Two kinds of covenant at Sinai: law and mediation

Just as there are two distinct but related covenants described in Genesis 12-22, so also there are two distinct but related covenants stemming from the events at Sinai. Firstly, there is the well-known covenant of law, which is a covenant between God and Israel. But the word “covenant” is also used to speak of another kind of covenant between God and particular people within Israel: a covenant of mediation. This second covenant is less well-recognised today, but still quite important for the development of the “covenant” concept in the Old Testament.

(This post is part of a series. See here for an introduction to the series.)

Exodus-Deuteronomy describes the two-fold outworking of the covenants with Abraham in the life of Abraham’s national “seed”: Israel. The numerical growth of Israel (Exod 1:6–10), their deliverance from Egypt and the subsequent capture of Canaan fulfils the promise of “nationhood” held out in the unilateral covenant of Genesis 15 (esp. Gen 15:13–14, 18–21).[1] Through Moses, God brings his newborn nation to Sinai (Exod 19:4, cf. Gen 15:14) and makes a bilateral covenant with them (Exod 19:5–6, cf Gen 17:1–2). As with Abraham, Israel is obliged to obey God’s voice (Exod 19:5, cf. Gen 22:18) and keep his covenant (Exod 19:5. cf. Gen 17:9). If they do this, then they, like Abraham, will be a source of international blessing: they will be a special possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation, for the sake of the whole earth which is God’s possession (Exod 19:5b–6a, cf. Gen 17:4–5, 16, 18:18–19). The subsequent chapters show that the content of the covenant is, in fact, various laws and rules whose primary intention appears to be to reveal the character of God to the surrounding nations (Exod 20–23).[2] The covenant is ratified with a solemn oath of allegiance and a blood-throwing rite (Exod 24:3–8), followed by a covenant meal (Exod 24:9–11).[3]

But even at her very foundation, Israel is tragically bereft of the requisite loyalty and obedience displayed by Abraham (cf. Gen 17:1, 22:15–18). This is seen graphically in the national apostasy during the golden calf episode (Exod 32–33), where “[e]ven as Moses is receiving the covenant stipulations, the Israelites are breaking them”.[4] The people have broken God’s covenant, so Moses breaks the written record of that covenant (Exod 32:19).[5] The “disastrous word” (Exod 33:4), therefore, is that although God will fulfil his unilateral covenant to give them the land (Exod 33:1–2, cf. Gen 15), God himself will not go with them to be their God, because the covenant of Genesis 17 has been broken (Exod 33:3, cf. Gen 17:7–8).

It is at this point that Moses steps in as the mediator of the covenant. Moses is one with whom God meets face to face, separate from Israel (Exod 33:7–11).  In contrast to the rest of the nation, Moses is a “seed” of Abraham through whom God could re-establish his covenant—he has found favour in God’s eyes and God knows him by name (Exod 33:12). But Moses pleads to God in favour of the nation (Exod 33:13). He reasons that God’s purpose of international blessing will not come about unless God actually goes with this nation (Exod 33:16, cf. Exod 32:11–13). God agrees, because Moses has indeed found favour in his sight (Exod 33:17). So the covenant with Israel is renewed; new tablets are carved in stone and the law is reiterated (Exod 34:10–26).[6] However, the renewed covenant with Israel is an indirect, mediated relationship, contingent upon God’s gracious relationship with Moses (Exod 34:10). God’s covenant with Israel is now based upon his relationship with Moses: “I have made a covenant with you, and with Israel” (כָּרַתִּי אִתְּךָ בְּרִית וְאֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל) (Exod 34:27). Moses has a direct experience of God’s glory (Exod 34:29)—that is, his compassionate and gracious nature (Exod 33:18–19)—but God’s glory is veiled to Israel (Exod 34:33–35).[7]

It appears that this implicit “covenant of mediation” with Moses was inherited by the Levitical priesthood. In the Sinai narrative, the Levites provided the bloody sacrifice of atonement that turned away God’s wrath from his people between the Golden Calf apostasy and Moses’ intercession with God, and so they were “ordained” for service and blessing (Exod 32:25–29, cf. Exod 32:30). Later, Phinehas received a “covenant of peace” for providing atonement in the same way (Num 25:11–13), which is probably a special case of the Levitical covenant.[8] Later prophets can refer to this covenant of mediation as “the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites” (Neh 13:28), “my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers” (Jer 33:21), and “my covenant with Levi” (Mal 2:4).[9] From the context of this last quotation, we may infer that the obligations of the “covenant with Levi” involved offering sacrifices (Mal 1) and teaching the law (e.g. Mal 2:7).

The Golden Calf incident highlights the dark underside of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. If the covenant with Israel was intended to bring blessing to all the families of the earth (אְַדָמָה, Gen 12:3), we must not forget that what originally prompted the need for this covenant in the first place was the pre-covenantal curse (ארר) brought on by Adam’s sin (Gen 3:17). Under this curse, all humanity (אָדָם) must return to the earth (אְַדָמָה) in death (Gen 3:19). Thus Israel’s failure to bring blessing through obedience naturally brought home to them in a special way the general curse on humanity for disobedience (Exod 32:33–35).[10] The atoning priestly ministry prevented total destruction of the nation. However, Deuteronomy warned of the day when the sin of the people with whom God had made the covenant would be reckoned. The nation itself was instructed to proclaim the covenant curses, climaxing with the great covenantal curse: “Cursed (אָרוּר) be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut 27:26). A number of significant passages in Deuteronomy point to Israel’s inability to be a faithful covenant partner (1:26–46, chs. 9–10, 11:26–32, ch. 28). Deuteronomy finally predicts the curse of the exile, followed by a future restoration on the horizon (Deut 29–30).[11]

[1] Williamson, “Covenant”, 150.

[2] Williamson, “Covenant”, 150–51 (151).

[3] Williamson, “Covenant”, 151.

[4] Williamson, “Covenant”, 152.

[5] Weinfeld, TDOT 2:276.

[6] Weinfeld, TDOT 2:276.

[7] William J. Dumbrell, The End of the Beginning: Revelation 21–22 and the Old Testament (Moore Theological College Lectures 1983; Homebush West, NSW, Australia: Lancer, 1985), 109.

[8] Williamson, “Covenant”, 152.

[9] Williamson, “Covenant”, 152.

[10] Williamson, “Covenant”, 152.

[11] J. Gordon McConville, Grace in the End: A Study in Deuteronomic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 133–39.

Full bibliography