The Covenant Between God and His People
Given and Received
Until this point the book of Exodus has been a narrative detailing the freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery by the mighty miracles at the hand of God and the first portion of their journey which will bring them to Mt. Sinai in the Southern Sinai peninsula. So far, God has established a sacred calendar where the first month includes an observance that will commemorate the manner and result of God's miraculous intervention on their behalf – Passover.
This observance will also mark their historical transformation from a dozen tribal clans descended from one man now enslaved in a foreign power, to a free nation chosen by God for His divine purpose. At Sinai God's plan is to further reveal Himself to them and give them the laws and observances that will establish a covenant between Himself as their God and the Jewish nation as His chosen people. The details of this covenant will be found in the law and ordinances God will give Moses to hand down to the people.
The purpose of these will be twofold:
1. They will define and form the character of the people into a holy nation representing the true and living God in a world of disbelief and pagan sinfulness. Living by the commandments and incorporating the various laws and ordinances will transform their thinking and behavior to reflect the will of God and the character of God to the nations around them.
"I am the Lord, I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, and I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations,"
- Isaiah 42:6
2. The religion that God gave them in the form of rituals, sacrifice and places of worship (the tabernacle in the desert and the temple in Jerusalem) as well as the dedicated priesthood as spiritual leaders and teachers… All of this was given as an ongoing preview of the plan of salvation that God would one day fulfill that would affect, not only the Jews, but would create a "people of God" made up of both Jews and Gentiles.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
- Romans 1:16
We could summarize by saying that the Jewish nation was created by God to be a historical, cultural, and religious stage upon which the savior, sent by God, would make His appearance and carry out His ministry, which would be to die for the sins of all mankind and resurrect in order to confirm God's word as true.
Exodus, therefore, is Moses' record of God's initial steps in forming a nation out of Abraham's descendants and the details concerning the initial covenant made with the people, as well as the transfer of information about:
- The commandments
- The laws and ordinances (rules of conduct)
- The manner of worship, sacrifice, and giving
- The priestly order and tasks
- The design, materials, and construction of the portable place of worship and presence of God – tabernacle.
- Details concerning holy days and feasts.
Of course, this information is not only found in the book of Exodus, many of the details mentioned here are repeated and expanded in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy with each book giving special attention to particular topics:
- Departure from Egypt
- Covenant and law
- Sacrificial system
- Role of priests
- Various laws concerning land
- Wars, History
- Summary of Israel's wilderness wanderings
- Review of laws and ordinances
- Moses' prophecies and blessings
We begin, therefore, with the initial covenant made between God and the Israelites.
I. Covenant Between God and Israel – Exodus 19:1-25
First of all, a covenant is a binding agreement between two parties (or more). In Hebrew the word covenant is derived from the root word "to cut." This means that in the Bible a covenant was a weighty matter and was often sealed in blood (i.e. God's covenant with Abraham sealed by circumcision).
In a covenant both parties are bound with promises made (i.e. marriage). In God's covenant with Israel God promised to make the Jewish nation His own chosen people (who would fulfill His plan of bringing the Messiah to earth) and the people promised to obey His laws and ordinances which led to great blessings. If they failed to do so, God would curse and punish them, but He would not abandon them completely. For example, despite their total failure to keep His laws, God kept a small remnant of them (Tribe of Judah) alive in order to fulfill His larger plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Upon their arrival Moses sets out to meet with God.
Moses Meets God on Mt. Sinai – Exodus 19:1-6
1In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2When 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.
- Exodus 19:1-2
Moses gives us a timeline for their arrival at Mt. Sinai from the miraculous crossing at the Red Sea – three months have gone by.
Moses went up to God and the Lord called to him from the mountain,
- Exodus 3a
This point will mark the first of seven occasions that Moses will be called by God to meet with Him on Mt. Sinai, thus signifying the importance of this location, which is located in modern day Egypt, part of the Sinai mountain range.
- Exodus 19:3-7 – Trip 1 – Meet with God concerning the covenant.
- Exodus 19:8-15 – Trip 2 – Moses brings the people's answer to God.
- Exodus 19:20-25 – Trip 3 – God prepares the people to receive the law.
- Exodus 20:21-23:33 – Trip 4 – God provides more detail to the law.
- Exodus 24:9-11 – Trip 5 – God meets with the leaders of Israel.
- Exodus 24:12-31:18 – Trip 6 – God provides instructions for the Tabernacle (remained 40 days and nights (people fall away).
- Exodus 34:1-35 – Trip 7 – God renews the covenant, provides a second set of commandments (Moses again remains 40 days and nights).
(Truth for Today Commentary Exodus – P.307 – Roper)
3bsaying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: 4'You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. 5Now 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; 6and 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."
- Exodus 3b-6
Now, this first trip is significant because it is here that several precedents occur.
1. God reviews and confirms that He is the same God who freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery by His powerful miracles. People at that time believed that the pagan gods they worshipped were fixed to one place, if you went to another land/country there would be different gods in charge. God tells Moses to remind the people that it is still He that cared for them and safely/powerfully (on eagle's wings) brought them to this place. No need for fear.
2. He now officially speaks to the people through Moses and makes them an offer they can accept or refuse – respecting their God-given, unique human trait of free will. Note that Pharaoh, who was only a man, violated their free will by forced enslavement maintained by military power. God the creator of the universe considers and makes allowance for the people's ability to choose for themselves what they will do.
3. God proposes a special relationship between Himself and these people – a covenant relationship where He will be their only God and they will become His special people. Special in that He will make them:
- His chosen people (my own possession)
- A kingdom of priests where each person can minister to and for God.
- A holy nation – a people set apart for a divine purpose.
4. He also sets the conditions of this covenant or promise – He will do all of these things if they obey His laws and ordinances and stay true to the covenant (be His people, His holy nation, His kingdom of priests).
7So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. 8All the people answered together and said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do!" And Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord. 9The Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also believe in you forever." Then Moses told the words of the people to the Lord.
- Exodus 19:7-9
This is a high point in the relationship between God and the people. Moses speaks God's words to the people, and both they understand and choose to accept God's answer in enthusiasm and unity, "all the people answered together…we will do!" Moses returns to the mountain with the people's answer and God describes how He will communicate with the people and what the result will be. He will appear in a thick cloud and allow the people to hear Him speaking to Moses. This, He says, will confirm in their minds that Moses is the legitimate leader and spokesman for God.
Moses returns to the people with instructions to prepare themselves (personal cleansing, washing of clothing, abstain from sex) and God will come down from Mt. Sinai. No person or animal can touch the mountain under pain of death. At the sound of a trumpet in three days the people were to come to the mountain to meet God.
On the third day God appears in fire, smoke, and the shaking of the mountain, as well as the sound of a loud trumpet. Moses speaks with Him and God answers with thunder. God calls Moses back up the mountain and instructs him again that no one, not even the priests dare go on or up the mountain under pain of death. God then sends Moses back to warn the people but this time Aaron, Moses' spokesman, is asked to return with Moses to the mountain to meet with God.
Now that God has both the consent and the attention (awe) of the people concerning the covenant, He begins to give the details of the law and ordinances that the people are to obey. Based on God's previous instructions to Moses about His appearance before the people, I believe that the people actually heard God relay these instructions to Moses and Aaron.
II. The People React, Ratify and Receive the Law and Covenant – Exodus 20:1-24:18
Then God spoke all these words, saying,
- Exodus 20:1
Just as God promised, He begins to speak, relaying the details of the terms of the covenant with the people. The basic covenant is that God will take these people as His chosen nation and bless them with health, prosperity, and protection from other nations if they will obey Him – and the following commands, ordinances, and religious observances are the details of what He requires them to obey.
God begins with the bedrock commands that will regulate their conduct and relationship with God – first four commandments; then the commands that will direct their conduct and relationship with other humans – last six commandments.
2"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3"You shall have no other gods before Me. 4"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. 5You 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, 6but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. 7"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. 8"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10but 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. 11For 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. 12"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you. 13"You shall not murder. 14"You shall not commit adultery. 15"You shall not steal. 16"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17"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."
- Exodus 20:2-17
If you would like more detailed information concerning the Ten Commandments, please visit BibleTalk.tv and search "Understanding and Obeying the Ten Commandments"; this book is also available for purchase on Amazon.
So, the people have heard God's voice giving the basic law/commandments that He will require of His people. Moses then describes how the people reacted to this amazing phenomenon.
18All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. 19Then they said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die." 20Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin." 21So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.
- Exodus 20:18-21
The people's basic reaction is fear and respect for the power demonstrated by God, as well as respect and deference for Moses who is interacting with God but not dying (as they would have if they came near). They ask that Moses be the one to speak God's word to them because when God speaks it fills them with fear. Moses explains that God's purpose was not to terrify them but to test them to see if they would respect and be motivated to obey Him which would in turn guarantee His presence.
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven.
- Exodus 20:22
God reaffirms that He has spoken directly to the people to emphasize that not only did the Ten Commandments come directly from God, given to the people, but the following instructions, now given to the intermediary, Moses, also come from a divine source.
III. The Book of the Covenant – Exodus 20:23-24:18
A. Laws of the Book of the Covenant – Exodus 20:23-23:33
The next section of the book of Exodus (20:23-23:33) is often referred to as "The Book of the Covenant." The information here expanded upon and further explained the Ten Commandments, their meaning, application in various situations, and proper observation in accordance with God's will and purpose. These were also called the "covenant code." We don't have time to read and explain each of these but here is a list of the topics included, which were the essence of Jewish moral law and practice, studied and debated by later generations of teachers (Rabbis).
- Laws related to worship – 20:23-26
- Laws related to slavery – 21:1-11
- Laws related to personal injury – 21:12-27
- Laws regarding oxen – 21:28-36
- Crimes against property – 22:1-17
- Crimes related to idolatry – 22:18-20
- Laws requiring compassion 22:21-27
- Laws honoring God 22:28-31
- Laws demanding justice 23:1-9
- Laws related to keeping the Sabbath – 23:10-13
- The annual feasts 23:14-17
- Laws concerning sacrifice – 23:18-19
- Epilogue: Entering the Promised Land – 23:20-33
These laws and instructions were not meant to be a burden, but rather God's guidance for sinful people so they could know how to live a holy life pleasing to God and thus keep their part of the covenant with God. In return, God would honor His part of the covenant by blessing His chosen people.
In Exodus 23:25-31 the Lord provides greater details concerning these blessings.
25But you shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water; and I will remove sickness from your midst. 26There shall be no one miscarrying or barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27I will send My terror ahead of you and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28I will send hornets ahead of you so that they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you. 29I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate, and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. 30I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land. 31I will fix your boundary from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River Euphrates; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you will drive them out before you.
- Exodus 23:25-31
B. The Ratification of the Covenant – Exodus 24:1-11
The invitation to enter into a covenant with God has been made by God and accepted by the people – (Exodus 19:1-8). The terms of the covenant have been given (decalogue – 10 commandments) and explained in detail (book of the covenant), this is the responsibility of the people (Exodus 20-23) and the blessings on the people, if they obey, have been described (Exodus 23:25-31) and this is God's responsibility.
What's left is to ratify – to approve and formally confirm or sanction the agreement (close the deal).
1Then He said to Moses, "Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance. 2Moses alone, however, shall come near to the Lord, but they shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him."
- Exodus 24:1-2
God calls on Moses, Aaron, and his two oldest sons, as well as the leaders of the people (70 elders) to come upon the mountain. However, only Moses is to come near the Lord leaving the others behind on the mountain and the people on the ground away from the mountain under pain of death. The ratification process is completed in 7 steps:
- Moses recites the Law and the people reaffirm their pledge to obey – 24:3
- The words of the Law are written down giving the covenant permanency – 24:4a
- A memorial altar is built – 24:4b
- Sacrifices are made and the altar is sprinkled with blood – 24:5-6
- The book of the covenant was read and once again affirmed by the people – 24:7
- The blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the people signifying the sealing of the covenant – 24:8
- The leaders of Israel (Moses, Aaron and sons, 70 elders) shared a meal before the Lord on the mountain. This was a covenant meal signifying peace and solidarity among those in the covenant. – 24:9-11
C. Moses Receives the Law – Exodus 24:12-18
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."
- Exodus 24:12
Moses is called to go up to the mountain top in order to meet with God, in order to receive the commandments written in stone by God.
At first, he is enveloped in a cloud which was a symbol of God's presence on the mountain. Next, he is called further up and the top of the mountain appears as a consuming fire to the people below.
Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
- Exodus 24:18
We note that before he left, Moses appointed Hur and Aaron to judge matters until he returned. He possibly knew that the journey would be longer, as it turned out to be 40 days and nights.