Session 5: Exodus, Law and Covenant
By the end of this session you should be able to:
understand the significance of the liberation of Israel from Egypt
understand the nature of law in the Old Testament
describe the four different Covenants between Yahweh and the Hebrews
Reflect on the implications of these issues for doctrine and spirituality.
When we think of the book of Exodus we automatically associate it with Moses and often, perhaps subconsciously, think that Moses was its author. As we shall see, this is highly unlikely and it is quite possible that the book may well not have been written until much later in Israel's history. Whoever wrote it, Exodus is one of the most important books in the Old Testament and deals with themes that came to dominate Israel's history and relationship with God for centuries. Watch the short Youtube video and then watch Hayes Lecture 8.
The book of Exodus is full of stories that are not so much history but rather of the myth & legend genre. They are full of miraculous incidents, demonstrating the power of God. As Hayes notes, the date of writing is likely to have been no earlier than the Babylonian exile, 700 years after the events it describes and the purpose of the book was not so much to recount historical events but rather to remind people of their obligation to worship God and to do this properly, and that, crucially, God cares and has a purpose for them and the whole of creation. This is what deliverance is all about in the OT - not personal deliverance from sin, but God’s physical deliverance of the nation from her enemies. This redemption is for a purpose which will become clear at Sinai: Israel is to become Yahweh’s people bound by Covenant (Hayes, 2012).
Relationship and God interacting with humanity is demonstrated throughout the book of Exodus.
God acts through women at the outset of the book. Then God depends on Moses’ obedience in carrying out certain tasks. When Moses equivocates, God adapts by choosing Aaron to be co-leader, rather than dismissing or even worse, annihilating, Moses or even doing something to override Moses and his frailties.
There is compassion shown here too. God is responsive - altering the outcome of the faithlessness of the Hebrews that God had originally planned. The order of events is also important in Exodus. God first redeems the people, saves them and brings them into a new land where they are free from the oppression of Pharaoh and calls them to worship him and to be a sign to the whole world. Only then does God give the law; ‘The law is a gift to an already redeemed community. The law is not the means by which relationship with God is established. God redeems regardless of human obedience.’ (Pownall-Jones, 2017).
This is grace - not something that immediately springs to mind when we think of the OT. However, the law is a gift, not a burden in the OT. The law is given as part of the Covenant which is the primary purpose of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt as we will discover in part two of this session. There are however, some problems with book of Exodus, particularly in its use of violence in order to conquer and the oppressed later becoming the oppressor. You can explore these ideas further by visiting the links in the Resources section if you would like to, or bookmark them to keep for later if you'd like to explore more but don't have time now.
What do you think about the similarity of the language of 'The Song of the Sea' in Exodus 15 to Cananite myths and Hayes' thoughts about how the Israelites have transformed these ideas?
What might we take from the message of the book of Exodus for today and how can we use it in our own faith journey?
Make notes of your thoughts for discussion at on the Study Day.
As we noted at end of the previous part of this session, law in the OT was not seen as something to be feared but rather to be celebrated. It issued out of the Covenant between Yaweh and the Israelites and so it was an expression of God's grace, God's care for Israel. This is why it there is so much emphasis on reciting, studying and proclaiming the law. The difference between Israelite law and the legal codes of other ANE cultures exemplifies this care – it does not only extend to some elite members of society but to everyone, perhaps especially the weakest, and indeed to all creation.
Make a note of the important difference between OT law and other ANE laws that are very similar. Why is this so important and what does it tell us about Yahweh?
Much of Leviticus and Numbers is taken up with laws about sacrifice, worship and purity. These can be difficult to understand and perplexing. Hayes deals with them very helpfully and it is recommend that you watch Lecture 10 “The Priestly Legacy: Cult and Sacrifice, Purity and Holiness” or read the corresponding chapter in the book.
Covenants in the Old Testament
There are four different Covanants in the Old Testaments, three are unconditional, one is conditional:
1) Noahide Covenant (Genesis 6:18-21; 9:8-17): A covenant for God to rescue Noah and his descendents. Noah has to build ark and collect animals. Covenant not to destroy the world by flood – includes Noah, his descendants and all others. Unconitional.
2) Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 15; 17): Promise of land (Canaan), promise of descendants. God will be God to Abram and his descendants blessing the world through them. Unconditional.
3) Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19:3 – 24:14, Exodus 34:10-28, Deuteronomy, esp. 5, 12-26, 34):
To “free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.” Conditional on obedience from Israel (see Deuteronomy 28 in particular).
4) Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89): Promise to make great; promise to “plant” Israel; promise of security; promise of a “house”; promise of heirs as king; promise to establish David’s “house” and kingdom. Unconditional.
It is the Mosaic covenant that is used by the Deuteronomistic Historian to explain all the problems of Israel's history: either they (the people) or their Kings did not obey God's instructions and that is why disaster came upon them. We will see this idea repeated over and over throughout the OT. If you would like further information on OT Covenants have a look at the powerpoint presentation in the Resources section below.
Spotlight on Doctrine
There is much in the themes of the Exodus and the creating of Covenants between God and humankind that echoes the image of God as Father in the creeds. God cares for creation and all of us as human beings and wants to be in relationship with both. The doctrine of the Trinity is also echoed in this theme of relationship and liberation. We will pick this up again later in the module when we come to examine the prophets.
Spotlight on Spirituality
The themes of Exodus are at the heart of Liberation theology and they also underpin many different spiritualities. They are also the bedrock of our Christian faith, as we declare that in Jesus God has set us free from the bondage of sin and death - language which comes from the heart the of the Exodus.
Spend some time prayerfully thinking about what you have discovered in this session. What are the most significant things for you? How might you use what you have learned in your own faith journey? Write this down in your learning journal and be prepared to share it at the next Study Day.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, all things come from you:
from you come our life,
this world and all that we have and are.
Teach us to love and respect your creation
and give glory to you.
Blessed are you, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
Something Practical To Do
Listen out for the themes of this week's session in church. Is any of the Decalogue read out - if so where does it appear and do you hear it more keenly or any differently as a result of this session?
Share some of what you have found on the discussion board in the Forum