Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mosaic Covenant or Covenants?

One of the keys to understanding the bigger picture of the Bible is understanding the concept of covenant. And in order to understand the biblical concept of covenant, you really need to understand the nature and function of the Mosaic covenant, or should I say Mosaic covenants? For when we look at the biblical record, there are three covenant ceremonies associated with Moses.

The first one is the Sinaitic covenant, whose inauguration ceremony is recorded in Exod 24. The inauguration ceremony of the Sinatic covenant in Exod 24 is considered in Jewish tradition to be the marriage ceremony between God and Israel.

The sin of the golden calf was viewed by God (and Moses) as a breaking of the Sinaitic covenant (Exod 32:7-8, 19, 21, 25, 30-31), so serious that it put the whole covenant relationship between God and Israel under threat of virtual annulment (see Exod 32:9-10). It was only through the intercession of Moses that God relented from destroying the people (Exod 32:11-14), and only through the intercession of Moses again that God withdrew his intention not to accompany the people into the promised land (see Exod 33:1-3, 12-17). This commitment of God to go up with his people implied the re-establishment of the Sinaitic covenant, and this is recorded in Exod 34:10-33. This re-establishment is symbolized in the rewriting of the Ten Commandments on the replacement stone tablets (Exod 34:1, 4, 27-28). Nevertheless, the fact that Moses could no longer speak with God face to face (Exod 33:20-23), and that there was no delegation from the people invited to celebrate before the Lord à la Exod 24:9-11 (compare with Exod 34:3, 28) suggests that, despite the re-establishment of the covenant, the intimacy of the relationship between God and Israel had been "irrevocably" affected in a negative way through Israel's bovine rebellion. The veiling of Moses' face, which commences in Exod 34:33-35, seems to emerge as a consequence of Israel's rebellion, and presumably was also a symbol of the impaired state of the relationship.

The third covenant ceremony involves the Deuteronomic covenant. This covenant was a renewal and updating of the Sinaitic covenant appropriate for when Israel crossed the Jordan to take up her inheritance in the promised land. This was shortly to take place, and the whole of the book of Deuteronomy is basically a series of four sermons through which Moses is concerned to spell out to the people of Israel the nature of God's covenant relationship with them and their covenantal obligations in the light of this relationship. The inauguration ceremony of the Deuteronomic covenant is not narrated explicitly, but appears implicitly in Deut 29:1–32:47.

I think most of us tend to think about the Mosaic covenant in the singular. But it is interesting that Deut 29:1 distinguishes between the covenant made at Horeb (i.e., Sinai) and the Deuteronomic covenant made in the land of Moab. So should we speak of the Mosaic covenants (in the plural) rather than the Mosaic covenant (in the singular)?

My view is that both expressions are valid. Speaking more precisely, there are two covenants and one covenant renewal associated with Moses in the Pentateuch. So speaking of the Mosaic covenants is most precise. But the covenant renewal in Exod 34 is effectively a renewal of the first Sinaitic covenant, not a new covenant per se. And the Deuteronomic covenant is really just an updated and expanded renewal of the Sinaitic covenant. God only has one covenant relationship with Israel, so it is also appropriate to speak of the Mosaic covenant. Plus there is scriptural precedent for grouping a plurality of related covenants together under the singular term covenant. An example of this is found in the reference to the covenant made with the fathers in Jer 31:32. This verse refers back to the Exodus and hence the Sinaitic covenant, but "the covenant" in question obviously also includes the Deuteronomic covenant within its scope, as this later covenant was the major body of legislation that functioned to regulate Israel's life in the promised land.

By the way, a similar problem exists in relation to the Abrahamic covenant. Compare Gen 15:9-21 with Gen 17:1-14.


sujomo said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Steven. I think we should also be aware that the English translation of berith by 'covenant' does bring some baggage with it. The message of the Bible as a whole is about God and restored relationship with mankind. It is in this context that God has accommodated Himself to mankind in referring to His relationship with mankind in terms of berith. We need to be alert to the nuances of the use of this word throughout Scripture. At times there are both monopleuric and dipleuric emphases.
cheers, sujomo

John Thomson said...


I've decided to start at the beginning, where I should have started. Thanks for a good blog. I am not so sure that conditions deteriorate at the restatement of the covenant. The covenant itself was fairly fearsome in Ex 20 as one might imagine a covenant from God that is in principle one of works likely to be.

Helpful blog though.