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The Hittite Ritual of Passing Between
the Pieces of a Sacrifice
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 between the severed halves of a human, a Billy goat, a puppy and a piglet, with 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 matched; then they were to enact it in the plain in like manner.
In an 8th century B.C. Aramaic treaty between Ashumirai of Assyria and his vassal 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.
Esarhaddon (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 the Assyrian texts may help us to understand its true significance. Essentially 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.
It sounds like the Hittites weren’t with You, that they worshiped false gods.
I’m curious about what kind of people they were, but I also want to know more about…
Jeremiah 34 Zedekiah’s Broken Promise
1 The word which came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and all his army, and all the kingdoms of the earth of his dominion, and all the people, fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities thereof, saying,
34:1-35:19 - The first major division of the book (chapters 2-35) now draws to a close. Jeremiah’s warnings and exhortations to Judah are concluded with a historical appendix (chapters 34-35), a technique used to conclude the third major division of the book (chapters 39-45), as well.
Chapter 52, written by someone other than Jeremiah, serves as a fitting historical appendix to the entire book.
34:1-22 - the chapter divides naturally into two parts (vv. 1-7 and 8-22), each of which dates to 588 B.C.
34:1-7 - Jeremiah’s warning to King Zedekiah parallels the prophet’s similar admonition in 21:1-10.
2 Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah, and tell him, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire:
“Lachish, and against Azekah” – Solomon’s son Rehoboam had fortified them, but Lachish was later besieged (701 B.C.) during Hezekiah’s reign by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. A contemporary relief depicting Sennacherib’s conquest states that he “sat on a throne and passed in review the plunder taken from Lachish.”
In 1935, 18 Ostraca (broken pottery fragments used as writing material were discovered at Lachish, nearly all of them in the ruins of the latest occupation level (588 B.C.) of the Israelite gate-tower. Ostracon 4, written to the commander at Lachish shortly after the events described here, ends as follows: “We are watching for the fire-signals of Lachish…for we cannot see Azekah.”
3 And thou shalt not escape out of his hand, but shalt surely be taken, and delivered into his hand; and thine eyes shall behold the eyes of the king of Babylon, and he shall speak with thee mouth to mouth, and thou shalt go to Babylon.
4 Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah; Thus saith the LORD of thee, Thou shalt not die by the sword:
5 But thou shalt die in peace: and with the burnings of thy fathers, the former kings which were before thee, so shall they burn odors for thee; and they will lament thee, saying, Ah lord! for I have pronounced the word, saith the LORD.
6 Then Jeremiah the prophet spake all these words unto Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem,
7 When the king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish, and against Azekah: for these defensed cities remained of the cities of Judah.
8 This is the word that came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people which were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them;
9 That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free; that none should serve himself of them, to wit, of a Jew his brother.
10 Now when all the princes, and all the people, which had entered into the covenant, heard that everyone should let his manservant, and everyone his maidservant, go free, that none should serve themselves of them anymore, then they obeyed, and let them go.
11 But afterward they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids.
12 Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,
13 Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondmen, saying,
14 At the end of seven years let ye go every man his brother an Hebrew, which hath been sold unto thee; and when he hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee: but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear.
15 And ye were now turned, and had done right in my sight, in proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbor; and ye had made a covenant before me in the house which is called by my name:
16 But ye turned and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom ye had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids.
“Ye…polluted my name” – by breaking the Lord’s covenant. Zedekiah was a man whose word couldn’t be trusted (Eze 17:15, 18).
17 Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ye have not hearkened unto me, in proclaiming liberty, everyone to his brother, and every man to his neighbor: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the LORD, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.
18 And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof,
“Transgressed…passed” – the Hebrew root underlying both words is the same, again providing an ironic play on words.
“Made,,cut” – the Hebrew for the two words is identical. In ancient times, making a covenant involved a self-maledictory oath (“May thus and so be done to me if I do not keep this covenant”), which was often symbolized by cutting an animal in two and walking between the two halves (Gen 15:18).
19 The princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land, which passed between the parts of the calf;
20 I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life: and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth.
21 And Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes will I give into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army, which are gone up from you.
34:21-22 – because of the arrival of the Egyptians on the scene, the Babylonians in 588 B.C. temporarily lifted the siege of Jerusalem.
22 Behold, I will command, saith the LORD, and cause them to return to this city; and they shall fight against it, and take it, and burn it with fire: and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without an inhabitant.