched by these excavations which, however, made clear that the capital was utterly destroyed in 1890 BC.

World War I halted the work. In 1931 Kurt Bittel, supported by the German Archaeological Institute and German Orient Society, renewed the project until 1939. After World War II, excavations began again in 1952 and have continued to the present under the overall direction of the Turkish government.

The Archives

As many as 30,000 clay tablets and fragments are now claimed to have been found in and around Hattusas. The greater part of the tablets were found in royal buildings and in temples of the city. They are mostly written in a cuneiform script borrowed from Mesopotamia and modified by the Hittites. Some inscriptions are in a local hieroglyphic script, but are largely restricted to seals and memorial statements on stone monuments. The tablets and seals are now in various Turkish museums. Most of the major texts and about half of the fragments have been copied, transliterated, translated and published by qualified scholars.

The feat of translating the texts was a major challenge, since they contained languages unknown to modern scholars. Finally, a Czech scholar, B. Hrozny, after four years of intense analysis (1915–19), deciphered the cuneiform. He identified the language as Hittite, the earliest Indo-European language found in a script form. Translation revealed that the people who produced the inscriptions called the language Nesite. Several other languages, such as Palaic, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, Sumerian and Akkadian, appear on short inscriptions as insertions in Hittite texts as rituals, loan words, or names. The majority of the texts are royal or priestly in nature and come from the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1400–1190 BC), the age of Moses and the Conquest.

Everything the Hittites deemed important, whether events, lists, records or rituals, was put into written form. They preserved their documents in archives located in the palace, the main temple and several other royal buildings and small temples. The literature is of several kinds.

Types of Literature

The Hittites can be credited with the production of the earliest known historical annals outside the Old Testament. Their annals summarized year-by-year the major events of an emperor’s reign. In addition, royal proclamations gave historical reasons for making the proclamation. The same is true of royal treaties, many of which began with a prologue that provided a historical resume of events leading to the forging of the treaty. Royal letters

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often contained a recounting of past events.

In the archives, there were administrative texts devoid of historical material. These are:

•     Land donations by royalty to favored individuals.

•     Lists of officials, personnel, towns, inventories of resources, and of tributes.

•     Instructions detailing the duties of various officials.

•     Catalogs of inscribed tablets composed of an index system providing name of author, tablet number, and an identifying name for locating a tablet in the archive.

•     Inventory lists of all aspects of religious items, religious personnel, and calendars of festivals in each town

The Hittites had a written code of 200 case laws that set up hypothetical instances of lawlessness and prescribed penalties. Some clay tablets have transcriptions of actual court cases. There are several dictionaries that normally have three columns; one with Sumerian words, the second with equivalent Akkadian words and the third with equivalent Hittite words. Some dictionaries have a fourth column giving the pronunciation of the Sumerian words. Similar dictionaries found at Ebla, Nippur and Mari only have two columns— Sumerian and the local language, either Eblaite or Akkadian.

The archives include a number of mythological texts telling of conflicts between the gods the Hittites worshiped. Some of the myths deal with the gods and goddesses of the primitive inhabitants (the Hattians). Other myths revolve around the Hittites’ own pantheon of deities. These tales, however, show evidences of borrowing from Mesopotamian myths transmitted to the Hittites by the Hurrians.

This literature also has religious prayers, hymns and rituals used in

Impressions of royal seals: (1 and 2) Muwatallis, (3) Suppiluliumas, (4) Urhi-Teshub, (5) Tudhaliyas, (6) Hattusilis.

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worship ceremonies. Basically, they are magical in their intent. By reciting them, the Hittites sought to manipulate the deity, or deities, addressed into doing what the king or priests desired. Male or female magicians, famed for their mystic powers, were called in for assistance. They were thought to have special abilities to influence the deities.

Hittite cuneiform tablet

Closely akin to magical texts are the divination texts, perhaps omens borrowed from Mesopotamian or native sources. These texts explain how heavenly bodies reveal future events, so that the officials could make “good” decisions. Similar explanations were provided for unusual events, peculiar movements of animals, or the condition of the liver in a freshly killed animal. The Hittites valued oracles thought to aid the king or his officials pry from a deity secrets about the future. Described in the texts are the use of lots, snakes and dreams.

The Hittites loved festivals, so it is not surprising that the archives have texts telling priests exactly when and how the dozens of festivals were to be conducted.

Relation With the Old Testament

Our main interest in the archives of Hattusas is the relationship of these people and texts

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to the Old Testament, which has several references to Hittites. The first is in a list found in Genesis 10:15–18 (compare 1 Chr 1:13; Gn 15:20). An important occurrence is in Genesis 23, which tells of Abraham bargaining with several Hittites in Hebron for a cave in which to bury Sarah (compare Gn 49:29, 30; 50:13). Esau displeased his parents by marrying daughters of Beeri and Elon who were Hittites (Gn 26:34; 36:2). If you check a concordance, you will find the Hittites mentioned 18 times in the books of Exodus through Judges listed with other inhabitants of Canaan. Note similar listings in 2 Chronicles 8:7: Ezra 9:1; Nehemiah 9:8 and in Ezekiel 16:3, 45. In David’s army were several Hittites: Ahimelech (1 Sm 26:6), and Uriah (2 Sm 11 and 12; see also 2 Sm 23:39; 1 Kgs 15:5; 1 Chr 11:41). The Hittites mentioned in all these references seem to be inhabitants of the land of Canaan. No references are made in the Old Testament to a Hittite Empire in central Anatolia (Turkey), with the possible exception of Joshua 1:4 and Judges 1:26.

In Solomon’s reign there were commercial contacts with kings of the Hittites and kings of Syria as though they lived near each other (1 Kgs 10:29; 11:1; compare 2 Chr 1:17). This was also true during the ministry of Elisha a century later (2 Kgs 7:6). It is now known from artifacts and inscriptions found by archaeologists in the border area between Syria and Turkey that so called Neo-Hittite kingdoms flourished until the 8th century BC. This time span covers the reigns of David and Solomon, and the ministry of the prophet Elisha.

Hittite Treaties and the Old Testament

Careful analysis of the treaties between Hittite emperors and neighboring rulers has brought to light a surprising correlation with the Mosaic covenant and other covenants recorded in the Bible. This discovery has provided information that the basic components of the Hittite treaties and of the Biblical covenants are similar, yet are different at key points.

The first scholarly examination of how Hittite treaties and Biblical covenant correlate was done by George Mendenhall (1954). A flurry of articles and books ensued, resulting in a thorough study of the matter. Eleven Hittite treaty tablets are in complete, or almost complete, condition; five are partial tablets. Translations of selected texts of this group can be found in an appendix to Treaty and Covenant by D. J. McCarthy (1981). Translations of other treaties are scattered in various articles and books.

Throughout the history of the Christian Church, Biblical scholars and theologians have written volumes about covenants in the Scriptures. Their emphasis was on the doctrinal themes of these covenants. Knowledge about non-Biblical covenants in the ancient Near East was very limited. After Mesopotamian and Egyptian scripts were deciphered early in the 19th Century,

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only a very small number of treaties (covenants) were found in the literature that was rapidly being translated. As a result, some Biblical scholars discounted the early age of the Old Testament covenants. They insisted that covenants were not devised as literary forms until late in the kingdom period of the Israelites, or perhaps during the Exile. The archives of Hattusas, however, have provided enough written treaties or covenants so that meaningful comparisons can be made.

The Hittite treaties have most or all the following components in their literary construction (see Kitchen 1966: 92–102; 1977: 79–85):

1.     A short section giving the titles of the emperor or king.

2.     A brief history of events leading up to the making of the treaty.

3.     A list of laws or stipulations that govern the relationships between the Hittite king and the less powerful king or tribal leader who was the other party to the treaty.

4.     A requirement that a written copy be deposited in a temple and read in public annually.

5.     A list of divine, and sometimes human, witnesses.

6.     Curses and blessings, with stress placed on the curses.

This format applied both to suzerainty treaties in which the parties were not equals, and to parity treaties in which the parties were recognized as equals. The Hittite treaties were suzerainty treaties, with one notable exception. This was the treaty made between the Hittite ruler Hatusilis III and the Egyptian ruler Ramses II about 1285 BC, after an inconclusive battle at Kadesh in northwestern Syria. This treaty was carved on the walls of a temple in Karnak, Egypt, in hieroglyphic script in the Egyptian language. In the archives of Hattusas, most of the treaty was found written on a clay tablet in cuneiform script in the Hittite language (Goetze 1969; Wilson 1969).

Agreements between individuals, groups, merchants, and rulers have been found in written form all over the ancient Near East in all historical periods. These agreements may be classified as marriage contracts, wills, deeds, trade and legal contracts, royal grants or charters, and treaties, to name a few. In the Old Testament these tend to be classified as covenants. One type of covenant was a grant or charter, according to a Western way of thinking, in which God bestowed a gracious gift, or made a promise. To Noah (Gn 8:20–22) God promised not to punish mankind with another worldwide flood. To Abraham (Gn 12:1–3; 15; 17:1–22) God promised and granted offspring, land and a blessing. To David (2 Sm 7:5–16), God promised and granted a peaceful place for Israel and an everlasting kingdom. On the purely human level, many agreements between individuals or groups are found in Old Testament narratives, but in many of them God did not directly participate.

The Sinai covenant was special, for it was the basis for establishing a nation

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as God’s own people. The covenant was mutual, but God was the Sovereign and the people were His servants (vassals). We now have the Hittite treaties, which were unique in many ways, as ancient Near Eastern parallels to the covenant made at Mt. Sinai. Paul wrote of our bodies as being earthen vessels in which God placed his treasure (2 Cor 4:7). In a loose way we may speak of these secular treaties as earthen vessels. God cleansed the treaty form of all references to pagan deities and modified the legal components so they could convey to the Israelites God’s will for them. It is interesting that these treaty texts come from the time of Moses, and though Hattusas was far away, the Hittites had close contacts with Egypt.

Hittite suzerainty treaties, judging from the phrases used, were based on the unearned benefits the “Great King” freely gave the inferior vassal. The purpose of these benefits was to engender such gratitude in the vassal that he and his people would be motivated to willingly obey the Great King’s laws. Other tablets show, however, that at times the Great King had to use military power to enforce the terms of his treaties.

Could it be that the one true God saw these positive themes and after cleansing this “earthen vessel” of paganism, modified it for the relationship He was creating with Israel?

Components of Ancient Treaties

A comparison of the components of Hittite treaties with the covenant made at Sinai may be instructive. The pertinent Scripture is Exodus 19–24; the essential text of this covenant is Exodus 20–23.

Chapter 19 depicts God preparing Moses and the Israelites for the covenant-making event. In verses 3–6, God mentions what He had done for these people during the Exodus. He promises that their obedience would result in becoming a special treasure to God, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This divine choice was not based on natural laws or special human traits, but was God’s act of mercy. He was not forced to help these people because they were in trouble. He was concerned about their plight, but He alone made the decision of when and how to act.

The text of the covenant begins with a brief statement of who God is and what He had done (20:2); a fusion of identity and historical prologue. The core of the stipulations is the set of Ten Commandments (20:3–17). The laws beginning with “You shall not …” set the boundaries of loyalty and behavior that are timeless and beyond which the Israelites could not go without dire consequences. The two positive laws, “Remember …” and “Honor…,” sanctify one day in seven for worship and rest, and enshroud monogamous marriage with the deep respect and love of children for their parents. Chapters 20:23 through 23:33 are mostly made up of case law beginning “If …, then …” (either written or implied); that is, an act of violation followed by the punishment meted. Occasionally, there is an apodictic law beginning “You shall not … .” Now and then a promise is given. Lists of regulations are scattered throughout the books of Numbers and Leviticus.

Other components of the covenant are embedded in sections of narrative.

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The witnesses of the covenant-making are the people who commit themselves to obedience (24:3). The animal sacrifice, with the sprinkling of blood, symbolizes the consequence of disobedience and involves the people as participants in the covenant (24:4–6). Moses wrote God’s words (24:4: compare 34:27–28) and read them to the people (24:7). Later, after the Ark of the Covenant was constructed, the Testimony, the Law tablets, were placed inside (25:16; 40:20). Moses and the 70 elders had a covenant meal together (24:11). The consequences of obedience or rebellion in Exodus 19:5–6 and 12–24 have promises and warnings, as do 20:5–6, 20; and 23:20–31. These are equivalent to curses and blessings.

A comparison of the suzerainty treaty components with the book of Deuteronomy provides helpful insights into the structure of that book and the final contributions of Moses to his people under the direction of God.

Deuteronomy 1:1–4:43 is a historical prologue recounting the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, in which God is identified and His benevolent deeds highlighted. Verses 4:44–49 alert the reader to the listing of the covenant stipulations, interwoven with historical statements. The Ten Commandments are repeated (5:6–21), followed by warnings, promises and exhortations. Deuteronomy 6:4 identifies the one Supreme Deity and when declared as an affirmation focuses the worshipper on God with a profound sense of commitment. Verse 5 is the greatest command of all, and is the true foundation of covenant living.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength

Love is the essence of devotion and life, surpassing legal codes, though not doing away with them as guides for behavior. Throughout the body of Deuteronomy, until one reaches 26:19, stipulations are mixed with warnings, promises and exhortations. It ends with a mutual commitment of the people to God and God to His people.

The matter of witnesses to the covenant is addressed in 27:1–4; in this case inscribed stones were to be set up on Mt. Ebal in the Promised Land. The covenant would be ratified there by sacrifices, and the Israelites recognized as God’s people (5–10). At the covenant renewal events in the Promised Land, blessings were to be read from Mt. Gerizim and curses from Mt. Ebal. These curses are listed in 27:14–26; 28:15–68, and the blessings are found in 28:1–14.

Covenants in Moab and Shechem

Knowing he could not enter the Promised Land, Moses, under divine command, conducted a covenant-making ceremony in Moab before he died. Deuteronomy 29:2–8; 16–17 preserves the historic prologue that stands at each end of an identification of the Supreme God and His vassal people (29:9–15). The stipulations are found in verses 18–27. Promises of mercy and blessings are found in 30:1–10, an exhortation

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in 11–14, and curses in 15–18. The witnesses are identified as heaven and earth in verse 19, and verse 20 is a call to commitment. Chapter 31:9–13 records the acts of writing and reading the laws, and has a statement that the priests were to read them to the people every seventh year at the Feast of Tabernacles. The written law was deposited in the Ark to serve as a witness against the people (31:25–26). The heavens and the earth (31:8) would be witnesses as well.

The renewal of the covenant at Shechem took place early in the conquest of the Promised Land, as directed by Moses (Jos 8:30–35). Various actions connected with covenant-making are mentioned in the narrative:

1.     Offering of sacrifices

2.     Writing of the law on stones

3.     A blessing on the people

4.     Reading of the law and the curses and blessings.

Toward the end of Joshua’s life, this leader, like Moses, renewed the covenant again at Shechem (Jos 23 and 24). Almost all the basic components of the Hittite treaty and the Sinai covenant are found in this narrative. Chapter 23 is basically a preparatory speech by Joshua. He reviewed the successes of the conquest of the Promised Land and exhorted the people to be loyal and obedient to God. The speech closes with a dire warning of consequences should the people disobey.

Chapter 24 starts with a call to assembly at Shechem. Verse 2 identifies who the true God is, followed by the history of both the Exodus and Conquest (2–13). Next is an exhortation to obedience regarding abolition of idols (v. 14), then a call to commitment to God (v. 15). The people wholeheartedly chose to recognize the true God as their own, because of who He is and what He had done for them (16–18). Joshua pressed the integrity of their choice strongly and the people gave a strong, positive response (19–24). Finally, the laws in general are referred to as “the Book of the Law of God,” and a witness stone was erected by the sanctuary.

Much more could be written about other covenants in the Old Testament. Hopefully, the foregoing discussion shows how God used a legal form to give structure to His people’s religious faith and their relationship to Him, to their worship, to their social relationships and to their daily behavior. It was a structure meaningful to the Israelites and reached on into the New Testament as well.


Goetze, A.

1969 Treaty Between Hattusilis and Ramses II. Pp. 201–203 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kitchen, K. A.

1966 Ancient Orient and Old Testament. Downers Grove IL: Inter Varsity Press.

1977 The Bible in its World. Downers Grove IL: Inter Varsity Press.

Mendenhall, G.E.

1954a Ancient Oriental and Biblical Law. Biblical Archaeologist 17:26–46.

1954b Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition. Biblical Archaeologist 17:50–76.

McCarthy, D.J.

1981 Treaty and Covenant. Rome: Biblical Institute Press.

Wilson, J.A.

1969 Treaty Between the Hittites and Egypt. Pp. 199–201 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J.B. Pritchard. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.