Last year, when writing the Torah Commentary series that became Authority, Headship, and Family Structure (According to Moses), I touched on suzerain-vassal relationships in Mishpatim, Exodus 21-24. Here’s the quote to set the stage for additional consideration.
A second concept central to understanding authority as it relates both with Messiah and in marriage and personal relationships is Suzerain-Vassal relationships. Numerous scholars from various backgrounds argue well that God’s relationship with Adam and later with Israel was a Suzerain-Vassal relationship whereby the Great King has complete authority over the vassal king. When intimacy and relationship are present, the language often used is ‘father’ and ‘son.’
Suzerainty covenants typically include a historical prologue, obligations, and forms of subordination, as well as blessings and curses for obedience or disobedience. All are clear elements visible not only in the Garden of Eden, but even more so in Exodus 20 and the book of Deuteronomy.
An in depth discussion of suzerainty is beyond our immediate scope, but well worth the reader’s time and effort. The point of introducing it here is that God, the Great King, in giving His Law, articulates not only how Israel, both individually and corporately are to relate to Him, but also how men are to relate to each other. This will be evident throughout Torah as we see over and over that there are specific rules and requirements for how man is to interact with and care for others who are also vassals to the Great King. The picture is also displayed in God’s rules for marriage and how a man is to be the suzerain of his home with his woman or women as vassals under his authority.
Above is a diagram that illustrates Suzerain-Vassal relations in multiple levels. This examples very well the layers of authority in God’s structure not only for the nation of Israel, but also how He operates through the Messiah, men, and their women. Man is both a vassal to the Messiah and a suzerain for his home and domain.
It is important to note that two vassals who have a dispute must take it to their common suzerain. They have no authority to attack or make demands of each other that are outside of any rules or covenant expectations their common suzerain might have. Children with dispute go to their father. Wives, in a plural home, are to be treated equally and any dispute must be taken to their husband, their suzerain or king. Men with a dispute, as we saw in the last portion, would go to the judge or escalate a matter to Moses, the representative of God, The Suzerain!
All of Torah is written within this authority framework which the New Testament upholds over and over. See Matthew 18 as well as Paul’s many passages on submission, caring for others, etc.
Lately, I have been pondering how very repetitive God is with certain things. He repeats themes and cycles in larger and smaller pictures and applications. For example, the feasts have cycles that overlay: 1-6, Shabbat; Pesach-Sukkot; 1-6, Sh’mita; 1-49, Yovel.
Regarding His authority structure, the relationship is copied at every level as seen in the illustration at left.
When multiple vassals or subjects are in relationship with a suzerain, they do not have authority over each other as that promotes confusion. Rather, in a disagreement or dispute, they must go to their mutual head, the suzerain, for a decision and mediation.
To take a related side track, the Hebrew roots and Messianic, in their/our zeal to share with others what the Head is requiring of us, His subjects, we often come across as correcting others, when in truth, that is not our place. We can say, ‘this is what I see in the Instructions He has given us’ but we can’t say, ‘Hey, you are doing it wrong and I’m going to correct you.’ The first shares our understanding of what is written, the second imposes my understanding, whether right or wrong, on a subject that is not mine!
Ephesians 5 and 6 really point this out.
Ephesians 5:1-21 is about men in the fellowship mutually submitting to each other. Assuming authority over each other is a big ‘no-no’ that violates the authority structure. Each man, according to 1 Corinthians 11:3, is subject to the Messiah.
Women, however, are subject to their own man as the ekklesia (qahal/Assembly) is subject to the Messiah. Ephesians 5:22-33 makes this abundantly clear. Then in quick succession at the beginning of chapter six, other layers are addressed… children with parents, servants with masters, etc.
The point, demonstrated clearly, is that children are subject to their parents, wives are subject to husbands, and the Assembly is subject to Messiah; but, men in the fellowship are not subject to each other. Vassals are not subject to vassals.
This brings additional clarity to another controversial verse regarding male and female relationships. Consider,
33 for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.1 Corinthians 14:33-35
Elsewhere, Paul says a woman is not to teach or have authority over a man. The point in both passages is to prevent the crossing of boundaries where a woman is in authority over her man or over any listener, man or woman. It is a consistent upholding of the authority structure instituted by Yah and imaged throughout Scripture.
This also explains why it is shameful to be led by children or women (Is.3:12) and the very reason no woman appears in a leadership or headship position in Scripture unless a man or men are not leading as they are supposed to.
The authority structure does at times get confused in Scripture and it usually leads to trouble. A great example is in Genesis 16. Sarai gave her maidservant to Abram (v.3) as ‘his woman.’ After Hagar conceives, she despises Sarai who apparently was still her mistress (v.4). Instead of having a vassal relationship to Abram, and parallel relationship with Sarai, she was still under Sarai’s ownership and had a relationship with Sarai’s master, Abram. This leads to confusion and, it would seem, a lack of discipline and direction on Abram’s part over Hagar for her actions against Sarai. The point is, confused boundary lines and authority opens the door for confusion and rebellion, exactly what happened.
(Granted, there may have been other complications, but the primary issue that led to the rebellion was confused master-servant relationships. The illustration of crossed lines of authority, though, sticks.)
I’ll be writing more on this topic. For example, one question I was asked last week is, ‘How should a woman pray for her man? Isn’t that running past her authority?’ Well, last week’s Torah portion actually touched on this very issue… see How Should a Woman Pray for her Man? on our sister site.