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.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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