Although the Lord had granted the covenant to the patriarchs of Israel, the covenant at Mount Sinai was a new departure in the people’s relationship to God. The covenant established the structure of the worship of Israel as a distinct people and formed the basis for the prophetic word and the ongoing religious life of the community.
Israel’s History Begins with the Covenant
The children of Israel, who became the people of Yahweh, were essentially pagans. Although the Lord had appeared to their ancestors and entered into covenant with them, the nation of slaves in Egypt worshiped the same gods their heathen neighbors revered. This is not surprising, in view of the prevailing belief of the times that the jurisdiction of the various deities was confined to a specific geographic location. Those residing in Egypt, for example, paid tribute to whatever gods governed that territory.
The Pharaoh’s objection is understandable, therefore, when Moses requested that the Hebrews be allowed to go into the desert to worship Yahweh, who was not an Egyptian god. The request had dangerous implications, for it revealed a conflict of interests. If the Hebrews were to declare allegiance to a god who reigned in the desert, they might decide it would be to their advantage to go to live in his territory. And whose god would ultimately be in charge—the God of the Hebrews or the gods of Egypt?
The idea was a novel one for the Hebrews as well. If the God of their fathers truly intended to break the yoke of Egypt from their backs, it might be in their best interests to follow Moses into the desert and sacrifice to this Yahweh. On the other hand, who could be sure that he was stronger than the gods of Egypt, especially on their own territory?
Convinced by the mighty miracles the Lord performed, the Hebrews and a large company of Egyptian converts began their trek to Mount Sinai to worship. But they soon discovered that the kind of worship Yahweh required differed from the pagan practices to which they were accustomed. The basis for the relationship was distinctively different. This new worship was to be a response to their God’s mighty acts of deliverance on their behalf, not the placating of a capricious deity who could at any moment withhold his favor and do them harm. Although the covenant Yahweh was to make with them in the desert had its roots in his pact made with Abraham and affirmed with Isaac and Jacob, history for Israel as a worshiping community really begins with the Red Sea deliverance from Egyptian slavery and the subsequent act of worship at the mountain of God. In these events, the God who had entered into a covenant with their ancestor Abraham would now extend the covenant to the entire family of Abraham’s descendants, and to others as well.
The Covenant at Sinai
The agreement the Lord granted Israel on Mount Sinai has the same essential structure as that of the ancient treaty, which described the previous relationship of the treaty partners and then laid down the requirements of the new relationship being enacted. Since, for Israel as a whole, the history of Yahweh’s dealings with the nation really begins in the Exodus from Egypt, the historical prologue of the covenant also begins at that point; Yahweh, as the great King (Pss. 47:2; 95:3; Mal. 1:14; Matt. 5:35) granting the treaty, identifies himself as the one who has delivered his people from slavery (Exod. 19:4; 20:1–2). The stipulations are, of course, the ten words or commandments (Exod. 20:2–17), the basic requirement being total loyalty to Yahweh and a prohibition against alliances with any other authority. Covenant sanctions, in the form of blessings and cursings, do not appear as such in the Sinai narrative but are found in Leviticus (Lev. 26) and in Deuteronomy (Deut. 28–29), Moses’ great reiteration of the covenant just before Israel enters the land of Canaan, the territory granted in the treaty.
These treaty formalities, however, do not obscure the fact that the Sinai covenant is in the first instance an act of worship, an act of reverent submission to one who reveals himself in majesty and power. The narrative introducing the actual granting of the covenant is filled with the imagery of theophany, the divine self-revelation of the Lord in thunder, lightning, smoke, the sound of the trumpet (Exod. 19:16–19). Yahweh has called his people to be his worshipers, a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6). The enactment and ratification of the covenant are acts of worship; the covenant is sealed as the people are sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice and the elders ascend Sinai to eat and drink the covenant meal with Yahweh (Exod. 24:8–11). Instructions are given for the creation of the altar and the tabernacle, a sanctuary at which the covenant may be remembered and maintained through ongoing ceremonies (Exod. 25–27). The tablets containing the covenant text are deposited in the ark of witness and placed in the tabernacle’s inner sanctuary, the shrine of Yahweh. Just as a “great king” granting a covenant to his vassal required the latter to appear in his courts at specified intervals to bring whatever tribute was agreed upon at the making of the covenant, so Israel is required to appear before the Lord for this purpose, to “bring an offering and come into his courts” (Ps. 96:8). These appearances are three annual festivals stipulated in the Pentateuch’s festival calendars (Exod. 23:14–17; Lev. 23; Deut. 16:1–17), times of rejoicing and celebration in the presence of the Lord.
The Covenant Formulary
The covenant between God and Israel is frequently distilled into a short formulary—“I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Gen. 17:7; Lev. 26:12, 45; Deut. 29:10–13; and others). This phrase is found in various forms throughout the writings of the prophets (Isa. 51:15–16; Jer. 31:1, 33; Ezek. 11:20; 37:27; Zech. 8:8; 13:9) as they warn the people of Judah of the judgment that will surely follow their violation of the covenant stipulations. The formula is a basic definition of the relationship that was to exist between God and Israel. Henceforth, Yahweh would be identified with this particular nation—he would be known as their God, the God of Israel. His name would be upon them, as signified by the circumcision of their bodies. They, in turn, were to be exclusively his people. In response to his protection and blessing they must give him their undivided loyalty and complete obedience. They must love the Lord with all that they are and everything they possess (Deut. 6:4–5) and demonstrate that love through joyous and festive worship; they must also love one another as brothers (Lev. 19:18) because they are all in covenant with the same God.
Covenant Liturgics: Sacrifice, Festivals, Declamations
The worship through which Israel expressed its loyalty to the Lord took the form of sacrifice, festivals, and various forms of verbal expression or declamation. The Israelite worshiper brought sacrificial offerings to the designated sanctuary, where the priests offered them on the altar. Elements of the offering differed according to the purpose of the sacrifice. The daily sacrifices included an animal to be burned whole, grain or flour, and wine. Offerings brought to atone for violation of the law were always animals, with the blood used for ceremonial cleansing ceremonies. On festal occasions the major portion of the offering was given back to the worshiper after a certain amount was taken out for the use of the priest. On these occasions the people were viewed as receiving Yahweh’s own food; thus, he hosted them at his table in a reaffirmation of the covenant relationship. The Passover sacrifice, in particular, was understood in this way, as it called to remembrance the miraculous Red Sea deliverance that had formed Israel into the people of God. In the same manner, the Christian covenant meal, the Lord’s Supper, recalls God’s deliverance of his own through the death and resurrection of Christ. The festivals were a fulfillment of Israel’s obligation to enter the courts of the Lord to rejoice and give thanks to him.
Accompanying, and at times even displacing, the sacrifice of animals or grain was the “sacrifice of thanksgiving” or praise (Ps. 116:17; cf. Pss. 40:6–10; 50:7–15; 51:16–17). This outpouring of praise was principally a musical offering of tribute to the God of the covenant, and the Psalms are the literary deposit of this activity. In addition to sacrifice, other aspects of the covenant structure find expression in utterance associated with worship. At the offering of the firstfruits, for example, the Israelite worshipers are to confess their faith in the form of a historical recital of Yahweh’s deliverance in the Exodus (Deut. 26:1–10). Joshua recited the history of Yahweh’s deeds in behalf of Israel in leading the people in a renewal of the covenant at Shechem (Josh. 24:2–13). We often find such recitations in the Psalms (for example, Ps. 136).
The laws of the covenant were sometimes arranged in metrical groups, suitable for recitation in worship (Exod. 21:12, 15–17; 22:18–22; 23:1–9; 34:11–26; Lev. 18:7–18; Deut. 27:15–26), and the Psalms suggest that they were so used (Pss. 50:16; 81:10). The covenant sanctions could also be recited in worship, as with some of the material in the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy (Deut. 28:2–6, 15–19); Moses’ final songs (Deut. 32:1–43; 33:2–29) are musical settings of such material. The prophets of Israel seem to have typically delivered their pronouncements of judgment at the sanctuaries (Isa. 6:1–13; Jer. 7:1–2; Amos 7:10–13), perhaps in association with the festivals when large groups of worshipers would be present (Isa. 1:10–15; Amos 5:21–24; Mic. 6:6–8); the speeches of the prophets are really an extension of the curse element of the covenant ceremony. Occasionally in the Psalms we hear the prophetic voice of judgment (Pss. 14; 50; 95:8–11).
The Covenant Lawsuit
This distinctive form of prophetic address deserves special attention because of its roots in the covenant worship of Israel. As the spokesmen (Hebrew navi’) for Yahweh, the prophets defended the covenant whenever Israel broke its vows of loyalty and drifted into idolatry. Acting as lawyers for Yahweh, the plaintiff, they brought formal charges against Israel for unfaithfulness, in what has been called the “covenant lawsuit” (Hebrew riv). Examples can be found in Deuteronomy 32:1–43; Isaiah 1:1–31; Micah 6:1–16; Jeremiah 2:1–3:5; 34:12–22; and Hosea 4:1–3. In these indictments the Lord, through the prophet, typically protests his own faithfulness to the covenant. He has brought the people of Israel out of bondage and established them in the land he promised them. He has protected them from curses and evil. Israel, however, has not kept the covenant. Yahweh lists their violations: the people have gone into idolatry and forgotten their King; they have oppressed the poor and enslaved their countrymen; they have not observed the Sabbath. The nation is called by the Lord to account for its sins before the covenant witnesses: mountains (Mic. 6:2), heaven (Deut. 32:1; Isa. 1:2; Jer. 2:12), and earth (Deut. 32:1; Isa. 1:2; Mic. 6:2). Because the covenant is legally binding, and the witnesses attest to its violation, Israel has no defense. Therefore, the prophets pronounce judgment on the unfaithful nation. Eventually they come to see the covenant as irrevocably broken. Only a small proportion of the people are faithful to Yahweh. Enactment of the curse of the covenant is inevitable: the nation will be invaded and taken captive to be resettled in other lands. As Micah says, “Her wound is incurable” (Mic. 1:9).
A nation that refused to keep the terms of a covenant in the ancient world ran the risk of being invaded and punished by its lord. The gods were also expected to avenge covenant violations with poor crops, drought, famine, pestilence, and other punishments. God’s covenant with Israel also incorporated a list of curses that would follow its violation, and it was he who would mete out the punishment. Throughout the history of Israel there were periods in which the covenant with Yahweh was neglected or forgotten entirely. Frequently these lapses resulted in God’s judgment on the nation. Kings of both Israel and Judah, who set the religious standard for the nation, led the people into the worship of pagan deities. However, God raised up righteous prophets, priests, and kings who led the nation in a series of covenant renewals, reinstituting the worship of Yahweh according to the stated requirements of the covenant.
The book of Deuteronomy is an example of covenant renewal in the form of a farewell address given by Moses as he prepares to die and as the nation embarks on the conquest of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. Later, Joshua leads the people in an act of covenant renewal (Josh. 24:1–28) just before his own death. After consulting the Book of the Covenant to ascertain the “due order” for the worship of Yahweh (1 Chron. 15:13), King David appoints musicians to worship in Zion before the ark of the covenant in rotating shifts, twenty-four hours a day, to renew and maintain the covenant in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; many of the psalms had their origin in this setting. At the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon led Israel in a festival of covenant renewal (1 Kings 8:1–9:9). Kings Josiah (2 Chron. 34:15–35:19) and Hezekiah (2 Chron. 29:1–31:21) also attempted to restore the covenant by reading its stipulations to the people and commanding that it be celebrated with a covenant meal. Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor renewed the covenant with the remnant of Israel who returned to the land from their captivity in Babylon (Ezra 9:1–10:19; Neh. 12:26–13:31).
The New Covenant
In the view of the prophets, the only possible remedy for Israel’s dilemma is the cutting of a new covenant. Not with rebels will this new covenant be made, but only with a believing remnant, which will eventually be saved out of captivity and returned to the land. They will seek the Lord and remain faithful to him. In this way, the covenant people will survive and not be entirely cut off; the nation will have a future. To this remnant the law will be a delight; it will be written on their hearts, not just on stone tablets (Jer. 31:31–34). This people will show forth the glory of Yahweh in covenant worship.
The blessedness that God’s people will experience under the new covenant is described by the prophets in typical covenant terms as a reverse of the curses (Jer. 32:42). Instead of famine there will be prosperity (Isa. 54:2); in place of invasion will be peace and joy (Isa. 55:12; Jer. 33:16); the voice of bridegroom and bride will be returned to the land (Jer. 33:11); wild animals will no longer be a threat but will become harmless (Isa. 11:6–8). The new covenant will come in the form of a person, whom Isaiah calls “the servant” (Isa. 42:1–3, 6–7) and describes as the one who suffers (Isa. 52:13–14; 53:1–6). In the end, Yahweh’s covenant with Israel requires an obedience that only Jesus, the Servant of God, can fulfill (Matt. 12:18–21).