In our study of Hebrews, we have encountered the word “covenant” nineteen times. When trying to understand a book in the Bible that has 13 chapters and 303 verses with the content-rich word like “covenant” occurring nineteen times, it is critical to understand what this word means. A covenant is simply a promise or a contract that binds both parties to certain standards and expectations. For example, when you buy a new car you enter into a contract in which both the seller and buyer agree to certain terms. It is those terms that will govern the relationship until the obligations of the contract are met. In a similar way, the Lord and the people of Israel entered into a covenant that forms the backdrop of words usage in Hebrews.
The covenant between the Lord and Israel
When Israel was rescued by God from Egypt, it created a unique dynamic of obligation on Israel toward God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).
In the Middle Eastern culture, the effect of rescuing someone from death would create an obligation to serve the rescuer for the rest of his or her life. Effectively, this placed Israel in the position of willing allegiance to the Lord. In response, God began a process of showing Israel who He was (His character) and what He expected (His priorities) to Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). The self-revelation of the Lord (primarily through His commandments) begins in Exodus 20. After the unveiling of God’s character through the commandments, the people of Israel respond wholeheartedly in agreement to do everything (see Exodus 20-23) the Lord commanded (think “terms of agreement” in a contract). Moses serves as an intermediary and communicates the commandments that the Lord had given. The response of the people was unanimous: “And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘“All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do”’ (Exodus 24:3).
In order to ratify the covenant (i.e. “contract”) between the Lord and Israel, Moses employs the use of blood (commonly used in binding the covenantal relationship) to seal the deal upon the agreement of the people. Notice the way that sacrifice and the blood of the sacrifice are used in the ceremony following Israel’s entering into the covenant agreement:
And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
The shedding of blood and the agreement to the terms set forth in the covenant are forever linked. In other words, the blood of the sacrifices is to remind them that they have a unique agreement (i.e. “relationship”) with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and that they have obligations to this covenant, they are to obey the terms that they agreed to wholeheartedly. If Israel neglects to meet their covenantal obligations, the Lord had every right to shed the blood of Israel – to exact justice for their disregard to the terms of the agreement.
What’s the Problem?
Israel failed to obey the terms of the covenant. When I say, “failed” a better word might be shattered! Israel shattered the covenantal agreement they made with the Lord in a little more than a month’s time! While Moses was still on Sinai receiving instructions for the building of the tabernacle in which the Lord would now dwell among His covenant people, notice what Israel begins to do – worship a self-made god!
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6).
How does the Lord react?
And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:7-10).
The Lord acts in complete agreement with what Israel was told would happen – God would exact payment from them according to the terms of the covenant. It is at this moment that Israel is facing the devastating wrath of God.
How does Moses react?
Moses reacts in two ways: First, he calls upon the Lord to remember His deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the reputation that would be assigned to Him if he would destroy Israel so soon after delivering Israel.
“But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people” (Exodus 32:11-2).
While what Moses says is true – the Egyptians would certainly say this; the response of the Egyptians was not determinative to completely dissuade the Lord from executing His rightful justice. How do we know this? Because Moses goes to the second reason to not destroy Israel – His covenant made with Abraham. The covenant made with Abraham – the patriarch of the Jewish people, rested and relied completely on the Lord and not the performance of Abraham. Simply put, the covenant the Lord made with Abraham was unconditional (see Genesis 15 and Genesis 17) and on the basis of this covenant, the Lord relented in wiping Israel off the face of the earth:
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people (Exodus 32:13-14).
To understand the covenantal dynamic in the book of Hebrews, it is absolutely critical to realize that Israel had broken the covenant (“Old”) made with the Lord and there was no framework from within this covenant to bring about peace with God. As a matter of fact, the shedding of blood that occurred in the daily sacrifices and yearly Day of Atonement was simply a reminder of their broken covenant and would put off the wrath of God but never satisfy the wrath of God. The covenant made with the people of Israel and the Lord who delivered them from Egypt was broken before the nation left the base of Mount Sinai and the only thing that kept God in a union with Israel was His unconditional covenant made with Abraham. In other words, the only hope Israel could cling to was that God would remember His Covenant with Abraham – a covenant that relied on the Lord and a coming “offspring” who would inherit it forever.
What About Israel Breaking the Covenant?
How can Israel get away with such blatant idolatry? Does the Lord simply overlook this? No. The justice of God must be satisfied or the Lord is, at least, inconsistent and, at worst, not trustworthy. In part 2, we will explore how the Lord upholds both His justice toward Israel as well as providing for the satisfaction of God’s justice toward all humanity through the creation of a New Covenant.