by Paul George
The Mosaic Covenant is a conditional covenant made between God and the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-24). It is sometimes called the Sinai Covenant but is more often referred to as the Mosaic Covenant since Moses was God’s chosen leader of Israel at that time. The pattern of the covenant is very similar to other ancient covenants of that time because it is between a sovereign King, God, and his people or subjects, Israel. At the time of the covenant God reminded the people of their obligation to be obedient to His law (Exodus 19:5) and the people agreed to the covenant when they said; “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8). This covenant would serve to set the nation of Israel apart from all other nations as the chosen people of God. The Mosaic was as equally binding as the unconditional covenant that God made with Abraham because it was also a blood covenant. The Mosaic Covenant is a significant covenant in both God’s redemptive plan and in the history of the nation of Israel.
The Mosaic covenant differs significantly from the Abrahamic Covenant and later covenants because the blessings that God promises are directly related to Israel’s obedience to the Mosaic Law. If Israel is obedient then God will bless them, but if they disobey then God will punish them. The blessings and curses that are associated with this conditional covenant are found in detail in Deuteronomy 28. The other covenants found in the Bible were unconditional promises, in which God bound Himself to do what He promised, regardless of what the recipients of the promises might do. The Mosaic Covenant is a conditional agreement, which specifies the obligations of both parties to the covenant.
The Mosaic Covenant differs from the Abrahamic Covenant because in it God promises to make Israel “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) Israel was to be God’s light to the dark world around them. They were to be a separate and called out nation so that everyone around them would know that they worshiped Yahweh, the covenant keeping God. The Mosaic Covenant contained the Mosaic Law that was to be a schoolmaster pointing the way towards the coming of Christ. (Galatians 3:24-25) The Mosaic Law would reveal to people their sinfulness and their need for a Savior and it is the Mosaic Law that Christ Himself said that He did not come to abolish but to fulfill. This is an important point because some people get confused by thinking that keeping the Law saved people in the Old Testament, but the Bible is clear that salvation has always been by faith alone and the promise of salvation by faith that God had made to Abraham as part of the Abrahamic covenant still remained in effect (Galatians 3:16-18).
Also the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Covenant did not really take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4), it simply foreshadowed the bearing of sin by Christ, the perfect high priest Who was also the perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 9:11-28). Therefore, the Mosaic Covenant itself, with all its detailed laws, could not save people. It is not that there was any problem with the law itself, for the law is perfect and was given by a Holy God, but the law had no power to give people new life, and the people were not able to obey the law perfectly (Galatians 3:21).
At Mt. Sinai God revealed His glory to Israel (Deuteronomy 5:1-5, 23-29) this was a new revelation of God’s character. Abraham and the other patriarchs knew the Lord as El Shaddai, the God of power, but they did not live to see Him keep His covenant promise to give the land of Canaan to the seed of Abraham. To Moses and Israel of his day, God revealed Himself as LORD, so that the full significance of the covenant name of God became manifest as it had not been before (Exodus 6:2-8; 34:5-7).
The Mosaic Law given at Mt. Sinai established boundaries for the land and a system of cities, courts, worship and welfare. Israel had a “constitution” given by God to direct her in her priestly service to the world. The family was strengthened as an institution by a gift of land that could not be taken away, by implicit limits on taxation, and by limits on the authority of the magistrates and priests.
For the first time in history, the authority of priests and kings is clearly divided. The priesthood belongs to the tribe of Levi, no other tribe could legitimately assume the privileges granted to it. Prophets might be from any tribe, and, though only an occasional office, they had a special authority transcending priests or kings if necessary, though both priests and kings too could be prophets. Kings would eventually come from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12). From this point onward, no man could be both priest and king.
The Law revealed God’s righteousness. The sacrifices revealed His grace.
The law, like the elements of every covenant includes the threat of the curse for disobedience and the promise of blessing for obedience, but it was not, nor could it have ever be considered a “legalistic” covenant. The law was given as a blessing for Israel to lead them in the way of joy, prosperity, and peace. The greatest blessing of the law was the tabernacle, provided by God as a sanctuary, His dwelling place among His people.
Though the law was a blessing for the people and a manifestation of grace, it was also, at that point in history, the most emphatic revelation of God’s righteous wrath against sin that had ever been given to man. The profound definition of sin and the just punishment required by the law were intended to impress upon Israelites their need of the grace of God. Moreover, the law warned repeatedly that if Israel departed from God’s ways, she would be rejected from her position of covenant leadership and privilege (Deuteronomy 28:15ff.).
However, this is not “legalism” by any reasonable definition. The curse of the law is applied to those who reject the covenant blessing since the covenant is a two-way relationship. What must be clearly understood is that the curse and the blessing are not set before Israel as two equally possible destinies that she chooses by her free will or determines by her works. God blessed Israel. That was where her covenant life with God began. The blessing of the covenant would be given if she responded to God’s love with love. However, the curse warned, if she betrayed that love, she would reap the wrath of God.
If Israel would keep the covenant, she would lead the nations of the world to blessing and, by bringing blessing to the entire world, inherit the earth.
Although Israel tested the patience of the Lord in the wilderness, the next generation under the leadership of Joshua conquered most of the land of Canaan and began to set up a God-fearing nation with God’s covenant law serving as the Law above the law. After the death of Joshua, however, repeated apostasy brought repeated covenantal discipline. Israel did not heed Joshua’s final warning (Joshua 24). She intermarried with her pagan neighbors, and fell into idolatry (Judges 2:1-3, 11-15). By spiritual compromise, she subverted her own authority as God’s priestly nation.
When Israel cried out to God, He sent them judges to deliver them from their enemies (Judges 2:16-18). Thus, periods of relative faithfulness were followed by periods of apostasy in cycles of sin, judgment and repentance.
God sending judges to deliver the people from their enemies is evidence that God kept His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God sending His Son to earth to save His people from their sins is evidence God kept His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When our Lord Jesus Christ returns to this earth and binds Satan and his demonic hosts and cast them into the lake of fire and we have fought the good fight we can rejoice knowing God has kept His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.