Major Covenants of the Old Testament, part 2

The Old Covenant


Today we will cover the last of the three main covenants of the Old Testament, the Old Covenant.  Note that there is a difference between Old Testament and Old Covenant. The Old Testament is the collection of records that concern the Old Covenant.  Old Covenant is the actual covenant between God and Israel.  Also, note that there are several names for this covenant: Old Covenant, Law of Moses, Law of God and simply the Law all refer to the same covenant.



We are faced with a category system unfamiliar to the western philosophic world:  the promise to a group could be virtually unconditional with God.  That is,  He would do what He had promised – with the group.  An individual’s right to the promise was very conditional.  He had to keep the covenant.  He might fall outside the blessings himself because of unbelief, but the group that was faithful could indeed inherit the benefit of the covenanted promise.  This principle, if understood, will make Biblical theology considerably easier to grasp.

The covenant of Sinai has been described in four of the five books of the Pentateuch.  Some summary will be necessary.  This very brief analysis is helpful because it is essentially accurate and easily remembered.  We shall analyze the covenant by the usual formulary.

Parties:             God and the Children of Israel (Lev 26:46)

Terms:              Keep the 613 Laws of Moses (Lev 26:14)

Promises:         All physical, national, earthly (Lev 26:1-13)


God never intended all nations on earth to keep the Law of Moses.  No place can be found in the Treaty where Israel was to teach or impose the law upon other nations.  They were not commanded to be “evangelistic” about their religion, as far as non-Israelites were concerned.  We can summarize by stating again, the Sinai Treaty was made with the flesh and blood descendants of Abraham and none other.  No one and no nation could simply opt into membership.  One had to be born into the Old Covenant.

Consider the following:  The Lord has chosen you out of all peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.  The Lord did not set his affection on you because you were more numerous than other peoples. . . but it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers (Deut. 7:6-8).

O Lord God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?  (II Chron. 20:7).

The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them b the hand to lead them out of Egypt (Jer. 31:32)

In the New Testament Paul was quite emphatic about the limitation of the Old Covenant.  He wrote the following passages.Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the Law (Rom. 2:14)

What advantage is there in being a Jew? Much in every way.  First of al l they have been entrusted with the very words of God (Rom. 2:1).

What if God did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles.  As He says in Hosea.  “I will call them.  MY PEOPLE, who are not my people” (Rom 9:23, emphasis added)


The terms of the Mosaic covenant numbered 613 according to the Jewish count.  There are several parallel names for the entire set.  By the use of parallel words for the terms of the Treaty, God meant to urge that all be kept.  Below are samples passages that show ways of saying the obligations of the Treaty.

(Exod. 24:4, Num 4:44, Lev 27:14, Deut. 8:11, Deut. 28:9, Deut 30:11-20)

We see that obeying the covenant was identical with loving the Lord, and walking in His ways, listening to his voice, and clinging to Him.  They are parallels.  The Law was declared to have been able to be clearly understood.  It was not too difficult for them.  On the basis of keeping the covenant they were assured of God’s aid in prosperity and long life in their new land.  The foregoing clause was understood to be a formal statement of covenant, as it called upon witnesses to verify its formality and acceptance.

One thing the Law of Moses (another way of saying the Law of God) did was create a theocracy.  It was a nation where God was the King.  Religion and culture were one.  Faith in God and governmental administration were linked in the covenant.  This was no freedom of religion in such a state.  Everything was religion.  There was no difference between the sacred and the secular.  The laws of the land were the laws of God.  The Law, God’s Torah, involved every aspect of life, from duties of king (Deut. 17:14), to public health (Lev. 13-14), to marriage and divorce (Deut. 22:13), to public holidays (Lev. 23:1), to type of sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), to approved and forbidden relationships (Lev. 18-19), foods (Lev. 11:1), sexual practices (Lev 12 and 18), inheritance (Num 36), public worship (Deut 12&13), administration of justice (Deut. 19:15), conscription for war (Deut. 20), camp sanitation (Deut. 23:12), slavery (Deut 15:12), public finance (Deut. 14:22), care of poor (Deut. 24:19 and many others. In its totality, the Old Covenant terms include provisions for ceremonial, sacrificial, moral and national law.


The promises written as part of the covenant are easily cataloged.  They were all physical, national and immediate. They were classified by the Hebrews themselves as the positive promises, called blessings and the negative ones called curses.

They were physical blessings.  A partial list from Deuteronomy is shown here:

All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.  You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

  • In the fruit of your womb
  • And the crops of your land,
  • And the young of your livestock,
  • Your basket and your kneading trough,
  • Your enemies defeated before you,
  • Abundant prosperity,
  • You will lend, not borrow,
  • And will be the head and not the tall (Deut. 28:1).

From Leviticus comes this partial list.  It is but another way of saying what was said in Deuteronomy.

I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit.  Your threshing will continue till grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and you will live in safety in the land.  I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. (Lev. 26:4)

The promises were all national.  That is, they related to the entire nation and not simply to an individual.  An individual might be very faithful amid a wicked generation suffer defeat and imprisonment along with the rest.  There is no mention of eternal life in the entire Covenant, its promises all dealt with life on earth.  The blood of Christ, the last sacrifice under the law, imparted life to all who had lived in good faith under the former system (Hebrews 9:15).

Administration of Death

Paul called the Old Covenant the administration of death.  He had good reason.  Chiefly because the law of the land was also the laws of religion, the administrators of the covenant were also required to act on behalf of civil administration and execute judgment upon breakers of the Law.  There is no way around the problem.  In a theocracy, there is no room from religious failure without it also being civil rebellion.

The 10 Commandments for example, each carry with it a command to kill any violator, with the exception of the last:  Covetousness.  Below is a list of commandments and passages where offenders were commanded to be put to death.

1 “No other gods” “Shall be utterly destroyed” (Exod. 22:20)
2 “No graven images” “But you shall kill him” (Deut. 13:6-10)
3 “Not take … name in vain” “Shall be put to death” (Lev. 24:16)
4 “Remember the Sabbath” “Stoned to death” (Num 15:36)
5 “Honor father & mother” “Shall be put to death: (Exod. 21:17)
6 “Do Not Kill” “Shall be put to death” (Exod. 21:12-14)
7 “Do not commit adultery” “Both … put to death” (Lev. 20:10)
8 “Do not steal” “He dies” (Exod. 22:2)

“the kidnapper must die” (Deut. 24:7)

9 “False witness” “Purge the evil” (Deut. 19:19)
10 “Covetousness is idolatry” “Idolaters … put to death” ( Deut. 17:6) (Paul; Col. 3:5)

Bear in mind that this is intended as more or less an ‘executive summary’ of the Old Covenant, but you should have a pretty good idea what it actually is and how far it really went.  You can also see why Paul called it the “administration of death.”  When it is compared to the New Covenant, it quickly becomes clear that we are indeed a blessed people to be living now!

In the next post on covenant, we’ll take a look at the role of a prophet in light of God’s covenants…

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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7 Responses to Major Covenants of the Old Testament, part 2

  1. Planting Potatoes says:

    very interesting…thank you for sharing…this is a good reason why Gentiles must rightly divide God’s word…because it was not all meant for us….because of grace, there is nothing for us to have to do..except accept Jesus as our savior, right?

  2. Judy says:

    Hi, thanks for visiting my blog so I could find out about yours. As a very part-time Scripture history buff, I find these posts on the covenants fascinating. I never thought about more than one covenant in the Old Testament. Are you going to tie it all together and compare the OT covenants with the NT one? I sure hope so!

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