The next instance of "covenant" found in Scripture refers to the covenant G-d made at Sinai. As one of the most significant and frequently referenced covenants in Scripture we should perform a careful examination of the details of this covenant.
- Introduction- Exodus 20:2
- The covenant is G-d's (Exodus 19:5)
- The covenant is made with the sons of Isra'el (Exodus 12:37) and the mixed multitude that was with them (Exodus 12:38). This is reiterated in Numbers 15:16 where G-d instructs that "there is to be one law and one ordinance for you [the Isra'elite] and the alien who sojourns with you" as well as other passages in Scripture.
- Covenant Responsibilities
- Required actions
Numerous. Traditionally there are 613 commandments given within the Sinai Covenant. The Babylonian Talmud records that there are 365 negative commandments, corresponding to the number of days in a solar year, and 248 positive commandments, ascribed to the number of bones and significant organs in the human body.
- Prohibited actions
Numerous. The traditionally enumerated commandments of this covenant can be found here.
- Those who keep the covenant will be G-d's own possession among all the peoples and they shall be to Him a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)
- Various others including G-d's promise to make His dwelling among the people. He will walk among them and be their G-d, and they shall be His people. (Leviticus 26:3-13)
- Various (e.g. Leviticus 26:14-45)
- Required actions
- Conditions for perpetuation
- The covenant is specified to be for those who receive it at Sinai (both the Isra'elites and the foreigners) and their descendants as an "everlasting covenant" [l'brit olam] (Leviticus 24:8, Numbers 18:19). Nothing is ever identified in Scripture that would ever serve to end the covenant.
- Enumeration of witnesses - none stated
- Covenant sign- The Sabbath (Exodus 31:13,17)
- Covenant seal- none stated directly.
In Isaiah 8:16 G-d says to Isaiah "bind up the testimony, seal the Law among [His] disciples".
The Covenant Belongs to G-d
G-d refers to the covenant as "My covenant" in Exodus 19:5. We have found consistently in this series that the ownership of and authority in His covenants is G-d's alone. Only He has authority to initiate a covenant and can bring something of value to the covenant. We have nothing to offer Him except that which already His.
A Covenant of Grace
As with all of G-d's covenants, this covenant is extended to the Isra'elites and to the gentiles with them as a measure of G-d's grace. These people had done nothing to merit this covenant with G-d.
A Covenant of Salvation
We should also recognize from the events of the Exodus that this is also a covenant of salvation. It is not the "great and eternal salvation" (which is found only in Messiah Yeshua) but salvation from the physical bondage of slavery in Egypt. The people were saved from G-d's wrath and judgment which was poured out upon the land and people of Egypt. Like the covenant G-d made with Noach we see the covenant established after G-d's judgment upon the land and after the people lay hold of that salvation. This covenant provides a picture of G-d's future, eternal salvation.
This covenant fits the pattern of salvation covenants initially found in our observations regarding G-d's covenant with Noach:
- G-d reveals coming judgment- Exodus 6:6
- G-d extends the offer of salvation- Exodus 12:13
- G-d provides a way for mankind to connect with that salvation- Exodus 12:13
- G-d provides deliverance- Exodus 12:28, 14:30
- There is a remnant who are delivered- Exodus 12:37, 41
- G-d establishes a covenant and lays out the terms of the covenant with those who are delivered- Exodus 19:1-5
In the story of the book of Exodus we find that G-d makes a covenant with a people who are already "saved" (albeit in a physical sense) and delivered from His judgment. They are saved as a result of G-d's sovereign choice and action. They "connect" [the author's term] with that salvation by walking in faithful obedience to the G-d of their fathers. "Obedience of faith" is the expression Paul uses in Romans 16:26. In this instance the "obedience of faith" is killing the Passover lamb and painting its blood on their doorways.
An Everlasting Covenant
G-d describes this covenant to be for those who receive it at Sinai (both the Isra'elite and the foreigner) and their descendants as an "everlasting covenant" [l'brit olam] (Leviticus 24:8, Numbers 18:19). Nothing is ever identified in Scripture that would ever serve to end the covenant. As was described previously in the series, the Hebrew word olam is also used in various passages to describe G-d's eternal and everlasting nature.
Although specifically commanded not to commit idolatry the Isra'elites did so (Exodus 32) and violated the covenant before it was even 2 months old.
To Whom Was It Given?
One of the questions that should be answered regarding any covenant given in Scripture is who the parties of the covenant are. Exodus 12:37 tells us that 600,000 men of Isra'el (not counting women, children, or the elderly) journeyed from Rameses to Sukkot. The following verse (Exodus 12:38) relates that "a mixed multitude" also went up with them. That this multitude of non-Isra'elites went up with them is not surprising given all the signs and wonders G-d performed prior to the Exodus from Egypt. Surely some of the Egyptians and visitors from other lands saw the power and might of the One True G-d and desired to seek and follow Him. Scripture tells us that this mixed multitude went up from Egypt along with the children of Isra'el. It is this entire group (Jew and Gentile) that is present at Sinai that receives the covenant G-d establishes there.
Given that this is a covenant resulting from their deliverance from bondage it seems logical and reasonable that both Jew and Gentile would be included here as it is in the great and eternal salvation of Messiah Yeshua.
A Chosen People
Isra'el is, at times, referred to as "a chosen people" (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, Psalm 33:12, Isaiah 43:20). This makes sense if we go back to the underlying meaning of brit: "to choose" or "illuminate" a choice. They are the covenant people G-d has chosen.
Ephesians 4 tells us that there is one people of G-d.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
This one ekklesia (the Greek word translated as "church" in the Apostolic Writings) existed in the wilderness at Sinai (Acts 7:38). One body (Ephesians 4:4), one faith (Ephesians 4:5), and one Law (Exodus 12:49).
G-d's covenant at Sinai.
The dating of the covenant at Sinai could be a serious rabbit-trail for this article. Scholars have and continue to disagree on the exact dating of the Exodus. Let it suffice to say that 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41) "to the very day" the Exodus occurred. It is 3 months after the Exodus when the Isra'elites arrive at Sinai (Exodus 19:1).
This is the easiest of all the questions to answer: Sinai. The question about where Sinai is actually located is one of the more difficult challenges of history. It is likely not in the Sinai Peninsula but in Arabia (as Paul informs us in Galatians 4:25). Although there continues to be much debate on the exact location of the mountain on which G-d gave the covenant the author's opinion currently favors the location given in reference to Jabal al-Lawz in modern day Saudi Arabia.
When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain.
Why did G-d give another covenant to the children of Isra'el after He brought them out of bondage in Egypt? The most apparent answer is found in Exodus 24:12
Now the LORD said to Moses, "Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction."
This answer only leads us to another question: instruction for what? Exodus 19:5-6 provides some additional clarity.
'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.'
This passage indicates that the purpose of the covenant is to establish those who partake in it as G-d's own possession among the nations. Their purpose is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Deuteronomy 4 also provides some additional insight as to its purpose:
See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORD my G-d commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our G-d whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?
The covenant at Sinai is also not a renewal or restatement of the covenant given to their forefathers. It is something new and specific. The purpose of the covenant is not to earn or merit salvation or redemption. In a physical sense, the people present at Sinai were already "saved" and "redeemed" from bondage in Egypt. There was nothing they had done to merit that physical salvation or redemption which had already occurred.
The book of Hebrews confirms that this is not a covenant to earn salvation:
For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
It is clear that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews understood that this covenant was not intended to make someone perfect or to take away their sins. The purpose of the Sinai covenant was to reveal G-d's standard of holiness to His people and to establish the priesthood that would serve in the earthly shadow of the heavenly Temple. Their service would provide a physical picture to the entire world of G-d's plan of redemption. It was an ongoing picture of the sacrifice of the Messiah that was to come. Galatians 3:24 makes this same observation.
What's the point?
A key question that likely arises after examining all the myriad details about the Tabernacle, the offerings, sacrifices, and commandments of this covenant is WHY? Why all the detail? Why so many commandments? What's the point?
The answer is tied to the "why" above: G-d is setting apart a nation to live lives of holiness in order to reveal His holiness to the world. It is through their obedience that His holiness is revealed. G-d's holiness is manifested in many ways in His creation. In a similar manner we see G-d's explicit expression of His holiness through His people Isra'el to be highly diverse as well.
We might be tempted to think, "why not just have them wear a unique hat and be done with it?" Such a simple matter would not do justice to the absolute holiness of G-d and the great breadth of His nature and character. G-d is an infinitely complex Being. Hats don't even begin to adequately convey Who He is.
When we examine Scripture and find that G-d acts against Isra'el it is because their actions of disobedience are profaning His Name. Their disobedience to the commands and instruction of G-d are giving an inaccurate picture of Who G-d is to the world around them. G-d's holiness is at stake. For example:
But I acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made Myself known to them by bringing them out of the land of Egypt. So I took them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. I gave them My statutes and informed them of My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live. Also I gave them My sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness. They did not walk in My statutes and they rejected My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live; and My sabbaths they greatly profaned. Then I resolved to pour out My wrath on them in the wilderness, to annihilate them. But I acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, before whose sight I had brought them out.
Twice G-d indicates that He acted for the sake of His name. Note that He also twice states in this passage that "if a man observes them he will live". What is the "them" to which He is referring? His statutes and His ordinances. This is the same answer that Messiah gave when asked how to inherit eternal life: obey the commandments (Matthew 19:16-17, Mark 10:17-19, Luke 10:25-28). It is entirely comforting to know that throughout history G-d does not change His mind.
Just to avoid any confusion on the point: the commandments were given to a people who were already saved. Obeying the commandments does not earn salvation or eternal life.
The Sabbath... a covenant?
In Exodus 31:14-17 G-d makes an interesting statement through Moshe:
'So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.'
It appears from the phrasing that the Sabbath and its observance are to be an everlasting covenant [l'brit olam]. Leviticus 24:8 reiterates that the Sabbath is an eternal covenant. Is it a separate covenant from the Sinai covenant or simply a part of it that is significant enough to merit some additional attention? It is uncertain. Yeshua declared that He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, Luke 6:5) and until He returns to clarify the point it is possible that we might not understand the full meaning of this passage.
Additional References to Covenant
There are several references to covenant found in Exodus and Leviticus. A full list of these references can be found in Appendix I within the first part of this article. Forty-two of those references in Scripture are to the "ark of the covenant". Some of the other references are also noted here:
Exodus 23:32 contains a warning not to make a covenant with the people who were inhabiting the Land.
In Exodus 24:7 Moshe takes and reads the book of the covenant to the Isra'elites and they state in reply: "All the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will obey [Hebrew: shema]". In verse 8 Moshe sprinkles them with the "blood of the covenant" which ties back to the tradition of a "blood covenant" that we find with Avraham.
Exodus 34 contains 5 references to "covenant":
- In verse 10 G-d says He is going to make a covenant with the people.
- In verses 12 and 15 G-d again reiterates that the Isra'elites should not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the Land but should tear down their altars and sacred pillars otherwise they might make a covenant with those people.
- Verse 27 records that G-d instructs Moshe to write down the words of the covenant.
- Verse 28 relates that Moshe wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets.
Leviticus 26 also contains 5 references to "covenant" and lists out blessings and curses for those who do not abide in the covenant.
Numbers 25 relates the story of Pinchas [Phineas] whose zeal pleased G-d. As a result G-d gave him a "covenant of peace" that was a perpetual priesthood for him and his descendants.
The next major covenant mentioned in Scripture is the covenant given in the Aravah across the Yarden River from the Land.