Introduction to the Bible: An Introduction to the Bible

by Rev. Ralph A. Smith


Chapter Ten

The Mosaic Covenant


It was no coincidence that Egypt came to be ruled by a Pharaoh "which knew not Joseph" (Ex. 1:8). Even as the era of the Noahic covenant ended in the failure and rebellion of the tower of Babel, so too the era of the patriarchs ended with the apostasy of the children of Israel. Moses does not mention it directly in the book of Exodus, but Joshua, in his final sermon to the Israelites, reminded them that they had served other gods in Egypt (Josh. 24:14) and warned them that if they served other gods again God would judge them (Josh. 23:1ff.). The children of Israel became slaves in Egypt because of their sins. But where sin abounded, the grace of God "did much more abound." God gave Israel a new covenant.

As with the previous covenant administrations, the new covenant that was given through Moses did not abrogate previous covenants, it was built upon the previous covenants. The law of Moses was not opposed to the promise (Gal. 3:17-18). It was instituted upon the basis of the Abrahamic promise in order to further the historical realization of the Abrahamic promise (cf. Ex. 2:24; 6:8; Lev. 26:42; Dt. 1:8; 6:10; 9:5; 29:13; 30:20).

It was, furthermore, the first covenant in a new cycle of covenants. The Adamic covenant had been priestly, the Noahic kingly, and the Abrahamic prophetic. The cycle began again with the Mosaic covenant, the new priestly covenant that bestowed greater grace than had been seen in any of the covenants since the fall. God would again dwell with man. A new sanctuary and limited sanctuary access was the essence of the grace of God granted in the Mosaic law. It was neither the office of prophet or king which constituted the core of the Mosaic administration; the Levites, the priests and the sacrificial system were central.


The Kingdom

For the first time in history since the fall the people of God were granted their own distinct land and a sanctuary. There was no king established by the Mosaic administration, though laws which anticipated a future kingship were part of the law (Dt. 17:14-20). The overwhelming emphasis of the law is priestly, not political. Detailed attention is given to the construction of the tabernacle (Ex. 35-40), the sacrifices and laws of purity (Lv.). God deals with Israel as a priestly nation (Num.) and blesses them when they worship Him in truth (Dt.).
The Levitical system and the tabernacle worship system are the central concern of the law and the most important features of the covenantal situation. The Levitical system included first the office of the priest, more important in the Mosaic administration than either kingship, not yet established, or prophet, an occasional figure, not a permanent office. Priests as the judges of the supreme court dealt with the difficult cases the local courts could not handle (Dt. 17:8-13). Matters of ritual purity, a major concern of the law, were all judged by priests (Lev. 13ff.), and the sacrificial system, the very center of the law, was also committed to the priests. They were also important in the administration of Israel's welfare system (cf. Dt. 14:28-29; 26:12).
An important aspect of the law, often forgotten, is the provision of Levitical cities. Instead of being given farm land, like the other tribes, Levites were given forty eight cities (Num. 35:1-5). These cities would be cultural centers of trade, education, music, and law. The six most important cities in the Mosaic period were the six cities of refuge, which would have special significance as places of judgment in addition to their normal significance as Levitical cities (Num. 35:6-8; cf. Josh. 20:1-9). The central location and accessibility of these six cities in particular, and the Levitical cities in general, indicates the intention of the law for Israelite culture to be distinctly Levitical and Biblical. Israel, the nation of priests, was to be priestly in its cultural life.


The Five Points of the Covenant

1. God revealed His glory to Israel at Mt. Sinai in terrifying splendor (cf. Dt. 5:1-5, 23-29), giving them the ten commandments, the essence of the Mosaic "new covenant." The Exodus deliverance as a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that his descendents would be brought back to the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:13-16) was a new revelation of God's character. Abraham and the other patriarchs knew the Lord as El Shaddai, the God of power, but they did not live to see Him keep His covenant promise to give the land of Canaan to the seed of Abraham. To Moses and Israel of his day, God revealed Himself as LORD, so that the full significance of the covenant name of God became manifest as it had not been before (Ex. 6:2-8; 34:5-7).

2. The law spoke of prophets (Dt. 18:9ff.), kings (Dt. 17:14ff.) and priests, but most especially of priests. God established boundaries for the land and a system of cities, courts, worship and welfare. Israel had a "constitution" given by God to direct her in her priestly service to the world. The family was strengthened as an institution by a gift of land which could not be taken away, by implicit limits on taxation, and by limits on the authority of the magistrates and priests.

For the first time in history the authority of priests and kings is clearly divided. The priesthood belongs to the tribe of Levi, no other tribe could legitimately assume the privileges granted to it. Prophets might be from any tribe, and, though only an occasional office, they had a special authority transcending priests or kings if necessary, though both priests and kings too could be prophets. Kings would eventually come from the tribe of Judah (Gn. 49:8-12; cf. Nm 24:17). From this point onward, therefore, no man could be both priest and king.

3. The revelation provided in the ten commandments and in the case-law commentary (Ex. 21-24; Dt. 6-26), which expounded the fuller religious, civil, and cultural meaning of the ten commandments, gave Israel a distinct ethic that would be the essence of their wisdom in this world (Dt. 4:5-6). The law was a unit. The real meaning of the ten commandments could not have been seen apart from the case law applications of the ten commandments given in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The sacrificial system established in Leviticus expounded the second commandment and showed what it meant to honor God's name in worship and how to keep the Sabbath.

The fullness of the law revealed God's righteousness in the command and His grace in the sacrifices. It surpassed all previous revelation. Israel was given an ethical revelation, priestly in its central concern, but applicable to every aspect of life, that would guide her in wisdom so that she could lead the world unto God (Dt. 4:1-8).

4. The law of Moses, like every other covenant administration, includes the threat of the curse for disobedience and the promise of blessing for obedience, but it was not, nor could it have ever been, a "legalistic" covenant. The Phariseeic interpretation of the law was, as both Jesus and Paul taught clearly, a perversion of its true meaning. The law was given as a blessing for Israel to lead them in the way of joy, prosperity, and peace (Dt. 6:10-11, 24; 8:7ff.; 10:13; 12:7, 12, 18; 14:26; 16:11, 14, 15; 26:11; 29:9; 30:5, 9, 15). The greatest blessing of the law was the tabernacle, provided by God as a sanctuary, His dwelling place among His people. The promise of the covenant that God would be with His people found concrete fulfillment in the gift of the tabernacle sanctuary, though this too was clearly temporary and the law looked forward to a more permanent sanctuary being established in the future in an unspecified location (Dt. 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 21, 26; 14:23-25; 16:11, 15, 16; 17:8, 10; etc.).

The law of Moses, of course, included the curse also. Though the law was a blessing for the people and a manifestation of grace, it was also, at that point in history, the most emphatic revelation of God's righteous wrath against sin that had ever been given to man. The profound definition of sin and the just punishment required by the law were intended to impress upon Israelites their need of the grace of God. Moreover, the law warned repeatedly that if Israel departed from God's ways, she would be rejected from her position of covenant leadership and privilege (Dt. 28:15ff.).

But this is not "legalism" by any reasonable definition. The curse of the law is applied to those who do not persevere in the relationship of blessing that the covenant established. Or, to put it in other words, the curse is applied to those who reject the covenant blessing since the covenant is a two-way relationship. What must be understood clearly is that the curse and the blessing are not set before Israel as two equally possible destinies that she chooses by her free will or determines by her works. Israel was blessed by God. That was where her covenant life with God began. The blessing of the covenant would be given if she persevered in the covenant, that is, if she responded to God's love with love. But, the curse warned, if she betrayed that love, she would inherit the wrath of God.

5. The law established an elaborate system for the continuation of the priesthood and the inheritance of land. More importantly it emphasized the central concern of inheritance -- inheritance of faith -- by commanding parents to educate their children in the covenant, including this duty as an expression of parents' loyalty and love to God: " Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God [is] one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Dt. 6:4-7).

Israel was given the land of Canaan as their covenantal inheritance, but what was given as a gift of grace and received by faith had to be won by hard works of faith. Israel was required to fight for the inheritance, but the battle was the LORD's. He would give them the victory. Not only was Israel promised the land of Canaan, God reaffirmed the Abrahamic promise of evangelical world dominion. If Israel would keep the covenant, she would lead the nations of the world to blessing and, by bringing blessing to all the world, inherit the earth (cf. Deu. 4:6-8; 28:1, 7, 10, 13).


Man's Covenantal Response

Although Israel had a bad start in the wilderness, the next generation under the leadership of Joshua conquered most of the land of Canaan and began to set up a God-fearing nation with God's covenant law serving as the Law above the law. After the death of Joshua, however, repeated apostasy brought repeated covenantal discipline. Israel did not heed Joshua's final warning (Josh. 24). She intermarried with the non-Christian nations and fell into idolatry (Jdg. 2:1-3, 11-15). By spiritual compromise she subverted her own authority as God's priestly nation and was sold into slavery, as she had been in Egypt.

When Israel cried out unto God, He sent them saviors, judges to deliver them from their enemies (Jdg. 2:16-18). Thus, periods of relative faithfulness were followed by periods of apostasy in cycles of sin, judgement and repentance until the time of Samuel when a sort of final judgment was brought on the nation. Saul had been given as a sort of "permanent judge," but he too, like the nation he led, departed from God and brought judgment upon himself and his people.


God's Covenantal Judgment

The supreme blessing of the Mosaic covenant, the tabernacle, was destroyed after Israel brought the ark of God into battle, as if it had magical power to give them victory (1 Sam. 4). God delivered the ark, the symbol of His presence, into the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:11). In effect God Himself went into captivity in the place of His people, bringing judgment on their enemies as well as covenantal discipline on Israel (1 Sam. 5:1-6:18). Like the Egyptians before them, the Philistines were terrified at God's judgment and they sent the ark back to Israel. The ark, then, came out of "captivity" with the gold of the Philistines, as Israel had come out of Egypt with spoil. But the tabernacle system was never again "normal." The ark was separated from the tabernacle and the two were never brought together again. The Mosaic system ended with the breakdown of its center. Also Israel's premature demand for a king, motivated by their desire to be "like the nations" (1 Sam. 8:5) won for them a king who was truly like the kings of the nations and a reflection of their national waywardness. Saul's folly came to its climax in the murder of Ahimelech and the priests of Nob (1 Sam. 22:16-19). Though he prepared the way for the next kingly period of the covenant, Saul invited God's wrath for his rejection of the covenant. Nor had Israel kept the covenant any better than Saul. But the gravest sin, and that which did more to ruin Israel than any other, was the sin of Eli and his sons who defiled the priesthood (1Sm. 3:11ff.). The nation of priests had failed in their central responsibility. But God remained faithful. He would continue to manifest His grace in giving them another new covenant with a true king.


Table of Contents


The Covenantal Structure of the Bible: Introduction to the Bible
Copyright © 1999 by Ralph Allan Smith. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission from the author. Also online at and available for download in PDF format. is dedicated to applying the covenantal worldview to modern-day issues. It is a ministry of the Covenant Worldview Institute and the Mitaka Evangelical Church of Tokyo, Japan. The essays and books at are (mostly?) written by Reverend Ralph Allan Smith, who has laboured as a teacher, pastor, and missionary in Tokyo since 1981, and as the director of the Covenant Worldview Institute since 1988. All feedback is welcome. He can be contacted at