God’s covenant with Israel was a bilateral agreement promising blessing, conditional upon their obedience. The generic term that Scripture uses to describe the demands of the covenant is “The Law.” Thus, theologians call this covenant the Mosaic Covenant because “it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator,” namely Moses (Gal 3:19). Both the Lord Jesus and Paul were happy to refer to it as “the law of Moses” (e.g., Joh 7:23; Act 13:39), a term used extensively in the Old Testament. Others call this covenant the Sinaitic Covenant, referring to Mount Sinai, the location where the terms of the covenant were outlined.
A biblical description of this covenant is “the old covenant” (2Co 3:14 RV), in contrast to the new covenant, which is an unconditional promise of blessing for Israel in the future.
The Covenant Anticipated
Israel had been clear of Egypt for three months (Exo 19:1). God had brought them to Himself as on eagles’ wings, a metaphor conveying concepts of strength and support, compassion and control (v4). A preliminary conversation with Moses summarized His intentions for them, and the prerequisites for implementation.
Among all earth’s peoples, this nation was to be His “treasured possession” with a very special place in His heart (v5 ESV). They would comprise a theocratic kingdom, with the expectation that they would function as priests before their divine Sovereign (v6). The uniqueness of their diet, dress, and deportment would make them a “holy nation,” distinct from all around.
Qualifications for this privileged relationship with Jehovah were as follows: “if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then …” (v5). In a word, obedience would be a prerequisite to blessing.
Moses conveyed that prologue of the covenant to the elders, and their immediate response was positive! “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (v8). They were determined to sign up to the agreement post haste, and they would reiterate that response even after they had heard the terms of the contract.
The Covenant Communicated
Elaborate preparations and stringent controls were put in place, and dramatic phenomena were observed; now, the people were ready to “meet with God” (Exo 19:9-17). The noise was deafening, what with the thunder, and “the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud” becoming “louder and louder” (vv16,19), but above the tumult, those congregated under Sinai’s shadow heard a penetrating voice as “God spake all these words” (Exo 20:1). The core principles of the covenant were communicated audibly by God (the ten commandments), specifically designated “his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments” (Deu 4:13). Moses mediated further instructions after the terrified people said to him, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exo 20:19 KJV).
God described these instructions as “the judgments which thou shalt set before them” (Exo 21:1), laws to govern their national life. Domestic matters are covered, employment is dealt with, and religious issues are outlined. Agriculture would become their main industry, and that is catered for by extensive legislation relating to land and animals. Penalties for criminality are set for violence, dishonesty or sexual misconduct. Social issues are addressed, such as the care of widows and orphans and the general wellbeing of the poor. Injustice is roundly condemned.
The Covenant Accepted
“Moses wrote all the words of the Lord” in a book, described as “the book of the covenant” that was “read in the audience of the people” (Exo 24:4,7). In chapter 19 they had assented to the general principle that if God gave rules, they would obey. Now they had the detail, and they were still fixed in their commitment to adhere to every tenet of divine legislation: “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (v7). They now knew that every aspect of their wellbeing depended on their obedience. The security of their nation, abundant harvests, burgeoning flocks and herds, and their personal health (23:20-33) all hinged on their submission to divine dictates. Later, the ramifications of obedience would be spelled out in great detail, as would the horrific implications of non-compliance (e.g., Deu 28).
The reference to “the book of the covenant” is followed up with an allusion to “the blood of the covenant” (Exo 24:8). As an indication that they had “signed up” to the terms of the covenant, “Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it upon the people,” a customary way of shaking hands on a deal in ancient times; the covenant with Israel was now in place.
Perhaps it should be noted that as far as personal salvation was concerned, law-keeping was never the basis on which God would bless. The “this do, and thou shalt live” (Luk 10:28) was never viable because the Law was “weak through the flesh.” It made demands but gave no power to perform, and such is the incorrigible nature of sinful flesh; it is incapable of submitting to the Law (Rom 8:3-8). The best that the Law could do was expose human wickedness (Rom 3:20). However, the death of Christ has retrospective value, the propitiation declaring God’s righteousness “for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Rom 3:25). Further, in every age, the principle on which salvation blessing has been imparted has been that of faith. A reading of the early verses of Hebrews 11 demonstrates that.
The Covenant Violated
The ink was hardly dry on the paper when there was the first violation of the covenant with the incident of the golden calf (Exo 32)! It was the prototype of a long recital of failure, disobedience, and sheer rebellion that blighted Israel’s history. God implements His threats as surely as He fulfills His promises, and OT history is peppered with narratives of invasion, famine, pestilence and ultimate deportation. The divine commentary is “They kept not the covenant of God” (Psa 78:10). Reflecting on the covenant He had made with them when they were leaving Egypt, God had this to say: “which my covenant they brake” (Jer 31:32).
God’s agreement with Israel required Sabbath observance. Each of the Ten Commandments is ratified in the NT by inference at least, with the exception of the command to keep the Sabbath. While all the moral demands of the Law are seen as suitable behavior for believers, the Sabbath was “a sign” between God and Israel (Exo 31:13,17), “a perpetual covenant” (v16). It was an obvious and public way in which the nation was distinct from the people around. Again, there were times when this issue was ignored, and men like Nehemiah saw that as a gross infringement of the terms of the covenant (Neh 13:15-22).