The book of Genesis closes with Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, relocating to the land of Egypt. The book of Exodus picks up almost four centuries later. During that time, the Israelites had increased greatly in number and had been forced to serve as slaves to the Egyptians. God had predicted the oppression of His people to Abraham in Genesis 15, but He had also promised that it would not last forever. He would one day deliver the Israelites from their slavery and return them to the Promised Land of Canaan.
God chose a man named Moses to lead His people out of Egypt. Moses was an Israelite by birth, but had been raised as Egyptian royalty. God called Moses to step down from his place of honor among the Egyptians and take on the burdens of His people in order to serve as their deliverer.
Through a series of plagues and miracles, God fulfilled His promise to Abraham. He freed His people from slavery and brought them out of the land of Egypt. As they began the journey back to Canaan, He lovingly provided food in the form of manna from Heaven and water from a rock Moses struck with his staff. God showed them that He was all-powerful, that He was trustworthy, and that He would provide for His people. After about seven weeks in the desert, the Israelites made their way to the foot of Mt. Sinai. It was there that God met with Moses and initiated what is commonly known as the Old (or Mosaic) Covenant.
The Covenant Made
First, God explained the foundation of the covenant—the fact that He had struck down the Egyptians and delivered the Israelites out of slavery. The covenant was not a way for them to earn their way out of bondage or into relationship with God. They were to be motivated by the redemption they had already experienced. God had already set His people free and brought them to Himself—not because of their strength, size, or record of good deeds, but according to His grace and promises to Abraham. And now that He had delivered them, he would instruct them on how to live as his covenant people and continue in relationship with Him.
Second, He told the Israelites that if they obeyed His instruction, they would be His “treasured possession… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (vv. 5-6). The term “treasured possession” meant that Israel would become a son to the Lord (GKtGC, p. 144). All creation is God’s possession, but they would be set apart as His beloved people. As “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” they would draw near to The Lord and be devoted to His service. They would also take on the priestly role of mediator between God and man. The would be God's representatives to the people, pointing the nations to Yahweh as they served and obeyed Him. Through the Old Covenant, God would both bless the people of Israel and bless the nations through them. Thus, we see how God made the Old Covenant in fulfillment of the promises He had made to Abraham. The people agreed to obey the Lord and to enter into this covenant with Him.
In Exodus 20-23, God gave Moses the instruction of the covenant. He did not give these commands to His people as though He were the legislative branch handing down a code of law. Rather, God gave His law within a relationship of love, loyalty, and trust. God instructed Israel as a father instructs his son. Obeying His commandments would lead to their flourishing. He gave His instruction in the form of the Ten Commandments and the Judgments. The Ten Commandments were general principles for how to live as God’s covenant people. The Judgments gave more specific instruction on how to apply these principles in particular circumstances. The heart of the instruction God gave them can be summed up in two commandments: they were to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, soul, and mind and to love their neighbors as themselves (Matt. 22:37-40).
The Covenant Renewed
Sadly, even after the Israelites had agreed to live in full obedience to the covenant of the Lord, they continued to walk in sin, discontentment, and distrust. They failed to love God and they failed to love one another. They broke the covenant repeatedly, and as a result, God led them to wander in the desert for forty years. The current generation would not enter into Canaan, but instead, their children would inherit God’s Promised Land (Numbers 13-14).
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses spoke with this younger generation of Israelites. They were just about to enter into the Promised Land when Moses led them to renew the covenant made at Mt. Sinai. Think of this covenant like a renewal of wedding vows (GKtGC, p.178). Two parties who were already committed to one another came together and promised to keep their former commitment. The purpose of this new covenant was for the next generation to recommit to the old one.
In this renewal, Moses first reminded the Israelites of the instruction of the former covenant. Then he supplemented the existing instruction with new, more specific commandments for how to live in the land of Canaan. The heart behind the new commandments was the same as the commandments given at Sinai—to instruct the people about how to walk righteously before God so as to maintain a relationship with Him and be witnesses to the world. The difference was that they would now be doing that in a new context—in the land of Canaan rather than in the wilderness.
Israel took on the role of the “new Adam” through the Old Covenant as God called them to live as His obedient sons and representativesto the world. Even after formally committing to the covenant on two separate occasions, Israel failed to uphold it. They chose independence and rebellion over relationship and communion with God. They chose love of self over love of neighbor. They chose the ways of a fallen world over the ways of their holy and righteous Father. The Old Covenant showed the Israelites how to walk in righteousness, but it couldn't enable them to do so. It gave them a guide for outward obedience, but it left their hearts hardened and wicked. It revealed the people’s unfaithfulness, and exposed even more clearly their need for a new covenant head. God's people needed another man to step down from his place of honor and take on their burdens in order to serve as their ultimate deliverer. They needed an obedient son and true representative of God to walk in faithfulness on their behalf. They needed a new and better covenant, one that would not only call them to obey, but would change their hearts to enable them to do so.
Suggested Reading: Exodus 19-24, Number 13-14, Deuteronomy
*The ideas in this blog are a synthesis of Dr. Peter Gentry's and Dr. Stephen Wellum's presentation of the covenants in God's Kingdom through God's Covenant. For deeper study on this topic, I highly recommend this resource.
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