What Are the Ground Rules?

Explore the Bible Series

April 18, 2010


Background Passage: Exodus 19:1-24:18

Lesson Passage: Exodus 20:1-17




F.B. Huey, late professor of Old Testament at Southwestern Theological Seminary, identified Exodus 19-24 as the most important chapters in the Old Testament (See Exodus: A Study Guide Commentary).  I have some minor reservations about Huey’s conclusion, but these chapters are certainly among the most important because they introduce the Mosaic Covenant, a covenant formally established at Mount Sinai. 


“Covenant” translates the word berit, the Hebrew word meaning “to bind”, and denotes a binding relationship between two or more persons.  Often, the term occurs with the Hebrew word “to cut” (karat) which reflects the ancient practice of sacrificing animals to seal a covenant (See Genesis 15:1-21). It seems that the ancients confirmed covenants through the use of a sign or symbol.  For instance, the rainbow served as the token of God’s agreement with Noah (See Genesis 9:1-17).


Even a cursory reading of Genesis and Exodus reveal the centrality of the idea of “covenant” as it relates to God’s self-revelation to the Jews.  Our previous study of Genesis emphasized the Noahic Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant.  In these cases, the agreements are unilateral and unconditional; that is, God committed himself to a course of action without consideration for human action.  At least four covenants mark the progressive revelation of the Old Testament.


1.      The Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:9-17): In the aftermath of the catastrophic flood, God promised Noah that no divine judgment, by flood, would consume the earth.  The Lord did not demand anything of Noah to ensure the promise; rather, Jehovah’s promise arose from divine grace.

2.      The Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-19; 17:1-14; 22:15-18): Jehovah pledged to make a great nation from the humble family beginnings of Abraham and Sarah, and God promised to give Canaan to his people.  Circumcision served as token of this covenant.

3.      The Mosaic Covenant (See lesson passage): Moses, by God’s command, mediated the covenant at Sinai.  This agreement required faith and obedience by Israel, an obedience centered on the righteous demands of the Law summarized in the Ten Commandments. Circumcision and the elaborate sacrificial system of the Tabernacle served as tokens for the covenant.

4.      The Davidic Covenant (II Samuel 7:1-17; 23:1-5): The Prophet Nathan promised David that God would establish the king’s reign forever, an unconditional covenant which foreshadowed the kingly office of Christ.


Lesson Outline:


I.       God’s Covenant and the Moral Law (19:1-20:26)

A.    An invitation to the covenant (19:1-9): When the Hebrews neared the holy mountain, God told Moses to offer a gracious covenant to the people.  The Lord reminded his servant of the miraculous deliverance from the Egyptian tyranny, and promised Israel a special relationship conveyed in the imagery of God’s “treasured possession.”  Indeed, Jehovah pledged three blessings if the Hebrews would obey his word.

1.      “You shall be my treasured possession among all peoples” (v. 5): Jehovah redeemed Israel, and, as a result, they would become his unique possession.

2.      “… and you shall be a kingdom of priests” (v. 6a): Surely the Apostle Peter had this passage in mind when he wrote his epistle (See I Peter 2:4-5).

3.      “.. and a holy nation” (v. 6b): Israel must become a nation separated unto the glory of God.

B.     Preparations for the ratification of the covenant (19:10-15): Moses prescribed three days of cleansing and preparation for the establishment of the covenant. These preparations involved the washing of garments and refraining from sexual intimacy.  Also, the Lord prohibited the people from coming in contact with the mountain, except for Moses and Aaron.

C.     The theophany (symbolic appearance of Jehovah) and the establishment of the covenant (19:16-25): God appeared on Sinai in a thick cloud that enveloped the mountain and a great blast from a trumpet (a shophar- a ram’s horn). The text claims that God descended in fire, and the mountain trembled at the presence of the Lord. Again, Moses warned the people not to touch Sinai.

D.    The revelation of the Ten Commandments (20:1-20)

1.      “You shall have no other gods before me” (v. 3): The phrase “before me” translates a Hebrew tern that means “before my face”, and forbids the worship of any other gods.

2.      “Your shall not make for yourself a carved image” (vv. 4-6 and 22-26): The prohibition of making carved images does not preclude the appropriate expression of the arts; rather, it forbids the worship of graven images. The commandment is grounded in God’s utter uniqueness and jealousy to protect his glory.  The chapter ends with additional directions concerning the appropriate worship of God.

3.      “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (v. 7): This command prohibits profanity, hypocritical religion, and swearing false oaths.

4.      “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (vv. 8-11): Grounded in the story of creation, God instructed his people to observe a day of worship and rest.

5.      “Honor your father and your mother” (v. 12): Life is a gift mediated through one’s parents, and Jehovah demanded that children honor the position of their mother and father.  A precious promise attended this precept, a promise that established the sanctity and security of Israel on the foundation of sound families.

6.      “You shall not murder” (v. 13): This commandment protects human life, life that bears the image of God, but it did not prohibit capital punishment (allowed under the Mosaic Law) or properly sanctioned warfare.

7.      “You shall not commit adultery” (v. 14): Again, the commandments forbid any actions that erode the security and sanctity of the family.  The ancient Jews regarded marriage as a covenant, a covenant that mirrored, in a sense, God’s relationship with Israel.

8.      “You shall not steal” (v. 15): The Old Testament affirms the right to own property, and it protects this right through a prohibition of the illegitimate acquisition of possessions. 

9.      “You shall not bear false witness” (v. 16): This commandment protected the justice system of Israel, but it also extended to a personal commitment to tell the truth.

10.  “You shall not covet” (v. 17): Covetousness arises in the heart, and God’s commandment restrains inordinate desires from governing one’s life.

E.     The fear of the people (vv. 18-21): God’s appearance struck fear in the hearts of God’s people, and they entreated Moses to intercede for them.


II.    God’s Covenant and the Civil Law (21:1-23:12): The Mosaic Covenant, as I see it, included two dynamics: the Hebrew’s redemptive relationship with Jehovah and the creation of national Israel.  The redemptive aspects of the Law reveal the character of God, foreshadow the person and work of Jesus, and inculcate a moral code for righteous behavior.  The civil code reflects God’s expectations of national Israel, and, as such, may not have full application to other social and governmental situations.  The United States, for instance, is not the chosen, unique nation of God, in the sense that Israel was.  The civil code, in my judgment, gives very helpful principles for national governance, but it does not universally apply to contemporary governing structures.

A.    Laws concerning slavery (21:1-11): It’s difficult to equate Hebrew slavery with America’s “peculiar institution”, and Neo-Confederates will find no genuine solace in Exodus.  The ancient practice, at least among the Jews, was neither permanent nor hereditary, and the enslaved person had certain “rights” under the law. 

B.     Laws concerning death or serious injury (21:12-32): The Mosaic Law allowed for capital punishment for cases of murder, violent disrespect of parents, and injury to a pregnant woman. Serious injuries demanded various forms of restitution to the injured party. The “eye for an eye” principle does not teach personal vengeance; rather, it calls for proportional justice (the punishment must fit the crime).

C.     Laws concerning damage to property (21:33-22:15): Again, the Law of Moses condoned the personal ownership of property, and the civil law protected the rights of property holders.

D.    Laws concerning social relations (22:16-23:9): This section addresses a broad range of issues: the seduction of a virgin girl, sorcery, idolatry,  the appropriate treatment of sojourners and the helpless, lending money, testimony in a court of law, and neighborliness.

E.     Laws concerning the land and the treatment of the poor (23:10-13): Every seven years, the Jews must let the land rest from cultivation. This practice mirrored the observance of a weekly Sabbath, and any residual crops which grew belonged to the poor, rather than the landowner.


III. God’s Covenant and the Ceremonial Law (23:10-24:18): This section introduces a much longer treatment of the ceremonial code that governed Israel’s worship.  These precepts often presage the coming of the Messiah.

A.    Laws concerning three major festivals of the covenant (23:13:19)

1.      The Feast of Unleavened Bread (vv. 14-15): This commemoration was closely associated with the Passover, and the festival marked God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

2.      The Feast of Harvest (v. 16a): Also known as the Feast of Weeks and Pentecost, this celebration occurred fifty days after Passover.  It marked the first harvest of the Jewish agricultural year.

3.      The Feast of Ingathering (v.16b): The Feast of Tabernacles marks the rich second harvest, and occurred shortly after the Day of Atonement.  The sacrifices connected to all of these festivals could not contain any leavening agents, had to come from the first fruits, and could not involve the boiling of meat in milk (perhaps a practice associated with pagan practices).

B.     Promises concerning Canaan under the covenant (23:20-33): God promised Moses that an angel would defend Israel when she entered the Land of Canaan, and all the tribal groups in the region would succumb to the Hebrew army. Moreover, the Lord promised to bless Israel with health and fertility.  This portion of the covenant was conditioned on Israel’s fidelity to worship and serve only Jehovah.


IV. The Ratification of the Covenant (24:1-18)

A.    Israel’s acceptance of the terms of the covenant (vv. 1-8): God called Moses, Aaron, and a selected group of Israel’s elders, to Mount Sinai, to act as representatives of the people.  The priests offered sacrifices, and the Hebrews accepted God’s conditions of the agreement.

B.     God’s affirmation of the covenant (vv. 9-18): Moses, by God’s direction, approached Sinai, and the Lord brooded over the mountain for six days. On the seventh day, entered the cloud of glory and dwelt with the Lord for forty days.