The covenant between God and the people of Israel “must be understood on the basis of political and judicial categories,” declares the highly regarded HarperCollins Bible Dictionary.1 Well, yes and no. In a groundbreaking new essay, Frank Moore Cross, one of the leading Biblical exegetes of our time and Hancock Professor Emeritus at Harvard, places the concept of covenant in a far broader setting—that of kinship relations—and teases out some important new implications.
The ancient covenant originated, says Cross, as a “legal means by which the duties and privileges of kinship may be extended to another individual or group” (emphasis supplied). By establishing a covenant, an outsider was brought into a kinship relationship—a kind of familial conversion process, resulting in what Cross calls kinship-in-law, as opposed to kinship-in-flesh. Through its covenant with God, Israel becomes the “kindred of Yahweh.” Yahweh, in effect, adopts the people of Israel. Mutual obligations are thereby created.
Cross makes the case in the opening essay of his latest book, From Epic to Canon. Intended as a sequel to his widely influential Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic,2the new book consists of revised and expanded versions of previously published papers—except for the groundbreaking first chapter, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” published here for the first time. The relationship between the two concepts (covenant and kinship), Cross claims, “has been little studied in recent years and is poorly understood.” He brilliantly clarifies it.
“The social organization of West Semitic tribal groups was grounded in kinship,” he says. “Kinship relations defined the rights and obligations, the duties, status, and privileges of tribal members.”
Cross continues: “Kinship was conceived in terms of one blood flowing through the veins of the kinship group. If the blood of a kinsman was spilled, the blood of the kinship group, of each member, was spilled. Kindred were of one flesh, one bone.”
When Jacob went to Paddan-aram to seek a wife among the daughters of his uncle Laban, he explained his kinship relation to Laban, who immediately embraced him and replied, “You are truly my bone and flesh” (Genesis 29:14); that is, you are my kinsman. This is kinship-in-flesh.
It is in a kinship context that we are to understand ancient Israelite marriage: The bride enters a kinship relationship with the groom’s kin. That is the original meaning of the famous passage in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man will abandon his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and [the two of them] will become one flesh.” This does not refer to carnal union of the couple or 033to the children that will be the issue. Obviously, offspring of the marital union will be of one flesh. That the couple are of one flesh establishes the wife as a kinsman of the first rank. This is kinship-in-law.
Kinship extended not only to the family (in Hebrew, the mishpahah) but to the entire tribe. The duties of a kinsman include avenging the blood of a kinsman, redeeming property sold by a poor kinsman, redeeming a kinsman sold into debt slavery and marrying the widow of a brother or near kinsman to secure his line. This last obligation is the central principle in the Book of Ruth, in which Boaz marries the widowed Ruth. Ruth calls him a go’el (Ruth 3:9). The common translation “next of kin” is not quite right. The word go’el, which means “redeem,” really refers to one who acts as a kinsman, suggests Cross. (The New Jewish Publication Society version translates the term as “redeeming kinsman”; The New Jerusalem Bible has “You have the right of redemption over me.”)
Many of the Biblical laws that apply to all Israel had their origin in kinship groups—the proscription against interest, for example. As applied to all Israel many of these laws may appear idealistic or unrealistic, but they are readily understandable in terms of their tribal origin.
The language of love (’ahabah) is also rooted in kinship relations; it expresses the bond that holds together those in intimate kinship relationships. It is here that we find the original meaning of the Great Commandment (in New Testament terms), “Love your fellow (tribesman) [usually translated “neighbor”] as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Its application was originally limited to one’s kinsmen. The immediate Biblical context of this statement is also important in kinship terms: The preceding Biblical statement forbids one from taking vengeance on a fellow tribesman. Instead, you shall reprove him.
In tribal religion, Cross writes, God was the Divine Kinsman: “In the religious sphere, the intimate relationship with the family god, the ‘God of the Fathers,’ was expressed in the only language available to members of a tribal society. Their god was the Divine Kinsman …
“The Divine Kinsman fulfills the mutual obligations and receives the privileges of kinship. He leads in battle, redeems from slavery, loves his family, shares the land of his heritage (
The covenant, accompanied by an oath, was a way in which an outsider could be incorporated into the kin group. The kinship-in-law may have been a legal fiction, but it provided a mechanism for extending the duties and privileges of kinship. Thus when David and Saul’s son Jonathan made a covenant and Jonathan “loved David as himself” (1 Samuel 18:3), it meant that the two were now as kinsmen, even though they were of different tribes.
A lawyer might call this kinship-in-law constructive kinship; the kinship is treated as if it were a blood kinship.
Adoption of a son or daughter was another way in which non-kin could be engrafted in kinship-in-law. It is in this context that we are to understand the references in which the king is adopted as God’s son. Speaking through the prophet Nathan, God tells David that his son Solomon will be God’s adoptive son: “I will be a father to him, and he will become my son” (2 Samuel 7:14). Similarly with Israelite kings generally: “My son art thou; today I have begotten thee” (Psalm 2:7; see also Psalm 89:27–28 and Isaiah 9:5). Both God and king undertake the mutual responsibilities of kinship.
As Israelite society became ever more complex, the concept of kinship continued to be applied, albeit sometimes in attenuated form. To the prophet, all Israel is God’s son: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1).
The language of kinship is also used in parity and vassal treaties, essentially another form of kinship covenant. When Hiram of Tyre agrees to supply the materials and architects to build Solomon’s Temple, he and Solomon enter into a covenant (1 Kings 5:2-6) and Hiram is called “a lover of David” (1 Kings 5:1-5; in English translations “lover” [’hab] is usually softened to “friend”). Israel was not alone in this: In the seventh century B.C.E., the Assyrian monarch Esarhaddon required his vassals to swear in a treaty that they “will love [Esarhaddon’s heir] as yourselves.”
“Often it has been asserted that the language of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘fatherhood,’ ‘love,’ and ‘loyalty’ is ‘covenant terminology.’ This is to turn things upside down. The language of covenant, kinship-in-law, is taken from the language of kinship, kinship-in-flesh.”
Early Israel was a somewhat fragile tribal league, or confederation. This league, says Cross, was “a kinship organization, a covenant of families and tribes organized by the creation or identification of a common ancestor and related by segmented genealogies.” It was also a religious 060organization. The league was called the ‘am Yahweh (see Judges 5:11; 1 Samuel 2:24; 2 Samuel 1:12 et al.). This phrase is usually translated “people of Yahweh,” but it would be more accurately translated “kindred of Yahweh.” According to Cross, “Yahweh is the god of Israel, the Divine Kinsman, the god of the covenant.” Each has obligations to the other.
This same kinship language is found in the kingdoms of Ammon and Moab on the other side of the Jordan River: The Ammonites are called ‘
The international treaties of the second millennium B.C.E. clearly establish the antiquity of covenant forms and the language of kinship-in-law. And yet this same language persisted after the establishment of the Israelite monarchy in the first millennium B.C.E. “The social context in which the covenant relationship was authentic and fully functional must be located in the society of the confederation of Yahweh, in the era of the league in the second millennium,” Cross notes. That this kindred and covenant language continued to be used in texts that date to the Israelite monarchy has historical implications: Because mutual covenant and kinship obligations run counter to the interests of king and monarchy, they could not have been invented in late monarchical times. This, in turn, provides a sound historical grounding to the Israelite monarchy.
This is but a taste of the much fuller treatment in Cross’s book. The essay provides a fine introduction to the collection of papers, each of which is itself a scholarly gem. This book is surely destined to become a classic, a crowning achievement to a distinguished life of scholarship.
The covenant between God and the people of Israel “must be understood on the basis of political and judicial categories,” declares the highly regarded HarperCollins Bible Dictionary.1 Well, yes and no. In a groundbreaking new essay, Frank Moore Cross, one of the leading Biblical exegetes of our time and Hancock Professor Emeritus at Harvard, places the concept of covenant in a far broader setting—that of kinship relations—and teases out some important new implications. The ancient covenant originated, says Cross, as a “legal means by which the duties and privileges of kinship may be extended to another individual or group” […]