After mankind was banished from the Garden and his immortality was taken away from him, God did not leave mankind totally alone. The book of Genesis records God's dealings with various families including many of the great Patriarchs1 of the Old Testament. The story eventually comes to a man named Abraham who is said to be a very faithful follower of God. So impressed was God with Abraham that he made him some very important promises. Please turn to Genesis 12:1-3 and read about these promises. Three stand out in the text. One promise indicates that God will make Abraham famous, or, that God will make his name great among the nations. Another promise involved his future descendants. God promised to make them into a great nation. A third promise mentions something about all the families (nations) of the earth being benefited through Abraham. The third promise was fulfilled through one of Abraham’s special descendants - Christ - who would one day die on the cross for the sins of all mankind!
However, many centuries after this incident, the Bible teaches that God kept the descendant promise he made to Abraham by making a COVENANT with the nation of Israel. This covenant provides the background for the rest of the Old Testament (from Exodus 19 through the last chapter of Malachi) and is still in existence when Jesus comes to the Earth as a man. In this and the next two lessons, we will take a closer look at the history of this covenant. Aside from being a very interesting topic, it will also help us better understand many things about God’s PLAN for saving man from sin that we will be studying about later from the New Testament.
We begin our search by asking a very simple question, “What is a COVENANT?” We do not hear this word very often, except in religious discussions. Sometimes instead of the word covenant, we hear people use the word “testament”2 and that can be even more confusing. Actually, we are very familiar with the idea represented by the words covenant and testament. The ways these words are used in the Bible represent what we commonly refer to as an agreement or a contract! We are very familiar with contracts and agreements because they are found today in all areas of our everyday life. From the simplest agreement, to meet somewhere for an outing, to a complex contract between companies to manufacture and market something on several continents, agreements are all around us every day.
Since understanding how agreements work is so important for our study, we will take a few minutes to mention the basic design of contracts so that we can establish a common understanding for our future explorations in the Bible regarding its covenants.
A covenant, agreement, or contract, is established when two (or more) parties AGREE to certain terms and conditions by which they will join together, usually in order to accomplish something. However, sometimes agreements are made to regulate the actions of people. Whatever their purpose might be, ALL agreements carry responsibilities for all parties to perform and operate on the basic “IF – THEN” principle. IF the first party accomplishes their portion of the agreement THEN the second party must fulfill their obligation. This “IF – THEN” principle is what is more commonly known as a CONDITION. Everything will go smoothly in the agreement as long as ALL parties involved in the agreement keep their part of the contract.
How do agreements and contracts work? Most agreements pass through FOUR basic phases or stages of activity. The first is what we might call the negotiation stage, where the parties discuss proposals to determine if there is enough interest to give reason for proceeding farther. If there is a mutual desire to continue then the parties proceed to the phase where the exact terms and conditions are decided. This means that a carefully detailed statement of the responsibilities of each of the parties involved in the agreement will be worded and written down. Once this phase is complete, next comes the acceptance and commencement—where the agreement is “officially” signed. It is here that the agreement actually begins. This leaves only the final phase of the agreement to follow—what we will call the TERMINATION phase. All agreements come to a completion in one way or another. They either successfully terminate (with all parties satisfied), or, the agreement terminates unsuccessfully due to some kind of violation. This is the basic process by which all agreements are made and managed.
You might wonder what all of this detail about agreements and how they work has to do with the Scheme of Redemption and Abraham. Actually, this is very important to our research because there was a very special agreement in the Old Testament of our Bible. It was between God and the descendants of Abraham, and this agreement has a lot to do with Jesus dying on a cross for the sins of mankind!
We are first introduced to this agreement in Exodus 19:1-5. (Please stop and read this passage.)
It seems that three months after the people of Israel left Egypt, they came to Mount Sinai,3 where Moses, the leader of the Israelites, acted as a go-between4 in an agreement between God and the people of Israel. If you look carefully at the text you will notice that the Lord offered the agreement to Israel with the condition that IF they would obey him THEN they would become his “special people, chosen out from all of the people of the earth."
There are additional passages that speak of this agreement. Please read Deuteronomy 5:2-3. This passage shows us that the agreement began there at Mount Sinai and that it did not exist before that point in time. This means that this agreement did not exist during the time of Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, and even those Israelites who died as slaves in Egypt. None of these people had this agreement because it did not exist during their lifetime. Only those alive at Sinai and after could be part of this agreement. The diagram above is given to help better understand the situation. Mount Sinai is the key point of reference because it is where the agreement started. People who lived and died BEFORE Mount Sinai were NOT included in the agreement. The agreement started there and continued into the future! Therefore, Abraham the Patriarch was NOT included in this agreement, but King David was included.
The two passages we have seen so far have only mentioned the agreement in general terms. What were the specific details of the conditions of this agreement? In other words, what were the things that the people had to “obey” so that they could fulfill their portion of the agreement and continue to be God’s “special people, chosen from among all the nations of the earth”? Please read Deuteronomy 4:13. In this passage, we learn that the agreement included the list of commands more commonly known as “the 10 Commandments”.
Please read Exodus 34:27-28. This passage states the same thing, but considering the context of what is happening, we must expand our understanding a little. Although this passage specifically mentions “the 10 Commandments”, the context tells us that there were more details than just the 10 Commandments. Why can we say this? If we trace Moses’ activities, beginning in Exodus chapter 19, we will see that he had many conversations with God while the people of Israel were camped around that mountain. Some of them were in the presence of the people of Israel and some were private—on top of Mount Sinai. During these conversations with Moses, God gave him many different laws and ordinances for the people to follow and all of these were included in the agreement. In fact, someone once counted all of them and found that the actual number of individual commands included in the agreement is more than 600! It is very likely that there were many more than just 10 commands written on those two flat stones!
Let us go on to other details in our research about this agreement. “Were any OTHER nations included in this agreement?” In searching for an answer, we will begin by reviewing the information learned from all the passages we have already read. Exodus 19:1-5 indicated that the agreement was for Israel only - "special people chosen from all nations of the world" Exodus 34:27-28 mentioned only Israel - "with you [Moses] and Israel”. Finally, in Deuteronomy 5:2-3 we saw that the agreement was only with the ones who were “alive” at Mount Horeb. Were there any other people present there at Mount Sinai other than the people of Israel? No, there were not.
We will now look at some additional passages that speak of this matter and see what else we can find. Please read Deuteronomy 7:6. This is part of a speech made by Moses to the people of Israel. Notice that he once again indicates that the agreement was with Israel ONLY and that God chose the Israelite people "out of all the nations of the earth". If we search further into the Old Testament books, we find that the understanding on this matter does not change. Please read Psalms 147:19-20. This passage is very precise and states that God did not reveal his laws to any other nation. Even when we arrive at the last book of the Old Testament, the Book of Malachi, nothing has changed. Please read Malachi 4:4. Here we find a reminder for the people of Israel to remember the Law of Moses5 and mentions it as being, "for all ISRAEL", not for all the nations of the earth!
Whether we like it or not, God chose the nation of Israel to be the exclusive recipient of his special agreement! In much the same way, remember that I chose YOUR construction company to build my house and when I did that, I rejected the other companies. They were not invitedrejected to be included in our agreement. They were left out of any arrangements between us, even if they sincerely WANTED to be included. I CHOSE YOU! That was my right and in the same way, God CHOSE ISRAEL to be included in the Sinai agreement. He chose ONLY Israel! All other nations were rejected!
Since God rejected the other nations of that time, we need to go farther in our research and ask, “WHY DID GOD MAKE THE AGREEMENT ONLY WITH ISRAEL?” After all, we are told in other places in the Bible that God wants ALL people to be saved and that he does not show favoritism toward anyone. Why, then, would God make an agreement, which determined who would be accepted as his “special people” and then offer that agreement only to Israel? This action does not sound very fair to the other nations. Surely, there must be an explanation.
Do you remember back in Genesis 12:1-2, where God made some promises to Abraham? The answer to our question has something to do with those promises. Please read Deuteronomy 7:6-8. Here, Moses is making a speech to the people of Israel and as he speaks, he mentions two reasons why God chose Israel as his people. First, he points out that it is because God LOVES them, and, second, because God is keeping the promise made to Abraham (and passed to Isaac and Jacob). From this, we can conclude that one important reason why God did this for Israel was because of the promise to Abraham back in Genesis chapter 12.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is a comfort to know that God keeps his promises! However, it is still a little disturbing to think that God would discriminate against innocent nations in order to keep a promise. There MUST be more to learn about the situation!
We need to continue reading Moses’ speech. Please read Deuteronomy 7:9-11. Moses explains how God evaluates people. He said that God accepts people who love him and keep his commands, but punishes those who hate him and do not obey. Of course, this is not surprising because all the other prophets of God also state this same point as being one of the consistent characteristics of God throughout time! God is FAIR! This is an important point for our study because it indicates that IF God is going to reject someone then they must have done something to go against him.
With this in mind, please read Deuteronomy 9:4-5. Moses makes another speech to the people of Israel and speaks about this very point and how it relates to the “other nations” of that time. He tells the people of Israel that God did not choose them because they were “so good” but rather, because the other nations were “so bad”. This is the evidence we have been searching for! It seems that during this period of history, Israel might very well have been the only "nation" that believed in God. We know from the details revealed in the history books of the Old Testament that the other nations, which Israel would eventually destroy or kick out from their “promised Land”, were people who followed all kinds of different gods, but NOT ONE of them followed the one true God! Therefore, God was not showing favoritism when he chose Israel. He was simply offering the agreement to those who believed in him! That is fair!
We can easily confirm what Moses said about the way those other nations lived by reading passages like Deuteronomy 18:12 and Leviticus 18:24-25.
God made a special agreement with the nation of Israel. It was for Israel ONLY and started at Mount Sinai. It was CONDITIONAL and contained more than 600 individual laws and regulations. It was given to Israel because of the promise God made to Abraham, and, because the other nations of that time did not believe in God.
We have several other questions that need to be answered, but we will stop for now. As we prepare for the next lesson, think about this question: “How long was the agreement supposed to last?”
1 The word “patriarch” means FATHER and it was used to refer to the head of a family, usually the oldest living male. During the earliest portion of the Old Testament, God would speak to the people of a certain family through these Patriarchs.
2 The word for “covenant” or “agreement” in the Greek language is DIATHEKE (pronounced dē-ă-thā΄-kā) and is the same word used to represent someone’s last will and testament. A WILL is a nothing more than a special kind of agreement.
3 Mount Sinai is also known in the Bible as Mount Horeb.
4 Most Bibles use the term “mediator”.
5 In later Old Testament times, and in the New Testament, the Sinai Agreement is often called “the Law of Moses” because Moses was the one who received it and gave it to the people of Israel. However, it was NOT a law Moses made up.
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