Stephen Dempster on the Mosaic Covenant

Stephen Dempster treats the Mosaic covenant in his biblical theology of the Hebrew Bible, Dominion and Dynasty. Dempster primarily exposits the Mosaic covenant in the narrative setting of the Old Testament. In other words, Dempster doesn’t write a separate chapter the Mosaic covenant but treats it when it arises in the text.

Dempster raises the issue of the Mosaic covenant after Israel is released from bondage in Egypt through the exodus. Dempster points at that “Mount Sinai stands in the way of Canaan, the land of their inheritance” (100). According to Dempster the clues in the narrative indicate that Sinai is extremely important in the life of Sinai…and would become an extremely negative thing as well. The narrative slows down to a crawl (100). Repeated events occur before and after Sinai such as manna and complaining (101). The significance of these repeated events is that “they show that Sinai, not Egypt, is Israel’s largest roadblock to Canaan” (101).

Like many scholars, Dempster see the purpose of the covenant as one where Israel would be used to bless the whole world (101). Yet the Mosaic covenant does seem different than the previous covenants with its overwhelming stress on the obligations laid upon Israel (101). Israel is to be a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests.” Israel is to serve the people on behalf of God and vice versa (101). Dempster adds an important point that the “dominion” mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 is now redefined to mean “service” (102).

While Israel is united to God in covenant, there is a problem of Israel breaking the covenant. Israel sins by fashioning an idol, the golden calf: “This is Israel’s original sin, and it happens even before Israel receives the law in writing!” (104). The sin makes God threaten to destroy the people precisely in line with the covenant agreement (104). But Moses pleads with God not based upon the Mosaic covenant, but upon the Abrahamic covenant (104). Even from the beginning, the Abrahamic is seen as foundational and the Mosaic covenant is a means of fulfillment, but the ultimate basis for the relationship with the Lord.

The emphasis on the Mosaic covenant isn’t just found in the Exodus narratives but also the narratives of the whole Torah. Similar events happen before and after Sinai, but a “closer look at the text shows that Israel is treated differently after Sinai” (113). The sins Israel’s commits after Sinai are judged much more strictly. Dempster points out by commenting on Israel’s repeated transgressions: “Sinai does something profoundly negative to Israel” (112). The narratives of the Torah alone indicate that Israel would fail to keep the covenant and “virtual inevitability of exile on these terms” (113).

Deuteronomy reinforces the pessimistic outlook on Israel’s future. There is a “strong undercurrent of doom” in Deuteronomy. The demand of Deuteronomy is for the people to love God with all they have (Deut 6:4-5). But it is the total demand “in the shadow of Sinai that provides the book not only with a sense of urgency but also with a sense of doom and inevitable failure” (120). Moses even predicts Israel’s breaking of the covenant (Deut 31:14-22; 32:1-43) (121). The inevitable failure of the Israel provokes the thought that maybe another covenant is needed where the “heart is transformed to conform to the demands of the law” (121). Therefore, the Mosaic covenant stands in continuity with the previous covenants but also looks forward in the narrative to a coming new covenant.

One thought on “Stephen Dempster on the Mosaic Covenant

  1. Pingback: Stephen Dempster on the Mosaic Covenant | Talmidimblogging

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.