Covenantal Egalitarian Societies

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Joseph Livni:

"The covenant is not an Israelite invention. Covenants existed in Israel’s ancient world (e.g. the Hittite covenant in Mendenhall 1955: 29); the Israelites’persuasion only slightly modified the concept; instead of signing it with a mortal sovereign, the Israelites preserved their egalitarian ethos by “signing” a covenant with an immortal one. And instead of designating someone with power of attorney, the Israelites believe that each one of the signatory party to the covenant and so are his/her descendants: “Face to face the LORD spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire"[Deut. 5.4].

Israel was surrounded by strongly stratified societies; maintaining an egalitarian ethos next to pharaonic Egypt and oligarchic Philistine or Canaanite city-states required strong cohesion forces. Typically egalitarian societies settle disputes by mediation; they need neither a clear distinction between right and wrong, (Sillitoe 1998:159)nor a consequential allocation of guilt (Dickson-Gilmore 1996:101). However in Israel, the egalitarian ethos absorbed from hierarchical neighbours concepts of penal norms like guilty, innocent, justice, and punishment; penal norms restrict arbitration to disputes that do not involve violation of norms. The encounter of egalitarian societies with hierarchies was not unique to Israel; for example, the Celtic tribes of Iron I also bumped into Roman rule (Luley 2016). However the outcome of the two encounters was different: Israel maintained its egalitarian ethos while the Celtic people became stratified. By hypothesis, the Israelites squared the circle using the notion of covenant. Reasonably, the faith in a God sanctioning a covenant with each member of the community was the spiritual projection of the covenantal polity. After all, “every religion is to be found in juxtaposition to a political opinion which is connected with it by affinity” (Tocqueville 2000:241). Scholars note that the covenant is of the suzerainty type(Mendenhall 1955:29). One cannot sign such a covenant with more than one sovereign. That does not necessarily imply subscribing to full monotheism of current times and denying the existence of other gods. At that stage the covenant only forbade serving other gods (Bright 2000:160). Bright observes that neither the term henotheism nor monolatrism would fit because:“... the existence of other gods was not expressly denied, neither was their status granted. Because of these difficulties many scholars seek some compromise word like incipient monotheism, implicit monotheism, practical monotheism, or the like”(Bright 2000:159).Regardless of the terminology, my contention is that a covenant allowing serving other gods undermines itself. Therefore, from this point of view the monotheistic nature of such a faith stems fromits covenantal arrangement and not the other way around as inferred by Knohl’s hypothesis linking Israel’s monotheism to Pharaoh Akhenaten (Knohl 2008:110).In socio-political terms, the egalitarian notion of covenant gave rise to an egalitarian societal type called covenantal society (Elazar 1998;McCoy, Baker, and Bullinger 1991;Smith 2008)."



The Sabbath as an Equality-Maintaining Institution in Ancient Israel

Joseph Livni:

"The Sabbath assemblies started before the exile. Since local assemblies obstructed the central authority of the monarchy, these assemblies were tolerated only because they were inherited from the pre-monarchic settlements. Cultural evolution explains how a random habit of a seventh day of rest facilitated a covenantal pre-monarchic Israel and led to its current cultural descendants. .In a pre-monarchic settlement farming was prohibited on the seventh day; the day was consecrated to public affairs like enforcing the covenant. The seventh day of rest and its linkage to the covenant is the reason why “whatever its origin was, the Sabbath took on a peculiar meaning which made it an institution peculiar to Israel.”


More information


Elazar, Daniel J.1997. Covenant & Constitutionalism: The Great Frontier and the Matrix of Federal Democracy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Elazar, Daniel J. 1998. Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers