O. Palmer Robertson on the Mosaic Covenant

Figuring out the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the covenants that come before (like the Abrahamic) and the covenants that come after like (like the new) challenges even the most seasoned theologian. In chapter ten of Christ of the Covenants, O. Palmer Robertson seeks to delineate the relationship of the Mosaic covenants to the promises which came before it and the fulfillment of those promises after it (167).

Before digging into the relationship between the covenant, Robertson locates the Mosaic covenant in the conversation of modern biblical studies. While most critical scholars see the Mosaic covenant as an either later composition than the time of Moses, Robertson points out to its similarities to Hittite treaties of around the same time. The point is that the Mosaic covenant was probably composed at an earlier date than most critical scholars think. But even more important than the historical setting of the Mosaic covenant’s composition is its theological significance (170).

Robertson is quick to point out that the Mosaic covenant is a covenant, not merely a legal document: “The Mosaic dispensation rests squarely on a covenantal rather than a legal relationship” (170). Recognizing the covenantal nature of the Mosaic covenant is important because it provides a more natural and organic link to the previous material in the biblical storyline. God’s relationship with Israel was based on covenant, not pure law-keeping: “Historically, the nation of Israel already was in covenantal relationship with the Lord through Abraham” (171). Such a basis for a relationship is significant because the relationship God has with his creation, and subsequently his people, is renewed under Moses and cannot be disturbed by a more legal emphasis in the Mosaic covenant (172). In other words, the Law cannot nullify the promise.

If the Mosaic covenant stands in continuity with the previous covenants, what makes the Mosaic covenant unique? Robertson contends what makes it unique is that it is a “externalized summation of the will of God” (172). In other words, God revealed himself more clearly and comprehensively in the Mosaic covenant than in any other previous covenant. God reveals his law to the people of Israel and “this law stands outside of man, demanding conformity” (173). The people now know what is required in obedience to God’s covenant.

While the Mosaic covenant is a “covenant of law,” Robertson argues that it must not be confused with the “covenant of works.” The covenant of works was given to Adam in the Garden whereby he could merit eternal life through his obedience. But God never intended Israel to achieve eternal life through the Mosaic covenant (173). The sacrificial system established within the covenant makes the point clear: Israel would sin and would need sacrifices to cleanse her from her sin. Therefore, attempting to use the Law to gain salvation would not work. Robertson writes, “The concrete externalization of covenantal stipulations written on tables of stone never was intended to detract from the gracious promise of the Abrahamic covenant” (174). Robertson pushes his argument further. He goes on to argue that the Mosaic covenant did not temporarily suspend the promise either. The Mosaic covenant is not a “detour” from God’s saving promises. God’s promise to Abraham remained active during the time of the Mosaic covenant. Salvation has always been by grace through faith. Instead of a way of achieving salvation, the Mosaic covenant should instead be seen as “a new stage in the process of God’s unfolding richness of the covenant of redemption” (175). The Mosaic covenant is the context for God’s salvation, not the way to earn it.

So what is the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and what comes before it and after it? The Mosaic covenant is organically related to the other covenants, meaning there is a “vital inter-connection” between them (175). God’s righteousness was active before the giving the Law and after. The Law played a vital role even with Abraham because, technically, every biblical covenant has conditional and unconditional elements within it. Thus, the Mosaic covenant amplifies the responsibility (or stipulation) side of the covenant relationship.

The Law also plays an important role after the Mosaic covenant. The stipulations of the Mosaic covenant become the primary commands that the Davidic King is to obey. The Davidic king is to be the “ideal Israelite,” which means devotion to and obedience to the Mosaic covenant (177-78). Even in the new covenant the Law plays a significant role. In the new covenant, the Law is “internalized” meaning that the “Holy Spirit works in a most vital way to bring Christians into conformity with the will of God” (184). Therefore, the Law plays an important role in the story line of Scripture.

Not only is the Mosaic covenant related to the covenants which come before and after it, but it also advances, or progresses, the story forward. It can be tempting for Christians to believe that the Mosaic covenant was a regression in God’s dealing with his people. But the Scriptures actually show how the Mosaic covenant advances the story. First, the Mosaic covenant “nationalizes” the people of Israel (186). They are now no longer a nomadic, wandering people, but a rooted and grounded nation. Second, the Mosaic covenant is the clearest and most comprehensive revelation of God up to that point in the story. Third, the Mosaic covenant is an advance in the maturation of God’s people (188-89). While Abraham expressed childlike trust in God, there was not much revelation of God’s will and ways. In Israel, they had superior knowledge of the kind of life God desired.

While the Mosaic covenant was certainly an advance in the story from Abraham, it also functioned as less than what came after it. The Davidic covenant advances on the Mosaic covenant as it establishes representative king over Israel (189). God’s promise to establish kingship would also establish Israel in the world and provide stability for the people. The Mosaic covenant is also inferior to the new covenant promised in the prophets. What the Mosaic covenant could not do, provide salvation from sin and the internalization of the Law, God would achieve through the new covenant. While the Mosaic covenant was great, it would eventually be surpassed by the greatness of the new covenant (193-97). Robertson summarizes the relationship with the Mosaic covenant well, “The Mosaic covenant was never intended to be the end of God’s covenantal dealings with his people. Instead, at the very time of its institution, the Mosaic was represented as being progressively related to the totality of God’s purposes” (199). The Mosaic was a great thing, clear and very comprehensive revelation of God. But the something greater was coming to replace it: the new covenant in Christ.

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