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Theological Significance of the Mosaic Covenant: O. Palmer Robertson (Part I)

by randy on October 24th, 2009

I wish I could type the entirety of this chapter out but it would take hours and would likely infringe on the fair use copyright law.  If you want more, buy the book!  The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson.  This chapter has been particularly helpful in shifting my understanding of the Mosaic covenant from a dispensational outlook to the covenantal. I will hopefully be able to type more later.

O. Palmer Robertson writes:

The Mosaic dispensation rests squarely on a covenantal rather than a legal relationship.  While law plays an extremely significant role both in the international treaty forms and in the Mosaic era, covenant always supersedes law.

Essential to the Hittite treaty form was the recognition of the historical context in which legal stipulations functioned.  The historical prologue of the documents set the current relation of conquering lord and conquered vassal in the light of past interchanges.

Nothing could be more basic to a proper understanding of the Mosaic era.  It is not law that is preeminent, but covenant.  Whatever concept of law may be advanced, it must remain at all times subservient to the broader concept of the covenant.

This point is made most obvious by a recognition of the historical context in which the covenant of law was revealed.  Historically, the nation of Israel already was in a covenantal relationship with the Lord through Abraham.  The Exodus narrative begins when God hears the groaning of Israel, and “remembers his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exod. 2:24).  After God has established himself as Israel’s Lord through the historical fact of the deliverance from Egypt, the law-covenant of Sinai is administered.  The Decalogue’s “I am the Lord your God which brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” provides the essential historical framework in which the Sinaitic law-covenant may be understood.  As has been stated:

The laws have their place in the doctrine of the covenant.  Yahweh has chosen Israel as His people, and Israel has acknowledged Yahweh as its God. This fundamental O.T. principle is the direct basis of these laws. (W. Gutbrod, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1967), 4: 1036)

Covenant, therefore, is the larger concept, always taking precedence over law.  Covenant binds persons; externalized legal stipulations represent one mode of administration of the covenantal bond.

God renews an ancient commitment to his people by the covenant of Moses.  The law serves only as a single mode of administering the covenant of redemption.  Originally established under Adam, confirmed under Noah and Abraham, the covenantal relationship renewed under Moses cannot disturb God’s on going commitment by its emphasis to the legal dimension of the covenant relationship.

The Distinctiveness of the Mosaic Covenant

If the Mosaic covenant stands in a basic relation of unity with God’s earlier covenantal administration, what then is its distinctiveness?  What particularly characterizes this covenantal administration?  How does it stand apart from God’s other ways of dealing with his people?

The Mosaic covenant manifests its distinctiveness as an externalized summation of the will of God.  The patriarchs certainly were aware o God’s will in general terms.  On occasion, they received direct revelation concerning specific aspects of the will of God.  Under Moses, however, a full summary of God’s will was made explicit through the physical inscripturation of the law. This external-to-man, formally ordered summation of God’s will constitutes the distinctiveness of the Mosaic covenant.

The emphasis in the pentateuch on the “ten words” and the explicit identification of these words with the covenant itself clearly indicate that the distinctiveness of the Mosaic covenant resides in this externalized summation of God’s law.  Note in particular the language of the following verses:

… And he [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words (Exod. 34:28).
So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the ten words; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone (Deut. 4:13).

When I went upto the mountain to receive the tablet of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the Lord had made with you….

And…at the end of the forty days and nights … the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant (Deut. 9:9, 11).

These verses indicate the closeness of identification between the Mosaic covenant and the “ten words.” These words summarize the essence of the Mosaic covenant.

The same verses emphasize also the externalized character of the Mosaic law-administration.  The stone-engraven character of the Mosaic covenant does not reflect simply the manner by which covenantal documents were preserved in the days of Moses.  This stark, cold, externalized form in which the covenant stipulations appeared manifests eloquently a most distinctive characteristic of the Mosaic covenant.  A law has been written, a will has been decreed; but his law stands outside man, demanding conformity.  “Law” as it is used in relation to the Mosaic covenant should not be defined simply as a revelation of the will of God.  More specifically, law denotes an externalized summation of God’s will.

In the case of the Mosaic covenant, the prominence of this external form of God’s will provides ample justification for the characterization of the Mosaic covenant as the covenant of law.  This characterization has the full support of the New Testament Scriptures.  “The law was given through Moses,” says the apostle John (John 1:17).  In his letter to the Galations, Paul clearly characterizes the Mosaic period as the epoch of “law” (Gal. 3:17)

This phrase “covenant of law” must not be confused with the traditional terminology which speaks of a “covenant of works.” The phrase “covenant of works” customarily refers to the situation at creation in which man was required to obey God perfectly in order to enter into a state of eternal blessedness.  Contrary to this relation established with man in innocence, the Mosaic covenant of law clearly addresses itself to man in sin.  this latter covenant never intended to suggest that man by perfect moral obedience could enter into a state of guaranteed covenantal blessedness.  The integral role of a substitutionary sacrificial system within the legal provisions of the Mosaic covenant clearly indicates a sober awareness of the distinction between God’s dealings with man in innocence and with man in sin.

As already has been indicated, God’s covenantal commitment to redeem from the state of sin a people to himself was in effect prior to the giving of the law at Sinai.  Israel assembled at Sinai only because God had redeemed them from Egypt.  For the covenant of law to function as a principle of salvation by works, the covenant of promise first would have to be suspended.

The concrete externalization of covenantal stipulations written on tables of stone never was intended to detract from the gracious promise of the Abrahamic covenant, as Paul argues so aptly.  The covenant of law, coming 400 years after promise, could not possibly disannul the previous covenant (Gal. 3:17).

Not only did the covenant of law not disannul the covenant of promise; more specifically, it did not offer a temporary alternative to the covenant of promise.  This particular perspective is often overlooked.  It is sometimes assumed that the covenant of law temporarily replaced the covenant of promise, or somehow ran alongside it as an alternative method of man’s salvation.   The covenant of law often has been considered as a self-contained unit which served as another basis for determining the relation of Israel to God in the period between Abrahamic covenant and the coming of Christ.  In this scheme, the covenant of promise is treated as though it has been set aside or made secondary for a period, although not “disannulled.”

However, the covenant of promise made with Abraham always has been in effect from the day of its inauguration until the present.  The coming of law did not suspend the Abrahamic covenant.  The principle enunciated in Genesis 15:6 concerning the justification of Abraham by faith never has experienced interruption.  Throughout the Mosaic period of law-covenant, God considered as righteous everyone who believed in him.

For this reason, the covenant of law as revealed at Sinai would best be divorced from “covenant of works” terminology.  The “covenant of works” refers to legal requirements laid on man at the time of his innocency in creation.  The “covenant of law” refers to a new stage in the process of God’s unfolding the richness of the covenant of redemption.  As such, the law which came through Moses did not in any way disannul or suspend the covenant of promise.

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