COVENANT: What is the Mosaic Covenant?

Christians: What is the Mosaic Covenant?

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. Exodus 2:23-24

Exodus powerfully demonstrates the faithfulness of God to his covenant promises to Abraham. Out of a barren elderly couple, a nation of perhaps a million was born over the course of four hundred years. It is amazing that the entire exodus event was promised to Abram directly from God himself.1 As promised, the people of God were enslaved for four hundred and thirty years, then delivered by the judgments of God upon the Egyptians.

In the closing scenes of Genesis, we learn that Abraham’s descendant Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers. But God elevated Joseph to a position of power and prominence as the top advisor to Pharaoh, the great ruler of Egypt.

Because of Joseph’s exemplary service and wisdom from God, the entire nation of Egypt was spared the starvation of a famine, and the Hebrews were given privilege and dignity as resident workers in Egypt.

The Exodus story opens by noting that, in the years following Joseph’s death, a new pharaoh rose to prominence and no longer remembered Joseph’s service or the privilege given to his people. He enslaved God’s people and treated them cruelly, attempting genocide out of fear of their numbers.2 The Egyptian empire was the most powerful on earth for an amazing thirteen hundred years, twice as long as the famed Greek and Roman empires. But the pharaoh was worshiped as a god and had no regard for the God of Israel.

In Exodus 3 God appears by speaking directly to Moses, promising   to deliver his covenant people from slavery. He reveals his tenderness in his powerful protection as he responds to the groaning of his people.3 In Exodus 3:14, God reveals himself by name, saying, “‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’” In Hebrew understanding, a name embodies the entire essence and identity of a person. So, in having a name, God revealed himself as a person and gave sacred access to an understanding and experience of his very person. The divine name Yahweh reveals his eternal self-existence. He is a relational being, unchangingly faithful and dependable, who desires the full trust of his people. As he states his name, he reminds Moses and the people of his promise of help for them in covenant faithfulness.

The Hebrews were so afraid of blaspheming God that they would not utter this sacred name, so the proper pronunciation was lost. They retained only the four sacred consonants, YHWH. When vowels were added to the original consonantal text, the vowels from the Hebrew Adonai were added to the consonants resulting in the name Jehovah which we are sure is not the way it is pronounced. While we really don’t know exactly how the name should be pronounced, many scholars believe the most likely rendering is Yahweh. Jesus later takes this name, “I am,” designating himself as that one who spoke to Moses in the burning bush, and he was nearly murdered for doing so.4

God acted decisively in judgment on Egypt, delivering his people through the ten plagues that culminated in the killing of the firstborn of Egypt. He passed over the houses of Israel because they faithfully obeyed his instructions to paint the doorposts with blood of a slain lamb. They walked across the Red Sea on dry ground and turned to watch the pursuing Egyptians drown as the water returned to its place. In this we clearly see that life and death hinge on whether or not we trust and obey God.

In Exodus 19 we read that God led his people to the foot of Mount Sinai, just as he had promised to Moses in the burning bush.5 But the people of God were forbidden from ascending or even touching the mountain and entering into the presence of God because of their sin. Any violation of this command was promised to bring immediate death, as God desired his people to know that they cannot ascend to him, but instead he initiates the relationship and descends to them, as ultimately happened with the incarnation of Jesus Christ. They were told to purify themselves for three days and prepare to receive the message God would give them through his mediators, the prophet Moses and the priest Aaron.

God began by reminding them of his faithfulness and his powerful redemption: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”6 Based on his grace and provision, he asked them for their faithful response: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant . . .” His purpose is that they would “be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” If they will respond to his grace they will be a kingdom of priests, having access to God and the joy of mediating him to all people. They will be a holy people set apart to him in all purity and cleanness.

God gave His people the Ten Commandments, which were intended to guide their lives as holy people. But instead of responding in faith, their fear drove them away from God,7 beginning a pattern of moving away rather than drawing near and of disobedience, defilement, and spiritual adultery, culminating in judgment. Christopher J. H. Wright says:

As the people of YHWH they would have the historical task of bringing the knowledge of God to the nations, and bringing the nations to the means of atonement with God. The task of blessing the nations also put them in the role of priests in the midst of the nations. This dual movement is reflected in the prophetic visions of the law/light/justice and so on of YHWH going out to the nations from Israel/Zion, and the nations coming to YHWH/Israel/ Zion. . . . The priesthood of the people of God is thus a missional function.8

To summarize the Mosaic covenant: the human mediator was Moses, who interceded between God and Israel, his covenant people. The blessings of the covenant included redemption from bondage and the freedom to worship God. The conditions of enjoying the covenant centered on obeying all God’s laws, synthesized in the Ten Commandments, which are anchored in God alone being worshiped. On this point Wright says:

The priority of grace is a fundamental theological premise in approaching Old Testament law and ethics. Obedience to the law was based on, and was a response to, God’s salvation. Exodus has eighteen chapters of redemption before a single chapter of law. The same is true in relation to Israel’s mission among the nations. In whatever way Israel would be or become a blessing to the nations would be on the grounds of what God had done for them, not on the basis of their own superiority in any sense.9

The sign of the covenant internally was faith, as Moses and God’s people trusted God to deliver them, and the sign of the covenant externally was the celebration of the Passover. Lastly, the covenant community was referred to as a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, and in this way their mission was not to go but to be God’s people as an example to and invitation for the nations to worship their God.

The relationship between Moses and Jesus Christ is evidenced in a number of places and ways throughout the Scriptures. In Deuteronomy 18:18, God said to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Over a millennium later, in Acts 3:17–22, Peter quotes Deuteronomy 18:18 and applies its fulfillment to Jesus Christ; thus, Jesus’ eventual coming was promised to Moses. Hebrews 3:1–6 says that Jesus and Moses were faithful to the Father’s leading but that Jesus is worthy of greater honor because he is much greater than even Moses.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly and repeatedly foreshadowed throughout the exodus story. It begins with God making a promise to elect a people as his own in the Abrahamic covenant. His people are then taken into slavery and ruled by a godless and cruel lord (foreshadowing Satan and sin). Unable to save themselves, God himself intervenes to redeem them from slavery and deliver them into freedom to worship him alone by his miraculous hand (foreshadowing Jesus’ death and resurrection to liberate us from our slavery, including our self-chosen slavery to pharaohs such as drugs, alcohol, sex, and food). After taking his people out of Egypt, God’s work with his people continues as he seeks to get Egypt out of his people (foreshadowing sanctification). Resisting God’s continual attempt to lead his people as he desires, the people grumble against Moses and long to go back to Egypt (foreshadowing the believer’s wrestling with their flesh).

But God’s faithfulness persists, and he continues to lead his people by being with them in the pillar and cloud and providing for their needs out of his love, as he leads them on a journey to a land of rest and promise (foreshadowing heaven). God’s interaction with his people is clearly that of a living God who speaks, acts, loves, declares his laws, judges sin, delivers, redeems, provides, and is present with them. The central picture of the gospel in Exodus is one of covenantal redemption. And, if you believe in Jesus Christ you are part of that same covenantal redemption.

What things are you prone to allow to enslave you (e.g. food, sex, drugs, alcohol, anger, spending, etc.)?

1Gen. 15:13–15.
2Ex. 1:1–15:21.
3Ex. 2:23–25; 3:7–10.
4Ex. 3:14; cf. John 8:58.
5Ex. 3:12.
6Ex. 19:4–6.
7Ex. 20:18–19.
8Christopher J. H. Wright, “Covenant: God’s Mission through God’s People,” 65.
9Ibid., 64.