The Old Covenant and Law of Moses

[Reading time: 3 minutes] One of the earliest covenants we see in the Old Testament is the one God made with Abraham (Gen. 15:7-21; 17:1-21). God said Abraham’s descendants would be in a foreign land 400 years (Egypt), but he would lead them back to the land he showed Abraham, which was Canaan. Years later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob moved his entire family to Egypt because of a severe famine. Over the years, they grew in number, became slaves to the Egyptians and cried out to God for deliverance, and God assigned Moses to lead them out of Egypt back to the Promised Land. They entered Egypt as a family but left as the nation of Israel.

About three months after God miraculously delivered the people of Israel from Egypt, they were at Mount Sinai. It was there God made covenant with the nation through Moses (Exod. 19:3-6; Lev. 1:1-27:34). This is the most detailed covenant in the Old Testament. Known as the old covenant, it’s a beautiful type of the new covenant — described in the New Testament — as it’s full of symbolic hints and parallels.

When Israel refused to enter the Promised Land as God commanded, he led them around in the wilderness for 40 years until the rebellious generation died. God then renewed the covenant with the next generation as they were about to enter the Promised Land (Deut. 4:44-29:1).

A key element of the covenant with Israel was called the law of Moses, or simply “the law.” In effect, the law was the foundation for a new people and provided a comprehensive structure for their national and individual lives. It included civil law (Exod. 19-23; Lev. 19-20), ceremonial and religious law (Exod 25-31, 33, 35-40; Lev. 21-25), dietary law (Lev. 11, 17), health law (Lev. 12-15), and moral law (Lev. 18). These composed the covenant terms or commandments, and people were required to obey all of them to receive the covenant’s blessings from God. Otherwise they would receive the covenant curses.

This covenant identified them as God’s people and set them apart from all other nations (Lev. 26:12). That is, it was only for Israel, not Gentiles (Lev. 20:24, 26). This was an earth-based covenant, so if they adhered to the covenant’s terms (the law), they would receive material blessings. Their crops, flocks and herds would be abundant. They’d live in safety in the land God promised them. They’d be victorious over their enemies. They’d be blessed with large families. God’s dwelling place would be among them. He would be their God and they would be his people (Lev. 26:3-13).

Anyone violating the covenant terms, the law, would bring the covenant curses on themselves. If the nation as a whole disobeyed the covenant terms, they would corporately experience the covenant curses: terror, diseases, plagues, military defeats, crop failures, famine, wild animals killing their children and cattle, cities ruined and the people scattered among the nations (Lev. 26:14-39). However, God wouldn’t destroy Israel when they violated the covenant. He will never violate the covenant, but will always be the Lord their God (Lev. 26:44; Deut. 31:6; 4:31; Ps. 94:14). This rules out replacement theology.

The term “law” (lower case) in both the Old and New Testaments refers specifically to this body of laws God gave to Israel as terms of their covenant. The term “Law” (upper case) applies to all the writings of Moses — the first five books of the Bible, or the Pentateuch.

The people had to keep all of more than 600 laws. Because that was humanly impossible, God allowed them to offer sacrifices for their violations so he could continue to bless them.

It’s important to remember that God gave the law specifically to Israel, his covenant people, and excluded Gentiles from that covenant and its law. That is, the old covenant law applied only to Israel.

Find other articles about the old covenant’s relevance to Christians