February 27, 2018
by Peter Amsterdam
Last year, during my morning devotions, I read the book of Leviticus. It’s never been high on my “favorite books of the Bible” list, but I decided to wade through it. Generally my attitude about the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy has been rather dismissive, if not negative. They are, after all, full of the Laws of Moses, which I’ve generally looked at as rather passé since Jesus came and fulfilled the law, thus freeing us from all of its rules and regulations.
As I was working my way through Leviticus, I realized that I didn’t really understand very much about the Laws of Moses—their purpose, why they were given, why the Israelites had to obey so many rules concerning literally everything down to the clothes they wore, the food they ate—and also what, if any, significance the Law as outlined in the Old Testament has for Christians today. So I decided to do some study on the subject in order to better understand these books of the Law. I focused on the books of Exodus and Leviticus, since Exodus speaks of how, why, and under what circumstances the Law was given, and Leviticus gives the details of the Law.
In order to better understand the Old Testament laws and their purpose, it helps to understand something of the context in which they were given to the people of Israel thousands of years ago. In the book of Exodus we’re told that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel by God) were enslaved in the land of Egypt. After they had spent hundreds of years in slavery, God raised up Moses to challenge Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people leave Egypt. Pharaoh initially refused, but God told Moses that due to the force of His strong hand, Pharaoh would let them go.1
God told Moses:
I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners.2
When speaking to Moses, God made reference to a covenant He had made with the forefathers of the Jewish people. This covenant was an agreement between God and Abraham in which God vowed to do certain things, and Abraham and his descendants were required to do certain things.
God explained the agreement to Abraham like this:
Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.3
I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.4
He then spoke of Abraham’s side of the agreement:
As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.5
The covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants was a binding agreement in which both sides made promises.
Another example of a covenant, or agreement, is when Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant regarding a well that Abraham had dug. They made an agreement between them and swore an oath together.
Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. So they made a covenant at Beersheba.6
We also read of God making a binding covenant with humanity and with all living creatures after the flood when He said to Noah:
“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”7
In Scripture we read that there were different kinds of covenants: 1) when a subordinate party alone swore a covenant oath to a superior party. 2) When the superior party alone swore an oath to a subordinate. In such a covenant, the superior party would bind himself to bless the inferior for deeds of loyal service. 3) When both parties swore an oath. In this type of covenant, both parties would jointly pledge themselves to each other and each would agree to fulfill specific responsibilities.8
Bearing in mind the covenant God made with Israel, let’s take a look at the period of time when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.9
Because He had made a covenant with Abraham, God told Moses to tell the Israelites:
I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.10
About seven weeks after leaving Egypt, the people of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses met with God on the mountain. It was here that God told Moses:
“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.11
Archaeologists have uncovered many covenant texts from the second century BC which follow a specific pattern. The language used in the covenant between God and the Hebrew people was similar to the language used in other Near Eastern covenants of the time. This covenant is seen as a vassal treaty—meaning that one party, often a ruler of a superior country, would make a pact with a ruler of a weaker subservient country. Vassal treaties during this time period followed a general pattern, beginning with a preamble or introduction that declared the greater king’s name and then expressed the history of his deeds which had benefited the vassal. Then the stipulations were put forth, listing what the vassal would be required to do. The vassal had to place a copy of the treaty in the temple and it had to be read occasionally. The treaty would conclude with curses and blessings, depending on whether the covenant was kept or broken.
There are similarities in the covenant between God and the Israelites to a vassal treaty of those times. God declared Himself as the LORD your God and spoke of what He had done for Israel by freeing them from slavery in Egypt. He then told them they would be His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, provided they would obey His voice and keep His covenant—which meant keeping the laws He would give them. These laws are found in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and are referred to as the Book of the Covenant,12 the Law of Moses, and the Law. The Law was the part of the covenant the people agreed to obey:
Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.”13
In agreeing to obey the words the Lord had given, they entered into a covenant with God. He told Moses:
“Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”14
The Law was put into the Ark of the Covenant:
He took the testimony and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark and set the mercy seat above on the ark.15
All of these aspects of God’s covenant with Israel coincide with a vassal treaty of ancient times.
Once the people agreed to the covenant, God told Moses to tell the people to consecrate themselves—to wash their garments, refrain from sexual relations (which would make them ritually unclean), and to be ready in three days, and on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.16 Moses also told the people not to go up or touch the edge of the mountain, and if they did, they were to be stoned or shot with arrows. They were told that when they heard the trumpet sound on the third day, they were to come to the base of the mountain.17
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain.18
God called Moses to come up the mountain again, and when he did, the Lord told him to go back down the mountain to warn the people a second time not to come up the mountain to look at Him, and that if they did, many would die. While Moses was with the people, God spoke to all of Israel, giving them the Ten Commandments. Some commentators state that the people heard God speak directly to them, in words they understood. Others state that everyone heard God’s voice as thunder, and Moses interpreted what God had said. When we look at the account given in Deuteronomy, it seems the latter was the case.
The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD.19
We’re told that at some point during this time period, the people all agreed that they would do what the Lord had commanded them, thereby officially committing to keep their part of the covenant. In a solemn act to confirm the covenant, Moses took the blood of sacrificial animals and sprinkled it on the altar and also on some of the people. This indicated that the covenant was in force and was binding.
In Deuteronomy 28, God told them of the blessings which would come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God,20 as well as the curses which would come upon them if they were to break the binding covenant they had made with God.21
While the Law might seem burdensome to us in the 21st century, to the Jewish nation it was beloved, as it was part of the covenant that they made with God. They understood that by obeying it, they received His blessings. Look at these expressions in the Psalms of their feelings about the Law:
The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.22
In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.23
Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.24
Your law is my delight.25
Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.26
(In Part Two, we’ll look at the Israelites’ rebellion and the renewing of the covenant.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Exodus 6:1.
2 Exodus 6:2–4.
3 Genesis 17:4.
4 Genesis 17:7–8.
5 Genesis 17:9–11.
6 Genesis 21:31–32.
7 Genesis 9:9–13.
8 Scott Hahn, Covenant, in J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. S. Wolcott, … W. Widder, eds., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
9 Exodus 2:23–24.
10 Exodus 6:6–8.
11 Exodus 19:3–8.
12 Exodus 24:7.
13 Exodus 24:3.
14 Exodus 34:27.
15 Exodus 40:20.
16 Exodus 19:11.
17 Exodus 19:9–15.
18 Exodus 19:16–17, 19–20.
19 Deuteronomy 5:4–5.
20 Deuteronomy 28:1–14.
21 Deuteronomy 28:15–68.
22 Psalm 119:72.
23 Psalm 119:14.
24 Psalm 119:129.
25 Psalm 119:77.
26 Psalm 119:97.