The Old Covenant and Law of Moses
Summary: The covenant God made with Israel before they entered the Promised Land included the law, also called the law of Moses.
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. (Ex 19:3-6; Lev 1:1-27:34) This is the most detailed covenant in the Old Testament. 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, the nation wandered 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 — the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — and provided a comprehensive structure for their national and individual lives. It included civil law (Ex 19-23; Lev 19-20), ceremonial and religious law (Ex 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, commandments or decrees, and people were required to obey all of them to receive the covenant blessings from God, otherwise they would receive the covenant curses.
This covenant identified them as God’s people. (Lev 26:12) It set them apart from all other nations; that is, this covenant was only for Israel, not Gentiles. (Lev 20:24, 26) This was an earth-based covenant, so if they adhered to the covenant 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. Capital punishment was common for individuals disobeying covenant terms (the law). If the nation as a whole disobeyed the covenant terms, they would corporately experience the covenant curses: terror, diseases, plagues, defeat by their enemies, 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 would not destroy Israel when they violated the covenant and he will never violate the covenant. (Lev 26:44) He’ll always be the Lord their God, which rules out replacement theology.
The term “law” in both the Old and New Testaments refers specifically to this body of laws God gave to Israel as part of their covenant. The term also applies more broadly to the writings of Moses — the first five books of the Bible — and in some cases even includes all of what we call the Old Testament.
In the covenant between God and Israel, the people were required to keep all the laws; more than 600 of them. 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. The old covenant law applied only to Israel.