In Exodus 20, we are given the 10 commandments. Some have compared this gift of the 10 commandments to a Ketubah - a Jewish marriage contract, while others have compared this to a Suzerain Covenant between a Suzerain and his Vassals. This begs the question: Are the 10 commandments more like a Suzerain Covenant or a Ketubah? Or are these contracts or somehow related?

  • Very interesting question. Looking at your links I'm inclined to say it was written and transmitted in Suzerain like format but actually delivered in ceremony like a ketubah. Which fits because the covenant is in effect both. I've always been fascinated by the symbolism of the ketubah throughout scripture, but unfortunately my knowledge of the Suzerain covenant is too limited to venture a complete answer right now.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 16:30
  • A ketubah is like a prenup so that the wife is protected in the loss of the marriage through divorce or death. What elements of the commandments do you identify with this? The suzerain is between a greater and lessor wherein the lessor submits to the greater.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 17:58
  • @BobJones : What elements of the commandments do you identify with this - See the linked reference in the question above as to what elements of the commandments I identify with this. Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 18:01
  • The only element that matters is that of the provisions in case of dissolution. There are penalties if Israel goes astray, and a promise to restore upon repentance. I think all of the other is decoration. It is interesting that God divorced Israel, and Messiah died for her. After divorce and death the restoration happened. The marriage of the lamb is one of those things hidden in the mystery and not plain to the Scribes and Pharisees.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 18:08
  • Personally I can't begin to see the Decalogue as a prenup nor any of the proceedings at Sinai as being a marriage. It seems more to have been given in anticipation of their entering the promised land and describes their fealty owed to their God for living in the land. If they did not abide by the rules and return the produce of the land to God then they would be ejected from the land and sent into bondage and if they persisted in rebellion, scattered.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 2:18

1 Answer 1


Both the Rabbis and many Christian interpreters have look to Sinai as a (part) of a marriage between God and Israel. On the other hand, other interpreters have viewed the format of the 10 Commandments as similar to a Suzerain Covenant between a King and his subjects.

Evidence points to more similarities between Suzerain Covenants and the 10 Commandments than between the 10 commandments and a Ketubah.

The word Suzerain or suzerainty comes from the 18th C. French and Latin. Merriam-Webster defines it as follows:

  1. a superior feudal lord to whom fealty is due : overlord
  2. a dominant state controlling the foreign relations of a vassal state but allowing it sovereign authority in its internal affairs

Coogan, Michael D. (2009) states in A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press. on p. 100, that Suzerainty treaties and similar covenants and agreements between near-eastern nations were quite prevalent during the pre-monarchic and monarchy periods in Ancient Israel. The Hittites, Egyptians and Assyrians had been suzerains to the Israelites and other tribal kingdoms of the Levant from 1200 to 600 BCE.

My first hint that we are not dealing with a traditional vassal treaty is that these treaties were used by nations God chose to take Israel out of. However, it is reasonable to assume that God may have used the general form of one of these treaties in order to reach the Israelites with something they were familiar with. Yet it is the initial lack of an earthly king which really sets this covenant apart from a vassal treaty.

In comparing the 10 commandments to the ancient Hittite suzerain treaties, we find that the 10 commandments doesn't quite fit into the 7 parts such a treaty would normally have. These parts are:

  • Preamble: Identifies the parties involved in the treaty, the author, the title of the sovereign party, and usually his genealogy. It usually emphasises the greatness of the king or dominant party. ["I am YHVH"]

  • Prologue: Lists the deeds already performed by the Suzerain on behalf of the vassal. This section would outline the previous relationship the two groups had up until that point with historical detail and facts that are very beneficial to scholars today, such as scholar George Mendenhall who focuses on this type of covenant as it pertained to the Israelite traditions. The suzerain would document previous events in which they did a favor that benefitted the vassal. The purpose of this would show that the more powerful group was merciful and giving, therefore, the vassal should obey the stipulations that are presented in the treaty. It discusses the relationship between them as a personal relationship instead of a solely political one. Most importantly in this section, the vassal is agreeing to future obedience for the benefits that he received in the past without deserving them ["I am YHVH who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slaves...]

  • Stipulations: Terms to be upheld by the vassal for the life of the treaty; defines how the vassal is obligated and gives more of the legalities associated with the covenant [Ye shall/shall not]

  • Provision for annual public reading: A copy of the treaty was to be read aloud annually in the vassal state for the purpose of renewal and to inform the public of the expectations involved and increase respect for the sovereign party, usually the king. [only found in Deut. outside of 10 commands]

  • Divine witness to the treaty: These usually include the deities of both the Suzerain and the vassal, but put special emphasis on the deities of the vassal. [This is clearly different at Sinai. There is only one Deity here, which is made clear at Sinai]

  • Blessings if the stipulations of the treaty are upheld and curses if the stipulations are not upheld. These blessings and curses were generally seen to come from the gods instead of punishment by the dominant party for example. [not part of the 10 commandments]

  • Sacrificial Meal: Both parties would share a meal to show their participation in the treaty. [not part of the 10 commandments]

Source: Mendenhall, G. (1954). "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition". The Biblical Archaeologist. The American Schools of Oriental Research. 17 (3): 49–76.

It seems to me that the 10 commandments only fulfills the first three aspects of such a treaty: preamble, prologue, and (some) stipulations. It also may fulfill the Divine Witness aspect. However, the entire Book of Deuteronomy does contain all of the aspects of such a treaty, but with a more monotheistic bent. However, the question is why? Why put his covenant in the forms that human kings put theirs in? Could it be that such kings were often afforded divine worship, and that YHVH intended to put Himself and only Himself in that position? I argue for this position, because it takes a old trope and makes it new, which is very common in the Word of God. It also takes a potential weakness (the tendency to worship a king) and turns it to a strength (God alone is truly Sovereign).

Let's now turn to the Israel as Bride at Sinai interpretation. What I have consistently found in both the Old and New Testaments is that Jerusalem is the prophetic Scriptural Bride, while the children of Israel are 'the children of the bride chamber.'

Here are some verses for that:

Again the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, cause Jerusalem to know her abominations... (Ez. 16:1-2 KJV)

...Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord GOD, and thou becamest mine (Ez. 16:8).

Jesus himself viewed his disciples as companions to the Bride, not as the Bride herself:

And Jesus said unto them, "Can the children of the bride chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast" (Matt. 9:15).

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:2 KJV).

This proves that Zion is the bride. End of debate.

That being said, The 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai have been viewed as a Ketubah between God and Israel. However, this does not match my understand of ancient Hebrew Marriage customs.

A key part of a Ketubah (which has its origins before the time of Christ, but is not mentioned in the Scripture) are the financial obligations of the husband to his wife during and after his life, and issues pertaining to the dowry, bride-price etc. It is not primarily concerned with dictating the conduct of the wife in much detail.

It is also widely assumed that a Hebrew marriage put the wife in a subordinate position to the husband, which is not true. The husband in fact has more requirements to provide for his wife than she has for him. One could argue that in these ways, the man is subject to the wife, at least in terms of her basic needs. However, God is not subject to us, but we are fully subject to him. Hence, comparing US to a Bride is not appropriate because in a Biblical Marriage there is not a master-servant relationship between the husband and wife. In fact, it is expressly forbidden (Ex. 21).

To conclude, it is more appropriate to view God as our King who we must serve according to his commandments. It is less appropriate to view him as Israel's Spiritual Husband.

Even in Hosea, the Bride represent the Land:

And the LORD said to Hosea, "Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the LORD" (Hos. 1:2).

Hosea 2:15: "And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope: and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt.

16 And it shall be at that day, saith the LORD, that thou shalt call me Ishi (my husband); and shalt call me no more Baali.

17 For I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth, and they shall no more be remembered by their name."

I will admit that we run into a problem with, "as in the day she came out of Egypt" because it is hard for a Land to come out of another land. Therefore we must see the intimate connection between the people and the land that often makes them interchangeable in prophetic language. Of course, the Land whoring is really the People whoring. This verse helps explain:

Thy mother is like a vine in thy blood, planted by the waters: she was fruitful and full of branches by reason of many waters (Ez. 19:10).

Because false worship took place in groves and on high places in the Land, it is the land who is said to whore, though it is actually the people who promote this. The same can be said for prophetic passages concerning Jerusalem such as Ez. 16. This close relationship between the People and the Land/Jerusalem is perfectly captured in the term, 'children of the bride chamber.'

  • So, you point out that Israel was familiar with Vassal relationships from 1200BC to 600BC. Most scholars put the Exodus at about 1400BC or earlier - for those that believe in and Exodus. Would you put a later date for the authorship of (and non-mosaic authorship of) Exodus then? Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 15:19
  • (+1) this really is fantastic work. Another interesting idea that I had not considered that I had while reading your analysis is that Exodus might portray the agreement as a Ketubah, while Deuteronomy might treat is as a Suzerain treaty. But I'm also seeing some commonalities in Ketubahs and Suzerain treaties. I was not as familiar with Suzerain treaties, so I appreciated the commentary detailing the 7-section structure of the typical Suzerain covenant. Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 15:32
  • @ James Shwey - I believe Jericho was destroyed between 1750–1650 B.C., so no, I would not put a later, non-mosaic date. What are the commonalities that you are seeing?
    – Jacob
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 22:10
  • 1
    youtube.com/watch?v=cFfzWL1NXdE youtube.com/watch?v=Y-x55kIgheA - 'Patterns of Evidence' authors help explain the early date.
    – Jacob
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 22:13
  • My thinking is that the further back one pushes the authorship of Exodus/Deuteronomy, the less likely it is to be a Suzerain Covenant. Eg, - if Suzerain Treaties are popular 1200 to 600 BCE but you attribute authorship of Exodus to Moses and date that, say 1800BC, then it is less likely that the 10 commandments are a type of Suzerain Covenant, as it would tend to predate the practice by a few hundred years. Though I've heard similar concerns about Ketubas... Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 17:07

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