Genesis: The Book of God’s Kingdom – 18 (“Moses: The Covenant of Law”)

Genesis: The Book of God’s Kingdom – 18 (“Moses: The Covenant of Law”)

A couple of weeks ago I said that there are several covenants spoken of in Genesis and other parts of the Old Testament we’ve already looked at the first Covenant, namely the Covenant of Creation with its three ordinances (the ordinance of the Sabbath, of Labour, and of Marriage). Then we looked at the Fall of man; the “Original sin”; “Imputed sin” and “Personal sin” as well as the results of these sins. We also discovered the blessings and grace that went with these curses.

After that we moved on to the Covenant of Redemption which includes the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and lastly, the consummation of these covenants, with the covenant with Christ.

The first of these covenants followed immediately after the Fall, while man – Adam, was still under the covenant of creation. God had bound Himself to man by the special orderings of creation. Man destroyed that relationship by eating the forbidden fruit.

A very important fact however, is that God’s relationship with man did not end, or was not terminated with man’s sin. The wonder of the gracious character of the Creator manifests itself immediately. Judgement indeed must fall. But even in the midst of judgment, hope for restoration appears. God binds Himself now to redeem a people to Himself. The very words that pronounce the curse of the covenant of creation also inaugurate the covenant of redemption.

This inseparable connection of the Covenant of Creation with the Covenant of Redemption stresses the restoration goal of the Covenant of Redemption. From the very outset, God intends by the Covenant of Redemption to realise for man those blessings originally defaulted under the covenant of creation.

Today, we will be looking at the covenant with Moses, namely “The Covenant of Law.” This covenant has provoked some of the greatest debates within the Christendom’s history, because the precise relationship of the Mosaic Covenant to the promises that preceded it and to the fulfilments that followed has proven to be one of the most persistent problems of Biblical interpretations.

Many people feel that the Law (“The Ten Commandments”) is just a set of rules or laws given to Israel by God in order to establish standards, maintaining order, resolving disputes and protecting liberties and rights. But together with that, also to establish standards which is a guidepost for minimally acceptable behaviour in society.

It is very true that the law plays an extremely significant role in the Mosaic era, but more important however, is the fact that the covenant supersedes the law – i.e. the law must remain at all times subservient to the broader concept of the covenant (Afrikaans: “die Wet is ondergeskik aan die totale verbond – die verbond het dus veel meer behels as bloot net die Wet”).

This point is made most obvious by a recognition of the historical context in which the covenant or law was revealed. Historically, the nation of Israel already was in a covenantal relationship with the Lord through Abraham. The Exodus narrative begins when God hears the groaning of Israel, and… ~ “… God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex.2:24). After God established Himself as Israel’s Lord through the historical fact of the deliverance from Egypt, the law-covenant of Sinai is administered. The opening words in Ex.20:2 … ~ “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” provides the essential historical framework in which the Sinaitic law-covenant may be understood.

Ex.34:1-28 (ESV) ~ “The LORD said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. 5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” 10 And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. 11 “Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. 13 You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), 15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, 16 and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods. 17 “You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal. 18 “You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt. 19 All that open the womb are mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty-handed. 21 “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In ploughing time and in harvest you shall rest. 22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. 23 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year. 25 “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning. 26 The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” 27 And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”

If the Mosaic Covenant, also known as the Covenant of Law, stands in basic relation of unity with God’s earlier covenantal administration, what then is its distinctiveness? How does it stand apart from God’s other ways of dealing with His people? (Afrikaans: “Indien die Ou Verbond oor dieselfde tema as die ander verbonde beskik, moet ons verstaan waarom hierdie verbond belangrik is en in watter opsig is dit anders?”).

We must understand that the Mosaic covenant manifests its distinctiveness as an externalised summation of the will of God (Afrikaans: “Die unieke eienskappe van die Mosaïse Verbond is die feit dat dit ’n opsomming van God se wil vir Sy volk is”). The Patriarchs certainly were aware of God’s will in general terms and on occasion, they received direct revelation concerning specific aspects of the will of God. Under Moses, however, a full summary of God’s will was made explicit through the physical inscripturation of the law (Afrikaans: “fisies geskrewe formaat”).

The phrase, “Covenant of Law” must not be confused with the traditional terminology which speaks of a “Covenant of Works.” The phrase “Covenant of Works” customarily refers to the situation at creation in which man was required to obey God perfectly in order to enter into a state of eternal blessedness. Contrary to this relation established with man in innocence, the Mosaic Covenant of Law clearly addresses itself to man in sin. This latter covenant never intended to suggest that man by perfect moral obedience could enter into a state of guaranteed covenantal blessedness. The integral role of a substitutionary sacrificial system within the legal provisions of the Mosaic Covenant clearly indicates a sober awareness of the distinction between God’s dealings with man in innocence and with man in sin (Afrikaans: “Die ooreenstemmende elemente van ’n Plaasvervangende offersisteem in die Ou Verbond en die wetlike voorsienng in die Mosaïese Verbond, dui vir ons op die verskil tussen God se hantering van ’n onskuldige persoon en iemand wat in sonde verkeer”).

It is important to keep in mind that God already was in a covenantal commitment with Israel even before the giving of the law at Sinai, in order to redeem them from a state of sin and to make them a people unto Himself. Israel assembled at Sinai only because God had redeemed them from Egypt. For the covenant of Law to function as a principle of salvation by works, the Covenant of Promise first would have to be suspended. The covenantal stipulations written on tables of stone never was intended to detract from the gracious promise of the Abrahamic Covenant. Paul emphasised this point in Gal.3:17 when he said ~ “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” This means that God always, prior to the Law-giving and after that until today, considered only those people who believed in Him, as righteous. This is why we must never and cannot ever refer to the “Ten Commandments” as the “Covenant of Works.”

God remembered the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and He brought their descendants out of slavery in Egypt. While they were on their way to the land of Canaan, God made a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. As their Ruler, He gave laws, and they agreed to keep them ~ “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant,” He told them through Moses ~ “then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…. You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex.19:5-6).

The people said they would do everything the Lord had said (Ex.19:8). After God spoke the Ten Commandments, the people asked Moses to be their mediator for the remainder of the covenant (Ex.20:1-19). Through Moses, God then gave regulations about altars (Ex.20:22-26), servants and slaves (Ex.21:1-11), murder and sins against others (Ex.21:12-32), sins against personal property (Ex.21:33-22:15) and other laws of social responsibility (Ex.22:16-27; 23:1-9). There were rules about blasphemy, cursing, offerings, firstlings (Ex.22:28-30), Sabbath years and days, Holy Days and offerings (Ex.23:10-19). God spoke all these laws, and then promised to give the people the land of Canaan (Ex.23:20-31).

The Abrahamic Covenant, although it included obligations, stressed God’s promise. The Sinaitic Covenant, although it included mercy and promises, stressed human responsibilities. Moses told the people the laws, and the people said ~ “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (Ex.24:3). And Moses wrote it all down.

The next day, they had sacrifices, Moses read the book of the covenant, [The book of the covenant that Moses read apparently contained everything that the Lord had said (Ex.24:4). This would mean everything the Lord told Moses while he was on the mountain; it may also include the Ten Commandments. The “Book of the Covenant” found in Josiah’s day (2 Chron.34:30; 2 Kings 23:2) was apparently something else (perhaps the book of Deuteronomy), since it had instructions for Passover (2 Kings 23:21), and Exodus 20-24 does not]. So, after the people of Israel had some sacrifices and Moses read the Book of the Covenant. the people again agreed to obey (Ex.24:4-7). Moses then sprinkled blood on the people, saying ~ “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Ex.24:8). As Hebr.9:18-20 says, the first covenant was put into effect with blood. An animal was cut, and the people came under the covenant by being sprinkled with its blood.

The Ten Commandments formed the core of this covenant. “The words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments” were written on tablets of stone (Ex.34:28). The tablets of stone were called the “tablets of the covenant” (Deut.9:9; Hebr.9:4). They were placed in the ark of the covenant (Ex.25:16, 21 and 31:18), thus giving a name to the ark, and the covenant was said to be inside the ark (1 Kings 8:21; 2 Chron.6:11).

In this covenant, the people agreed to be servants of God, and He agreed to protect them. The covenant was made not only with Israel as a nation, but also with Moses as its leader (Ex.34:10, 27). Many of the laws in Ex.34 are quoted from Ex.23. It was a covenant renewal or restatement with some variations. Hebr.9:1 says that the original covenant also included regulations for worship and the sanctuary (Ex.25-30). The covenant was developed as time went on.

Although the Sabbath was part of the Ten Commandments (Ex.20:8-11), and part of the larger covenant (Ex.23:12), it was made its own covenant in Ex.31:16. Just as circumcision was an everlasting covenant and a sign of Abraham’s covenant (Gen.17:10-11), the Sabbath was also called a sign and an everlasting covenant (Ex.31:12, 16-17). Just as circumcision was a covenant in conjunction with the Abrahamic covenant, the Sabbath was a covenant in conjunction with the Sinaitic covenant.

Also, in conjunction with the Sinaitic covenant was the weekly showbread, which was also called an everlasting covenant (Lev.24:8). An everlasting covenant was made with the priesthood, too (Num.18:19; 25:1). Grain offerings were covenantised, too, since God commanded ~ “Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings” (Lev.2:13).

The laws of God were repeated many a time. As an example, Moses repeated to the people the laws of God just before they entered the Promised Land (Deut.1:1-5). He also added many other laws later on and every time, after He described blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, He led the people to covenant anew with Him to be His people. Most of the book of Deuteronomy then forms the “terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb” (Deut.29:1). The covenant was renewed and expanded. This Deuteronomic covenant was built on the foundation of the Sinaitic covenant, the Ten Commandments.

Moses reminded the people that they were making a covenant with the Lord not only for themselves but also for their descendants (Deut.29:12-14), and He exhorted them to be faithful to this covenant (Deut.29:9). This was a confirmation of the covenant God had made with the patriarchs (Deut.29:13).

The covenant was also renewed in the days of Joshua (Jos.24:1-24), Asa (2 Chron.15:12) and in the days of Joash (2 Chron.23:16). Josiah and the Jews renewed the covenant. Jeremiah called the people to obey the terms of the covenant they had made when their forefathers came out of Egypt (Jer.11:2-6). In Jeremiah’s day, the people made a covenant with God (Jer.34:15), but they were going back on it, and God would treat them… ~ “like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces” (Jer.34:18). Yet another covenant was made in the days of Ezra, in which the people agreed to put away their foreign wives and children (Ezra 10:3).

Throughout Israel’s history, covenant was an important concept. They were the “people of the covenant land” (Ezek.30:5); their ruler was ~ “the prince of the covenant” (Dan.11:22). An attack on the Jews was considered an attack ~ “against the holy covenant” (Dan.11:28, 30). Paul noted that one of the advantages of the people of Israel is that they had the (plural) ~ “covenants of the promise” (Rom.9:4; Eph.2:12).

To the Israelites, to obey the law means to come to know something of the holiness of God. The Israelites saw the glory of God on the mountain and trembled because of it. As Christians, we, too, should respect God’s law, for it is a reflection of the holiness of God.

In understanding the different covenants in the Bible and their relationship with one another, it is important to understand that the Mosaic Covenant differs significantly from the Abrahamic Covenant and later Biblical covenants because it is conditional in that the blessings that God promises are directly related to Israel’s obedience to the Mosaic Law. If Israel is obedient, then God will bless them, but if they disobey, then God will punish them. The blessings and curses that are associated with this conditional covenant are found in detail in Deut.28. The other covenants found in the Bible are unilateral covenants of promise in which God binds Himself to do what He promised regardless of what the recipients of the promises might do, but the Mosaic Covenant was a bilateral agreement, which specified the obligations of both parties to the covenant (Afrikaans: “Die ander verbonde in die Woord, was eensydige verbonde – beloftes wat God aan die mense gegee het, ongeag van hulle reaksie of optrede, maar die Mosaïese Verbond was ’n tweeledige verbond waar daar bepaalde verantwoordelikhede op die skouers van beide partye in die verbond gerus het”).

The Mosaic Covenant is especially significant because in it God promises to make Israel ~ “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex.19:6). Israel was to be God’s light to the dark world around them. They were to be a separate and called-out nation so that everyone around them would know that they worshiped Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God. It is significant because it is here that Israel received the Mosaic Law that was to be a schoolmaster pointing the way towards the coming of Christ – Let’s look at Gal.3:24-25 ~ “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” The Mosaic Law would reveal to people their sinfulness and their need for a Saviour, and it is the Mosaic Law that Christ Himself said that He did not come to abolish but to fulfil. This is an important point because some people get confused by thinking that keeping the Law saved people in the Old Testament, but the Bible is clear that salvation has always been by faith alone, and the promise of salvation by faith that God had made to Abraham as part of the Abrahamic Covenant still remained in effect (Gal.3:16-18).

Also, the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Covenant did not really take away sins (Hebr.10:1-4); it simply foreshadowed the bearing of sin by Christ, the perfect High Priest Who was also the perfect sacrifice (Hebr.9:11-28). Therefore, the Mosaic Covenant itself, with all its detailed laws, could not save people. It is not that there was any problem with the Law itself, for the Law is perfect and was given by a holy God, but the Law had no power to give people new life, and the people were not able to obey the Law perfectly (Gal.3:21).

There is good news to all of us. With Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection the Old Covenant was fulfilled and a new covenant was instituted (Hebr.8:6-8).

The Old Covenant with its laws, priests, tabernacle/temple, animal sacrifices, etc. was a picture of what Jesus Christ would do. God was not short-sighted or ignorant about the inadequacies of the Old Covenant and so, came up with a new plan to send Jesus to make things right. Jesus was not an afterthought. His coming and purpose was prophesied to the first people ever created – Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15). His coming was intentional from the fall of mankind and the promise of His coming brought hope to Israel through the Old Covenant.

Jesus accomplished in the New Covenant what the Old Covenant was not adequate to do – namely to defeat sin. The Old Covenant proved that sin was more powerful than the law. As soon as the law in the Old Covenant said, “Thou shalt not…” mankind could not resist temptation and the power of sin. Thus, Israel ultimately broke the covenant. Sin overpowered mankind, but Jesus overpowered sin. Israel was enslaved to sin, just as they had been enslaved to Egypt hundreds of years earlier. Just as Moses (who was given the written Old Covenant) was the saviour for Israel from captivity in Egypt; now Jesus (who was Mediator of New Covenant) was the Saviour for Israel (and all people) from captivity to sin. The law’s purpose is to expose sin (Old Covenant). Jesus’ purpose was to defeat sin (New Covenant).

You must always remember that the Old Covenant was replaced by a new covenant. When Jesus died on the cross a new era started for all believers. All the ceremonies and sacrifices of the Old Covenant were abolished because their real meaning was to foreshadow the sacrifice that Christ Himself would make. Since Christ had made one sacrifice for sin, valid for all time, no further sacrifices were required (Hebr.10:11-18). By necessity, therefore, the ceremonial element in the law was no longer binding on the Church.

Kobus van der Walt

Christ not only fulfilled the necessity of the ceremonial laws, but He also wrote the law on the hearts of His children. This was already foretold by the prophet Jeremiah in Jer.31:33 ~ “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” In and through the Holy Spirit, we do what the law requires from us (Rom.8:3-4). Our mission as believers is not to obey the Ten Commandments – that is Old Covenant thinking and it proved inadequate (which was its purpose). Our mission, is to obey the Holy Spirit (“who will ‘move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’”).

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