Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt.2)

Part One


The covenant Lord comes to establish a relationship.  This relationship is not yet predicated upon the finished work of Christ at Calvary, so the judicial element demands law.  Still, it also entails the fact that the God of the Law is the God also of grace.  If He were not, there would be no hope of relationship and the covenantal purposes of God would be reduced to futility.

The laws found in Exodus through to Deuteronomy are given, for the most part, to restrain Israel’s sin and to proclaim an ethics of human value, regardless of social status, and of the unity of communal life.[1]  The commandments can be summed up in two: Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:6.[2]

The 613 laws of the Torah can be boiled down to these two, but because these two are not realizable by corrupted humans, the other 611 spell out what this means in terms of living in a theocracy.

It must be recognized that it is a mistake to conflate the Pentateuch and the Law.  The Law does not show up until we are sixty-nine chapters into the Pentateuch.  Also, the role of faith is prominent in these books[3].

The Mosaic Covenant is Bilateral and Temporal

The covenant at Sinai was made with the children of Israel, who agreed to live as a Theocracy under God’s rule.  The covenant relationship was predicated on holiness.  While God’s holiness describes His Being and is absolute[4], fallen humanity does not possess the quality of holiness as a personal property.  As beings we are sinful (Isa. 61:6; Eccles. 7:20; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 3:23).  This means that any holiness we might “attain” is going to have to be God-approved.  This is especially the case if God is going to dwell in our midst.  In what is called “The Book of the Covenant” in Exodus 20-24[5] Israel discovers what external holiness looks like.

But what about God’s repeated command to, “be holy for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2)?  Doesn’t this indicate that there cannot be a disparity between God’s holiness and our external consecration?  I don’t think so because as we do God’s will, even externally, we affirm His rectitude.  We proclaim the rightness of His ways, and we learn from them.  Israel could never change into “good people” internally without God performing the change – which is why the Mosaic covenant couldn’t work – but they could become different and separate through the Law.  Thus, the great function of the Mosaic covenant, as well as showing Israel and all other people their insufficiency, was to separate the Jewish people enough to preserve them.  And they had to be preserved; not because of the Mosaic covenant, but because of the Abrahamic covenant![6]

So when Moses finally confronts the nation with their responsibilities under the covenant they assent to enter into its fearful obligations.

And Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.” – Exodus 24:6-8  

As subsequent events would more than prove, the bilateral covenant was a failure in terms of creating a holy nation because of sinful[7] human declension.[8]  But the covenantal nature of the Law and its particularity to this nation did something for Israel which guaranteed her eventual entering into the full fruition of God’s unconditional covenants.  If it did nothing else, the Mosaic covenant ensured Israel’s survival as a people.

[T]he great struggle of biblical times was to preserve the identity of Israel in a world in which she was a small people (Deut. 7:7) and in an extremely vulnerable political situation, one in which autonomy was often de jure, but not de facto.  Much of the biblical law…evidences a desire to establish a clear and durable border between the Israelites and the Canaanites among whom they lived (e.g., Lev 20:22-26).[9]

Though the covenant law could only be temporal[10], it would serve a great purpose.


[1] These points are made by G. I. Davies, “Introduction to the Pentateuch”, in The Oxford Bible Commentary: The Pentateuch, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 41

[2] See Mark 12:28-31.

[3] As seen, e.g., from Genesis 15:6; 22:5-12; Exod. 19:9; Num. 14:11.  Cf. Hebrews 11.

[4] In saying this I am not claiming that holiness is not an essential ingredient in God’s activity (Exod. 15:5; Psa. 65:5).   But contrary to men like John Webster, Holiness, 39-41, I would stop short of equating God’s holiness solely in terms of God’s activity.  I also reject the idea of holiness as “wholly other” (as e.g. in Bernhard Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology, 46-47).  To be communicable in any sense, the “powers” or attributes of God must be comprehensible, though never exhaustively so.

[5] Cf. Exodus 24:7

[6] Not to mention the covenants with Phinehas and David which we will examine.

[7] I hesitate to use the word “natural” because originally human beings were not constituted sinners.

[8] This was clearly understood early on.  For example, Joshua tells the elders of Israel, “You cannot serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.” – Joshua 24:19

[9] Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion, 120

[10] If one understands “fulfillment” in terms of consummation then all should agree with this statement: “The Mosaic, or Sinaitic, covenant that dominated Israel’s life in the Old Testament is superseded by the new covenant and therefore has no ongoing ramification for the fulfillment of God’s purposes (cf. Jer. 31:31-32; Heb. 8:6-13, esp. v.13).” – Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 40 n.1. Cf. 59 n.1



  1. Agree or disagree: An apparent holiness (external), i.e., a righteousness according to observance of the (old/temporal) covenant terms (the young rich man and Saul/Paul) made it possible for Israelites to maintain their national identity through a period of time (as long as the temporary covenant was in effect) and thus the nation was temporally preserved in time and in its ethnic constitution. The old covenant had no eternal redemptive function for the nation or its constituents and rather defined and manifested how necessary they needed redemption. The Abrahamic Covenant made promises to the nation of such redemption and gave hope of a relationship between God and His people. A promise of a new covenant is made which was to actually accomplish the redemption of the Abrahamic Covenant and also make individuals an inner holiness and righteousness that the old covenant could not. This is the “inheritance” they looked forward to. The Spirit of God is the means of effecting this new covenant. Apparently the sealing ministry of the HS is a new ministry that is integral to the New Covenant.

    Now David prayed that God would not take the HS away from him and King Saul certainly had the HS for a period and then lost it. Would it be right to infer an inner holiness and righteousness in the OT via a ministry of the HS albeit a possible temporary one?

    Deut 30:6 finds God promising, that in restoration, He will circumcise their hearts.

    But Deut 10:16 and Jer 4:4 finds God commanding them to circumcise their own hearts! Therefore wouldn’t Rom 2:28-29 be true in OT times as well? I mean the one choosing to circumcise his heart and love God with all his being would be rewarded with the power of the HS to maintain inner holiness so long as the person kept loving God wholly and choosing to circumcise the heart? (The wretched man in Romans 7 commends himself to me as uncircumcised in heart and having no relationship to the HS.)

    1. Ross,

      There’s a lot to handle here:

      1. I wouldn’t quibble with the first part of your first paragraph.
      2. The Abrahamic covenant did not promise redemption. As I have said elsewhere, neither the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly or Davidic covenants have the means of their own fulfillment (e.g. redemption) within them. That is supplied by the New covenant.
      3. Redemption is not the inheritance in the OT, the pledges within the covenants are. Redemption is the only road to the inheritance.
      4. I would not be dogmatic about the sealing ministry of the Holy Spirit (which is prospective of glorification) as concerning OT promises of the Spirit.
      5. Neither David or Saul had the Spirit indwelling them in the NT sense. It appears that the Spirit’s work was more tilted toward gifting than spiritual union.
      6. I basically agree with your last paragraph save for your understanding of Rom. 7.

      God bless,

      Paul H

  2. Darby saw the Mosaic Covenant as the bigger parenthesis in the dispensations which only had relevance to earthly government. The church was a smaller parenthesis within the Mosaic but Darby did not count the church with a heavenly government as relevant to the dispensational scheme at all because dispensations were relevant to the earth and its government only. For him, the church fell into the mosaic dispensation but with no relevance to it.

    1. I think Darby’s scheme here is unnecessarily cumbersome. The Mosaic covenant was made with Israel and has no reference to the Church as a covenant. Darby’s fascination with dispensations over covenants caused the confusion.

      1. I agree his scheme is cumbersome, but I think his view of the Mosaic as parenthetical due to its temporary nature makes excellent sense. But then dispensational schemes all seem cumbersome. I have lost faith in them for exegetical value. I think they have rather served to cause exaggerated separations where only clear distinctions should be made. Most dispensational boundaries seem arbitrary theological constructs which are not very securely planted and may actually cause a twisting of scripture to make it fit the boundary rather than letting the scripture speak for itself. I think mapping out the progress of revelation through real scriptural covenants as you are doing is the way forward. We just need to forget about mapping out artificial dispensations and merely noting the true distinctions that promote the progress of revelation through history and being aware of the modification they cause and their continued effects. Why not allow for a “flow” of revelation rather than problematic compartmentalization. I see dispensational schemes having some positive effects and yet I am persuaded they have too many negative ones to retain such. Even the definition of “dispensation” means different things to different folks. I think it should only refer to the initial deposit of a commission and then that commission rather than dispensation may not necessarily cover every point of time. It is probably a discussion for later as I don’t want to distract you from your current series.

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