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The Biblical Covenants, Part 3: The Mosaic Covenant

The name “The Mosaic Covenant” is slightly misleading in the sense that unlike the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, the Mosaic Covenant (here after referred to as MC) is not a covenant made to Moses as God had already done with Noah and Abraham. Rather, the MC is a covenant made by God through Moses (functioning as a mediator) to the nation of Israel. It is interesting that Moses is never called a king or a priest, but only a prophet. And yet, the roles Moses fills are easily identified with all three offices.[1] As a biblical covenant, the MC (1) is recorded within its own context (2) fits into one of the two categories of covenants (Suzerain-Vassal or Land Grant), (3) has a definitive point of establishment, (4) comes with a sign, and (5) relates to the overarching seed promise of Genesis 3:15.


Covenant Context

Because the biblical covenants are God’s vehicles to reveal His plan to gain victory over His enemy through the woman’s seed (Gen. 3:15), the ground level foundation for the MC goes all the way back to the beginning. Having already surveyed the covenants made to Noah and Abraham, there is no need to go back that far at this point. There is however the necessity to provide (1) the near historical context in which the MC takes places and (2) to connect the theological dots that bind the MC to the AC and beyond.


Historical Context

It is important to note that everything recorded in the book of Exodus was revealed by God nearly 600 years before those events occurred. When God cut His covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15), He revealed what Abraham and his seed could expect in the next several centuries. That Israel (Jacob) relocated from Canaan to Egypt with his sons and possessions and remained there only to become slaves (Gen. 15:13) is therefore not a surprise. In fact, the first 15 chapters of Exodus affirm many of the promises that God made to Abraham: (1) Israel is now a great nation (Gen. 12:2a vs. Ex. 1:9). (2) The one who cursed Israel was cursed (Gen. 12:3b vs. Ex. 7-12, 14). (3) Israel came out of Egypt with many possessions (Gen. 15:14 vs. Ex. 12:35-36). All these things culminated four hundred and thirty years to the day that God cut covenant with Abraham (Ex. 12:40-41).

Regarding Egypt, the “host” nation of Israel’s 400 years outside the land of promise, it should be noted that the Pharaohs controlled the land of Canaan. Amenhotep II, the Pharaoh of the Exodus, conducted several large-scale military campaigns in Canaan, one of which occurred the same year (1446 BC) as Israel’s exodus from Egypt.[2] In breaking Israel free from Egypt, Yhwh broke Egypt’s back. Thus, the first move of Canaan’s conquest was to remove Egypt from the seat of provincial power.


Theological Context

When presenting the theological context of the MC, it is necessary to note that Moses himself places all that happens in Exodus within the context of the AC (Ex. 2:24). It is because of what God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) that God acts; namely, His promise of land, seed, and blessing. There is much ground that could be covered but it is sufficient to summarize the theological context of the MC in the way God articulates His relationship with Israel. With this in mind several themes immediately come to light: (1) Israel’s introduction to God’s name, (2), Israel as God’s son (3) Israel’s identity as God’s nation, and (4) the scope of God’s sovereign power.


God’s Name (Ex. 3:1-22)

When God first reveals Himself to Moses it is with familiar images and language. The burning bush is reminiscent of the flaming torch and smoking oven that Abraham witnessed (Gen. 15:17). If this imagery is too subtle, God specifically identifies Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 3:6). Thus, Moses knows that he is addressing God Almighty or אֵל שַׁדָּי (Gen. 17:1), the covenant God of his fathers. Yet, when Moses asks God’s name, the response is not “God Almighty” (אֵל שַׁדָּי) but “I am” (אֶהְיֶה) or “Yhwh” (יְהוָה).[3] The connection to the AC is obvious by the way God introduces Himself to Moses. And yet, there is something different going on here. That much is confirmed in Ex. 6:1-9 when God makes a distinction between the past and the present. To the patriarchs He was known as God Almighty (אֵל שַׁדָּי), but to the present nation of Israel, He is Yhwh (יְהוָה). This does not mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know that God’s name is Yhwh.[4] Rather, this is a clue that something different is happening. The promise of land, seed, and blessing is backed up by God’s ability to bring such a thing about (God Almighty). Here, the emphasis is laid upon God’s presence and existence (Yhwh). He is.


Israel as God’s Son (Ex. 4:21-23)

The concept of sonship has already been breached when God called Abraham to leave his land, his father, and his kin (Gen. 12:1) to become the special object of God’s own blessing. This concept gains momentum when Yhwh commands Abraham to kill his only and beloved son as a sacrifice (Gen. 22:2) only to provide a substitute for the only beloved son of Abraham (Gen. 22:13). What is conceptual becomes explicit when Yhwh calls Israel His first-born son (Ex. 4:22). Yhwh will save His son, Israel, while the first-born of Pharaoh will die (v. 23). Because of this father-son relationship, Yhwh will redeem Israel at all costs.


Israel as God’s Nation (Ex. 6:6-8)

This is where the overlapping of the AC and the MC becomes most obvious. The purpose of the AC was that Yhwh would be Abraham and his seed’s God (Gen. 17:7-8). The main point repeated by Yhwh for the exodus from Egypt is that Israel would worship Yhwh and thus begin the God-nation relationship (Ex. 6:7) before entering the Promised Land (Ex. 6:8). Thus, the Passover is instituted as a reminder of how Yhwh redeemed this people even as He destroyed the Egyptians (Gen. 12:1-28. 


God’s Sovereign Power (Ex. 7-15)

Yhwh’s supreme and sovereign power over all the world is expressed directly and effectively through His judgment in the plagues poured out on Egypt. Not only is the Creator expressing His sovereignty over creation, but each plague specifically interacts (metaphorically) with a member of the Egyptian pantheon. In short, each plague signifies Yhwh’s victory over an Egyptian deity. Therefore, the plagues were as much a sign for the Egyptians as they were for the Israelites.[5] There is no God but Yhwh. Yhwh, the God of Israel is the God of the world. As such, the way Israel interacts with Yhwh is now of global interest.

Thus, Israel is released from bondage and is free to follow their God to the land promised to their fathers. The context for the MC is now in place.


Covenant Cut

Now that Yhwh has redeemed a people for Himself (Passover), brought them out of Egypt, and cursed those who cursed them by drowning the entire Egyptian chariot corps in the sea of reeds, the nation is brought to Mt. Sinai. It is time for Israel to meet her God and enter into covenant with Him.


The Type & Purpose of the Covenant (Ex. 19:4-6a)

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.


The term “covenant” (בְּרִית) has only been used 3x before this point in Exodus (2:24; 6:4, 5), each of which referred to the covenant God had already made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The covenant that is spoken of here is something different. These verses set the stage for the MC by (1) recalling Yhwh’s right to dictate the terms of the covenant, (2) declaring the terms of the covenant, and (3) explaining the purpose of the covenant.

The first step in establishing a covenant is to solidify one’s right to do so. There must be a pre-existing relationship between two parties for a covenant to have any affect. For Abraham, that relationship consisted of God calling Abraham out of Ur and bringing him into the land of promise (Gen. 15:7). For Israel, it is Yhwh’s power demonstrated in the exodus. The destruction of the Egyptians and the redemption of Israel serves to demonstrate the relationship that already exists between the two parties: Yhwh and Israel. Israel belongs to Yhwh according to the victor’s right of conquest thus providing Yhwh with the right to dictate terms of covenant.

When looking at the terms (v. 5) we see a very different format than the covenants given to Noah and Abraham. Here, Yhwh speaks in unmistakable “if/then” statements. This is not a Land Grant covenant but a Suzerain-Vassal covenant. Israel has an obligation to uphold; namely, to obey Yhwh and keep His covenant. If they succeed, then they will be Yhwh’s own possession among all the peoples. Israel is promised a special place among all the nations as particularly belonging to Yhwh if they keep this covenant.

Though the purpose is already implied, v. 6 makes the explicit statement that Yhwh desires Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. There are at least three observations to made here. First, this purpose statement is a link to the purpose of the AC. God made covenant with Abraham so that He would be God to Abraham and to his seed (Gen. 17:7-8). As a nation set aside for Yhwh’s own possession, the MC is going to dictate how this special relationship is going to work. Second, the basic duty of a priest is to be an intermediary between God and the people. Yet, if the whole nation fulfills that role of priest, the question becomes: who are they mediating for? Here is another link to the promises made to Abraham. This priesthood is going to be part of how Abraham’s seed is a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). Finally, that this nation is to be established as a kingdom also betrays a link to the AC. Abraham was promised that kings would come from him (Gen. 17:6) and even Sarah was renamed on account of the Hebraic kings that would come from her (Gen. 17:16). The only question at this point regards the king: who is he?

This final point is not quite as obvious as one might think because (a) the Suzerain-Vassal layout of the covenant implies that Yhwh Himself will serve as Israel’s king yet (b) there is an expectation of the king being born from Abraham by Sarah and through their great-grandson Judah (Gen. 49:10). The king who will rule over this kingdom must be both an Israelite and God. In addition to this, we should recognize that while the MC is clearly connected with the AC, it is also an independent covenant. All that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (land, seed, blessing) was given in unilateral and unconditional language. That is not the case here.


Stipulations of the Covenant (Ex. 20-23)

Beginning with the Ten Commandments (or the Decalogue Ex. 20:1-17) Moses records the precise stipulations of the MC. The Decalogue serves as a preamble and broad outline for everything that follows. In other words, the various laws, regulations, prohibitions, and penalties that follow (21:1-23:33) flow from the headwaters of the Ten Commandments. This “Mosaic Law” articulates the intricacies and practical application of obeying the Ten Commandments. This is the life that Israel will have to lead in order to keep God’s covenant because this is what it will mean for Yhwh to be their God and they His priests to the world. It is now up to Israel to agree to the terms set before them.


Covenant Ratified (Ex. 24)

After recording all the stipulations of the covenant in a book (24:4), Moses read the terms of the covenant to the people who immediately affirmed that they were willing to enter into God’s covenant on God’s terms (24:7). The covenant has been ratified by both parties. The only thing that is left is to work out the precise details of how God will rule over His people. That is to say, what is it going to look like for God to dwell in the tents of Shem? There must be preparations to begin implementing and executing this covenant so that what is written down becomes reality.


Preparations for Covenant Execution (Ex. 25-31)

Exodus chapters 25-31 describe the preparations that Israel must make so that God might dwell in their midst (25:8). The holy tent, the furniture, altar, and various pieces of worship must be constructed according to God’s own specifications. Since Israel has agreed to obey and serve Yhwh, they must know how to do so. If Yhwh is going to dwell among the tents of Shem, there must be made a place for Him.

It is within this portion of the covenant that Yhwh articulates the covenant’s sign, the thing that both parties may look upon as a reminder of what was promised. In 31:12-18, Yhwh specifies that the sabbath, the seventh and final day of each week, will stand as the sign of this covenant. The purpose of the sabbath sign is for Israel to know that it is Yhwh who makes holy. Therefore, they must treat the sabbath as a holy day and not profane it with the work and labor that is associated with the curse. The reason that Yhwh chose the sabbath is because it was on the seventh day that God rested from creation. The sabbath of every week anticipates a completion of toil and a return to the rest of Eden. The whole of Israel’s obedience might be summed up in their treatment of the sabbath. How an Israelite treats the seventh day reflects his treatment of Yhwh, the One who makes holy.


Covenant Consequences

While little agreement exists among scholars regarding the nature, longevity, or significance of the MC, one area of consensus is the fact that Israel broke the MC. Israel’s rebellion against the MC is significant for at least two main reasons. First, the rebellion of the vassal against the suzerain directly communicates that Israel rejects Yhwh as their sovereign head. Second, because the whole point of the MC was to dictate the terms by which Israel would be connected to the blessings of the AC (by which Yhwh would be their God), this rebellion explicitly declares a lack of faith in the promised seed who will come from Abraham. Much is at stake here. Israel’s rebellion was instantly manifested when Moses was still on the mountain, predicted to climax at a future date, and was manifested again when Israel was brought to the Promised Land.


Immediate Rebellion (Ex. 32-34)

It only took a little more than a month for Israel to decide that Moses was no longer an acceptable leader and that Yhwh’s covenant was no longer acceptable conditions for service. They not only reject Yhwh’s right to dictate terms (compare 19:4 and 20:1 to 32:1) and thus rejecting Yhwh as their only God (20:3) but created an idol of Yhwh (20:4) and thus took Yhwh’s name lightly (20:7). The first three commandments were broken in the first 6 verses of chapter 32.

The penalty for covenant infidelity is death. Yet, if Yhwh were to slay the guilty multitude (which would have been just), He would be breaking His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (32:13). Here in lies the problem in a nutshell: Israel must die, yet Israel cannot die. This wrinkle will continue to be developed by the later prophets but is now quickly becoming a defining characteristic of the MC.

Because of Yhwh’s compassion, grace, patience, loyalty, and truth (Ex. 34:6) the people will not be slain. The covenant is reestablished based only on God’s grace, for Israel has revealed that their hearts are stubborn, their necks stiff, and their ears stopped. It is because of Yhwh’s promise to Abraham that his seed are not destroyed.


Future Rebellion (Ex. 40; Lev. 26)

The work on the tabernacle continues until the tent and all the furniture are complete. As Yhwh’s representative and prophet, Moses personally assembles the tent of God, known as the tabernacle. Once completed and in place, Yhwh’s glory fills the tabernacle, or the tent of Shem’s descendants.

The nation of Israel tarry at Sinai nearly a year before setting out to take the land promised to their fathers. During that time, Yhwh dictates the religious service that Israel, His vassal, will render to Him, their Suzerain. This code of service is recorded in the book of Leviticus. Near the end of this service manual comes a detailed description of the benefits and the consequences of [further] covenant infidelity. If Israel obeys Yhwh and keeps His commandments, then He will bless their land with rain and productivity, their families with fruitfulness, and their society with peace and rest (Lev. 26:1-13). Yet if they fail to obey the terms and conditions of the MC, then they will be cursed far worse than Egypt ever was as the land will fail them, the beasts of the field will prey upon them, they will be ejected out of the land and thrown among the nations (26:14-33). Then the land will enjoy the sabbath rest that faithless Israel refused to give it. (26:34-39).

This may seem like the end of all God’s connection with Israel, and even may imply that this clause of the contract allows God to break His previous pledge to Abraham. Yet the chapter continues to note that (a) God will never destroy Israel in its entirety and (b) will never break His covenant with Abraham. If they confess and repent, then God will remember the AC and He will remember the land (26:40-45).


Continued Rebellion (Num. 14-16)

No sooner than Israel departed from Sinai with Yhwh going before them than they rebelled against Him and His servant Moses. Ten of the twelve spies sent into the land brought back a bad report and thus turned Israel’s heart against Yhwh and His Promised Land. They preferred servitude in Egypt to the blessings of Yhwh. Thus, Yhwh banished Israel from the land until the present generation (minus the two faithful spies, Caleb and Joshua) dropped in the dust of the wilderness. The conquest will await a faithful generation.

The rebellious generation continued their rebellion by rejecting Yhwh’s choice of leadership and priesthood. Korah’s rebellion sought to eject Moses as Yhwh’s prophet and Aaron as Yhwh’s priest. Yhwh’s answer was to open the ground so that Korah and his kin might fall alive into Sheol. Israel has made one thing crystal clear: their hearts are perpetually hardened against Yhwh.


Covenant Conciliation

There may seem that there is little hope of Israel ever being the people of Yhwh’s own possession with Him reigning as their king and God. Yet as Moses reaffirms the MC with the second generation of Israel since the exodus, the generation who will enter and take the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there is a glimmer of hope for the future.


Hope of Things to Come (Deut. 18:15; 29:4)

Before the book of Deuteronomy even begins, we know that Moses will not accompany the people into the land (Num.20:12). This is a devastating blow, for it had always been Moses who remained faithful. Yet, in the end, even Moses failed to keep the covenant that bears (even mistakenly) his name. In the darkness of despair, there is a light that shines even brighter. Moses encourages the second generation that God will provide another prophet in the future like him. Yet this prophet will succeed were Moses failed, for Israel will actually listen to this one (Deut. 18:15). He will be one who speaks for Yhwh for Yhwh will place His words in this future prophet’s mouth that He might teach the people (18:18). Moses, who was called neither priest nor king yet acted on occasion as both, will find a superior replacement in the future. Israel will not be without a leader. Moses anticipates the coming seed who will be Israel’s prophet, priest, and king.[6]

To this one might wonder if Israel’s anticipated obedience might require something more than just a superior leader. Otherwise, we should fault Moses alone for Israel’s rebellion. Something more than a superior leader is therefore necessary for Israel’s future obedience. Near the end of the book, Moses tells Israel that to this day they have not received from Yhwh a heart to know, eyes to see, nor ears to hear. The problem is that their hearts are in no better condition than those of the violent rebels before the flood (Gen. 6:4). There must be something done about Israel’s heart as well as Israel’s head (leader). If Israel will one day listen to the voice of their head, then we can assume that Yhwh will also provide Israel with a heart to know Him.


Blessings, Curses, and Hope (Deut. 28-30)

The final chapters of Deuteronomy are very similar to the close of Leviticus in that Moses explicitly lists the benefits and penalties to this second generation for covenant fidelity/infidelity. There will be unprecedented blessing for covenant obedience (28:1-14). Yet, there will be unprecedented cursing for covenant rebellion (28:15-68). The fact that the curses far outweigh the blessings in detail and length indicate that Moses anticipates Israel to again break the covenant. This is confirmed when Moses states plainly that both blessing and the cursing will come upon Israel (30:1). Even in the assurance that Israel will one day be cursed for breaking the MC, there is hope.

The promise that concludes the MC is a promise of restoration. The breaking of the MC will by no means annul the AC. Israel will be regathered from the nations, restored to the land, and given a heart to know and believe Yhwh their God (30:2-6). 

While the MC explains what it means for Israel to be Yhwh’s chosen people, it makes no provision for the people’s unbelieving heart. There must then be another covenant, a new covenant that is able to provide what Israel is lacking: a righteous Head and a believing heart.

[1] Vlach, p. 94.

[2] E. H. Merril, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 79.

[3] Names have meaning. Just as Noah’s name (נֹחַ) means “rest” (נחם – Gen. 5:29), Abraham’s name (אַבְרָהָם) means “father of many” (אב, המה – Gen. 17:5), and Isaac’s name (יִצְחָק) means “laugher” (צחק – Gen. 17:19), God’s name is built on a verb; the Hebrew verb of being (היה) meaning “He is” or “He continues to be”.

[4] Abraham personally addressed God as Yhwh or otherwise named God as Yhwh no less than 6x (Gen. 14:22; 15:2, 8; 22:14; 24:3, 7), built an altar to Yhwh (Gen. 12:7; 13:18), called on the name of Yhwh (Gen. 12:8; 13:4; 21:33), and believed on Yhwh (Gen. 15:6). Abraham knew God’s name is Yhwh.

[5] John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt: Studies in Exodus, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986), p. 94-104 and Philip G. Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), p. 196-7.

[6] Kaiser, p. 57-61.


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