The Mosaic Covenant: A Conditional Covenant

The book of Exodus is divided into two main sections, which can be summarized by two words: redemption and relationship. The first section (chpts. 1-18) describes how God redeems the Israelites by rescuing them out of slavery in Egypt, then leading them through the wilderness. The second section describes God’s relationship with Israel, which is expressed in the form of a covenant, an agreement between two parties—God and Israel. This agreement is sometimes called the “Sinai covenant,” or the “Mosaic covenant.” The purpose of the relationship is to create a close walk of fellowship between God and His people, and between and among the people themselves.

God had already made unconditional promises to Israel. The Israelites were granted land as a perpetual possession (Genesis 15:7-18). God also promised that Israel would be a perpetual people unto Him (Genesis 22:17-18; Deuteronomy 7:6-8). The Mosaic covenant adds various conditional promises to these unconditional promises. A conditional promise depends on both parties for its fulfillment. Of course, God can always be depended upon to keep His end of the bargain. The open question is whether Israel will honor its side of the covenant. God will clearly spell out to Israel the consequences for disobedience as well as the blessing for obedience.

In a conditional covenant, both parties make promises under oath to perform or to hold back certain actions. If one party fails to meet its obligations, the covenant is then broken. Thus, in the Sinai covenant—established between Yahweh and Israel—the obligations (covenant stipulations) are clearly spelled out and summarized in Exodus 19:4-6, You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. 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; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”

The first part of this statement sets forth the reality of God’s love for His chosen people in redeeming them out of slavery. The second part describes the basic agreement: if Israel will obey, they will be blessed. They will be a special priestly nation, demonstrating to their neighbors how to live constructively. Much of the Mosaic covenant is obviously practical in its benefit. For example, it is much more beneficial to live in a community where no one steals or harms than to live in a neighborhood filled with violence.

The Sinai covenant reflects the pattern of the ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaty, particularly the Hittite treaty of the second millennium BC. In this kind of covenant, the suzerain (or ruler), such as a king or a superior, provides the stipulations of the covenant to the vassal who is the subject. The suzerain offers blessings in return for the vassal’s obedience and curses for failure to obey the covenant’s stipulations. The pattern of the suzerain-vassal treaty with its parallel sections in Exodus can be outlined as follows:

(1) The preamble: which identifies the initiator and recipients of the covenant (Exodus 20:2 “I am the LORD your God).

(2) The historical prologue which recounts the past relationship between the parties (Exodus 20:2, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”).

(3) The stipulations to maintain the treaty (Exodus 20:3-23:19; 25:1-31:18).

(4) The witness to the treaty (Exodus 29:46; 31:13, “I am the LORD their God”).

(5) The Document clause: provisions allowing the writing of the document for future learning and reading (Exodus 24:4, 7, 12).

(6) The blessings and curses as consequences for choices (Exodus 20:5-6, 12, 24; 23:20-31).