The gospel at Sinai

Ever since sin entered the world, mans natural tendency has been to try to strike a bargain with God that will better his own situation. But this understanding of "covenant" is far from what God was trying to communicate at Sinai.

Steve Daily is the campus chaplain and an intructor in the Division of Religion on the La Sierra Campus of Loma Linda University, Riverside, California.

Current popular trends in Christian theology represent an unprecedented break from traditional patterns of historical Christian thought. During the past twenty-five years intense theological experimentation has produced a new pluralism, causing bewilderment and confusion. "Theologies of secularity, process, liberation, hope, play, and story have emerged like the over lapping burst of a fireworks display." 1

In many ways, these developments have severed Christianity from its traditional roots, producing new belief systems, which seem almost detached from any meaningful historical perspective. Some observers believe modern Christianity has so neglected the Biblical themes of law and justice, and so minimized the concept of prepositional truth, that the Ten Commandments have been reduced to virtual irrelevancy in our contemporary culture. 2 The revolution in ethics and theology resulting from the "honest to God" movement of the '60s produced a new gospel that emphasized commitment to social causes and a new morality that proclaimed the death of a traditional theism.

So, on the one hand, a new morality and Christian activism have overshadowed traditional notions of repentance, faith, and dependence on a personal God. But on the other hand, we see a revival of right-wing Christianity in America, often characterized by dogmatic moralism and Biblical literalism, that advocates a gospel of patriotism, prosperity, and positive thinking. Such a stance can reduce religion to a self-serving form of pop psychology that is blind to the inequities of social injustice and oppression.

In the context of these theological extremes, the Exodus-Sinaitic event can offer current theology a more balanced gospel, one which demands both a radical faith in God and a radical commitment to humanity.

The religion of the Bible is essentially covenant religion. God's covenant with His chosen people is an extremely important theme in the Old Testament, and while it may be claiming too much to accept Walter Eichrodt's view3 that this is the central theme of the Old Testament, one cannot afford to minimize the significance of the Sinaitic covenant experience which immediately followed the Exodus deliverance in Israel's history.

Seventh-day Adventists, with many other Christians, have traditionally spoken of two covenants in Scripture, the old and the new. The old covenant has been identified with the way God related to mankind in Old Testament times; the new covenant has usually been applied to God's method of relating to humanity through the work of Jesus Christ. It is not uncommon for Christians to refer to the old covenant as one of works, which Israel failed to fulfill, and the new covenant as one of grace, which the Christian enters through faith in Christ. Dispensationalists take this view to its logical conclusion by arguing that the Old Testament promises to Israel were part of an unconditional covenant of righteousness by works, which provided a completely different method of salvation than that experienced by Christians after the cross. 4

This tendency to identify the covenant at Sinai with a system of salvation based on works has, no doubt, been partially the result of misconceptions concerning the actual meaning of the word covenant—berith in Mosaic times compared with its modern meaning. Today we use the term to refer to a mutual agreement or to a contract between two or more parties. According to this definition, a covenant is an arrangement whereby one lives up to his part of a bargain in order to gain some advantage. Ever since sin entered the world, man's natural tendency has been to try to strike a bargain with God that will better his own situation. But this understanding of the word covenant is far from the Biblical concept that God was trying to communicate to Moses at Sinai.

The word berith appears 286 times5 in the Old Testament, but our under standing of the word in ancient literature has been greatly increased in recent decades by the work of various Old Testament scholars. George E. Mendenhall6 was the first to show the parallels between the Sinaitic covenant and the Hittite suzerainty treaties of the Ancient Near East. These treaties were unilaterally imposed, without negotiation, on conquered peoples by victorious Hittite kings. 7 In return for the conquering sovereign's protection, the people would swear by public acclamation their absolute allegiance to the king and his policies. 8 This treaty was between two parties who were totally unequal; they differed significantly from the parity treaties often negotiated between rulers or nations of equal standing. The ten commandments given by God to Moses bear a striking resemblance to the ancient suzerainty treaties. (See Deuteronomy 5; Exodus 20; Joshua 24.) They do not represent a mutual agreement, but the magnanimous, unconditional declaration of a benevolent Deliverer who requires a loyal response from the subjects He has saved. The Sinaitic covenant does not begin with the words, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Ex, 20:3). It begins a verse earlier with the words, "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt" (verse 2)—a God who rescued you when you were helpless, who saved you when you were lost, who freed you when you were slaves. In this light, the ten points that follow can rightly be understood as statements of fact that naturally grow out of the Exodus deliverance rather than as arbitrary, negative commands.

Because they had been freed from bondage by the mighty hand of divine deliverance, the Israelites' response to these ten principles was to be a natural expression of gratitude resulting from internalizing God's love in their hearts. God acts in the covenant for Israel, not because of some fixed agreement, but because of their special love relation ship. The Hebrew word chesed, usually translated "loving kindness" or "mercy," is the Old Testament term that describes God's fidelity to the covenant, or His covenant love. 9 It is a symbol of God's willingness to make Himself vulnerable by entering into relationship with man, an idea that was completely foreign to a non-Israelite concept of deity.

Another Hebrew word, tsadeqah, is also important to a proper understanding of the relational nature of the Sinaitic covenant. This is the word that normally describes Israel's loyalty, faithfulness or righteousness in relationship to the covenant. As Von Rad has demonstrated, the righteousness of Israel in Old Testament times came not by obedience to some external standard of law, but was a relational concept which was, above all else, an internalized commitment to justice, love, and loyalty to God. 10 Law keeping for its own sake is not the absolute goal, according to the Old Testament. Rather, faithfulness to the covenant is the goal of life and the purpose of law, and when this faithfulness is achieved one experiences wholeness or shalom, the peace of the unbroken covenant. When we understand this relational concept of covenant, it becomes much easier to see the Ten Commandments as universal principles rather than specific commands, which condemned certain types of behavior in ancient times but which have lost their relevance for today.

The covenant responsibility encompassed Israel's entire life, by defining her relation to God and neighbor, and the quality of her existence. 11 While the first table of the covenant law dealt with transcendent reality and the true meaning of worship, the second dealt with human social responsibilities. It is this second table that has historically been neglected in the Christian tradition. The fine print concerning the second table indicates that when God checked to see whether Israel was meeting her covenant commitment, He looked first at how she was treating the poor, widows, orphans, and resident aliens in her midst (see Deuteronomy 10).

The tragedy of Sinai is not that Israel pledged to keep the law and then failed to do so. The tragedy is that they pledged to do what they were incapable of doing and failed to recognize their misconception. (See Ex. 19:8; 24:7.) They saw the smoke and the fire and distorted God's intention. They frustrated God's attempt to communicate His love at Sinai and thus failed to comprehend the magnitude of divine grace. The real message of Sinai was that God has done for us human beings what we can never do for ourselves. "I have delivered you when you were helpless," He declares. God did not give Israel a covenant of righteousness by works at Sinai, nor was He responsible for the legalism that dominated their subsequent history. Edward Heppenstall had observed: "The Sinai covenant is simply an extension of the everlasting covenant of grace given to Abraham (Genesis 17). God's method and purpose for the salvation of the race and the fulfillment of His will are the same in both the Old and New Testaments. 12

The wilderness in which the Israelites found themselves after God's great salvation act at the Red Sea provided the perfect opportunity to demonstrate a radical trust and dependence upon God. Had they moved forward in faith and experience the full blessings of their covenant relationship, as God intended, they could have fulfilled the unique function for which they were originally chosen. First, Israel could have become a special "possession" (Ex. 19:5, R.S.V.)* a unique community distinct from all other peoples. God called the Israelites to be an alternative faith community, not just a reflector of the dominant culture. He instructed them to develop an egalitarian society and a political structure which would have set them apart from all other nations. Instead, they desired to be like their heathen neighbors and cried out to God for a king. This rebellion against radical trust led to sociological changes that countered the economics of equality that God had instituted at Sinai, replacing it with an economics of aristocracy and poverty. The system of political justice which God had designed was transformed into oppression. 13 Thus, one result of Israel's failure to respond to the gospel covenant at Sinai and to demonstrate a true radical faith, was the emergence of a system of social injustice that plagued the nation throughout the rest of its history.

Second, it was God's intention through the Sinaitic covenant to create a people who would make a spiritual impact on the world. It was never His desire for a nationalistic pride and spiritual arrogance to lead to exclusiveness and isolation. This was the result of Israel's refusal to really trust God with the radical kind of faith that the covenant demanded. God called Israel to be a "kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:6) who would minister to all nations, sharing the good news of a loving, saving God who liberates the captives and the oppressed. But Israel withdrew from serving humanity, choosing instead to serve herself. Thus an evangelistic impotence was a second result of Israel's failure to respond with a radical faith to the gospel covenant at Sinai.

It was also God's purpose that Israel be a "holy nation" (Ibid.), reflecting the holiness of the covenant God14 and thereby testifying to His transforming power and uniqueness in comparison to all other gods of the ancient world. But Israel failed here, as well. Instead of looking back to Sinai as a faith covenant, which redefined her understanding of community, world, and God in a relational context of love and justice, Israel emphasized a letter-of-the-law obedience. By elevating the law above human beings, God's chosen people caused the "law of liberty" to become a "yoke of bondage." 15

The prophets were the first to recognize Israel's distortion of the covenant and to rebuke her for the resulting spiritual and social ills. Those who accept the popular misconception that the prophets were great religious individualists or "free spirits" who functioned independently of the established religious forms of their day, fail to under stand the prophets' concern for and commitment to the covenant of God and the community of faith. The most influential prophets of the Old Testament were those who could actually weep, as Jesus Himself would later weep, over the broken covenant in Israel. They could see the social injustice, exploitation, and self-serving idolatry practiced by the people—especially the rich—and promoted by their kings. So they entered into solidarity with the poor who grieved and the oppressed who mourned. They despised the institutionalized religion of royal manipulation whereby all radical faith in the community was crushed, while the outward forms of religion were magnified to serve the purposes of the political and religious establishment. As they anticipated the inevitable judgments that would accompany such a course, their tears were a public expression of Israel's deepest fears. The prophetic condemnation of Israel's covenant-breaking should never be separated from the prophetic grief (Jer. 4:19), the call for public grieving (Amos 5:16; Jer. 9:10; 31:15), and the message that God Himself is grieving (Jer. 31:20).

The covenant that God reestablished at Sinai was in no way inadequate or merely temporary in its provisions for Israel. But it became inadequate when Israel distorted it and destroyed its true meaning. The message of the prophets was that its failure was due, not to its defective nature, but to Israel's two-fold iniquity—unfaithfulness to God, and its inevitable result, unfaithfulness to humanity. Where faith in God is absent, sin against one's fellow man is always present. The prophetic testimony on these two points is overwhelming (see Isa. 2:8; Hosea 8:1-5; Jer. 7:30, 31; Amos 5:1-13; 6:4-8; Isa. 10:1-3; Jer. 5:1, 27-29).

Regarding the sin of social injustice, Ronald Sider states, "The explosive message of the prophets is that God destroyed Israel because of mistreatment of the poor! . . . Economic exploitation sent the chosen people into captivity. 16 This fact cannot be overstressed in a prosperous and materialistic nation like America, where we hoard so much of the world's wealth. But neither can we afford to forget that the root sin of Israel's oppression and injustice was the rejection of a radical faith commitment to God's grace as revealed in the Exodus-Sinaitic covenant.

God's covenant was not a written code of law on stone; its essence was to know God and to be known by Him in an intimate faith relationship. The Old Testament prophets use the word know (yada) 177 times in their writings. This same word, often used to describe the act of sexual intimacy between human beings, indicates that the covenant relationship demands an experimental intimacy between God and man that far surpasses the simple observance of laws or commandments. It is in this context that Jeremiah gives the words of the Lord: "The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. None of them will have to teach his fellow countryman to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs" (Jer. 31:33-34, T.E.V.).

This "new covenant" to which Jeremiah refers is a reinstitution of the "everlasting covenant." 17 It is not meant to nullify or minimize the Exodus-Sinaitic covenant, but to restore it to its original purpose. The "new covenant" is not new from God's standpoint, but is new in contrast to what the people of Israel had come to understand the Sinaitic covenant to be. The "old covenant" (verse 32) does not describe a former, inadequate attempt on the part of God to enter into relationship with His people, but to the gross distortion by the Israelites of the Sinaitic covenant. Therefore, Jeremiah calls His people to repentance. To experience the "new covenant" is to know God intimately, and as a result of this relationship, to restore social justice to the poor, needy, and oppressed (see Jer. 22:16).

There is only one covenant that God offers to the human race in Scripture, and that is the "everlasting covenant" (berith olam), a phrase that occurs fifteen times in the Old Testament. Five of these references appear in the prophetic writings, and stress the unalterable nature of the divine covenant with man. 18 God's method of salvation is indeed the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is true that Scripture speaks of an Adamic covenant (Hosea 6:7), a Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:9), an Abrahamic covenant (chap. 12:1-4), a Sinaitic covenant, and a Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 23:5). But all of these covenants are actually various expressions of the "everlasting covenant" of grace as it was applied in every age under differing circumstances.

When we speak of the old covenant, we need to recognize that it resulted, not by God's plan, but by man's misinterpretation of God's original plan. The new covenant is God's continued effort to reestablish the everlasting covenant in its unperverted form. Rather than speaking of two covenants, we should speak in terms of two different attitudes toward God. Not two dispensations, but two different approaches to religion. The old covenant is Adam and Eve sewing together fig leaves to cover their nakedness; the new covenant is God Himself providing a covering for their nakedness. The old covenant is Cain working diligently to provide His own self-made sacrifice without blood; the new covenant is Abel claiming the blood of the lamb in faith as God commanded. The old covenant is sinful man at the Tower of Babel doubting the promise of God and seeking to save himself; the new covenant is Noah finding grace in the eyes of the Lord. The old covenant is Abram doubting the promise of God by taking Hagar, his bond servant; the new covenant is Abraham trusting God to perform that which He had promised.

Today, the Exodus-Sinaitic covenant warns us against the extreme of a social gospel detached from an intimate faith relationship with God, or the opposite extreme of claiming Exodus, resurrection, and salvation, without Sinai, Pentecost, or a significant involvement in the eradication of human oppression and injustice. 19 The Sinaitic covenant, understood in its proper Biblical con text, is an experiential relationship with God based on the good news of His salvation. Therefore, as Walter Harrelson has pointed out, the Ten Commandments are in reality a document that proclaims eternal principles of human rights and responsibilities. 20 Such principles are not the covenant itself, but the fruits that naturally grow out of an internalized covenant relationship. They are the path that guides us to the goal of eternal peace in response to Jesus' words, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15).


From the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.

1 Lonnie Kliever, The Shattered Spectrum: A Survey of Contemporary Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), p. 1.

2 Walter Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 5, 6.

3 Eichrodt, in his Theology of the Old Testament, fails to recognize the various complex strands of significant theological themes in the Old Testament. While his work is important, recent scholarship recognizes that his efforts to subordinate all Old Testament material to the covenant theme, and specifically the Sinaitic covenant,
force the 'text to fit a theory rather than the evidence. See D. J. McCarthy, Old Testament Covenant (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1972) pp. 4-6.

4 "Dispensationalism," reprinted from Bibliotheca Sacra, 372:93, October-December, 1936. (A publication of Dallas Theological Seminary.)

5 G. E. Mendenhall, "Covenant," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 714.

6 Oeorge E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East, Pittsburgh: The Biblical Colloquim, 1955.

7 Delbert R. Millers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), pp. 49, 50.

8 D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978), p. 253.

9 Edmond Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), pp. 103-107. See also, J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), p. 276.

10 For a full discussion of the word righteousness as it related to Israel's covenant relationship with God, see chapter one of Gerhard Von Rad's Old Testament Theology, volume 1.

11 B. S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), p. 367.

12 Howard Heppenstall, "The Law and the Covenant at Sinai," Andrews University Seminary Studies, vol. 2, 1964, p. 20. For further discussion of the relationship between the Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic covenant see, Walter Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), p. 101f.

13 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 32-43. See also, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp. 28-37.

14 Childs, p. 367.

15 James Londis, God's Finger wrote Freedom (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1970), p. 15.

16 Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove, 111.: IVP, 1977), p. 62 (59-72). See also, Conrad Boerma, The Rich, the Poor and the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979), pp. 31-48. R. B. Scott, The Relevance of the Prophets (New York: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 171492.

17 Ralph Klein, Israel in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pp. 66, 134.

18 JaKob Jocz, The Covenant (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman's, 1968), pp. 57, 58. See Isa. 55:3, 61:8; Jer. 32:40; Ezek. 16:60, 37:26.

19 Bruce Birch, Larry Rasmussen, The Predicament of the Prosperous (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), pp. 134, 135. See also Birch, Singing the Lord's Song (United Methodist Church, Global Ministries, 1981), pp. 124-129.

20 Harrelson, p. 192.

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Steve Daily is the campus chaplain and an intructor in the Division of Religion on the La Sierra Campus of Loma Linda University, Riverside, California.

March 1983

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