Monday, August 23, 2010

The Covenants: Part III - The Old Covenant

The Old Covenant (continued)

Last time we saw the Old/Mosaic Covenant had the following elements:

·         Promise – God’s special people/The Land
·         Condition – Obedience
·         Sign – Sabbath observance

We also reviewed a number of texts (Deut. 4:13, 9:10-11, 9:15, Ex. 9:15) showing that the “eser dabar” (literally “Ten Words” or “Decalogue”) were the covenant document.  The Decalogue was structured like an ancient near east covenant document, written on both sides of two tablets with the sign of the covenant at the center of the document.  Even its Hebrew name is consistent with it being a covenant document. 

Unfortunately, our English invention of “Ten Commandments” confuses the fact that the Hebrew Old Testament never uses that terminology.  Our English phrase masks the fact that the Hebrew term “eser dabar” (full form is aseret haddebarim) is legal language for a covenant document.  Therefore, throughout the rest of this study I will attempt to use more biblical language by referring to the Old Covenant document as either “The Ten Words” or the Latin form of the phrase “The Decalogue” (Deca = ten & logue = word).

Tonight, I’d like to continue by examining when the Old Covenant was given and with whom it was made.  In Deuteronomy chapter 5, Moses repeats the words of the Covenant, the Decalogue.  He leads into this with the following statement:

Deuteronomy 5:1-3 (NASB)
1 Then Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I am speaking today in your hearing, that you may learn them and observe them carefully.
2 "The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb [Sinai].
3 "The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today.
We’re told that God made the covenant at Sinai.  It was made with those who were alive at that time, not with their ancestors who had come before.  This poses a problem for sabbatarian theologies that claim that the Sabbath (the sign of the covenant) was being observed by people prior to the exodus.  To deal with this problem, the Seventh-day Adventist published Clear Word paraphrased bible has dramatically altered this text to make it say exactly the opposite of what the actual scriptures teach:

Deut. 5:3 (Clear Word Bible)
It wasn't only with our ancestors that He made a covenant, but with us and with all who are alive today.     

This appears to be a deliberate distortion of the word of God in order to support the idea that Sabbath observance by human beings preceded the exodus.  The author of the Clear Word evidently found this necessary since there is not direct Biblical evidence for such an assertion. 

Although we see God resting or ceasing from His work of creating, there is no recorded command or instruction for any human being to do so prior to the exodus.  There is no mention of Adam or Eve being instructed in or ever observing Sabbath. As we shall see later, when we study Hebrews, God is still in His rest and we today are being invited back into that rest through faith in Jesus. This suggests that Adam and Eve would have continued in that rest indefinitely if they had not fallen into sin and required a Messiah to restore that rest. I think it is interesting that Moses goes to great pains in Genesis 1 to set up a repetitive pattern of evenings and mornings for each day, until he comes to the seventh day (or “yom”, a very flexible Hebrew word that can also mean a long span of time).  Suddenly, there is a jarring absence of the familiar evening and morning refrain on the seventh “yom”.  This rest was not for a single twenty-four hour time frame, but was to be ongoing. The blessed and sanctified rest of God was never intended to end and mankind was never intended to fall out of that rest.  Adam and Eve were created into that ongoing rest and fell out of it when they sinned. There is no mention of Adam and Eve being instructed to observe a certain ceremonial day in a certain way. The word “Sabbath” is not even used.

There is no mention of Cain or Abel observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of anyone in the godly line of Seth ever observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of Enoch, who walked with God, observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of Methuselah observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of Noah observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of any of Noah’s sons observing Sabbath. There is no mention of Job, who lived at about the time of the patriarchs, ever observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of Abraham, who was taken out of an idolatrous background, ever observing Sabbath or being instructed in Sabbath observance.  There is no mention of Isaac ever observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of Jacob or Esau ever observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of Joseph ever observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of any of Joseph’s brothers ever observing Sabbath.  There is no mention of any of the Israelites observing Sabbath while in Egypt. 

In fact, the word “Sabbath” is never used in the entire book of Genesis or in the first 15 chapters of Exodus!  It is not until the Israelites are freed from Egypt and are headed towards Sinai (Ex. 16) that we first see the word Sabbath used in the Bible.  As the Israelites approach Sinai we see God begin to teach them about the sign of the covenant that He will give them at Sinai.  It seems clear that this is a new concept to the Israelites and that Moses must explain the concept to them.  This is the very first time we see any human being instructed to keep Sabbath.  There is no record of any human being doing so prior to the Israelites making their way toward Sinai.  This is reinforced by other parts of scripture:

Nehemiah 9:13-14 (NASB)
13 "Then You came down on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven; You gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments.
14 "So You made known to them Your holy sabbath, And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law, Through Your servant Moses.
The most we can possibly say about any human observing Sabbath prior to the exodus, is that it is possible, but uncertain.  We just don’t know because scripture doesn’t say. There is no scriptural warrant for insisting that people observed Sabbath prior to when the Bible actually tells us they began to observe Sabbath, on the way to Sinai. Given the lack of biblical evidence for the sign of the covenant being observed prior to the exodus, and the strong biblical evidence for the covenant first being given to those who were at Sinai, not their ancestors, it is easy to see why the author of the Clear Word Bible felt it necessary to alter Deut. 5:3 to preserve his theology.

So if the covenant had a beginning at Sinai, it raises the question, “Does the Old Covenant also have an end?”  It appears that the Old Covenant was temporary.  It had a beginning and would also have an end as prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NASB)
31 "Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,
32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.
33 "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
34 "They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."
Jeremiah prophesied that God would make a New Covenant, not like the old one.  We’re told that God’s law will be within the heart.  We’re not told at this point exactly what that law entails, only that whatever the New Covenant entails, it’s not like the Old Covenant.  That is, the New Covenant is not like the Decalogue (see part II, the Decalogue is the old covenant document).  Whatever this New Covenant is, it will be fundamentally different in some way. 

Next time we will begin to compare and contrast the Old and New Covenants and see just how different they truly are according to scripture.  The New truly is new!


  1. Chris I think it is interesting that Nehemiah 9 also references creation and Abraham, but it never links Sabbath to either of them. Instead it links it to Moses and said it was made known through him at Sinai.

  2. Ane, yes I agree. I think I added the Nehemiah passage to the study after you pointed it out to me.