This is the fourth study on God’s covenants in the Old Testament. For previous published posts on Old Testament covenants, click on the link below. The link will also list future posts on this topic.
The covenant God established with Israel on Mount Sinai was the culmination of the events related to the exodus and Israel’s departure from Egypt. On Sinai, God revealed himself to Israel in an awesome theophany. The presence of God was accompanied by trumpet blasts, with thick clouds, smoke, thunder, and flashes of lightning.
The Background of the Covenant with Israel
God’s covenant with Israel, also known as the Mosaic Covenant, is based on God’s promises made to Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham established the basis for the birth of a nation to be known as Israel. The reference to Abraham appears several times in the exodus narrative (e. g., Exodus 3:15-17; 6:3-4, 8).
In the covenant God established with Abraham, God promised that Abraham would become the father of a nation and promised that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. Thus, the promises God made to Abraham were also made to Abraham’s descendants: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7).
God’s covenant with Abraham provides the perspective for the proper understanding of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the journey to Mount Sinai, the establishment of the covenant, and the giving of the law. When Israel was suffering under the burden of the Egyptians, it was God’s covenant with Abraham that set the events in motion that culminated with the establishment of the covenant at Sinai: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exodus 2:24)
Israel’s Mission in the World
After Israel left Egypt and arrived at Sinai, Yahweh repeated the promises he had made to Abraham and clarified what Israel’s mission in the world would be as the redeemed people of God. The basis for Israel’s mission in the world was based on what Yahweh had done for Israel:
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:4-6).
Through the covenant God established a special relationship with Israel. However, this special relationship meant that Israel had to meet two important conditions. If Israel wanted to be the special people of God in the world, if Israel wanted to be the mediator of God’s blessing to the nations, Israel had to meet God’s requirements.
The first requirement God imposed on Israel was obedience: “if you obey my voice.” Obedience to God’s voice would be the test by which Israel would demonstrate to the world that it trusted in God and that it would live according to God’s words. The second requirement was that Israel obey the demands of the covenant: “if you keep my covenant.” The demands of the covenant were the laws and statutes that regulated the relationship between Israel and God and the laws and statutes that regulated life in the covenant community.
Because God established a special relationship with Israel, God gave Israel a special calling. This call, which was first given to Abraham, was based on God’s redemptive purpose for the whole world. Israel was commissioned by God and sent to the world with a redemptive message. There are three aspects to God’s relationship with Israel.
1. God said: “you shall be my treasured possession.” The Hebrew word segullah means “personal property.” Israel was God’s special possession since he had redeemed the people from their bondage because of his promise to Abraham.
2. God said: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom.” God called Israel to be a servant nation, a nation with a special vocation to reveal the true God to the nations. As a kingdom of priests, Israel would serve as a mediator between God and the nations. Since one of the functions of the priest was to bless the people (Numbers 6:23), Israel was to function as a priest to the nations: “You shall be called priests of the LORD, you shall be named ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:6).
3. God said: “you shall be a holy nation.” This expression means that Israel was to be a people set apart. This does not mean exclusivism. It means that Israel was set apart to carry out God’s work in the world. Israel was called to be the holy people in the service of a holy God.
In order for Israel to carry out God’s work in the world, Israel had to accept its destiny without reservation. If Israel were not willing to obey God, Israel could not become God’s agents in the world. It was for this reason that Israel expressed its commitment to God by agreeing with God’s demand: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).
The Covenant Ceremony
The ceremony of covenant ratification is found in Exodus 24:1-8. Time and space do not allow me to discuss the covenant ceremony in detail. As the people prepared to enter into a covenant with God, Israel came before Yahweh at the foot of the mountain. The solemnity was marked by a sense of fear since the people were in the presence of a holy God. It was a time of awesome wonder and worship.
There in the presence of God, Israel promised to obey the demands of the covenant. Sacrifices were made to bind the people to God. The blood of the covenant was poured on the altar and sprinkled on the people to symbolize the commitment God was making to Israel and the commitment Israel was making to God.
Below is a summary of the steps involved in the ceremony of the ratification of the covenant:
1. The Representative of the People
“Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:1).
2. The Preparation for the Ceremony
“Moses rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel” (Exodus 24:4).
3. The Sacrifice
“[Moses] sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the LORD” (Exodus 24:5).
4. The Sanctification of the Altar
“Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar” (Exodus 24:6).
5. The Reading of the Demands of the Covenant
“Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. . . . Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people” (Exodus 24:7).
6. The Commitment of the People
“All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3).
“All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7).
7. The Sanctification of the People
“Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people” (Exodus 24:8).
8. The Ratification of the Covenant
“Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:8).
9. The Covenant Meal
“There they saw the God of Israel. . . . And though these nobles of Israel gazed upon God, he did not destroy them. In fact, they ate a covenant meal, eating and drinking in his presence” (Exodus 24:10-11 NLT).
The Obligations of the Covenant
The essence of the demands of the covenant imposed upon Israel are found in the Ten Commandments. These are the basic ethical obligations Israel had to observe as a holy people serving a holy God.
The ethical obligations Israel must obey and practice are divided into two sections. The first four commandments are the basic obligations of Israel toward Yahweh. The last six commandments are obligations that the people must observe as they relate to each other as members of the covenant community.
A. Obligations Toward God
1. The people of Israel must not worship of any other god, except Yahweh (Exodus 20:3)
2. The people of Israel must not make any image of Yahweh (Exodus 20:4)
3. The people of Israel must not misuse the name of Yahweh in magic, in curses, or in calling up evil spirits to do harm to other people (Exodus 20:7).
4. The people of Israel must honor Yahweh by making the seventh day a day of rest and worship (Exodus 20:8-11).
B. Obligations Toward Members of the Covenant Community
1. The people of Israel must honor their parents (Exodus 20:12).
2. The people of Israel must honor human life by not committing murder (Exodus 20:13).
3. The people of Israel must honor marriage by not having a sexual relationship with the wife of another man (Exodus 20:14).
4. The people of Israel must honor personal property by not stealing what belongs to others (Exodus 20:15).
5. The people of Israel must not bear false witness against a member of the community (Exodus 20:16).
6. The people of Israel must not lust after another person’s property (Exodus 20:17).
Israel’s response to the demands of the covenant was unanimous: “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3).
Once Israel accepted the demands of the covenant, they were bound to the promises made to God. Unfortunately, the message of the prophets and the history of Israel show that Israel did not keep the demands of the covenant.
The prophets served as God’s messengers to call Israel back to the covenant. Yahweh had been a faithful partner in abiding by the demands of the covenant, but Israel turned to evil and served other gods. Israel’s failure to abide by the demands of the covenant called for a new covenant, a covenant built on a better foundation.
NOTE: For other studies on covenants in the Old Testament, read my post, The Diversity of God’s Covenants.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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thanks for the wonderful very truthful research.
Thanks for sharing your ideas and text references.
Just found you blog and real find wisdom growing here! Loved this blog; I am studying the words from the Bible, all fullness, Co 1:19, Jn 1:16; fullness; and consciousness. The first covenant never promised a person would be saved by following to the letter of the commands, which is why Christ was such all fullness. I am following the trail as the Holy Spirit leads me. You were one of my stops for knowledge. The question is: “with what shall I approach Yehoveh; do homage to Elohim on high?” To which led me to Jeremiah 6:16. Here is what Adonai says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask about the ancient paths, ‘which one is the good way?’ Take it, and you will find rest for your souls…. So Lev 19:2 reads in par, “you shall be holy, for I, Yehoveh your Elohim, AM HOLY…. and so I have been digging deeper into the whole word of God. I want to worship God according to his Son Jesus Christ. I study with mainly the NIV and CJ B, Spurgeon, Torah Class, others.
Thank you for your comment. I am glad that my blog helps you in your study of the Bible. I commend you for your desire to grow spiritually. You are doing the right things. Our relationship with God grows deeper and stronger as we study God’s Word and apply the teaching of the Bible to our lives. Honor God and God will honor you.
I liked and appreciated your article. However I’ve been trying to find in God’s covenant to Israel any promise for eternal redemption and life but can’t find any. Can you please enlighten me accordingly as the Jews has some weird concepts about life after death.
Thanking you in anticipation and God bless
Thank you for your comment. In Israel, the view of life after death is a late development. People believed that after death you go to Sheol, but the concept of Sheol in the Old Testament is not very clear. The covenant does not say anything about redemption or life after death. People believed that God would eventually redeem them. As Job said, “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that as the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God, whom I will see for myself, and whom my own eyes will behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27).
Thank you. Well put and easy to understand.
You are welcome. I am glad that you enjoyed my post.
I enjoyed reading your blog. I was led to it from a search for “How many commandments did God give the people of Israel in the Old Testament?” My brother and I see a couple things differently. He feels that we should keep all the feasts, dietary laws, and every law in the Old Testament except for Talmudic laws or laws made by the Pharisees. He does believe in Yahshua as our Messiah. However, he feels that all that was done away with by Yahshua’s sacrifice on the cross was the animal sacrifices for sin and the Levitical priesthood. What are your thoughts?
Thank you for reading my blog. The case of your brother is a little complicated. If your brother is a Messianic Jew and he lives in Israel, then keeping the feasts and dietary laws would be just fine because he would do what other Jews are doing. But he cannot keep every law in the Old Testament. For instance, he cannot keep the laws about slaves and the law about women captured in war. These are only two examples.
However, if you brother is not a Jew and does not live in Israel, he does not have to keep Jewish festival. Your brother should listen to what Peter said at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Peter said, “Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10).
Christ came to deliver believers from this unbearable yoke.
Thank you for reading and commenting on the post.
I just recently heard a message by Mac Hammond that the covenant with Israel is still in effect? That we have our covenant as Christians but they have another covenant with God that is still in effect! I don’t remember ever hearing that before.
The issue with God’s covenant with Israel is complicated. God made a covenant with Abraham. It was an unconditional covenant because God took an oath when he made the covenant. Read my article, “The Diversity of God’s Covenants.”. The covenant with Israel was a conditional covenant. The covenant was based on the obedience of Israel. Since Israel disobeyed God, both Jeremiah and Ezekiel speak of a new covenant. This new covenant was established with Christ.
God deal with Israel because of the promises God made to Abraham. Israel still has a relationship with God because of the covenant God established with Israel on Mount Sinai. God is faithful to his covenant even when Israel failed to be faithful to the covenant.
Thank you for reading and commenting on the post.
The covenant carries along responsibilities for the good of mankind.
I agree. It is sad that many people are not familiar with the implications of God’s covenant with Israel.
Israel was called to be the holy people in the service of a holy God. The words “was called to be” is an invitation, not a description. Only the nation who became Holy knows what Holy is!
You must remember that there was a time when there was no Israel. God invited Israel to be a holy nation and they accepted the call. Only then they became a holy nation. You provided a link to a post in your blog, but the link was not working.
Thank you for visiting my blog.
I like this post it is really an eye opener to me and has enhanced my knowledge in the subject matter. Thank you sir
I am glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you for visiting my blog.