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The Two Covenants of Moab and Sinai

Moab, Deuteronomy Covenant, Moab Covenant, Law of God, Law of Moses, animal sacrifice, His Covenant, Deuteronomy

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It is almost a universal understanding in Christianity and Judaism that the Deuteronomy covenant confirmed in Moab was the same covenant as was confirmed in Sinai.   Is there any basis for that?  Would Moses agree?


In fact, the record in the books of Moses presents each of these covenants as distinct.  The context of the confirmation of the Deuteronomy covenant is not vague.


Deu 29:1 “These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb.”


One covenant, besides another covenant is two covenants.  The Moab covenant recorded in the book of Deuteronomy is not a repeating or renewal of the Sinai covenant.  There is no scriptural statement to that effect.


Covenants are made up of different parts.  There is typically an introduction that explains why the covenant is necessary.  The introduction in Deuteronomy continues through chapter 11.  The terms of the covenant which followed the introduction were also a law.  This is what Moses commanded Israel to obey as they were confirming this covenant.


Deu 32:46 ‘and He said to them: "Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe--all the words of this law.”’


After the terms, there is usually a section describing the benefits and punishments or blessings and cursings that come with the covenant.  This section starts about chapter 27. 


It is this same law that Moses wrote and gave to the Levites to set by the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, which was His covenant, confirmed in Horeb (Deu 4:12-13).  His covenant was in the ark.  This Deuteronomy covenant was not in the ark.  The terms of this Deuteronomy covenant were set outside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord.  It was not the ‘Covenant of the Lord’.  There was a physical separation between them.


Deu 31:24 “So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished, 25 that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying: 26 Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there as a witness against you;


The terms of the covenant of Deuteronomy were not the terms of the Covenant of the Lord.  They were not kept in the ark which was prepared to contain the Covenant of the Lord.  There was one covenant in the ark and one outside. 


Joshua wrote this new law on stones when Israel crossed into the Promised Land.  He wrote this because that is what Moses told him to do.


Deu 27:2-3 "And it shall be, on the day when you cross over the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God is giving you, that you shall set up for yourselves large stones, and whitewash them with lime.  3 You shall write on them all the words of this law, when you have crossed over, that you may enter the land which the LORD your God is giving you, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey,’ just as the LORD God of your fathers promised you."


Josh 8:32  And there, in the presence of the children of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he [Moses] had written.”


Joshua called this new law the Law of Moses.  It is consistently referred to as ‘this law’ or ‘this covenant’ in Deuteronomy.  This is in contrast to ‘His Law’ or ‘His covenant’.  Those terms are only used to refer to the covenant made at Sinai.


When Deuteronomy refers to ‘His covenant’ in some way, it is always speaking of a past event.  It does not claim His covenant is being made or renewed or restored that day (Deu 4:13, 23, 8:18, 29:1, 25).   In fact, Deuteronomy specifically says: "The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today…” (Deu 5:3ab).  There was a covenant made in Horeb (Deu 3:2).  That was ‘His covenant’ (Deu 4:13).  ‘His covenant’ was made with Israel in Exodus 20-24 and also with the ‘fathers’ (Deu 8:18), which in Deuteronomy refers to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deu 1:35, 8).


The patriarchs did not tithe to the Levitical priesthood.  Nor did a Levite officiate at any of the altars they built.  They never went to the Tabernacle or Temple to offer their sacrifices.  They did not keep the Law of Moses.  The Creator specifically said Abraham kept His Laws (Gen 26:5).  He was confident Abraham would live and teach His standard.  The Levitical priesthood is not included in His Laws.


Gen 22:19 “For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him”.  Keeping the way of the Creator does not require the existence of a Levitical priest.


Purpose of the Covenants

The Covenant made at Mt. Sinai was intended to solidify Israel as the people of God, a nation of priests, representatives of the Creator. 


Exodus 19:5 "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.  6 ‘And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’..."


The Deuteronomy covenant made in Moab was not intended to continue Israel as a nation of priests to the Creator.  It was intended to remove the threat of death that was made against them after the golden calf.


Ex 32:10 "Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation."


Deu 4:1 "Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you." (see also Deu 5:33, 6:24, 8:1, 16:20, 30:16)


There was no intention that Israel would be a nation of priests after the golden calf.  Israel needed others to represent the Eternal to them.  Aaron’s sons and the Levites were set up as judges, priests and teachers to Israel (Deu 17:8-13, 18:1-5).  The Eternal knew Israel wasn’t up to the task He intended for them.


Deu 5:29  Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!


Differences in regulations

Paul states in Galatians 3:15 that even covenants of men do not change.  His implication is then: if imperfect men don’t allow for changes in a covenant, certainly a covenant of the Eternal does not change.  Yet there are incompatible changes in some matters between these two covenants. 


For instance, the Sinai covenant allowed anyone to build an altar of earth on twelve uncut stones and make their own animal sacrifice (Ex 20:24-26).  The Deuteronomy covenant made in Moab specifies that the offerings be taken to the Levites at the Eternal’s dwelling place (Deu 12:5-14).  That was the tabernacle or temple.  In that case the altar was made of wood covered in bronze (Ex 27:1-2). 


The Passover was originally eaten as a family in the home (Ex 12:3, 7).  This was the only established tradition when Passover was kept the first time in the wilderness (Num 9:3).  With the covenant of Deuteronomy Israel was told to keep it at the same place they were supposed to take all their other offerings (Deu 16:5-6).  They were specifically prohibited from offering the Passover on their own property.


There were other changes as well, including the establishment of the Levitical priesthood.  For a more complete examination of many of these changes go to Torah Changes.


Those that insist that these were the same covenant generally build their case on the similarity of the terms.  There are shared terms, but even here they show a distinction between the covenants.  The expectation with the Deuteronomy covenant is that they will obey not only these statutes and judgments that Moses set forward that day, ‘this law’, as written on the stones by Joshua, but also ‘His statutes and judgments’.  His statutes and the commandments are defined in Deuteronomy as already explained (Deu 6:17).  That was the law in force in the wilderness (Ex 18:16, 16:28).  His law is His covenant (Ps 78:10, Hos 8:1).  Israel had been living under the terms of the covenant made at Sinai, His covenant, which included His statutes and judgments (Deu 4:23, Ex 34:12-28).  No detailed explanation was necessary for those who wondered in the wilderness. 


Deu 26:16 "This day the LORD your God commands you to observe these statutes and judgments; therefore you shall be careful to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.  17 Today you have proclaimed the LORD to be your God, and that you will walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His commandments, and His judgments, and that you will obey His voice. "


The statutes and judgments Moses set before Israel that day were especially for Israel in the Promised Land. 


Deu 11:31 "For you will cross over the Jordan and go in to possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you, and you will possess it and dwell in it.  32 And you shall be careful to observe all the statutes and judgments which I set before you today.  12:1 These are the statutes and judgments which you shall be careful to observe in the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth."


The covenant of the Lord, His covenant, is more permanent than that.  His commandments, on which the Sinai Covenant was based (Ex 34:28, Deu 5:7-21) are His ways (Deu 8:6).  His ways don’t change (Mal 3:6).  Many of the changes implemented in the Deuteronomy covenant need to be reconsidered again.  They cannot be done as specified, in large part because the Creator no longer maintains a physical house on the earth.  On the other hand, the original instruction on these matters in the Sinai covenant is still viable.


Other Witnesses

After years of neglect Josiah exhorted Hilkiah the priest to repair the temple.  Evidently in the process Hilkiah found ‘the Book of the Law’ (II Kings 22:8, 23:11).  This book was also called the ‘Book of the Covenant’ (II Kings 23:2, 21).  Certainly if Josiah understood how great the Eternal’s wrath would be (II Kings 22:13) certainly he heard the curses of Deuteronomy 28.  Since a single document, typically written on a scroll was about the size of a single book of Moses and this book was both a law and a covenant, certainly this book was Deuteronomy.  The Law under discussion is also identified as the ‘Law of Moses’ (II Kings 23:25).


As a result Josiah called the leaders and all Jerusalem together to commit themselves to live up to this covenant.  He made a commitment to “follow the LORD and to keep His commandments and His testimonies and His statutes”, (II Kings 23:3b).  However, later in the verse Josiah is not quoted as agreeing to obey ‘His Covenant’, but ‘this Covenant’, exactly the wording that is used to confirm the covenant of Deuteronomy.  It enjoins the keeping of His testimonies and His statutes which they had been instructed earlier (Deu 6:17).  They are a very important subset of this Deuteronomy covenant.  However, this covenant of Deuteronomy is not His Covenant. 


Hebrews deals with the receiving of the Law.  In many translations it seems to say only that the Law was given under the administration of the Levitical priesthood.  In fact, the Greek word translated ‘under’ in these translations is ‘epi’, which primarily means ‘upon’.  The intention of the author is likely to communicate that the Law was dependent 'upon' the Levitical priesthood.  It was hung ON them.  It was their job to administer it.


Heb 7:11ab (NASB) “Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law),…” (See also NIV, Emphasized Bible)


The Levites had no special function in the Sinai covenant.  They are not mentioned at all.  The priests at that time were the firstborn (Ex 13:2, Num 3:12-13).  The Sinai covenant does not need the Levitical priesthood to function.  On the other hand, the covenant of Moab/Deuteronomy was based on the existence of the Levitical priesthood.  That covenant really can’t function without them (Deu 17:8-13, 18:2-7).


Ephesians 2:12 also talks of “covenants of promise”.  There was more than one.  This is also affirmed in Romans 9:4.


Although tradition considers these two covenants to be the same, they are distinct at many levels.  One was confirmed at Sinai, the other about 40 years later in Moab.  One was placed in the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, the other set outside of it.  One intended that the whole nation would represent the Creator; the other established the tribe of Levi as representatives of the Creator, but allowed Israel to live and receive the Promised Land.  One provided for everyone to directly offer sacrifices to the Creator, the other required them to go to the Levite at the one dwelling of the Creator in Israel.  Blood covenants don’t change (Gal 3:15, see also Ps 89:34).  Different terms = different covenant.