Law, Grace, and Rescuing Moses from Exile, Pt 2

It is always interesting to read music reviews for new albums, for two reasons: (1) most music critics overload reviews with jargon, obscure references to other musical “influences,” and elliptical discourse structure (see, I’m doing the same thing; I’m not even sure what that combination of words means, but it sure makes this sound more erudite); and (2) they invariably try to impose on the album their own understanding of the lyrics or overall theme.

The Boss
The Boss

Whether it is some elaborate construction of the meaning of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or scintillating insights into the latest from the Arcade Fire, Bruce Springsteen, or Miley Cyrus, the whole music review game becomes all the more interesting when someone finally interviews the actual musicians and asks them, “What did you mean by this song lyric?” In many (most?) cases the songwriter’s interpretation of his / her own song will be quite different from all the opinions of the learned music criticism community.

This is all well and good, for there is clearly an element of music that is open to listener response (or, in literary theory: reader-response criticism). But it does point in the direction I want to head with this study of the Mosaic Covenant. Many scholars who hold to the second view mentioned in my last post – namely, that the Mosaic Covenant is a recapitulation of the Covenant of Works and does not “belong,” so to speak, in the Covenant of Grace ­– rarely if ever ask of Moses, “What did you mean by this covenant of law that you documented from the Lord?”

As a reminder, I will approach the Mosaic covenant in four posts:

  1. Two views in conflict
  2. (This post) Covenant basis and structure: Promissory (only) or Suzerain-vassal (only)?
  3. Law and its relationship to grace, obedience, and disobedience
  4. Connecting to the NT

In this post, thus, I will address the question of the basis and structure of the Mosaic Covenant as it is presented in Moses’ own words, so to speak. I will focus on two major areas. How did Moses set up the law covenant? That is, what is its basis? And what does the structure tell us about how it relates in its essence to the historical outworking of God’s grace towards his people?

Covenant Basis and Continuation

Within this overarching debate, there’s a temptation to read into the Old Testament the current debates about Paul, early Judaism, and the like.[1] While there’s validity to that approach, at least for those who hold to the analogy of faith (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), problems may arise when one does it one-sidedly, that is, without taking into consideration the OT data itself.

When we actually study the Mosaic Covenant in detail, it becomes quite clear that, from Moses’ perspective (and not just from Paul’s), grace always precedes law and, moreover, forms its very foundation. In other words, the basis of the Mosaic Covenant is not a so-called system of meritorious works, but rather the very grace of God the is presupposed throughout the entire development of the Covenant of Grace.

To elaborate, in each of the major instances in which the Mosaic Covenant is promised, given, or renewed, Moses makes it very clear that the institution of the Sinaitic covenant is based on God’s archetypal promises to Abraham. It is not that Sinai was a branch off the promissory road that got things all muddied up in works righteousness; rather, Sinai is fundamentally an extension or elaboration of the promise. Let us look at the key examples.

  • Promise to Abraham: First, the covenant God made with Abraham included a variety of facets, not the least of which was a promise to deliver his “seed” out of Egypt (Gen 15:13) and bring them into the land of Canaan (Gen 12:7; 17:8). That is to say, part of the Abrahamic promise was the Exodus itself.
Interesting that both Abraham and Moses saw God's theophany in stuff that was on fire
Interesting that both Abraham and Moses saw God’s theophany in stuff that was on fire
  • The Exodus Event: When we come to the burning bush episode that precipitates the Exodus narrative, God sets apart Moses to serve as the leader of the great redemption from Egypt by declaring himself to be “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod 3:6) – covenant language indicating how Moses is selected to continue what God began with Abraham. Yahweh next promises deliverance from Egypt because, “I also established my covenant with them [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; see 6:3] to give them the land of Canaan” (Exod 6:4). This verse is key, for it connects the promise given to Abraham (which everyone agrees is of grace) to the Exodus event that God would work out through Moses, as the ensuing narrative records (plagues, Passover, escape, initial journey towards Canaan). Importantly, therefore, “exodus from Egypt is the Old Testament redemption.”[2] Put differently, from Moses’ perspective, salvation from Egypt + entry into Canaan are the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and form the redemptive basis for all subsequent covenantal dealings, from Sinai onward.
  • Presupposition at Sinai: Exodus 20:2 provides the “preface” to the Ten Commandments initially given at Sinai.[3] Moses declares that the foundation of the law, which he is about to give on stone tablets, is not Israel’s meritorious law-keeping (or even the expectation thereof), but rather God’s own work of grace: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (note: the same language is present in Deut 5:6, when the Ten Commandments are reiterated). Before law comes God’s grace; law is given to a people who has already experienced the gracious redemption of God, not to a people who must keep the law to earn that redemption. That is a huge difference. Even in the preceding verses of Exod 19 that seem on the surface to say, “keep law, then I’ll love you,” a closer reading reveals a different dynamic. Moses writes in Exod 19:4–5, “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…” Yes, law-keeping is part of the covenant, but notice what comes first: God’s deliverance via the Exodus event. In short, the presupposition of the giving of the law at Sinai is precisely God’s monumental work of grace in the Exodus. Just as the cross is the fundamental redemptive act of God in the NT era, forming the basis of the new covenant administration, so also the Exodus is the fundamental redemptive event of the OT era, which was promised to Abraham and forms the basis of what follows.
  • Covenant Renewals: In subsequent historical stages, Moses is seen renewing or reenforcing the law covenant. Note some of the language he uses in a few examples. When he summarizes the ritual purity laws in Lev 11-19, he concludes, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes” (Lev 19:36b–37). When Moses reminds the people to remember God’s law and stop prostituting themselves before idols, he again points back to God’s grace as the basis: “So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God” (Num 15:40–41). The clearest connection is seen in the final covenant renewal ceremony before Moses’ death: “You are standing here in order to enter a covenant with the Lord your God … that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Deut 29:12–13; emphasis added).

In sum, by rooting the law covenant in the soil of the redemptive events promised to Abraham, Moses unites the Sinaitic stage with that which precedes it. As John Murray put it, “The only interpretation of this is that deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the bringing of them into the land of promise is in fulfilment of the covenant promise to Abraham.”[4] There is a common thread of grace running from Abraham through Moses, not skipping over him.

Covenant Structure: Promissory (only) or Suzerain-vassal (only)?

Your friendly Hittites
Your friendly Hittites

OT scholarship over the past half-century has yielded significant insight into the Ancient Near East treaty forms that would have been common among the nations contemporary to Israel during the time of Abraham and Moses. It is argued that two distinct, non-overlapping forms of treaties have been identified. The first is the ancient “suzerain-vassal treaty,” common among, say, the Hittites, which include these key components: preamble, historical prologue, conditions / obligations, blessings and curses, and the deposit of treaty documents.[5] It is generally accepted that this “treaty pattern supplied the documentary structure of both the Decalogue and Deuteronomy”[6] and, perhaps, provided the broad structure for the creation account as well.[7] The second is the “promissory treaty” (also called “royal grant”), whereby a more powerful monarch enters into covenant with a weaker party and endeavors to fulfill all the promises he makes without any requirement placed on that second party.

Admittedly, while this aspect of the discussion borders on being somewhat esoteric, it is quite important: many of the proponents of the “republished works covenant” position, as mentioned above, build their arguments around precisely this distinction between the two forms (suzerain-vassal and promissory) and, specifically, the presence or absence of conditions placed upon the lesser party in the treaty. In short, these scholars execute the following logic: the Abrahamic covenant was promissory; the Covenant of Grace must, then, be promissory-only; the Mosaic covenant is suzerain-vassal; hence, the Mosaic Covenant is not part of the Covenant of Grace.

I will argue, however, that this hard distinction between Abraham and Moses based purely on structural considerations is invalid. Moses’ own presentation of the relevant covenants in the biblical texts strongly evinces continuity in covenant structure and formulation along three dimensions: the covenant-maker, the covenant components, and the covenant renewal pattern.

  • Covenant-Maker: Those who hold to the royal grant vs. suzerain distinction often argue that a suzerain-vassal treaty includes the vassal’s willing entrance as a co-party to the treaty, whereas the royal grant is always unilateral. It is critical to note, however, that “whether a covenant is a bilateral [suzerain-vassal] covenant or a unilateral (royal) grant depends … simply on the parties involved. To the degree that one of the parties is inferior and has less ‘say,’ the covenant automatically gets the character of a ‘grant’ imposed by one party on the other.”[8] This situation of greater-to-lesser is precisely what we see everywhere in Moses’ pentateuchal accounts of all covenant forms. Always, the sovereign God unilaterally establishes his covenant with his people, and in no case is the covenant a mutually-agreed upon treaty whereby the lesser party (Israel) voluntarily enters in, even at Sinai.
    • In the Adamic covenant God simply states (“I will”) the covenant promises and curses (Gen 3:15)
    • God tells Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you” (Gen 6:18; 9:9)
    • With Abraham, similar language is used to describe how God imposes the covenant: “the Lord made a covenant with Abram” (Gen 15:18), “my covenant” (Gen 17:2,4), and “this is my covenant with you and your descendants” (Gen 17:10)
    • Finally, at Sinai, Moses uses the same language to describe God’s covenant with Israel: “my covenant” (Exod 19:5), “I will” (with reference to the conquest, mentioned over ten times in Exod 23:20–339), “his covenant” (Deut 4:13; cf., v 23), “God made a covenant with us” (Deut 5:2), “the covenant … he swore” (Deut 7:12), and “the covenant he had made” (Deut 29:1). Though the Israelites voluntarily accept the covenant (Exod 24:7),[10] Moses indicates that they are merely responding to a sovereignly disposed covenant arrangement – just like Abraham (Gen 15:6).[11] Significantly, just as “the Hittite treaty was unilaterally imposed by the sovereign,”[12] so was the Sinaitic.
  • Covenant Components: Secondly, Moses conforms both the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenant stages to a suzerain-vassal treaty form that is echoed by that of the Hittites[13]: preamble, parties, blessings / curses, inauguration by blood and, most notably, conditions of obedience.[14]
    I couldn't find a picture of the covenantal blood ceremonies, so I went with this.
    I couldn’t find a picture of the covenantal blood ceremonies, so I went with this.
    • Preamble: When God first declares his covenantal intentions to Abraham, his preamble roots the relationship between God as the suzerain and Abraham as the vassal in a past deliverance event: “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” (Gen 15:7). The historical preamble of the Mosaic covenant is strikingly similar, as it bases Yahweh’s relationship to Israel on another instance of “bringing out” or redemption (Exod 19:4; 20:2): “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
    • Parties: As discussed above, both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants clearly envision Yahweh as the sovereign initiator and Israel (as mediated by Abraham or Moses, respectively) as recipients.
    • Blessings: God promises Abraham numerous blessings: a great nation (Gen 12:2a; 15:5), a great name (12:2b; 17:5), land (12:7; 15:7), prosperity of his seed (15:14), and blessing upon many nations (12:3b; 17:5). Notably, Moses indicates that the blessings of Sinai are in direct and amplified fulfillment of all those of Abraham: status as a priestly kingdom and holy nation (Exod 19:6), land on which to build a nation (23:30), agricultural and reproductive prosperity (Deut 28:7–14), and provision for sojourners from other nations (e.g., Lev 19:33ff).
    • Curses: The curses pronounced at Sinai are obvious reversals of the blessings relating to prosperity, possession of the land, and national independence (Deut 28:15–68). The curses in the Abrahamic covenant, though often denied by the alternate views, are actually quite clear: being cut off from the people (Gen 17:14), being destroyed through mingling with the wicked (Lot, Gen 19:23–29), being alienated from the covenant community (Hagar and Ishmael, Gen 16; 21:8–21). Contrary to the common notion that the “Abrahamic covenant blesses … [while] the Sinai covenant curses,”[15] both covenant structures unquestionably have blessings and curses.
    • Inauguration by Blood: Hittite and other ANE treaties were characteristically sealed in blood. In Genesis there is a mysterious inauguration scene in which the Abrahamic covenant is established through blood, with the theophanic “smoking fire pot” of the Lord passing between the pieces of animals that had been cut in half (Gen 15:9, 17). Likewise, the Sinaitic covenant is also consummated through the blood of slain animals, which Moses “put … in basins, … threw against the altar … and threw on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant’” (Exod 24:6,8). Of course, there is a significant surface difference observable here: in the former, God is passing through the blood and calling down curse on himself, while in the latter it is the people (Exod 24:7b). However, in both cases is it God who provides a blood substitute, and Moses’ own language in Exod 24 is taken up by Jesus in the Last Supper.
    • Conditions for Obedience: The last point to note on structure is that both the Abrahamic and Mosaic administrations include conditions, a fact which is often overlooked by proponents of various other views relating to Moses. With Abraham there are both stated conditions – “Go from your country” (Gen 12:1), “walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1), and “You shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:10–14)16 – and an implied condition, that of faith (Gen 15:6).[17] In other words, God sovereignly initiates a covenant with Abraham that requires both faith and obedience as consequent conditions that bring about the covenant promises. The matter is no different with Moses, though the emphasis clearly lies on the stated conditions. The Israelites are to believe in the word of the Lord (Exod 19:7–9), and they are to respond by walking uprightly before him in obedience to his commands (Exod 24:3,7). The conditions of the Mosaic law, which constitute a vast portion of the Pentateuch itself, are, the same in substance as the conditions given to Abraham: “The entire law, which the covenant of grace at Mount Sinai took into its service, is intended to prompt Israel as a people to ‘walk’ in the way of the covenant. It is but an explication of the one statement to Abraham: ‘Walk before me, and be blameless.‘”[18]
  • Pattern of Covenant Renewal: Finally, a core element of covenant is the pattern of renewal.[19] With Abraham, God establishes and confirms his covenant through a series of events (Gen 12; 15; 17), and he subsequently renews the covenant again and again during major redemptive stages: with Abraham following the test of his faith (Gen 22:16–18), with Isaac (26:1–4), with Jacob before his renaming (28:13–15), and with Jacob after his renaming (35:11–12).[20] Likewise, Moses later portrays the unfolding of the Sinaitic covenant in a parallel manner: a phased introduction (i.e., the progression from Exod 19 to 24 to 32), a renewal after the golden calf incident (Exod 34:10–27), and a more in-depth renewal on the plains of Moab (Deut 5–29). Moses labors to demonstrate that both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants evince the “familiar administrative pattern” of covenant renewal.[21] Given that “renewal” itself by definition implies continuity,[22] it is quite straightforward, in light of Moses’ emphasis on the connection of the Sinaitic covenant with the Abrahamic on the front-end, to understand the former as the renewal of the latter.

In sum, the parallelism that Moses portrays between the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants – unilateralism in the covenant-maker, structure, and renewal – indicates that covenant formulation, rather than separating the two into different categories (as is typically done), is in fact another unifying element. The Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants are simultaneously promissory grants and suzerainty treaties – the grace principle and obedience requirement underly each of them, not only one or the other.[23]

We will turn to the nature of covenant obedience in the next post.

Connecting to the pew

I will include several takeaways relating to conditions and obedience in the next post, though they could be included here, too. For now, I’ll just mention two ways this covenant structure analysis relates to the layperson.

  • Be careful not to read too much historical context into the biblical text. I am all for studying the Bible in light of its Ancient Near Eastern (for the OT) and Jewish + Greco-Roman (for the NT) historical, social, political, and economic contexts. The Bible as Scripture is rooted in history, even though its contents transcend its local setting. However, we must bear in mind the risks of imposing too much from the surrounding culture on the biblical texts, which is what I believe some folks have done with the Hittite treaty work. While much of it is insightful, it can also be overly wooden to look at Hittite treaties, note a pattern, and then automatically assume the Hebrew Scriptures had to match up with other ANE forms exactly. As shown above, the Mosaic (and Abrahamic) covenants, while preserving some of the patterns in other ANE treaty forms, are nevertheless quite different because they were not mere human treaties. They were vehicles or instruments of God’s sovereign COVENANTAL (which is different from a treaty) purposes for redeeming his elect seed. They were elaborations of the Gen 3:15 promise, and, as such, do not necessarily have to fit any culturally-determined shape. Hence, we should treat the biblical text as primary, with other historical data as supporting or secondary, rather than the other way around.
  • Remember that law flows from grace. In the Pauline setting, this gets confused because the nature of Second Temple Judaism, with which he was dealing primarily, had confused this point. With Moses, however, it is overwhelmingly clear that the law flows out of an environment where God has already graciously acted to redeem his people. Law governs a community that has been formed by grace. This is a huge distinction that is hard at times to wrap one’s head around. So while on the one hand we affirm a discontinuity between law and grace when it comes to the gospel as culminated in Christ, on the other hand we have to recognize that law, at least in some respects, serves the purposes of grace. And to this issue we will turn in the next post.



1Pettegrew highlights the tendency among covenant theologians to read Paul and ANE research into the OT and often ignore the original context (Larry D. Pettegrew, “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” TMSJ 15/2 [2004]).

2Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975) 109.

3Westminster Larger Catechism, question 101.

4Murray, Covenant, 20 (emphasis added).

5Roberston, Christ, 169 and Horton, God of Promise, 25-27.

6Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975 rev. ed.), 35. See also John D. Currid, A Study Commentary on Deuteronomy (New York: Evangelical Press, 2006).

7Horton, God of Promise, 200 n. 24. Thus arises, as some argue, the parallelism between the Covenant of Works and Mosaic Covenant, as relates to the presence of covenant conditions.

8Bavinck, Dogmatics 3, 203-204.

9John D. Currid, A Study Commentary on Exodus, Volume 2 (Auburn: Evangelical Press, 2001), 124. Currid defines this section as the “epilogue” of the Book of the Covenant.

10Proponents of categorizing the Mosaic Covenant as solely a suzerain treaty often use this verse as the determinative factor; however, such a view seems to bypass the preponderance of evidence the other way.

11Also, in both cases the subordinate covenanting party is the spiritual “seed” of the woman– Abraham and his “descendents” (Gen 15:18) or “the people of Israel” (Exod 19:5–6). See James Hamilton, “The Seed of the Woman and the Blessing of Abraham,” TynBul 58.2 (2007).

12Roger T. Beckwith, “The Unity and Diversity of God’s Covenants,” TynBul 38 (1987), 95.

13The wording is intentional here. Kline asserts that God’s covenants are “adapted from the model of man-with-man covenants” (Structure, 49); that is, in the Pentateuchal covenants God appropriated the treaty forms of the surrounding nations, namely the Hittites, and used them with Israel. It seems possible and more biblical to say that God’s covenants formed the archetype of those of surrounding nations, not the other way around.

14Space does not permit an analysis of the full set of covenant / treaty features here, so a subset will be considered.

15Gordon, “Abraham and Sinai,” 244.

16Circumcision may be considered a condition of the Abrahamic covenant (cf., Beckwith, op cit.), but latter treatment in the NT more strongly emphasize it as a sign and seal of the covenant, rather than a condition to it.

17Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 295.

18Bavinck, Dogmatics 3, 222. He continues, “[The Mosaic Law is] therefore no more a cancellation of the covenant of grace and the foundation of a covenant of works than this word spoken to Abraham.”

19Kline, By Oath, 75. See also Ferry, “Taxonomy,” 80, n. 14.

20Notably, in most of these instances, the elements of the treaty formulation reappear, such as a preamble, declaration of parties, blessings, and so forth.

21Kline, By Oath, 75.

22Ibid., 75. Notably, Kline uses this analogy of covenant renewal to link the New Covenant with the Mosaic Covenant. He writes, “ For all its difference, the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 is still patterned after the Sinaitic Covenant. … According to Jeremiah, the New Covenant is a writing of the law on the heart rather than on tablets of stone (v. 33; cf. 2 Cor. 3:3), but it is another writing of the law. It is a new law covenant. Hence, for Jeremiah, the New Covenant, though it could be sharply contrasted with the Old Covenant (v. 32), was nevertheless a renewal of the Mosaic covenant.” Kline also applies this same principle to the NT as a whole, stating, “The New Testament belongs to that pattern of renewing covenants by the issuance of new treaty documents which is already found in the inner history of old covenant administration” (Biblical Authority, 68).

23Kline, interestingly enough, affirms this when he describes that “not law, but covenant” should be used when one is “seeking a category comprehensive enough” to deal with the Decalogue; the Abrahamic and Mosaic administrations share the same “nuclear architectural-governmental function” that lends the “atomic unity of each Testament as a covenant document” (Biblical Authority, 88, 119). Such statements of Kline raise the question as to whether proponents who lean heavily on his work perhaps press his conclusions too far.u


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