What is Hebrews "Old Covenant"?
Hebrews, Old Covenant, Old Covenant comparison
Hebrews is one of only two books of the Bible that specifically mentions an 'Old Covenant' as such. Of course not all of Hebrews directly deals with any covenant. In Hebrews 1-6, the word is not mentioned. First let's take a closer look at some of the more often quoted and critical text. We'll keep count of the number of comparisons between the new order and the old order, or Old Covenant, and note anything that allows us to identify the covenant under discussion.
We need to look at Hebrews very carefully. It talks directly about the new covenant and the old.
Hebrews 8:7 indicates that the covenant at fault was the 'first'. Wouldn't this indicate the Sinai or Horeb covenant? The Greek for 'first' here and also in verses 13 9:1, 15 & 18 is prote, a special form of proto which is the typical word for first in Greek. It indicates a series or group. In this case 'the first of two' (Thayer's Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, p 555) since Hebrews is only talking of two covenants. This is not referring to the Sinai covenant in opposition to the Moab covenant, but rather the first of the two under discussion here in Hebrews, i.e. the old covenant, and the new covenant. There is no direct connection between either the Moab covenant or the Sinai covenant in this use of the word 'first'. One must look elsewhere in the context to determine which, if any, of those covenants is intended.
Especially important is Hebrews 9:16-28, which contrasts the dedication of the old blood covenant with the new blood covenant. The sprinkling of blood on the scroll and the people and the tabernacle and the vessels all occurred at the dedication of this 'first', "old covenant". The subject is the dedication, which required blood. "Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood" (Heb 9:18). "And almost all things are purged with blood" (vs.:22). Hebrews 9:18-22 is all one thought, describing the event of the dedication of this 'first' covenant. We looked at this description earlier, but let's do it again. Be sure to examine exactly what the Law is as well if you have not already looked at that.
Vs. 18 again uses the designation, prote, 'first of two' or 'former'. So Hebrews is about to describe some very specific details that will identify this 'first' covenant, the covenant of Hebrews 8:13, that was growing old.
Vs. 19 indicates that at the dedication of this old covenant Moses explained 'every precept' of the Law. That law is the Book of the Law or Law of Moses. 'The law' , being referred to here, didn't exist at the time of the Sinai covenant. The Sinai covenant consisted of Exodus 20-23. It was over 39 years after the Sinai covenant before the Law of Moses was confirmed. Moses gave the Law to the Levites at the time of the Moab covenant (Deut. 31:9, 24-26). This was after explaining it to the people as recorded in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy does not explain every detail of the law. It covers the main points. It does not include all detail by itself. It assumes the existence of the other books of the Law (Deut 1:3). For some things Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and even Genesis, must be consulted to get the whole picture. The 'words' of Deuteronomy are the Words of the Moab covenant and a summary of the precepts of the Pentateuch, the Law. This is exactly as Hebrews states it. "...Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord had given him as commandments to them...Moses began to explain this law". (Deut 1:3c, 5b) "For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law" (Heb 9:19a).
On the other hand, at the confirming of the Sinai covenant, Moses "took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people" (Ex 24:7, 3). He read all the terms of the Sinai covenant in total. Many of the precepts of the law were not included, i.e. sin offerings, the priesthood of Levi, central worship before the temple or tabernacle and the curses of the law. These are very important precepts in the Law. They are absent from the Sinai covenant and what was read to the people at that time. Why did Moses read the Sinai covenant, but speak the precepts of the law for the Moab covenant? Because reading Exodus 20-23 is one thing, reading Genesis 1 through Numbers 36 along with pieces of Deuteronomy, is something else again.
There is no detailed description of the actual offering, or cutting of the Moab covenant in the Old Testament. However, the confirmation took place on a new moon. The new moon sacrifices included at least two calves and a goat. That is very similar to the sacrifices recorded in Hebrews 9:19.  This covenant at Moab is the only one that could possibly qualify as the Old Covenant, since it is the only one where every precept of 'the law' was covered. It is clear that this covenant came from God, through Moses (Deut 26:16-18, 29:1, 9-12 & 30:15-16, 19).
The books of the Law didn't exist at the time of the Sinai covenant. When they did exist they had to be summarized for the book of Deuteronomy, the second law. For whatever reason, God chose not to record this event in total detail in Deuteronomy. However much of it is described in Deuteronomy 26:16-27:1 & chapters 29-33.
Hebrews 8:19 then says the people and the book were sprinkled with the blood of calves and goats, and water. The Horeb covenant was dedicated with ox (probably more accurately young bull) blood (Ex 24:5), not calf or goat blood. Horeb 0, Moab 2.
Hebrews also quotes Moses as he sprinkled the blood of the covenant on the people. It indicates Although there seems to be some differences with the Sinai covenant dedication, this could be due to translation. The basic meanings seem to be very similar. Of course this could easily apply to the Moab covenant as well. So this quote would not be unique to the Sinai covenant. Similar words could apply to any blood covenant made with God.
Hebrews says Moses then sprinkled the tabernacle and all the vessels. Of course neither the Tabernacle nor the vessels existed at the time of the Horeb covenant or the Exodus 24 account. The design was explained to Moses after the Sinai covenant was confirmed. It wasn't completed until about nine months later. On the other hand, at the time of the Moab covenant the tabernacle had been in service for almost 39 years.
Some try to place the sprinkling of the tabernacle and utensils after Exodus 24, but before Deuteronomy. There is no event recorded in scripture that might fit with what Moses is doing here, except in Deuteronomy. The tabernacle was originally consecrated with oil, not blood (Lev 8). In fact, a later date makes no sense at all unless it is at the confirmation of another covenant, which is exactly what Deuteronomy is. From Hebrews 7:22 on past chapter 10, the entire discussion revolves around covenants. This sprinkling with blood of the Tabernacle and utensils at the dedication of the Old Covenant is a major focus of this chapter (see vss.13-14, 18). It makes no sense in this context to think that the covenant is the Sinai covenant, but this sprinkling of blood took place months after the covenant was confirmed. In the immediate context the covenant dedication is only mentioned because it was connected to the shedding of blood used in the sprinkling. If we consider the Moab covenant is the covenant being described, the pieces fit with no conflicts. Horeb 0, Moab 3.
So Hebrews is either very sloppy and confused about this matter, in which case we can't trust what it says, or the author is clearly referring to the dedication of some covenant OTHER than the Horeb/Sinai covenant. The author evidently had a source outside of the Book of the Law that documented some details of the dedication of the Moab Covenant more completely than Deuteronomy did. This should not be a surprise. Many historical works have been found in the Dead Sea area, which were heretofore unknown. The law, the Tabernacle and all the associated vessels only existed at the confirmation of the Moab covenant, not the Sinai. Oxen or young bulls were offered at the Sinai covenant. Calves and goats were offered at the dedication of the Old Covenant. The Moab covenant is the only covenant that could fit this description.
Hebrews 8:9, "Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt...'. Is the Sinai covenant indicated here?
Of course Hebrews 8:9 continues, "because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them..." this obviously is referring to the covenant that was placed in the arc as the foundation of the Sinai covenant. However, it is not being treated as something to be cast off like the Old Covenant. It is being distinguished from the old covenant.
A reasonable place to start a detailed examination is Hebrews 7. So let's go though the entire section of Hebrews that deals with the Old Covenant and the changes that resulted from its being replaced.
Hebrews 7 starts off discussing Melchizedek and here compares him to the Priesthood of Levi (vs. 5). Aaron was not a priest until about the time of Exodus 40, about nine months after the Sinai covenant was confirmed. The most complete description of the ordination is in Leviticus 8. This is at or after the completion of the Tabernacle. The Levites in general also started serving after the tabernacle was constructed (Num 1:50, Num 8:5-20, 18:5-6). The Levites had no priesthood at the time of the Horeb covenant. Horeb covenant 0, Moab 5.
Hebrews 7 also mentions tithes are paid to Levi (vs. 5). You won't find anything about tithing to Levi in the Sinai covenant, but you can find such things in the Moab covenant; Num 18:21-4, and other places. Horeb covenant 0, Moab 6.
Hebrews 7:11-12 when closely examined indicates the "law" was based upon the Levitical priesthood. (see NIV, Philips, Alford or EGNT) Again the Levites held no position as priests at the time of the Sinai covenant. So this "law" is also not the Sinai covenant. However, the Law was given under the Levitical priesthood and indeed the participation of the Levite is fundamental to its operation. Specifically, this law was received in Deuteronomy 31:9, 24-25 and given to the Levites by Moses at that time. So this particular law was not the Sinai Covenant law, but that recorded in Deuteronomy. Horeb 0, Moab 7.
Hebrews 7:13 says no one from Judah attended the altar. This is a reference to the altar of the tabernacle. >No tribe was prevented from personally offering before the altars allowed under the Sinai covenant (Ex 20:24-26). Offering was only restricted by the Moab covenant (Lev 17:8-9, Deut 12:13-14). Horeb covenant 0, Moab 8
Hebrews 7:16 contrasts a "fleshly commandment" with the "power of an endless life". I take this to mean again the priesthood of the physical family of Aaron and Levi as opposed to the spiritual and eternal priesthood of Christ according to the order of Melchizedek. Again, there is no mention of a priesthood in the Sinai covenant. However, Leviticus 8, Numbers 25:11-13, & Deuteronomy 18 should be sufficient to confirm mention of the House of Levi as the fleshly family set aside as priests within the Book of the Law, the Moab covenant.
Now I suppose this could be considered a repeat of one or more of the points above and therefore might not be counted. However since we are going though examining changes, to find what is changing, I think if Hebrews makes a comparison or contrast we ought to note it too. That being the case, Horeb 0, Moab 9.
Hebrews 7:18 & 19 refer to an annulling of the former commandment and that law. This it seems is a direct referral to our previous point regarding the law of the Levitical priesthood, so we won't score that one.
Hebrews 7:20-22 talks of taking an oath of office for the priesthood. Christ was evidently made priest by an oath. The Levites were not. So it's not likely we would find much about an oath anywhere for Levi, since according to Hebrews, they didn't have one. My concordance bears this out. I can find none. However as we have seen, the Book of the Law clearly indicates the Priesthood came by family lineage, and mentions nothing of an oath. The Sinai covenant says nothing on the subject at all. So the Book of the Law agrees with Hebrews and confirms the subject at hand, Horeb 0, Moab 10.
Hebrews 7:27 the High Priest had to offer sacrifices for his sins and then for the people. Details of this can be found in Leviticus 6:20-23, Exodus 29:38-45 &, Leviticus 9:7, 15. There is no reference to these functions in the Sinai covenant. Horeb 0, Moab 11.
Hebrews 8:3-5 contrasts the offerings done by the Levites in the physical temple with the offerings of Christ in the heavenly temple. You can find the description of the physical temple in Exodus 26, & 36-39. Most of the descriptions of the offerings are scattered throughout Leviticus and Numbers. There is no description of the temple or the Levitical priesthood in the Sinai covenant. Horeb 0, Moab 12.
Hebrews 8:6 talks about the covenant being based on better promises. Of course you will find a significant amount of text in Deuteronomy 27 & 28 devoted to promises, good and bad. There are also promises at the end of the Sinai covenant beginning in Exodus 23:20. So, as a means of identification this comparison does not definitively identify either covenant. Every covenant had promises or there would be no reason to make a covenant.
Hebrews 8:10, says the new covenant will be written on the mind and heart of those that are His people. The Moab covenant prescribed a blue thread in a tassel and writing the law on the door post (Deut 6:9, 11:20, Num 15:38). Deuteronomy 29:4 specifically says God didn't give them the heart they needed to keep 'this covenant', which again was the Moab covenant. The Sinai covenant says nothing of this. It assumed obedience. So again we have only a comparison connection between the Old Covenant and the Moab covenant. The Sinai covenant assumes obedience more like the New Covenant. Horeb 0, Moab 13.
Hebrews 8:11 doesn't have a comparison, but it is interesting that in the fullness of the new covenant everyone will know the one true God. It's fairly obvious this isn't the case now. So the new covenant is evidently not fully here. This is interesting because vs. 13 indicates the old is still in the process of disappearing as of the writing of Hebrews.
One needs to remember that more than likely, Herod's temple still stood at the time Hebrews was written. As a matter of fact it seems fairly obvious that Hebrews is addressing the discouragement of the church in Judea because they had just been kicked out of the Temple area. Although there is apparently no direct historical evidence of this, the context of the whole book and especially the last few chapters makes it pretty clear.
Within a short time, the Romans destroyed the temple itself in 70 AD. Without the temple it became very difficult to fulfill the Moab covenant. The Sinai covenant, on the other hand, can still be fully observed.
Hebrews 9:1 says the first, or prior covenant had ordinances of divine service and a tabernacle with all its accoutrements, etc. Of course nowhere in the Sinai covenant is there any word about any tabernacle. By the time of the covenant in Moab, the Tabernacle had been in use for almost 39 years. So the discussion here has no connection to the Sinai covenant. It obviously does with the Moab covenant. Horeb 0, Moab 14
After describing all the various accoutrements of the Tabernacle and the temple itself, Hebrews then mentions the service of the priests and specifically the service on the Day of Atonement. This was symbolic for a later time (vs.9). The work of the priests is not described at all in the Sinai covenant. It is mentioned in scriptures already quoted and Numbers 18 in the Moab covenant. The priestly service on Atonement is prescribed in Leviticus 16. Horeb 0, Moab 15.
In vs. 11 another comparison is done between Christ and the temple. You can find the plans for the accoutrements and Temple described in Exodus 25-26 & 36-8. This is after the Sinai covenant was confirmed. There is no indication of this in the Sinai covenant. The tabernacle was integral to the covenant at Moab attended to by the Levites. The Sinai covenant did not mention it. We scored this comparison in the last two paragraphs.
Now Hebrews 9:4 mentions the tablets of the covenant. Does that link them with the OLD Covenant that is under discussion here? Certainly if it said the "tablets of the old covenant" it would have. However, the tablets of the covenant were commonly known as, "tablets of the covenant". So since Hebrews was talking about the various physical items associated with the temple the best description for them was "tablets of the covenant". It might have helped us if Hebrews had said either tablets of the Horeb or Old Covenant, but it doesn't. Hebrews got its point across; i.e. there was physical stuff in the temple. That's all it intended to do. The only comparison is between physical things associated with the temple and "good things to come". I take this to mean New Jerusalem or a temple therein, which we already scored.
Hebrews 9:13-14 contrasts the cleansing brought about by blood. You can find heifer ashes used to cleanse in Numbers 19:16-18. Other animals were also offered for sin (Lev 4-7). There is no mention of sin offerings in the Sinai covenant. The Sinai covenant does mention 'peace' and 'burnt' offerings, both of which were freewill offerings and not sin offerings. So, there is no connection with blood cleansing in the Sinai covenant. Cleansing was done regularly as part of the tabernacle service by the Levites within the purview of the Moab covenant. Horeb 0, Moab 16
Hebrews 9:25-26 compares the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement every year, with that done by Christ just once. The occasion of Atonement is not directly mentioned in the Sinai covenant. The pilgrimage festivals are designated (Ex 23:14-16). Sacrifices for sin are not mentioned at all in the Sinai covenant nor is the priesthood to carry them out. Certainly they are in the Moab covenant (Lev 16). Horeb 0, Moab 17.
In Hebrews 10:1-13 the law that prescribes sacrifices cannot perfect the worshiper, but reminds them of their imperfection. Christ has superseded that law offering the sacrifice of his own blood. Again, there are many such recommendations for sacrifice throughout the Book of the Law. There are no offerings for sin mentioned in the Sinai covenant. Horeb 0, Moab 18.
In Hebrews 10:17-18 the new way promotes forgiveness, the old way called for sacrifices of atonement. The Sinai covenant mentions nothing of sacrifices for atonement. The Book of the Law does (Lev 4-6). Horeb 0, Moab 19.
Hebrews 10:19 describes the new way into the presence of our High Priest. Although not directly mentioned, this contrasts with the Levitical high priest entering the Holy Place of the temple once a year on Atonement. This can be found in Leviticus 16. Nothing like it is mentioned in the Sinai covenant. Horeb 0, Moab 20.
Hebrews 10:26-31, describes the caveat of the new covenant. If one rejects it, one may end up dead spiritually and permanently, whereas a rejection of the law of Moses, the Book of the Law, only ends in physical death. This instruction can be found in Deuteronomy 17:2-6. The Law of Moses is summarized in the Moab covenant, as explained above. Horeb 0, Moab 21.
That covers the covenant comparisons in Hebrews. So just how difficult is it to determine which covenant is the Old Covenant based on the discussion in Hebrews? There is nothing that indicates the Sinai covenant is the Old Covenant. There are a few things that could apply to both covenants. Generally these could apply to any blood covenant. Apart from what can apply to any covenant, everything is totally unique to the covenant made at Moab. That is the covenant that is 'ready to vanish away'. Even with this though, Hebrews does not say it is 'done away', but seems to be on the verge of being unworkable. Indeed, with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem its requirements could no longer be met.