The Hittite ritual of passing between the pieces of sacrifice (Jeremiah 34)

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Illustration: God’s covenant with Abraham

Jeremiah 34:18-20 refers to Zedekiah’s covenant with God, in which the people passed between the parts of a calf cut in two. A similar ceremony is described in Genesis 15. What was the significance of passing between the pieces of an animal that had been split in half? Ancient texts supply us with several parallels to the Biblical rite:

  • A Middle Hittite text describes  a purification ceremony. This ceremony required defeated troops to march betweeb the severed halves of a human, a billy goat, a puppy and a piglet, with the fires burning on each side. The troops were first to perform the ritual near a river, where they would sprinkle themselves with water as they marched; then they were to enact it in the plain in like manner.
  • In an eighth century B.C. Aramaic treaty between Ashumirari V of Assyria and his vassal Matilu of Arpad, Matilu and his sons are likened to a spring lamb whose knuckle is placed in the mouth of its severed head, lest he should “sin” against the treaty with his lord.
  • Easrhaddon (680-669 B.C.) of Assyria declared in a treaty that his vassal and the vassal’s children, if he were to break the Assyrian king’s covenant, were to be treated in the same manner as the animals that lay slaughtered and gutted before them.

The Hittite ritual is similar to its Biblical counterpart, but Assyrian texts may help us to understand its true significance. Essetially, these rites served as self-imprecation oaths, by which people called down curses upon their own heads should they fail to keep their part of the covenant they were solemnly ratifying. The ritual was a way of saying “May what happened to these animals happen to us if we break this covenant”. Zedekiah’s covenant symbolized what would befall covenant-breakers. In this case Zedekiah and his people did break the covenant, and the death and destruction the ritual enacted were indeed the outcome.


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