Study Guide

The Twelve Minor Prophets Vassal Treaties

Vassal Treaties

Breach of contract complaints. Accusations of adultery and prostitution. Enemies raping women, making children slaves and forcing people into exile. Locusts. The fertile land failing to produce fruit and crops. Defriending.

As strange as it may seem today, these are all typical ways of talking about politics during the time of the Minor Prophets.* In particular, multinational agreements known as vassal treaties, in which a nation forms a protective alliance with one that is more powerful. The way that the Minor Prophets blend prophecy, war and mundane legal wrangling is basically Star Wars: The Phantom Menace without Jar-Jar Binks.

In addition to the positive obligations of each side, a vassal treaty also contains a list of curses, or potential punishments, that the less powerful country might face if it were to violate the agreement. The colorful penalties in vassal treaties are the ancient world’s answer to such contemporary punishments as trade sanctions, fines, or inspirational memes.

To see an example of a covenant lawsuit in action, all you have to do is open the first book, Hosea. After the messy business with the sexually adventurous wife, Hosea launches into a breach of covenant lawsuit, including a formal accusation, a list of crimes and a confirmation of the curse:

Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel; for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing. (NRSV Hosea 4:1-3)

And Hosea isn’t the only Minor Prophet who uses his prophetic office as a branch of Yahweh’s court. Here’s Amos announcing that Israel fought the law and the law won …

Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. (NRSV Amos 3:1-2)

While Micah summons God as a testifying witness:

Hear, you peoples, all of you; listen, O earth, and all that is in it; and let the Lord God be a witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. (NRSV Micah 1:2)

This tradition of writing a sermon as a lawsuit may seem unusual today, but remember: the ancient Israelites didn’t have Law & Order on Netflix, so if they wanted legal drama they had to get creative.

*OK, except for defriending. Busted.