Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Covenants: Part II - The Mosaic Covenant

The Mosaic (Old) Covenant

Last time we learned that covenants usually have a promise, or promises, and a sign.  Some covenants are conditional and some are unconditional.  We briefly looked at two biblical covenants, the Noahic Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant.

This time we will turn our attention to the most prominent covenant in the Old Testament, the Mosaic Covenant, also known as the Old Covenant.  In fact, when we use the term “Old Testament” we are referring primarily to the Mosaic/Old Covenant. 

The Greek word “diatheke” can be translated into English as either “covenant” or “testament”.  The English words “covenant” and “testament” are used almost interchangeably in the KJV, e.g. the KJV in one place translates as “Ark of the Covenant (diatheke)” and at another place translates as “Ark of the Testament (diatheke)”.  So when we are talking about “Testaments” we’re really talking about “Covenants”.  We have divided our Bibles in reference to the two most prominent Covenants in the scriptures.

The Mosaic/Old Covenant is a conditional covenant. Let’s take a look at the Mosaic/Old Covenant and see if we can distinguish the promise, condition, and sign.

Exodus 19:3-6 (NASB)
3 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:
4 'You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself.
5 '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;
6 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."
Exodus 31:12-18 (NASB)
12 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
13 "But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.
14 'Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.
15 'For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death.
16 'So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.'
17 "It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed."
18 When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.
So we see that the promise of the Old Covenant was that the descendents of Jacob would be God’s special people, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.  The condition of the covenant was obedience.  Conversely, we see at many points in the Old Testament that if the Israelites disobey they will be driven out of the Land.  Finally, we see that the sign of the covenant is Sabbath observance.  To summarize:

Old Covenant:
·         Promise: God’s special people/The Land
·         Condition: Obedience
·         Sign: Sabbath observance

So what specifically was the covenant?  What were the very words of the covenant?  Read the following text and ask yourself what the text says the covenant was.

Deuteronomy 4:13 (NASB)
13 "So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone.
This text clearly states the covenant was specifically the “eser dabar” (literally “Ten Words” or “Decalogue”.  Let’s look at another text.  As you read it ask yourself again what the text says the covenant was.

Deuteronomy 9:10-11 (NASB)
10 "The LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written by the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you at the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.
11 "It came about at the end of forty days and nights that the LORD gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant.
This text also confirms that the words on the stone tablets of the Decalogue (ten words) were the covenant.  Let’s look at another text for further confirmation.

Deuteronomy 9:15 (NASB)
15 "So I turned and came down from the mountain while the mountain was burning with fire, and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands.
Again we see that the Decalogue was the covenant.  I believe we could cite several more texts yet, but let’s just look at one last one.

Exodus 32:15 (NASB)
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one side and the other.
Here we get an interesting fact. Unlike the artist renderings we are used to seeing, the tablets of the Decalogue were not just written on one side, but on front and back.  This is consistent with what we know of ancient near east covenant documents.  These documents were often written on the front and back of tablets with two identical copies produced.  One copy would go in the temple of the suzerain while the other copy would go in the temple of the vassal.  Many biblical scholars believe that the two tablets of the Decalogue were actually two copies of the same “Ten Words” written front and back.  In this case, because God (the suzerain) dwelt in the temple in the midst of His people (the vassals), both copies went into one temple.

In addition, we know that the sign of the covenant was usually inscribed in the very center of the covenant document.  This is also consistent with the order of the Decalogue.

In Part III we will continue our examination of the Old (Mosaic) Covenant. 


  1. Isn't a major portion of the first 4 four Gospels of the New Testament still Old Covenant?

  2. Ane,

    I think that's right. Through most of the Gospels Jesus is speaking to pre-cross Jews living under the Old Covenant Law. This is important because when attempting to interpret any passage we first have to determine who the original audience was and how the main point applied to them before jumping to a modern application in our own lives. So we see Jesus explaining the meaning and the focus of the Old Covenant Law and how He has come, not to cast it aside as if was worthless, but to completely fulfill it bringing it to a close. In the Gospels we see a transition period where the Old Covenant is being fulfilled before the Jews' very eyes and Jesus is beginning to teach about the New Covenant He is about to usher in in its place. A New Covenant "not like the Old Covenant" just as prophesied by Jeremiah.

  3. In Rev 12:17 we read: The dragon (satan) was infuriated over the woman (Israel) and went off to fight the rest of her children, those who obey God's commands and bear witness to Jesus. My question is what commands were these people keeping? were they the 10 commandments, and if they were does this include the 4th commandment of keeping the biblical Sabbath day holy? The dragon went after those who were believers in Jesus! "Those who bear witness to Jesus, and keep His commands!"

  4. Khilat, I believe the Bible answers your question. I have addressed the question here: