Covenant—Part 2

March 6, 2018

by Peter Amsterdam

In part one of this series, we read about how all of the Jewish people who followed Moses out of Egypt came to the base of Mount Sinai to hear God give them the Ten Commandments. They agreed to keep these, thus entering a covenant with God, and Moses then took blood from a sacrificial animal and sprinkled it on some of the people to seal the covenant.1

After that, God held a ceremony with some of the leaders of the people.

Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.2

Seventy-four people went up Mount Sinai to represent the people of Israel in a covenant meal. In those ancient times, eating a meal together was understood to convey acceptance, and thus this meal showed mutual acceptance of the covenant. While earlier God had said that anyone who touched the mountain would be killed, here He gave permission for these men to come up the mountain and did not lay his hand on the chief men.

In the New Testament we’re told that No one has ever seen God,3 so how did these elders see Him? One author explains that the elders saw some sort of general shape that he allowed them to see vaguely; but they could see clearly and with true definition only one thing: “Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.” This is consistent with other visions of God in which viewers do not really see him but see something that lets them know they are dealing with a person rather than a thing but who is otherwise glorious and brilliant, relatively indistinct, atop a platform of some sort that is indeed distinctly recognizable. Such visions include, for example, that of Ezekiel 1:26–28 and Exodus 33:23. Never do humans actually see God fully in his essence, but only something of a shape that God allows to be recognized as that of an actual (extremely huge) person, thus allowing some sort of focus on himself, something for the humans to look at and talk to.4

Sometime after the covenant meal with the elders, Moses was instructed to “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”5 This time Moses went up with instructions to remain there, indicating that he would be there for some time. There he would receive the tablets of stone written by God’s own hand, which clearly showed that God was the author of the commandments, and that He wanted them written down so they could be taught to the people. Moses appointed Aaron and Hur as judges to mediate any disputes in his absence, and then went up the mountain with his assistant, Joshua.

After ascending the mountain, Moses waited six days before encountering God and receiving the commandments.

The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.6

God had instructed Moses to build the tabernacle in which He would make His presence known to the people. Moses was to tell the people to give a contribution toward this tabernacle, which they did:

This is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.7 

Having delivered them from slavery and entered a covenant with them, now God was going to dwell among them.

The reason the people had the gold, silver, spices, etc., to contribute was that before they left Egypt, they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.8 They were now going to contribute some of that plunder toward building the place where God would dwell with them and they would worship Him.

In time, God instructed Moses to place the tabernacle in the center of the encampment with Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons camping in front of it, and the tribe of Levi camped on each of the other three sides, with the rest of the tribes surrounding it a bit farther away.9 The beauty of this is that God desired a special place where He could live among His covenant people.

Sadly, while Moses was gone for forty days, the people seemed to think that he might not return and they demanded that Aaron make them gods, which he did by collecting gold from the people and making a golden calf.10 While Aaron suggested that they place an altar before the idol and offer sacrifices to the LORD,11 this was a compromise, and the reality was that the people had broken the covenant they had made with God. Upon returning to the camp, Moses broke the stone tablets on which God had written the commandments, symbolizing the breaking of the covenant by the people.12

Due to the sin of the people, God told Moses that while He would send an angel before the people to guide them, there was a price. He said:

“Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn.13

He added:

If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you.14

The people mourned when they heard this news.

The close presence of God had been withdrawn from the people of Israel due to their idolatry. Moses therefore set up a tent outside the encampment of the people as the “tent of meeting.”15 This temporary tent of meeting was later replaced by the tabernacle, which was relocated to the center of the encampment. When Moses would enter the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses.16 When the people saw the cloud standing at the door of the tent, they would rise up and worship, each at his tent door.17 The word used for worship here meant they bowed themselves down and made obeisance before the presence of God. Meanwhile, the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.18 Elsewhere, the LORD’s communication with Moses is described as: With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD.19

By placing this tent of meeting some distance from the encampment, Moses reminded the people that God had distanced Himself from them because of their sins. In a sense, the tent of meeting being located outside the camp abrogated the covenant, just as Moses breaking the tablets did.20 The covenant was dissolved, because the people didn’t fulfill their part. God was still nearby, He hadn’t completely rejected them, but for the time being He was no longer among the people. If they wanted to seek counsel of the LORD, Moses would have to go outside the camp to ask God for guidance.

Moses asked the LORD to reconsider leading them into the Promised Land.

“If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”21 

God told Moses:

“My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”22

Moses was instructed to cut two tablets of stone, like the first ones, and to come up the mountain alone. This is when the LORD allowed Moses to see His back.23

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”24

While on the mountain, Moses asked God to forgive the people, which He did, and then He renewed the covenant.

Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.”25

God gave Moses further instructions for the people to follow and then told Moses:

“Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”26 

Once the covenant was renewed and the people were forgiven, God instructed Moses to build the tabernacle, which became the new tent of meeting, and to place it in the midst of the people. God’s presence was once more with them.

The cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.27

This experience taught the people of Israel that the Law God had given them was important, and that obeying it was crucial to receiving God’s blessings.

(Part Three of this series will look at some of the specific laws and their significance.)


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 24:8.

2 Exodus 24:9–11.

3 1 John 4:12.

4 D. K. Stuart, Exodus Vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 556.

5 Exodus 24:12.

6 Exodus 24:16–18.

7 Exodus 25:3–8.

8 Exodus 12:35–36.

9 Numbers 2:1–3, 3:38.

10 Exodus 32:1–4.

11 Exodus 32:5.

12 Exodus 32:7–19.

13 Exodus 33:3–4 NIV.

14 Exodus 33:5 NIV.

15 Exodus 33:7.

16 Exodus 33:9.

17 Exodus 33:10.

18 Exodus 33:11 NIV.

19 Numbers 12:8.

20 Exodus 32:19.

21 Exodus 33:15–17.

22 Exodus 33:14.

23 Exodus 33:18–23.

24 Exodus 34:5–7.

25 Exodus 34:8–10.

26 Exodus 34:27.

27 Exodus 40:38.