Covenants of God, Week Five: The Mosaic Covenant
We are well into the grand sweep of covenants found in the Bible. Remember WHY we are examining these promises between God and his people? So that we might have a sound biblical worldview in the face of all the other truth claims in our culture.
So far, we looked at creation and the Edenic Covenant. We talked about the breaking of that covenant, which led to the Adamic Covenant. We saw the gradual degradation of God’s creation that led to the great flood and the Noahic Covenant. Last week we saw that God establishes a covenant with a particular man from the bloodline of Shem, Abram.
Through Abram, whose name was changed by God to Abraham, God promises to give him numerous offspring, to make Abraham the father of “a great nation,” to give him the land of Canaan and to reward him with fame. The sign of this covenant was circumcision.
Today we will look at arguably one of the most famous of the biblical covenants, Mosaic Covenant named after the leader of God’s people out of bondage in Egypt. As we will see, many of the promises to Abraham by God have been fulfilled within the Mosaic Covent—a people, a place, and His presence. But first, how did we get here?
The generations of Abraham include Isaac, Jacob (whose name is also changed by God to Israel), and his twelve sons who come to be known as the twelve tribes of Israel. The story of Moses really begins with Joseph, the eleventh born son of Israel. It was through Joseph—who had been sold to human traffickers by his brothers and taken to be a domestic slave in Egypt but rose to become the prime minister of the most powerful nation in that day—who saved the Hebrews during a great famine in Canaan.
Years pass and a new pharaoh comes to power “who did not know Joseph” and who feared the prolific Semites and so enslaved them as a cheap labor force for his building projects. But the Israelites continue to multiply, so pharaoh institutes an infanticide program by requiring the midwives to kill all male Hebrew babies at birth. But they feared God and made up some lame excuse to tell Pharaoh. The Hebrews kept multiplying like rabbits. So, Pharaoh decreed that all Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile at birth.
Enter Moses (whose name means to “draw out”). Upon his birth, his Levite mother placed Moses in a basket coated with tar and pitch and put the basket in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby, drew him out, and took him to raise as her own, AFTER Moses’s mother was given permission to nurse and wean him. Unlike most of the Hebrews, Moses became highly educated in Pharaoh’s household and spoke at least two languages. God used all of Moses’s experiences—including the unfortunate murder of an Egyptian taskmaster—to shape Moses into the leader who could bring the children of Israel out of bondage.
Do you remember what God said to Abram in Genesis 15 during the blood ceremony of the covenant? “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions…In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
400 years and 10 plagues later—including the death of every male child and animal in Egypt that did not have lamb’s blood smeared on their doorposts—Moses leads God’s people out of slavery around 1446 B.C.E. Think about it. Through one man whose life had been directed by an unseen divine hand, Yahweh creates a tremendous act of deliverance while proving himself the Lord of the cosmos by defeating the greatest emperor of that era (along with his gods) on their own turf!
This is the EXODUS. It is the single most important event in all Israelite history. The people are delivered from slavery and poverty, returned to a place of security, given an identity, a future, a hope and an inheritance. Israel is redeemed! For all history our God has chosen to be identified by this singular event—the God who rescues slaves from their bondage and claims them as his own.
For us to understand the God of OUR salvation—the Redeemer who leads us out of our bondage to sin and death—we must understand the EXODUS and the covenant resulting from it. After escaping through the Red Sea, the Israelites—by some estimates 2.5 million strong—find themselves at the base of Mt. Sinai. [This is why the Mosaic Covenant is also called the Sinai Covenant.] Now let’s look more closely at this far reaching covenant and its implications. We begin by reading the first 6 verses of Exodus 19. In it we will see the promise of the covenant.
Moses is called up the mountain by God, who offers to Israel the promise that they would be his chosen people. A couple of points need to be made here. First, the Israelites were not required to do anything for the Lord to save them. “You yourselves have seen what I did in Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”
God rescued His people from slavery BEFORE revealing the Law, which is found in Exodus 20:1-17…BEFORE they are required to do anything or earn the right to be saved. The Mosaic Covenant can easily then be called a covenant of GRACE.
They were not special people and therefore deserving of redemption. In Deuteronomy 7, when the Lord is explaining to the Israelites the importance of driving out all the nations around them, here’s what Yahweh says, “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut. 7:6-8). Salvation/Redemption is because of God’s great love and faithfulness to his promises made to Abraham and his descendants.
Second, notice that Israel was indeed God’s kingdom…a nation ruled by God! With God as Israel’s king, this means that Israel’s territory was God’s territory, Israel’s enemies were God’s enemies, and Israel’s political interests were God’s political interests. The SIGN of this theocratic covenant was the LAW.
Let’s look deeper into the old covenant itself. Remember the two main treaties of the ANE? PARITY treaties and SUZERAIN/VASSAL treaties. A parity treaty was a covenant made between equal kings. A suzerain/vassal treaty was a covenant between a greater king and a lesser king. And which kind of covenant does God make? Yep! Suzerain/Vassal. Why? Because God is always the greater party and we are lesser party.
Last week we looked at the practice of “cutting a covenant” as the ratification of the Abrahamic Covenant. This morning I want us to recall the 7 parts of a typical ANE treaty format, according to Dr. Sandra Richter in her book, Epic of Eden:
1.Preamble/Titleà Gives title to the suzerain
2.Historical Prologueà the greater king summarizes his accomplishments as reasons for the lesser king participating in the covenant
3.Stipulations/Obligationsà the suzerain spells out what is expected of the lesser king as well as his expectation of loyalty
4.Blessings and Cursesà the suzerain explains the benefits of keeping the covenant, and the consequences for not doing so
5.List of Witnessesàthe deities of both parties are summoned to act as witnesses to the oaths taken
6.Periodic Readingsà a provision is made in the covenant for the entire agreement to be read to the lesser king as a reminder of what he has agreed to.
7.Deposition and Provisionà the treaty text is archived in the temple of the vassal’s chief deityfor periodic reading
Mosaic (Sinai) Covenant (Exodus 20)
Let’s read the most famous part of the Sinai Covenant we know as the Ten Commandments; and listen for elements of ANE treaty language [READ Exodus 20:1-17]. “I am the Lord your God (preamble/title) who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (historical prologue). You shall have no other gods before me…” This covenant goes on for 17 verses, giving four stipulations of how to relate to God and six stipulations of how to relate to one another. This is also called the moral law.
There are many other parts of the covenant between God and his people, which are detailed in Exodus and other books of the Pentateuch (first five books). Much of the holiness code is found in the book of Leviticus. The word “HOLY” in Hebrew is qadosh and in Greek is hágios. It literally means “set apart.” Something ordinary can be “set apart” from other ordinary things and then becomes sacred…set apart for special use by God. Circumcision, dietary laws, and restrictions on assimilating with other nations are examples of Israel’s holiness code that sets them apart from their neighbors.
The Israelites were ordinary…nothing special. But God MADE them special by choosing them as his special possession. If it was true for Israel, how much more so for those who have answered the call to be followers of Jesus Christ! Consider these beautiful words of grace we hear from the apostle Peter in his first letter :
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY (1 Pet 2:9-10).
God chose us in Christ Jesus to be his special possession. There was nothing special in us…we didn’t do anything to earn redemption through Jesus Christ. We are the people of God, through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, solely because of God’s great love!
Back to Israel. They were set apart for God’s good purposes. All the stipulations of the OT were given by Yahweh in order to create a people set apart from the world who worshipped the one true living God rather than the man-made gods of the ANE.
While Exodus 20 contains the Decalogue (Ten Commandments, as we call them), Exodus 21-23 particularizes parts of the Decalogue, especially how Israelites are to treat one another. There are laws concerning slaves, personal injuries, protection of property, social responsibility, justice and mercy laws, Sabbath laws and festivals. Again, this all sets them apart from surrounding nations.
But God did something else astounding in this Mosaic Covenant. He promised to dwell with his people in the tabernacle. Listen to this word from God : “Have [the people] make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (25:8) Exodus 25-28 details the tabernacle and every element in it…all set apart for special use.
God’s purpose in instituting the tabernacle was that he might live among his people. And since the Israelites dwell in tents, Yahweh will too! When Israel settles in the Promised Land, Yahweh will shift his residence to a permanent temple. In the tabernacle the Presence of God lives on earth for the first time since Eden.
How often do we hear this comforting refrain in both the Old and New Testaments : “I shall be their God and they shall be my people and I will dwell among them”? Ezekiel 37:27 promises the restoration of an exiled Israel and includes this promise: “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
In the Gospel of John, we read of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Later in John, when Jesus is speaking of the promised Holy Spirit, says this , “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn. 14:23)
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians we are reminded that the believer IS the temple of God. Finally, in the promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth in Revelation 21:3, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
All these promises of God dwelling with us find their roots in God’s promise to Israel through the Mosaic Covenant. It is all part of God’s great rescue plan!
Let’s recap. 2.5 million ex-slaves are now on the verge of entering the Promised Land. They have gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai and God has announced his intention to be in a covenant relationship with Israel. Yahweh stipulated that HE was Israel’s patron of provision and protection, but he has also required of them to live in ways that separate them from other people groups.
So, how would this theocracy be administered? As the story unfolds in the history of Israel, we see that God administers his covenant theocracy through the offices of priest, prophet, and king. These three offices would provide a framework to realize the covenant:
The priest spoke to God on behalf of the people through the sacrificial atonement system.
The prophet spoke to the people on behalf of God, reminding them of the importance of being a covenant-keeping people and warning what would happen if they did not.
And the king would demonstrate to the nation a life of covenant loyalty so they could see a human expression of what God intended.
But, as history records, the priests failed in their duties and abused their office. The kings let personal power and wealth cloud their judgment. Most did evil in the sight of God. And many “so-called prophets” who worked for these wicked kings only prophesied what the king wanted to hear. Only a handful were true prophets of the Lord (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, and the like). In essence, Israel—set apart to be a holy nation and a light to all nations—only looked to her own interests. She was only interested in self-advancement, self-improvement, and self-preservation. She broke her covenant with Yahweh time and time again. Are we any different?
Time has shown that we can NOT restore the covenant relationship with God even through the Law of Moses. Sin that separates us from God was just too great a divide. There had to be another way, and it actually is the fulfillment of the original rescue plan. In the fullness of time, God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to dwell with us…to become one of us so that He could identify with our weakness, yet not violate the covenant with the Father. He completely and perfectly fulfilled the threefold offices of Priest, Prophet, and King. Jesus was the true Servant of Israel who took the punishment for our sins on the cross.
And when He rose from the dead on the third day, Jesus overcame death itself so that all who put their faith in Him will be saved from the penalty of sin and death forever. This is the Good News! And it’s why we gather every week as a reunion of the rescued…a people of the New Covenant.
The Mosaic covenant is a partial fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham. But the Mosaic covenant is a foreshadowing of the fuller expression of God’s promises in Jesus Christ.
Like Israel, we did nothing to deserve our redemption from the bondage of sin and death. And like Israel, following the commands of God are simply a loving, thankful response to God’s amazing grace:
We love because God first loved us.
We give because God first gave to us.
We forgive because God first forgave us.
We show hospitality because God made a place for us.
We shine the light of Christ to a dark and lost world because the light of Christ first shown in us!
Maybe you’ve never understood the connection between God’s amazing act of redemption through Jesus Christ and OUR response in faithful obedience to God’s Word. Our God is loving, but He’s also holy…set apart. If we are to be the true children of God, then we are called to be set apart, too. We are called to be holy as he is holy SO THAT the world may know Christ through us!
And if you’ve never given your heart and life to the One who gave His life for you, then I urge you to make that decision today. Jesus is calling you…will you answer? Will you fall down at the feet of Jesus and hear his tender words, “My child, I love you. I died and rose again for you. I forgive you of all your sins and cleanse you of all unrighteousness. You are made clean. You are mine forever.”