Peter Gentry on the Mosaic Covenant

Peter Gentry in chapter nine of Kingdom through Covenant contends that the covenant God makes with Israel is central to the entire Pentateuch (339). The importance of the Mosaic covenant cannot be overstated because “it is the interpretation of how the old covenant relates to the new that is the basis of all the major divisions among Christians; that is, all denominational differences derive ultimately from different understandings of how the covenant at Sinai relates to us today” (339). To figure out the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the other covenants begins first by locating within the larger story of Scripture.

God made a covenant with people in creation as they are to bear his image and establish his rule over the earth. The first people rebelled against God, however, bringing death and destruction into the world. So God make a fresh start with Noah as being like a new Adam. God enters into covenant with Noah, upholding his previous covenant commitment in creation (341). Eventually, Noah sins and so does all humanity like it did before. Instead of judging the world, God makes another new start, this time with Abraham. Just like Noah, Abraham is cast in the role as a new Adam.

In the covenant, God promises that Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation, which eventually becomes known as Israel. Because of Israel’s connection to the Abrahamic covenant (being the fulfillment of God’s promise), Israel inherits the Adamic role that Abraham had. Israel was to display to the world right relationship with God and one another. Through Israel, God would bring blessing to the world. So God makes a covenant with Israel which is supposed to help them “enjoy the blessings he wants to give them and to be a blessing to the other names” (342). The covenant will show them how to be the true humanity (“Adam”) and relate to the world (340). Therefore, the Mosaic covenant was given to the people “to administer the fulfillment of the divine promises to Abraham and to the nation as a whole, and through them to the entire world” (342).

The heart of the Mosaic covenant is found in Exodus 19-24. The covenant seems to have to two distinct but interrelated sections: the Ten Words (Exod 20) and the Judgments (Exod 21-23). While the two sections are distinct, they are together considered the “Book of the Covenant” and the “words of Yahweh” (345). In other words, these two sections must be read together as forming the covenant; they cannot be split apart. Besides having two sections, the Mosaic covenant is also formulated as a suzerain-vassal treaty “in order to define God as Father and King and Israel was obedient son in a relationship of loyal love, obedience, and trust” (346).

What is the purpose of God’s covenant with Israel? The purpose is spelled out in Exodus 19:5-6: Israel is to obey the covenant so that they might be God’s special possession—a kingdom of priests and holy nation. But Israel’s responsibilities are based in God’s grace as indicated by 19:4 and God’s mercy to save them: “The old covenant is based on grace, and grace motivates the keeping of the covenant, just as we find in the new covenant” (350). Gentry argues then that 19:5-6 speak of the purpose of the covenant from God’s point of view (350). The covenant would define God’s relationship with Israel and then purpose of why God entered into covenant with Israel in the first place.

There is debate over the nature of the “If-Then” clauses in the text. The traditional way of rendering the text is like this “IF you obey me and keep my covenant, THEN you will be my treasured possession, kingdom of priests.” Gentry points out that Jason DeRouchie splits up the text differently: “If you obey me and keep my covenant and be my treasured possession, THEN you will be a kingdom of priests.” The point Gentry seems to be making is that Israel’s status is not dependent upon her obedience. She is in a privileged position because of the covenant but her responsibility is to be used for mission: being a kingdom of priests and holy nation (351-52). Either way, God gives both promises to Israel, and also the responsibilities of mission: there is a covenant.

When God speaks of Israel being his “treasure possession” he is thinking of the king’s special treasure. While God owns the whole world, Israel occupies a special place in his heart (354). But more is intended as well, for other ancient Near Eastern texts speak of the service of a son as being a “treasured possession.” So Israel is to serve God as a son, indicating her status as bearing the image of God and having an Adamic role (356). Israel’s mission was to be “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation.” These terms modify Israel as being a “treasured possession.”

The idea that Israel is to be a kingdom of priests means that “all Israel” is a priest in some sense (357). The idea of a priest means representing the people to God, and also representing God to the people, particularly to the surrounding nations (359). Israel is to worship God which will enable her to fulfill her mandate to bless the nations: “Israel is also a vehicle for bringing the nations to the divine presence and rule” (360). Israel is also to be a “holy nation.” They are to be a nation devoted to God: “a holy nation, then, is one prepared and consecrated for fellowship with God and one completely devoted to him” (363). How does devotion to God manifest itself in the world? First, Israel shows her holiness by identifying with his ethnics and morality (363). She is to live under God’s righteous rule. Second, she can “share his concern for the broken in the community” (363). Leviticus 19-20 base Israel’s concern for the broken directly upon God’s holiness. Gentry points out, “If we are in covenant relationship with him, we must, like him, hear the voice that is too weak to cry out” (364).

The goal of the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 19-24 is to administer “the purposes of the promises given to Abraham. God is establishing his kingdom through covenant” (364).

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