Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Suzerain Covenants in Scripture, V: The Mosaic Covenant

With this post, we enter the "big one" of the Old Testament--the Mosaic Covenant. This covenant shaped Israel's history and brought a tribe of relatives together to form a united nation. It set the gold standard for legal systems for centuries to come, and has remained influential in political and legal philosophy even to this day, four thousand years late. It established the Hebrews as God's "Chosen People", and we name half of the book the "Old Testament" or "Old Covenant"--and it is this covenant to which we refer in that title.

This covenant was entered into by Moses and God on Mt. Sinai, in the book of Exodus. The book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of the covenant, and the rest of the Old Testament details the history of how the covenant worked throughout the history of ancient Judaism.

The Mosaic Covenant (Gen 19-24)

Suzerain Party - God the Father
Vassal Party - The Jews
Broker/Mediator for Vassals - Moses
Right to Serve as Broker - Founder of Judaism, Liberator from Egypt, Prime Minister of the tribes of Israel


Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: (Exo 19:3)

The preamble identifies the parties and their relationship to one another. God is the suzerain party, and the descendents of Jacob are the vassals. The descendents of Jacob include the Jewish nation only; thus, this is a covenant which is exclusive to the Jewish nation.

Moses acts as the mediator (ambassador) of the covenant on behalf of the Jews, using his authority as their liberator and judge. Because the covenant applies to Jacob’s descendents, those of us who are not of Hebrew descent are not (and have never been) bound to its commandments.

Historical Prologue

“ ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. 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.' These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel." (Exo 19:4-6)

The historical prologue recalls the history of how the suzerain has shown benevolence to the vassal in the past. In this covenant, God briefly reminds the Jews of what He did for them in freeing them from the Egyptians, and promises to make them a holy nation and a kingdom of his priests.

Conditions and Terms

Then God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Exo 20:1-17)

The conditions and terms of the Mosaic Covenant are outlined briefly in this passage, and expanded upon in the remainder of Exodus and all of Leviticus, and then the entire covenant is re-stated as the book of Deuteronomy. These are the so-called “Ten Commandments” (and their sub-laws), and these laws are exclusive to the Jews. The conditions of the Mosaic Covenant are extensive—from these three books (Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), some scholars identify as many as 600 sub-laws of the Ten Commandments which Jews must uphold.

In return for adhering to these laws, Israel is promised that God will keep them specially close to His heart, will establish their kingdom as one of authority, and will set them apart as holy from among the common peoples of the earth.

The implication in return is that if the Jewish nation fails to uphold God's standards, He will remove His hand of protection over their national identity. It is interesting to note that the rest of the Old Testament retells a familiar story several times: the Jewish people turn from God; God sends a prophet to warn them of what punishment is to come; God removes His hand of protection; the Jews, no longer divinely protected, see their kingdom crumble; the Jews repent; God helps them rebuild.

Note also the interesting conclusion from this very clearly Jewish-limited covenant: non-Jews are not held to this standard. Again—Gentiles and Arabs are NOT required to live up to the Ten Commandments (however, we will see a variance of these commands appear in the New Covenant for Christians). Though it is certainly admirable to try to live by these standards, it is absolutely wrong for a non-Jew to attempt to live these requirements with the purpose of fulfilling the Mosaic Covenant, and then claim that it gives you closer allegiance to God. To do so is to attempt to “hijack” a covenant which was not meant for the Gentiles—this covenant is designed to build a special relationship between the Jews and God, and it is arrogant and blasphemous for any Gentile to believe that, by adhering to this covenant, he should receive a special relationship with God. For a Jew to attempt to live according to the Law is admirable (and required)—and their payment is a precious national relationship with God. However, for a Gentile to attempt to live according to the Law is nothing short of trying to steal the birthright of the eldest son.

The Jews are the people who have the primary right to a relationship with God on the earth; the rights of the Gentiles comes through a later covenant.

Witness of the Covenant

So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the LORD had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do!" …So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words." …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." (Exo 19:7-8; 24:8, 12)

The primary witness of the covenant were the stone tablets given to Moses, upon which the Ten Commandments were recorded. These were deposited in the Ark of the Covenant, to be carried around whenever the Jews moved. (It was commonplace for vassal nations to keep a signed copy of important suzerain covenants or treaties in their stronghold; this is called the “deposition of the covenant”. It was crucial to do so, lest a representative of the greater nation accidentally violate the covenant by unwittingly attacking a vassal under his Lord’s protection. The deposition of the covenant allowed the vassal to “prove” that the agreement was in effect.)

In addition, the unanimous agreement of the people, and the sprinkling of the blood, act as public witnesses of the covenant.

The final witness was the institution of the Feast of Passover, which was celebrated annually as a witness and reminder of the Mosaic Covenant and God’s role in saving Israel.

Curses and Blessings

“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. (Exo 19:5-6)

Often, we fail to understand the role which Jews agreed to here. God points out that the entire earth is His, but by accepting this covenant, the Jewish nation takes on a special role: they become the priesthood of the earth, God’s representatives to all of the world. With the priesthood comes great blessings (they are specially taken care of, specially set apart, etc.), but also great curses for failure to properly fulfill their ministerial duties (correction by the king, sometimes harshly).

The Mosaic Covenant paints a picture of the world as a holy nation. God is the king of the earth, and all men are His subjects; one particular subset of men are set apart as the priests of the nation—the Jews. It is fitting to Christians, then, that Jesus was a Jew—in fact, Jesus probably had to be a Jew (and live the Mosaic Covenant perfectly) in order to ascend to His position as the High Priest of God’s kingdom.


The books of Exodus and Leviticus expand and describe this initial covenant. But one quite common aspect of the suzerain covenants in the Ancient Near East is that major covenants were often read periodically to the people, so that they knew their requirements. We see this a few times in the Bible (such as when King Josiah of Israel reads the covenant aloud to his people in 2 Kings 22:8, c. 625 BC).

What many people do not realize is that the book of Deuteronomy is nothing except a retelling of the covenant between Moses and God. In fact, the word "Deuteronomy" literally means, "second law".

Because the book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of this law, it is actually probably even superior to Exodus and Leviticus in its formal rendering of the laws of the covenant. Thus, when you read Deuteronomy, you should keep this structure in mind:

Preamble: Deut 1:1-4
Establishes God as the sovereign, Moses as the mediator, and the Israelites as the vassals.

Historical Prologue: Deut 1:5-4:43
This recalls how God led the Israelites to possess their land and helped them overthrow their enemies.

Conditions and Terms: Deut 4:44-26:19
This is a long sermon in which Moses lists every command given by God, as well as expounding on them in sermon style. He lists the conditions and terms of the covenant, recalling instances where the Jews have failed and instances in which they have succeeded.

Witnesses: Deut 27:1-10
In this section, the Hebrews build an altar to the Lord and inscribe the words of the Law, to form a witness to their covenant with God. After this is completed, Moses says, "You have now become the people of the Lord your God." (v.9). This is the final approval of the covenant.

Cursings and Blessings: Deut 27:11-30:20
This section completes the covenant formula, describing in detail both cursings for disobedience and blessings for obedience.

The final chapters of Deuteronomy (31-34), are an appendix recounting the death of Moses and the anointment of Joshua as his successor as chief Judge of Israel.