Distinguishing Covenantal Exchange from Patron-Client Relationships

Zeba Crook, on the difference between a covenantal exchange model and the patron-client model with which it is often conflated:

“Covenantal texts share common features: formality, explicit promises and threats, oaths, witnesses, written permanence, unequal status, and unbalanced exchange. This is all suggests that covenantal exchange is a form of asymmetrical exchange, but also that it is not exactly like patronage. That both covenantal and patronal exchange are forms of asymmetrical exchange explains why there are significant points of similarity between them. Primary among these shared features is that both types of exchange occur between parties of unequal social status. Second, both the exchanges rarely involve the exchange of goods or services of equal value, but are based on a reciprocity of gratitude, loyalty, and honor… If one’s perspective were limited to these two elements alone, one might very well conclude that suzerains and vassals were no different from patrons and clients. There are, however, equally important distinctions between covenantal and patronal exchange. Most importantly, each involves different levels of formality. The interlocutors of covenantal exchanges were bound by oaths that were made (and remade) in public, and that involved witnesses and ceremonies in order to make the contracts legal and binding… Patronage and clientage was no less binding than covenantal exchange, but it was much less formalized.” (Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in its Social Context (edited by Philip Esler), “Reciprocity”, pp 86-87)

The covenantal model is of course more applicable to the ancient Near East and Israel, while patronage is more operative in a Greco-Roman setting.

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2 thoughts on “Distinguishing Covenantal Exchange from Patron-Client Relationships

  1. It could be splitting hairs depending on what you’re looking for. But I do think it’s substantive that patrons and clients didn’t enter into contracts with each other, and that vows and oaths weren’t a standard part of their exchange.

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