The Social Contract
Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed,
and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure
unto me above all people (Exodus 19:5).
Scholars recognize two main categories of covenant: the covenant grant, and the covenant treaty. The covenant grant is usually irrevocable. In a previous chapter, we saw two crucial examples of the covenant grant: the covenant with man after the great flood, and the covenant with Abraham. We also saw examples of covenant treaties between powerful men.
What we call “the Old Covenant” is a kind of covenant treaty, but it differs in one important aspect from those seen earlier. It applies to the relationship between God and a society. It is a social covenant. Even though it has been called the Old Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant, it is neither. It is the Israelite Covenant, and it only became “old” when God spoke of a future New Covenant.
The Israelite covenant resembles what today would be called a “social contract,” and that resemblance may prove instructive. In the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers were beginning to develop “social contract theory.” These ideas were destined to become very important in both the American and French revolutions. A social contract was understood to be an implicit agreement within a state regarding the rights and responsibilities of the state and its citizens. All members within a society are assumed to agree to the terms of the social contract by their choice to stay within the society without violating the contract; according to the theory, such a violation would signify a problematic attempt to return to “the state of nature.”
The expression, “state of nature” was a synonym for anarchy. I think a true state of nature rarely existed. Man, desiring the society of other men found it easy to find at least an implicit social contract with others, especially with family. It was a kind of informal covenant. If you didn’t like the terms of the deal, you could leave the society.
All this calls to mind an important document in American history, the Mayflower Compact. When the Pilgrims arrived in the new world, they realized that many earlier attempts at colonization had failed because of a lack of government. The Mayflower Compact was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the rules and regulations of the government for the sake of survival. The government, in return, would derive its power from the consent of the governed.”
Think about the narrow means of survival for members of the Plymouth colony and consider what it would mean to be cut off from the social contract. Then the seriousness for any Israelite in the wilderness becomes clear. Being cut off from his people could be a matter of survival. Still more, it would mean being disinherited, cut off from inheriting the land promised to Abraham. Keep this in mind, and the various issues that arise from circumcision will become clearer.
The Mayflower Compact is a fascinating document. In case you didn’t encounter it in school, here it is for your consideration:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwriten, the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord King James by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, Franc, & Ireland king, defender of the faith, &c. Haveing undertaken, for the glorie of God, and advancemente of the Christian faith and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant the first colonie in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly & mutualy in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering & preservation & furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just & equall lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for the generall good of the Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witnes wherof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cap-Codd ye .11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our soveraigne Lord King James, of England, France, & Ireland ye eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie fourth. Ano: Dom. 1620.
Notice that these gentlemen all “covenanted and combined” themselves, with a purpose in mind, into a “civil body politic.” They signed a simple, one paragraph agreement for the establishing of majoritarian governance for their little group. By virtue of this, all the signatories to this covenant promised to enact laws as necessary, and to submit and obey all such laws once they were enacted by the majority.
From Cape Cod, let’s take ourselves back in time, to the foot of Mount Sinai where a different sort of covenant was enacted, one that also amounted to a social contract. Some three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai, and Moses went up the mountain to speak with God. Here, God spoke to Moses and laid out the covenant and its objective:
Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).
And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD (vv. 7-8).
So the contract is proposed and accepted. It is even simpler than the Mayflower Compact. But just as contracts must be signed, or at least confirmed by a handshake, this covenant also had to be formally ratified. So the next step in the process followed:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes, And be ready against the third day: for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai (vv. 9-11).
Just as in a real estate transaction, the parties to the contract must be physically present, so it was necessary for the people to meet God. To begin to enter this covenant, God came down on the mountain in front of the people, covered by a thick cloud. The people had prepared, washing all their clothes and avoiding ceremonial uncleanness in the three days before this. What happened next was terrifying to behold:
And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the lower part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up (vv. 17-20).
Steps were taken to ensure that neither the people nor the priests came too near. There was danger from the enormous power of the place. Only Moses and Aaron were allowed to come up the mountain. Then, God spoke the Ten Commandments, the foundation of all the laws to follow. There is every indication that all the people heard him speak the Ten Commandments. But the power and emotion of the moment were, understandably, too much for them.
And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak you with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not. And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was. And the LORD said unto Moses, Thus you shalt say unto the children of Israel, You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven (Exodus 20:18-22).
This was crucial. It would not have been the same if Moses had gone up the mountain and come back and told the people what God had said. In the future, he would do that, but this is the moment of covenant, and the people had a right to have God present and to hear his voice. One can only imagine how shaken they were by the experience.
What follows is also important. They had heard words from God. They were not given this revelation in pictures or images, thus a strenuous prohibition against any form of image. God would speak through his Word, not through images. Then God handed down judgments on issues that were current (Exodus 21, 22, 23). These have been called, “The Book of the Covenant.” Maybe, but they are called judgments, which is suggestive that they deal with specific issues of the day, which is obvious in the content. After Moses got all this from God, he took it to the people:
And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD has said will we do. And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 24:3-4).
Here we have a verbal agreement to a social contract. Note also that there is no oral law here. Moses wrote down all the words of God, and we have them right there in the book. But we must go beyond a verbal agreement. The contract must be formalized:
And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basins; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD has said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you concerning all these words (Exodus 24:5-8).
This was the moment of formalizing the covenant between God and Israel. Note that there was not only the presence of the parties, but there was a consideration in the form of the sacrifices offered to God as part of the compact. Mind you, on this day, this was not the “Old Covenant,” It was brand new. It wasn’t the Mosaic Covenant. It was the Israelite Covenant with God—their social contract.
What was this contract? It is true that the Ten Commandments were included. It is also true that the judgments of Exodus 21-23 were included. But these are not the covenant. The covenant, the contract that Israel made with God was a covenant treaty. It had two parties. Here is the contract by each of the parties:
God: “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people.”
Israel: “All the words which the LORD has said we will do.”
That is the contract, the whole contract, and nothing but the contract. And it is not to say that the contract is limited to the words between Exodus 19 and 24. God said, “if you will indeed obey my voice.” That included all that he had said, and all that he ever would say.
There is one side issue that needs to be clarified before going on. There is nothing in this passage about the covenant being a marriage. Marriage is used as an analogy to this covenant by the prophets, but the idea is not found in Exodus. The Israelite covenant is metaphorically a marriage covenant, it is not a literal marriage.
Since this is not called “the Old Covenant” anywhere in this context, it is worth asking how that terminology came to be so widely accepted. It was Jeremiah who laid the groundwork, and the author of Hebrews who underlined it. Here is how Jeremiah set it up:
Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD (Jeremiah 31:31-32).
Two things are introduced here. One is the marriage analogy, and the other is a future New Covenant. The author of Hebrews picks that up and takes it forward:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he says, A new covenant, he has made the first old. Now that which decays and waxes old is ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:10-13).
Only when he spoke of a new covenant, did he make the first, old. Two questions often arise at this point. One, aren’t the Ten Commandments the Old Covenant? Two, didn’t they pass away when the Old Covenant passed? The answers to the questions are no, and no. We have already seen that the covenant was not the law, although it included laws. What we then see in Hebrews, some 30 years after the ascension of Christ, is that the Old Covenant is ready to pass away, not that it has already passed away. Then, there is Jesus’ word on the issue which we have already reviewed at length:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV).
If you are reading this, we can safely assume that heaven and earth have not disappeared and therefore no stroke of the pen, nor even a letter has passed from the Law. But what about those judgments? Aren’t some of them outdated? Yes and no. Judgments do not require literal obedience. They may be dated, but they still serve as precedents in law. Judgments are obeyed in the spirit of the law. They are there to inform us in making future judgments. We are supposed to think about them, or in the words of the psalmist, to meditate on them, for they are the will of God applied to a given time and place. Technology may change, but the will of God remains.
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