Deuteronomy 28 influenced Esarhaddon’s Vassal Treaty, not the other way around

King Esarhaddon of Assyria, perhaps greatly under the influence of the wise Israelite sage, Ahikar, see our:


could well have absorbed the laws and teachings of the Israelite Moses. Thus we would disagree with the suggested source of influence (this being the typical modern approach that always has Israel being influenced) in the following otherwise highly interesting set of comparisons between Deuteronomy and Esarhaddon’s document.




The discovery of Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty (EST) at Tell Tayinat confirms the Assyrian application of this text on western vassals and suggests that the oath tablet was given to Manasseh of Judah in 672 BC, the year in which the king of Assyria had all his empire and vassals swear an oath or treaty promising to adhere to the regulations set for his succession, and that this cuneiform tablet was set up for formal display somewhere inside the temple of Jerusalem. The finding of the Tell Tayinat tablet and its elaborate curses of §§ 53–55 that invoke deities from Palestine, back up the claim of the 1995 doctoral thesis of the author of this article that the impressive similarities between Deuteronomy 28:20–44 and curses from § 56 of the EST are due to direct borrowing from the EST. This implies that these Hebrew verses came to existence between 672 BC and 622 BC, the year in which a Torah scroll was found in the temple of Jerusalem, causing Josiah to swear a loyalty oath in the presence of Yhwh. This article aimed to highlight the similarities between EST § 56 and Deuteronomy 28 as regards syntax and vocabulary, interpret the previously unknown curses that astoundingly invoke deities from Palestine, and conclude with a hypothesis of the composition of the book of Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 28:20–44 and Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaties § 56

This section highlights the parallels between Deuteronomy 28:20–44 and EST § 56, the curse of the great gods. Although lists comparing curse motifs in extra biblical texts with Deuteronomy 28 present a lot of motif parallels, a careful look at such lists shows that the paralleling of motifs destroys the sequence of elements in one text in order to fit it to the sequence of the other (eds. Kitchen & Lawrence 2012:244,

Dt 1–32 being number 83 in their counting of ANE treaties). In Deuteronomy 28:20–44 and EST § 56, however, the sequence of motifs is identical. In only two cases does a topic appear at a slightly different position, and in both these cases one can explain the difference as a deliberate scribal arrangement.

Apart from the identical sequence of topics in both curses, there is an astounding parallel regarding the syntax. Curses invoking Yhwh or the gods as subjects causing calamity, alternate with curses in which natural forces are the subjects, or sentences that just describe the result of the preceding curse. In Deuteronomy 28:20–44 and EST § 56, these alternations occur at parallel positions.

There is still another syntactical parallel between the Assyrian and the Hebrew text. The curses invoking the divinity are optative sentences. In Assyrian, precative verbal forms mark the optative. In Hebrew, yiqtol-x formations mark the optative. Although most English translations render Deuteronomy 28:20–44 as indicative, the Hebrew text alternates between invocations of Yhwh that concede to him the option of punishing in optative yiqtol-x, and sections in the indicative dealing with the consequences of Yhwh’s punishments or the harmful effect of natural forces. The following translation will indicate an optative sentence by using ‘may’. A similar comparison has previously been published (Steymans 1995). The comparison presented here has been amended to highlight vocabulary and syntactical features common to both texts.

There is not much need for the diachronic separation in Deuteronomy 28:20–44. Three verses show elements of later elaboration.

Deuteronomy 28:20c

Deuteronomy 28: 20c: ‘[because of your evildoing] in forsaking Me’.

This ending of the first curse reads in Hebrew: mippenê rōac macalelê-kā ’ašer cazabtā-nî. The three words at the beginning do not appear elsewhere in Deuteronomy, however, they appear in Jeremiah three times (Jr 4:4; 21:12; 44:22). Since the curse section following in Deuteronomy 28:45–62 has a lot of links to Jeremiah, it is safe to suggest that the scribe who added the curses after verse 45 also added mippenê rōac macalelê-kā in order to point to the prophetic language (cf. Is 1:16; Hs 9:15) right at the beginning and prepare for the following links with Jeremiah. Nowhere else does the relative clause ašer cazabtā-nî follow ac macalelê-kā in the Hebrew Bible. There is ašer cazābû-nî in Jeremiah 1:16 and ka’ašer cazabtem ’ôtî in Jeremiah 5:19. The relative clause in Jeremiah expressing that the people leave (forsake) Yhwh differs from the one in Deuteronomy 28:20. In addition, it does not occur in context with mippenê rōac macalelê-kā in Jeremiah. In Deuteronomy, the verb c.z.b is linked to the Levites in Deuteronomy 12:19 and 14:27.

Deuteronomy 29:25 quotes the statements of people passing by giving the reason for the disaster that befell Israel: ‘Because they forsook the covenant of Yhwh, the God of their fathers’ (cal ’ašer cāzebû ’et bet Yhwh ’ælōhê ’abōtām). Deuteronomy 31 quotes the words of God, predicting that his people:

… will begin to prostitue themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me [wa-caba-nî], and break my covenant, which I have made with them. (Dt 31:16)

It is important to notice that Deuteronomy 28:20 is the first occurrence in Deuteronomy where the verb c.z.b means ‘leaving or forsaking Yhwh’, and that this meaning is taken up in Deuteronomy 29 and 31. Further use of the verb c.z.b speaks about Yhwh leaving or abandoning his people (Dt 31:6, 8, 16, 17; 32:26). Hence, c.z.b only means leaving Yhwh as a form of disobedience in Deuteronomy 28:20, the first verse of the curse section, and then in two quotations, namely in the words of other people (Dt 29:25) and of Yhwh (Dt 31:16). Prophetic language uses the verb in a similar sense, however, never in the context of ac macalelê-kā.

The verb ezābu, the Assyrian equivalent of Hebrew c.z.b, occurs in line 479 of § 56 with food and water as subjects. The only other occurrence of the verb in the EST is in line 172 of § 14, a stipulation closely linked to the whole treaty’s ‘first commandment’ in § 4 through the word repetition of a.šà ‘field’ (l. 49, l. 165), naāru ‘protect’ (l. 50, l. 168), uru ‘city’ (l. 49, l. 166), gammurtu ‘totality’ (l. 53, l. 169), libbu ‘heart’ (l. 51, 53, l. 169). The treaty’s addressees must protect Assurbanipal in country (field) and town (city), and advise him in total truth of their heart according to § 4. Then § 14, demanding them to protect Assurbanibal, repeats this order in case of a rebellion. The stipulation ends: ‘You shall Assurbanibal […] let escape [leave]’ [the dangerous situation tušezabā-ni-ni, ezābu-causative Š-stem].

Without claiming to be able to prove it, the verb c.z.b in verse 20c may have been inspired by the EST. The verb is rare in Deuteronomy and the EST, but it is existent in § 56 and the important stipulation of § 14 – and in Deuteronomy 28, it may be the relict of the conditional clause that opened the curse section in the Judean loyalty oath. The Judean scribe reversed the main offence against the overlord, using the same verb. As regards Assurbanibal, the main offence is not to let him leave (= rescue him from) any dangerous situation. As regards Yhwh, the main offence is to leave (= forsake) him in disobedience. Thus, the curse section of the Judean loyalty oath might have begun with something like: ‘If you leave [forsake] him [kî tacazbennû; cf. Dt 14:27], Yhwh may send on you curse’, picking up the conjunction of most conditional laws in Deuteronomy. When DtrL, a pre-exilic scribe (Braulik 2011; Lohfink 1997, 2000), added the blessing of Deuteronomy 28 to his account of a covenant in Moab and the conquest of the land – starting with the bārûk-formulas (Dt 28:3–5) together with the corresponding ’ārûr-formulas (Dt 28:16–19) and the alternative introductions of blessing and curse in Deuteronomy 28:1f. and 15 – the conditional clause kî tacazbennû was transferred to the end of verse 20 and the verb changed into perfect cazabtô (cf. Dt 13:11; 22:2, i.e. the taw moved from the front of the verbal form to its end and the nun energicum was deleted). A later scribe inserted the allusion to Jeremiah mippenê rōac macalelê-kā and replaced by ašer. The first person pronoun present in the Masoretic text today may be a technical mistake made by one scribe during the transmission process confusing waw with nun, letters that look similar in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet as they do in the Hebrew ‘square script’, because he knew Deuteronomy by heart and was influenced by the first person pronouns in Deuteronomy 29:15 and 31:16. One Septuagint manuscript has the third person pronoun, and Old Latin has ‘because you have forsaken the Lord’.

Deuteronomy 28:21a

Deuteronomy 28:21aI: ‘until he has put an end to you [on the soil, 21aR you are entering to possess]’.

The phrase cal hā-’adāmâ ’ašer ’attâ bā’ šāmmâ le-rišt-āh appears similarly in Deuteronomy 12:1, 21:1, 30:18, 31:13 and 32:47. However, it appears absolutely identically in Deuteronomy 28:63. Verse 63 starts with a small poem later inserted in the curse section (Steymans 1995). The scribe who added the poem also added the phrase in verse 21 in order to bracket his addition in Deuteronomy 28:63–65 with the section Deuteronomy 28:20–44. Since a previous scribe already added to verse 20, the first verse of the oldest part of the curse section, this later scribe added to the second verse of this section, namely verse 21.

Deuteronomy 28:36b

Deuteronomy 28:36b: ‘There you will worship other gods, gods of wood and stone. [37a] You will become a horror, a proverb and a byword among all the peoples, [aR] where the Lord will drive you’.

Verses 36b and 37 assess worshipping of other gods as punishment, and not as sin. The same idea is present in Deuteronomy 4:28, 28:64 and 29:17. Thus, this passage may be an addition by the same scribe who added his poem in Deuteronomy 28:63–65.

Italics mark the common vocabulary and syntactical parallels in Deuteronomy 28 and the EST. The Assyrian and Hebrew language only sometimes use common Semitic roots in exactly the same meaning. Identical or semantically corresponding Semitic roots are put in parentheses. Every sentence starts a new line. The Bible text indicates main and subordinate clauses according to Richter (1991): ‘I’ meaning infinitive and ‘R’ meaning relative clause. The Assyrian text follows Parpola and Watanabe (1988).

Since both texts are rather long, they are divided into sections for convenience. The texts are arranged in tables (Tables 2–9) with three columns. Two columns parallel Deuteronomy 28: 20–44 with EST § 56, model for the sequential arrangement of topics. The third column gives the text of other inserted curse paragraphs, because the scribe composing Deuteronomy 28:20–44 considered their topic fitting to the topic indicated by § 56.

Both curse sequences begin with the divinity as subject of the clause and the keyword curse taken from the Semitic root ’.r.r. (Table 2). The predicate of line 474 maāu [to strike] may have been the inspiration for the series of curses using the predicate n.k.h-Hiphil [to strike] in Deuteronomy 28:22, 27, 28 and 35 (Table 4, 7f.).

TABLE 2: Divine curse using the semitic root ’.r.r.

The divinities are the subject of the syntax of the curse. The ending of life is the common topic, in Hebrew it is expressed with an infinitive of k.l.h, and in Akkadian with the Mesopotamian vegetable metaphor of ‘rooting out’ (Table 3).

TABLE 3: The deity brings existance to a termination.
TABLE 4: Natural forces chase the cursed humans.

Pestilence is the concluding illness in EST, line 480 of the following section of § 56 (Table 5). This section is marked in line 479 by a shift of the subject from divinity to natural entities. The Hebrew scribe transferred the topic of pestilence to verse 21, as the beginning of a series of illnesses unfolded in verse 22 (Table 4). Thus, he makes pestilence a heading, whereas it was a conclusion in the Assyrian text. The Hebrew scribe did not adopt the Mesopotamian concern for the ghost of the dead in accordance to the general reluctance of the Hebrew Bible in dealing with the afterlife.

TABLE 5: Lack of food due to the impossibility of agriculture.

The Judean scribe took up the verb ‘to strike’ from the first curse of § 56 together with the divine subject. Then he followed the shift from divine subject to natural entity by making the diseases the actors of the chasing, as are shade and daylight in § 56 (Table 4).

The headwords ‘food’ and ‘water’, as well as ‘want’, ‘famine’ and ‘hunger’ in § 56 provide the topic for this section. The Assyrian curse of § 56 starts with entities (food and water) as subject of the sentence. The Judean scribe follows this by making sky and ground the subjects of the Hebrew sentences. He elaborates on the topic by inserting a curse from § 63. His attention was called to this curse whilst reading the EST through the co-occurrence of ‘ground’ and ‘sky’ together with ‘the great gods […] who are mentioned by name in this tablet’, which is similar to the beginning of § 56. The word kaqquru [ground, earth] is written in syllables in § 63, indicating the Assyrian pronunciation of the logogram ki.tim in § 56 (Parpola & Watanabe 1988:92, sub kaqquru). Hence, when read aloud there is a link (Table 5).

Only one exemplar from Calhu has a dividing line between lines 529 and 530, thus counting a § 63 and a § 64, as do the modern editions. All other manuscripts from Calhu, as well as the tablet from Tell Tayinat, present lines 526–533 (= § 63 + 64) as one single paragraph (Lauinger 2012:120). It is one single curse and the Judean scribe was right in taking it up completely. However, he changed the sequence of the similes. The EST lists the metals in a sequence of decreasing hardness – from iron to lead – in the following § 65. By doing so, the Assyrian text inverts the common sequence of heaven and earth to ground and sky. The Hebrew scribe changed the sequence to heaven and earth, but kept the comparison of sky with bronze and ground with iron. Both curses change their subjects. EST § 63 starts with the gods who turn the ground into iron. The subjects of the next sentence are natural entities, namely rain, dew and burning coals. Mixing both Assyrian syntactical structures, the one with divine subject in lines 526–529 and those with natural elements as subject in line 530 (§ 63) and lines 479 and 480 (§ 56), the Hebrew text starts with sky and ground as subjects, following the vocabulary of lines 526–529 and the syntax of lines 479 and 480. Then Yhwh is the subject causing harmful rain, following the syntax of lines 526–529, where the gods are the subject. Military defeat is the topic of § 65, a curse using the simile of lead in order to denote military weakness. The sons and daughters taken by the hand by their fleeing parents link this paragraph to the young women and young men of § 56, whose bodies are mutilated in the squares of Assur before the eyes of their parents, relatives and neighbours.

EST § 56 does not describe military defeat, however, the scene of line 481f. presupposes deportation because the mutilation of bodies takes place in the city of Assur. This might be the finale of a triumphal procession in which captives of rebellious countries were carried through the streets of Assur. Thus, the topic of military defeat only alluded to in § 56 and the topic of corpses being food for animals then expressed in § 56, probably has lead the eye of the Judean scribe to § 41: the curse invoking Ninurta, which clearly speaks of defeat. He conflated § 41 and § 56 in order to create verse 25f. He began his curse by invoking Yhwh instead of Ninurta and expressing defeat. He kept the Semitic root ’.k.l present as verbal form in the Š-stem in § 41 (feed) in form of the noun expressing the effect of the curse in verse 26a (food). In addition, he changed the subject. The addressees of the curse are the subject of verse 26, as are the addressees’ young women and men in § 56. The Hebrew curse continues to have the corpses being the subject of verse 26, whereas the Assyrian one of § 56 has the earth as subject. Both curses share the topic of refused burial. Both curses have an international flavour by becoming a horror to foreign kingdoms, as well as a spectacle in the capital of the multi-ethnic Assyrian empire. The combination of birds and beasts in verse 26 conflates the birds (eagle and vulture) of § 41 and the beasts (dog and pig) of § 56 (Table 6).

TABLE 6: The results of military defeat using the semitic root ’.k.l.

It has long been noticed that Deuteronomy 28:27–29 parallel the Sin and Shamash curses of Assyrian treaties. However, being aware of the topic indicated by § 56 line 485, one realises that the Judean scribe rearranged the complete sequence of Anu-Venus curses, that is §§ 38A–42, in order to elaborate on the topics he found in § 56. The headwords ‘sighing’ and ‘sleeplessness’ link § 56 with the Anu-curse in § 38A, and the skin disease rendered ‘leprosy’ links the Sin-curse § 39 with the skin disease translated ‘scurvy’ in Deuteronomy 28:27. Loss of eyesight (blindness), as well as darkness, link Deuteronomy 28:29 with § 56 and the Shamash-curse in § 40 (Table 7).

TABLE 7: The curse motifs of Anu, Sin, and Šamaš.

The subjects change. Verse 27 starts with the divinity as subject, as do §§ 38A–40. Verse 29 shifts to the addressees as subject, as do the Sin-curse (roam in the desert) and the Shamash-curse (walk about). Both the biblical and the Assyrian curses focus on the desperate way the people move (grope about).

Having elaborated on the topic of military defeat by using imagery of § 41 to create Deuteronomy 28:25, the Judean scribe now elaborates on § 42. This curse invokes Venus, a manifestation of Ishtar, and offers the headwords ‘eyes’ taken up in verses 32 and 34, ‘lying’ as a metaphor for sexual intercourse and rape taken up in verse 30, ‘sons’ taken up in verse 32, and ‘enemy’ taken up in verse 31. The loss of possession to spoiling soldiers is the common topic. The metaphor of an irresistible flood in § 56 also denotes military defeat. The Biblical text is enriched by futility curses that add the topics house and vineyard, as well as curses that focus on cattle. It is not before Deuteronomy 28:31e and 32a that the Assyrian headwords are taken up again. The Venus curse focuses on the impossibility of transferring property as a heritage to the next generation. There is no deportation from the land. However, the enemy is in the land and takes all goods. The biblical curse goes one step further in making the sons themselves a chattel to be taken by the spoiling army. Their parents remain in their land, consumed by the yearning for their children (Table 8).

TABLE 8: The motif of plundering enemies followed by baleful wishes.

The return to illness in Deuteronomy 28:34 and 35 is inspired by the term ‘ill’ in § 56. The Tell Fekhariye inscription reveals that the rendering of curses that are mere invocations in Assyrian as futility curses in a West-Semitic text is not uncommon (Steymans 1995:156–161, 181–185).

There is no curse in EST that deals with deportation. Deportation, however, is the topic of § 25, an admonition that the oath-takers must enounce. Thus, Judeans who were bound by the EST had to say this to their children. Any Judean scribe must have been aware of this admonition. The headword ‘son’ links it to the topic of several curses of the EST. The most striking correspondence between Deuteronomy 28:36 and EST § 25 is the combination of setting a king over oneself and deportation (Table 9).

TABLE 9: Deportation and appointment of a king.

After the topic ‘lack of food’ in verse 26 in correspondence to line 479, the fact that the topic reappears with the root ’.k.l ‘to eat’ in verse 39 and line 490 is a further indication of the common structure of both curse sections. Another identical root connects both texts, namely c.l.h [to come up, rise]. In § 56, the root occurs in line 489 with the metaphor of a flood that symbolises enemies. In Deuteronomy 28, the root occurs three times in verse 43, turning the stranger (a person to be cared for according to the biblical law) into an enemy. The Judean scribe elaborated on the topics given in § 56 by creating futility curses. He kept the sequence of food, drink, and then ointment. However, he discarded clothing and repeated deportation of sons and daughters instead. The last line of § 56 lists three types of spirits that haunt the dwelling places. The Assyrian verb īaru means ‘to choose, to select’, and exists also in the noun ā’iru/āmiru/āwiru [spouse]. The verb can mean ‘to marry’. The spirits are not evil per se – they may even have protective power (Wiggermann 1992:69, 96, 218f., 221). The point being made in both the Assyrian and the biblical curse is that entities that are not harmful in general and must be protected (as the stranger in the Bible) or may be protecting forces (as the spirits in ANE belief) turn out to be harmful and threaten the intimate space where one dwells (‘in your midst, your houses’) (Table 10).



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