Exodus & The Mosaic Covenant, Part 1

Detail from Moses with the Ten Commandments (Rembrandt, 1659)

(Continued excerpts from the book-in-progress. Read the series so far.)

With the Book of Exodus we bid adieu to the Patriarchal period and are thrown into the misery of slavery and hopelessness. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are long dead. The covenant promise is all but a forlorn hope. Even Joseph’s eminence in Egypt has been forgotten; at least by those who matter. Genesis ends with a small tribe of “Israelites” leaving their homeland and descending in to Egypt.

Yet the first half of the Book of Exodus contains some of the most compelling narrative ever written. Exodus is a book about redemption. The redemption envisaged in the early chapters is predominantly a deliverance from servitude. Many who came through the waters were not saved spiritually, as the incident with the golden calf (Exod. 32) proved.

Exodus is also a book about how God and sinners can meet on His terms. The condition of this meeting was covenantally grounded, first in the Abrahamic covenant (Exod. 2:24), since the whole saga was predicted at the time God initiated His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16. But the relationship between the newly formed nation “Israel” and their God is one of theonomy; of law-keeping. The Law that was to be kept was in the Mosaic or Sinai covenant (Exod. 20-24).

Unlike the other divinely instituted covenants in the Old Testament, the covenant with Israel was bilateral; both parties swearing an oath to perform their part. Of course, Israel as all people, could not deliver on their obligations, and it was only by grace, mediated through the sacrificial system within the law, that salvation and blessing were made possible.

The great event which punctuates the history of Israel is the rescue of the people from the Egyptian might by the miraculous hand of God. The exodus deliverance is often recalled by the Lord in His overtures to His wayward people (e.g. Deut. 7:8; 9:26; 13:5; 2 Sam. 7:23; Mic. 6:4; Neh. 1:10 etc.). The covenant at Mt. Sinai was perhaps above all a covenant of identity. It established Israel as a nation apart. Even though they would continually depart from God and the Law, God would never totally abandon them. This rootedness of Israel’s hope—not in the Mosaic covenant but in the soil of the Abrahamic covenant—is what assured the survival of the nation. Moses clearly understood this when he pled for Israel in Exodus 32:14!

The Mosaic covenant does not abrogate the original Abrahamic covenant. The first covenant is unilateral and unconditional1 whilst the covenant with Moses and Israel is bilateral and conditional. And because its demands were too high for sinners to meet, it was also a temporary covenantal relationship.

Nevertheless, it is by means of the Mosaic covenant that Israel was set apart and preserved historically. Because Yahweh had redeemed Israel through the waters (a constant refrain in Deuteronomy), the nation, if not always the individuals in the nation, were special to Him. Moreover, the covenant at Sinai was also a kind of marriage covenant between Yahweh and Israel, a metaphor which the Prophets will afterwards take advantage of as they call Israel to repentance.2 As I hope to show, the Lord’s willingness to take back His erring “wife” in a “new covenantal” relationship is one of the great examples of forgiveness and reconciliation. But only if He takes back the same wife!

The calling of Moses at the burning bush was not just the calling of one man; it was the beginning of the making a nation of God’s people. The great redemption through the waters of the Red Sea (Exod. 14), and the provision of manna (Exod. 16), not to mention the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Exod. 13:21-22), show the care of Yahweh for His people. Though there were challenges at Marah (Exod. 15) and afterwards, yet the God who called them would keep them.

So Israel comes to the Mountain of God to receive the Ten Commandments (literally, ten words) and to institute the covenant of law. But we must remember Exodus 19:6 where God tells the people that He wants them to be “a holy nation and a kingdom of priests.” The meaning of this calling should not be missed. Israel clearly has a ministry for the nation among the nations of the world.

Israel was to be kings and priests to God on behalf of the nations; they were to be … missionaries to the nations … and they were to be partakers in the present aspects and coming reality of the “kingdom of God.”3

Verse 5 declares,

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. (my emphasis)

Here there is a distinct intention behind the calling of the nation. Israel is to be a “special treasure” (cegullah) to Yahweh “above” all the other nations of earth. The intent, therefore, was for Israel to dwell among other nations on earth yet to enjoy a peculiar position in God’s sight.4 As His “peculiar people,” they were to serve God alone in the midst of an idolatrous world.5 Israel was to be prized as a wedding ring is prized. Indeed, as already indicated, the Prophets would invoke marital language when describing the covenant relationship.

What this shows, I believe, is that the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were destined to live with their God upon the earth surrounded by other saved nations to whom they would minister as priests. This is what is taught in the “blessing” part of Deuteronomy 28: the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth (Deut. 28:1).

Then all peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you. And the LORD will grant you plenty of goods, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your ground, in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. The LORD will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. (Deuteronomy 28:10-12, my emphasis)6

This note is also struck in the Psalms.

For instance, Psalm 102:21-22 speaks of a time when they will, “declare the name of the LORD in Zion, and His praise in Jerusalem, when the peoples are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD.”

It is implied in Psalm 72:17-19

His name shall endure forever;
His name shall continue as long as the sun.
And men shall be blessed in Him;
All nations shall call Him blessed.

Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel,
Who only does wondrous things!

And blessed be His glorious name forever!
And let the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Amen and Amen. (My emphasis)

The dramatic announcement of this aspect of God’s program at the quaking mountain surely underscores the incontrovertibility of the Divine intent. This relationship and role for Israel is what He wants, and if he doesn’t get it now, we should look for it in more conducive times in the future. If it was the Lord’s original purpose to make Israel His special possession among the nations of the world, then we must ask—in view of their failure to live up to their part of their covenant oath—whether that part of the Creation Project was abandoned.

The question will be answered in the course of this study, but if the answer is yes, and I believe it has to be yes, then it will not do to forge a biblical theology wherein the New Testament Church, which is not a geo-political nation among other nations, supersedes or “expands” national ethnic Israel in the plan of God. For God to do such a thing would be to change plans. But we don’t worship an indecisive or incompetent Deity. The covenants of God are designed to overcome the disqualifying and self-limiting barriers of sin, and bring God’s plan to its desired end through their eventual synthesis in the Messiah.

Notes

1 Again, in using the customary word “unconditional” I mean that no obligation for eventual fulfillment of the oath is placed on any human being. However, there were obligations (conditions) on humans to be holy and obedient before God. If the qualifications for fulfillment were not met (which they could not outside of full salvation), then the fulfillment would be postponed until they could be met. So I agree with Schreiner when he says, “God certainly will fulfill his covenant, but it will not be fulfilled by a disobedient generation” (Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Glory, 16 n. 90). But it needs to be added that the fulfillment itself is fixed by God’s obligation to His sworn oath.

2 See e.g., Jer. 3:14, 20; 31:20; Hos. 2:16; Isa. 62:4. The passages in Isaiah 62, Jeremiah 31, and Hosea 2 are eschatological and speak of Yahweh taking back adulterous Israel and cleansing and forgiving her. The Jeremiah passage comes in the context of the future New covenant to be made with Israel instead of the Mosaic covenant. In essence this means a remarriage. Cf. Hosea 3:1-5.

3 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.,” Exodus”, EBC (ed. F. Gaebelein), Vol. 2, 417 n.6

4 Cf. Psalm 135:4: “For the LORD has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel for his special treasure.” Also Psalm 148:14.

5 See Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption, 147-148.

6 Cf. Deut. 26:19; Num. 6:27

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There are 6 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The Mosaic covenant does not abrogate the original Abrahamic covenant. The first covenant is unilateral and unconditional whilst the covenant with Moses and Israel is bilateral and conditional. And because its demands were too high for sinners to meet, it was also a temporary covenantal relationship.

Studying through Galatians a couple years ago was such a huge eye opener for me. Debates we were having here at SI (tying in with a larger sanctification/antinomianism/nomophobia/legalism debate elsewhere) and discussions in SS at church, forced me to resolve some long-loose ends in my own understanding of law and grace.

A pivotal piece was coming to understand that the Mosaic Covenant/"the law" was never intended to stand alone. It was not supposed to define relationship to God among people who were not first rightly related to Him by the terms of the Abrahamic covenant--through faith (Galatians calls this "the promise.").

The issue becomes important when we try to figure out how the law of Moses could be a good thing, as Paul insists in Galatians (and apparently also says it was in Romans 7) it was--for its intended purposes.

The spiritual and eternal relationship to God was always one of imputed righteousness in response to faith alone. Law (in the Mosaic cov't sense) was for earthly expression of spiritual realities along with temporal blessings and temporal curses for failure. When we get this sorted out, it helps a great deal with thinking through what the role of law (small "l")--i.e, obedience--has in the lives of believers today.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Paul Henebury's picture

Yes Aaron, I believe any understanding of the Mosaic covenant that fails to tie it closely to the more inclusive Abrahamic covenant will be less "gracious." 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Paul, enjoyed the article, looking forward to the next installment.  You write and think insightfully, logically, and clearly.

Aaron, your comments are also appreciated.

I am picking up some good nuances. Paul reasoned clearly:

 This relationship and role for Israel is what He wants, and if he doesn’t get it now, we should look for it in more conducive times in the future.

 

"Law on top of faith"  is a good way to explain matters. Thanks, Aaron.

Iron sharpens iron!

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"Law on top of faith" sounds suspiciously like "faith plus works."  ... which is really not a problem, if we're clear on the difference between justification and "way of life." Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness (justification). But even his covenant had some some expectations built into it. They are not "conditions," but the context of the Ab. Cov. includes some imperatives... Go to the place I'll show you. And it's assumed that God is Abraham's master as part of this arrangement--and having a master means, by definition, he is going to be commanded.

So the expectation of service is part of the Abrahamic covenant as well.

In the Mosaic, the participants are supposed to have Abrahamic faith as the basis of their entrance into relationship with God. But the cov. adds a substantial layer of conditional blessings as part of a life of service--a service lincluding some kind of priesthood in relation to the nations. The Law was never intended to be a means for a person becoming right with God, but was intended to prescribe a way of life for those who were already right with God by faith.

... what Israel actually did instead was something else entirely. And they were still doing it when Romans and Galatians were written.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Paul Henebury's picture

Aaron,

I agree with you that faith and works are not in opposition as long as justification to salvation is the issue.  Hebrews 11 would just not make sense without it.

I would disagree with your example about Abraham, but only from the viewpoint that Genesis 12 is not technically the covenant itself, which is made in chapter 15.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

What I am driving at in the line you quoted is part of what I call 'The Creation Project.'  It turns on the belief that God's original plans are "good" ones and will not be thwarted, though they may be "detained" by sin.  The covenants especially outline those original plans. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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