Covenant and Law in Exodus

Ralph L. Smith  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 20 - Fall 1977

Covenant and law are two of the most significant terms in the Old Testament. They stand at the heart of the faith of Israel. Anyone who wants to understand the religion of ancient Israel must have some comprehension of the meaning of the terms “covenant and law” in the Old Testament. These terms are not easy to understand. Scholars have debated their mean­ing and their relationship to each other for many years.

Walther Eichrodt was one of the first scholars in the modern period to call attention to the importance of covenant in the Old Testament. He centered his Theology of the Old Testa­ment around the idea of the (Sinai) covenant.[1]’Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols., trans., J. A. Baker (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961/1967 ). George Men­denhall added support to the significance of the covenant in the Old Testament with his studies of the Hittite treaty forms and their parallels to the covenant forms in the Old Testament.[2]See George E. Mendenhall, “Ancient Oriental and Biblical Law,” and “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition,” in The Biblical Archaeology Reader 3, eds., Edward R. Campbell and David Noel Freedman (Garden City: Dou­bleday & Co., Anchor Books, 1970), pp. 3-53. Mendenhall, argued that there is a striking resemblance be­tween the ancient Hittite suzerainty treaties and the form of the covenant found in several places in the Old Testament, such as Exodus 20 and the book of Deuteronomy. Mendenhall also argued that the covenant form in the Old Testament could be as old as the age of Moses because the Hittite tablets con­taining the suzerainty treaties date from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries B.C.

Needless to say, the views of Eichrodt and Mendenhall have been vigorously challenged and defended in recent years. For a survey of recent opinions on the whole question of the covenant in the Old Testament one should consult D. J. Mc­Carthy, Old Testament Covenant: A Survey of Current Opin­ions (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1972).

My purpose in this article is not to trace the history of scholarly opinion about covenant and law in the Old Testa­ment, but rather to survey the role of covenant and law in the book of Exodus. The book of Exodus furnishes an ex­cellent paradigm for studying the covenant and the law throughout the Old Testament. It deals with: Covenant with the Fathers (2:24; 6:4-8); the Sinai Covenant and the Law (19-24); the Covenant and the Sabbath (31:12-17); the Broken Covenant (32:33); and the Renewed Covenant (34).


The Covenant with the Fathers
(Exodus 2:24; 6:4-8)

The book of Exodus assumes that God had made a covenant with the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “And God remembered his covenant with Abraham with Isaac. “And God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob (2:24, RSV). “I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they dwelt as sojourners. Moreover I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold in bondage and I have remembered my covenant” (6:4-5, RSV).

Some scholars have been very skeptical concerning the biblical claim that God made a covenant with the Patriarchs. Wellhausen viewed the Patriarchs as eponyms for the tribes of Israel. He claimed the biblical view of the religion of the patriarchs is simply a retrojection of Israel’s later belief. But John Bright spoke for the majority of Old Testament scholars today:

Whatever their private experiences, each patriarch claimed the God who had spoken to him as his personal God and patron of his clan. The Genesis picture of a personal relationship between the individual and his God, supported by promise and sealed by covenant, is most authentic. The note of promise is scarcely a retrojection of later belief. This is, as described (e.g., Gen., ch. 15), primarily a promise of land and posterity. Nothing does the seminomad desire more. If the patriarchs followed their God at all, if they believed. that he had promised them anything (and surely they must have so believed or they would not have followed him), then land and progeny may be assumed to have been the gist of that promise. Nor is the picture of covenant (i.e., a contractual relationship between worshiper and God) anachronistic. It is hardly a retrojection of the Sinaitic covenant, as so often thought, since there are important differences between the two.[3]John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia Westminster Press 1959) p. 91.

The view of God’s covenant with the Fathers in Exodus is that God promised them a land. When the people of Israel groaned  under their bondage in Egypt, God remembered his promise. God was about to fulfill his promise by delivering his people from Egypt and giving them the land of Canaan. Nothing is said in the books of Genesis or Exodus about any law being attached to the covenant with the Fathers. No doubt, there were some conditions that Abraham had to satis­fy so that God’s covenant with him might be effective, but no law is mentioned in connection with that covenant.


The Sinai Covenant and the Law
(Exodus 19-24)

Chapters 19 through 24 of Exodus are among the most im­portant chapters in that book as well as in the entire Old Testament. U. Cassuto says at the beginning of his discus­sion of Chapter 19, “Now begins the most sublime section in the whole book. The theme of this section is supremely significant, playing a role of decisive importance in the history of Israel and of humanity as a whole.”[4]U. Cassuto, A Commentaru 0n the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abra­hams (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1967), p. 223. The theme of these chapters is the covenant and law.

Roy Honeycutt says of this section, “All of Exodus 1-18 is preparatory to the events described in 19-24, and the Sinai narrative (19:1-24: 14; 32: 1-34:35) is the climatic point of the entire book. All before Sinai is prelude; all that follows is postlude.”[5]Roy Lee Honeycutt,   “Exodus,” Broadman Bible Commentary, rev. ed., 12 vols. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1973), 1:389.

A brief outline may be useful in showing the relationship of the covenant and law in this passage.

  1. Israel’s arrival and encampment at Sinai, 19:1-2
  2. God’s proposal of a covenant with Israel, 19:3-6
  3. Israel’s response of acceptance, 19:7-8
  4. Preparations for receiving the covenant, 19:9-25
  5. Proclamation of the decalogue, 20:1-17
  6. Moses as the mediator of the covenant, 20:18-21
  7. Further stipulations of the covenant, 20:22-23:33
  8. Ratification of the covenant, 24:1-18

Scholars are divided about the literary source of these chapters. The classical literary critics assigned these chapters to the J, E, and P documents. Some scholars, such as Cassuto, do not speak of literary sources but prefer to use the terms “poetic saga,” or “an epic poem” to refer to the early stages of the Torah.[6]Cassuto, pp. 9-10 Regardless of when these chapters took on their final form, there is no reason to doubt their essential historicity. E. W. Nicholson says,

No one today seriously questions that there was a bondage and Exodus. In its basic outlines as well as in a number of details the story of the enslavement of Israel’s ancestors in Egypt accords with much that we know of conditions and feah1res of life in the Nile delta region in the latter part of the second millennium B.C.[7]E. W. Nicholson, Exodus and Sinai in History and Tradition (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1973), pp. 53-54; cf. p. 84.

On the third new moon after leaving Egypt the children of Israel came into the wilderness of Sinai and camped before the mountain (Ex. 19:1-2). God proposed to Moses that a covenant be made between himself (Yahweh) and Israel. He told Moses to say to the people, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (19:4, RSV). The point is that God had already “saved” Israel. He had delivered her from Egyp­tian bondage as an act of grace.

However, now that Israel had been redeemed   she was to decide the nature and direction of her future. Would she attempt to “go it” alone? Would she decide to return to the “security” of Egypt as some of the people wanted to do? Or, would she give her allegiance to Yahweh, the God who had saved her? It was one thing to be freed from bondage. It was another to remain free. J. M. Myers says, “To free her (Israel) from political and economic slavery at the time re­quired an act of God. But to remain freedmen not subject to selfishness, greed, and passion demanded a covenant with the God of their salvation.”[8]J. M. Myers, Grace and Torah (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 15.

So Yahweh proposed, “If you will really hear (and obey) my voice (qal infinitive absolute preceding a finite verb), and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession (segullah) from all the peoples because all the earth is mine. (19:5, author’s translation). And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6, RSV). George A. F. Knight explained the word segullah in the following manner:

In olden days a king was the ultimate owner of everything in the land he ruled. He owned every building, every farm, every coin. But that kind of ‘owning’ could give him little personal satisfaction. Consequently in his palace he kept a treasure chest of his ‘very own,’ in which he delighted to store the precious stones and objets d’art which he loved to handle. This treasure-box was his segullah. In the same way, God, who had made the whole earth, and to whom all nations belonged, looked now upon Israel as his own peculiar treasure. But Israel was not chosen just to bask in the love of her God. Just as God himself is holy, so Israel was to be holy, that is, different from other peoples.[9]George A. F. Knight, Law and Grace (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1962),pp. 25-26.

This special relationship between God and Israel was not to be simply a mutual arrangement. It was to be for the ben­efit of the whole world. Israel was to be a kingdom of priests. A priest was ordained to serve others, not himself. Israel was chosen to be a servant God could use to bring the nations to him.

That little “if” in verse 5 has tremendous significance. It marks the beginning of the conditional covenant (at least in its expressed form). There were no conditions expressed in the accounts of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:9-17) and with Abraham (17: 1-8) . There were no conditions ex­ pressed in the covenant with David (2 Sam. 7:8-16). But here in the proposal of the Sinai covenant there is a big con­dition expressed, “If you will really hear my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession” (19:5, author’s translation). Is this the beginning of the law? Is the law synonymous with the conditions of the covenant? What is the relation of the covenant and law?

There is a serious question whether this is the beginning of conditions to the covenant. Many scholars believe that even though no conditions were expressed in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants there certainly were conditions understood. E.W. Nicholson says,

Can we really believe that the covenant between God and Abraham involved no obligations on the latter? There would surely have been the obligation that Abraham and his descendants were to continue to worship the God in question and, since the main feature of the covenant was the promise of land, it is possible that the tithes of the produce of the land and the firstborn of the flocks and herds would have been required by this God as offerings.[10]Nicholson, p. 66. See also R. E. Clement, Abraham and David (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1967 ), pp. 33-34.

Concerning the conditional nature of the Davidic covenant Nicholson says, “It would surely be absurd to believe that the Davidic kings were not required to worship Yahweh.”[11]Nicholson, p. 66. Walther Eichrodt believes that an obligation must be assumed by the human party of a covenant with God even when it is not expressed. Eichrodt says,

The relationship which grows out of the nature of the berith could very well include the obligation also of the receiver, without its being expressly mentioned, if it were simply presumed as well known. In other words, we must know something from another direction about the nature of the berith before we can properly interpret the individual references to it.”[12]Walther Eichrodt, “Covenant and Law,” Interpretation 20 (1966 ): 305.

If there were conditions related to the covenant in the Old Testament, what was the relationship of these conditions to the law? Was the law prior to the covenant? Did the covenant depend on the law? What was the purpose of the law? What was the nature of the law? These are some of the questions that are of ten asked and need to be answered.

In the first place we must say that the covenant was prior to the law. Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt before he gave them the law. J. M. Myers says, “It is perfectly clear that the tradition regarded the deliverance from Egypt as antecedent to the giving of torah.”[13]Myers, p.14. Roy Honeycutt says, “The priority of covenant over law in the religion of Israel is significant. The demonstration of the Lord’s will (law, torah) is not the presupposition of the covenant but is the consequence of the covenant.”[14]Roy Honeycutt, “Hosea,” Broadman Bible Commentary, 12 vols.,  Nash­ville: Broadman Press, 1972), 7:36.

But if the covenant was prior to the law, the law was vitally related to the covenant. The law was not given to Israel as a way of salvation but as guidelines to tell “saved” people how to live according to the will of God. Again Myers says,

The code represents the principles for the people’s relationship with Yahweh and with one another as his people. As such it was just as much an act of grace as the deliverance itself . . . the law becomes the instrument of a mutual relationship in which faith responds to love. This transforms the law into a form for expressing gratitude.[15]Myers, p. 16.

The gift of the law was not for the purpose of Israel’s sal­vation which had already been achieved. It was for the main­tenance of the relationship with him.

Brevard S. Childs in speaking of the original function of the covenant says,

The tradition in Exodus and Deuteronomy is unified in seeing the cove­nant as a gracious act that stemmed from the initiative of God. Israel did not achieve the covenant status, nor was it granted in a form that was conditioned on her fulfilling certain stipulations. Nevertheless, once Israel became the covenant people, the imperative for obedience followed, and the covenant blessings were conditional upon a faithful response.[16]Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970 ), p. 214.

The people responded to God’s proposed covenant af­firmatively. They said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” ( 19:8, RSV ) . There follows in 19:9-25 a series of specific instructions for three days of preparations for the people be­ fore the inauguration of the covenant on the mountain.

Then in the midst of fire, smoke, and the sound of a trumpet God came down to Mount Sinai and gave the words of the covenant (19:18; 20:1-17). The form of the covenant followed closely the form of the ancient Hittite treaties. Archaeologists have discovered several ancient treaties from Boghazkoi, the capital of the ancient Hittite empire. Many of the treaties are prior to the time of Moses. The form of these ancient treaties usually contain six sections or elements: a preamble, a historical prologue, stipulations, provisions for depositing and public reading of the treaties, a list of wit­nesses, and curses and blessings for breakers and/or keepers of the treaties.[17]For a full discussion of these Hittite treaty forms see Bright 134-135; Mendenhall, 33-36; Nicholson, 38-39.

Although some scholars have challenged the view that the Sinai covenant follows the form of the Hittite treaty form, there are striking similarities between them. For example the words, “I am the Lord your God” ( 20:2a ) , which identify the giver of the covenant is the preamble. The historical pro­logue is seen in the words, “. . . who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (20:2b, RSV) . The stipulations are in 20:3-17. The copies of the covenant were to be deposited in the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:21; 40:20; Deut. 10:5). No mention is made of witnesses to the covenant here, but later appeals are made to such witnesses (Deut. 4:26; Micah 6:1). There are no lists of curses and blessings for covenant violaters and keepers in Exodus but such lists do appear in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-28.

So although the covenant preceded the law, the law was also an integral part of the covenant. The covenant and com­mandment belong together.[18]See Eichrodt, “Covenant and Law,” 309-310. Perhaps it would help us to un­derstand how Israel looked at the law to remember that the word law (torah) does not mean law in the old Roman sense, the law (lex) of the empire, or in the Greek sense of nomos, that which had always been done. The Hebrew word for torah, comes from a verb meaning, “to point out,” “to show the way,” “to instruct.” So the law in its original setting in the Old Testament was not political, judicial, or legalistic so much as it was instructional. It was God’s good gift to Israel to guide her in knowing God’s will for her in her relationship with him­ self and with one another.

The Sinai covenant was sealed in blood. After Moses read the words of the book of the covenant to them, the people again said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do” (24:3, RSV). Then Moses took the blood of the sacrifices and sprinkled half of it on the people and dashed the other half against the altar (24:4-8).


The Covenant and the Sabbath
(Exodus 31:12-17)

After the Sinai covenant was ratified, Moses went up the mountain to receive the tables of stone and the instructions for building the tabernacle (24:12). The people were to wait for his return at the foot of the mountain. He was gone for forty days and nights (24:18). The directions for the building of the tabernacle are given in Exodus 25-31. At the end of the instructions for building the tabernacle there is a word or paragraph about the sabbath (31:12-17). The sabbath has an important place in this material. The instructions for build­ing the tabernacle had called for a lot of work to be done. But this sabbath commandment reminds the people of Israel that, as important as the building of the tabernacle was, no work was to be done on the sabbath in order to complete it. The sabbath was a sign of the covenant between God and his people  31:13, 17). Nothing was to take precedence over the covenant and its sign, the sabbath.

The major purpose of the sabbath was to remind the people that they had been freed from the back-breaking every day labor of Egyptian bondage, and that they were to be a holy people. H. W. Wolff says,

On every sabbath Israel is to remember that her God is a liberator who had put an end to all slave-holding and who is a match for all who wield power within and without Israel . . . The fundamental significance of the seventh day is therefore this: rest from our work is to remind us of the freedom we have already been given![19]H. W. Wolff, “The Day of Rest in the Old Testament,” Lexington Theol­ogical Quarterly 7 (1972): 67-69.

But of course, the sabbath was to be a constant reminder of the covenant between God and Israel.


The Broken Covenant
(Exodus 32)

The covenant that was made between God and Israel on Sinai was broken by the people before they saw a copy of the tablets on which the stipulations of the covenant were written. While Moses was on the top of the mountain receiving the tablets and getting the instructions for the building of the tabernacle, the people were building a golden calf and wor­shiping it at the foot of the mountain. The history of Israel’s relationship with God is a history of rebellion. Her rebellion began at Sinai. When Moses came down the mountain and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged, and he flung the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain (32:19). Brevard Childs says, “He threw down the tablets and shattered them, not because he was tired, but to dramatize the end of the covenant.”[20]Brevard S. Childs, Exodus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974 ), 569.

After the covenant had been ratified on Sinai (24:1-8), in­structions were given for the building of the tabernacle so that God’s presence could dwell in their midst. Now that the covenant was broken the tabernacle could not be   built and God’s presence would not dwell among them until the sin of the people was atoned and the covenant renewed.


The Renewed Covenant
(Exodus 34)

The last part of Chapter 32 together with Chapter 33 tell how Moses interceded for Israel and God forgave their sins. God had canceled the plans for the construction of the taber­nacle (33:3), but later he changed his mind and promised that his presence would go up with Moses and the people in the tabernacle (33: 14-17). Then the covenant was renewed. The Lord told Moses to cut two tables of stone like the first and he (the Lord) would write the words on them that were on the first tablets (34:1).

Then Moses had a great experience. At the Lord’s direction he stationed himself in the cleft of a rock on Mount Sinai and the glory of the Lord passed by (34:2-9). In that moment the covenant was renewed (34:10). The Lord gave Moses some additional laws (34:11-26), and told him to “write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (34:27, RSV).

So in the book of Exodus we are reminded of the covenant God made with the Fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That covenant included a promise of a land. The call of Moses included the purpose of God to fulfill his promise to the patriarchs by leading Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan.

At Sinai the covenant was made between God and the peo­ple, not between God and a patriarch or a leader. The condi­tions of the covenant were spelled out in the decalogue and the law not as a way of salvation but as a way of revealing the will of God for his people and as a guide for their daily lives.

Israel’s weakness and sin were demonstrated almost as soon as the covenant was made. While the people were still at the foot of the mountain, they built a golden calf and worshiped it, thereby breaking the covenant. But because of Moses’ inter­ cession and God’s great mercy, Israel’s sins were forgiven and the covenant was renewed.

That was not the last time that Israel broke her part of the covenant with God. Her history is a history of rebellion, but where sin abounded grace did much more abound. God has remained faithful to his covenant and is still working to ac­complish his purpose.


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