The importance of covenant
The covenant was a bond or treaty between God and his chosen people. The source of the covenant lies in God alone, and it represents an act of God's loving kindness, initiated by him in love, extending an offer of relationship to Israel. The essence of covenant lies in the relationship between God and his people, with God the initiator of that relationship, which requires a response from them. God first showed his love towards his people, and they must respond to him in love.
The making of the covenant at Sinai was the beginning of a continuing relationship between God and his people Israel. The people had to look back to this event when the covenant was renewed regularly, so each generation could commit itself in love and obedience to God. In his address, Moses exhorts the people to a new and wholehearted loving commitment to God.
By being structured as a treaty, the covenant would remind people of their liberty from bondage in Egypt, and their total commitment to God. They had been in bondage as vassals to the worldly power of Egypt, but through God's intervention in history they had been freed. At Mt Sinai, they had become vassals of God as their new suzerain. The bondage of Egypt had been exchanged for the Kingship of God (Ex 15:18).
An Overview of each section of the Covenant
1. Preamble (Deut 1:1-5)
In a Hittite suzerainty treaty the preamble identifies the treaty as the words of the Hittite king.
In Deuteronomy the words are those of Moses, the mediator, but they are still clearly stated as the words of the Lord (v3b).
While on Sinai, because of their fear of hearing God, the people had requested a mediator (5:22-31). When the covenant was given, God spoke audibly. Now Moses was the prophet of God. Sometimes he speaks the words of God (1:6), at other times he speaks his own words (1:9).
Moses was the first prophet in Israel, and there was none to follow him whom the Lord knew face to face (34:10). In Deuteronomy 18:15-22 we see that Moses was in fact foreshadowing another prophet: Jesus. In the old covenant there was an intermediary (Gal 3:20), but in the new covenant God made the covenant in the person of Jesus.
In his role as a prophet, Moses is not just giving the Word of God, but expounding and emphasising it (v5). He knew the weaknesses and failings of the Israelites, and proclaimed the word of God to them, seeking to persuade and plead with them to be obedient, and to love God, and warning them of the consequences of falling away from relationship with him.
2. The Historical Prologue (Deut 1:6 - 4:43)
In the ancient near-eastern treaties there is a section which recounts the past relationship between
the suzerain and the nation entering into the covenant. Often it would mention kindness bestowed upon that nation by the suzerain which had been unearned. What had happened in the past becomes a basis for what will happen in the future.
The fact that God had intervened in history by bringing Israel out of Egypt became the basis on which the covenant was made. History was used to help people remember the acts of God in the past, and to produce vision and anticipation for what God can and will do in the future. The past shows the faithfulness of God, and holds the promise for the continuation of the relationship. Otherwise, the past can remind people of their unfaithfulness, and show them the urgent need for commitment now to ensure the future of the relationship.
Moses reminds them of God's faithfulness through the promise of the land given to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the law at Sinai, and their recent
victories over Sihon and Og east of the Jordan.
He also reminds the people of their unfaithfulness, particularly the rebellion in the wilderness and
their failure to possess the land.
The sense of history gives Deuteronomy an atmosphere of immediacy, because centuries of complex events have been leading up the present moment, a time of crucial importance for the covenant relationship. There is a tension between the promise of God for the future, and the responsibility for the Israelites to be faithful and obedient in their covenant commitment to God. As he leads the people in renewing the covenant Moses brings his people to the moment at which he can declare, "Today you have become the people of God" (27:9).
Therefore, history for Israel is not simply cause and effect, but the dealings of a sovereign God
who is at work for His purposes.
3. The Covenant Stipulations - General Principles (Deut 4:44 -11:32)
In the Hittite treaties this section contains directives which relate to the future relationship
between the parties of the covenant.
The section is closely related to the historical prologue, which contains the facts constituting the
basis of the treaty relationship. It contains a summary giving the purpose of the following specific
stipulations. It consists primarily of general imperatives, requiring loyalty on the part of the treaty
The one basic principle which underlies the relationship between God and his people is love, which is the heart of the law (6:4), both God's love for people, and the love his people must have for God.
God was not calling for a cold clinical obedience, rather a love relationship with the Suzerain who gives the laws (6:24) always for their good (10:12). The law is not to be observed out of legalism, but out of a heart of love for God, even as He has loved them (6:4-9 and 7:6-11). God's fatherly love for his people has two expressions, his compassionate care (1:31), and his discipline (8:5). His people are urged to respond to him from their hearts in love, thus recognising their tendency forget God and be faithless (6:12, 8:11,14,19, 9:7). To break the commandments was to disrupt the relationship of love, thus destroying the covenant.
In Deuteronomy this section begins with the Ten Commandments, which show how love for God, and love for fellow men are to be expressed. These are a summary of the law which is given in detail in the next section (ch 12-26).
There are at least eleven repeated themes. There is an emphasis on warnings about the dangers of idolatry, including a detailed reminder of the sin of the golden calf. There is great emphasis on obeying God, loving God, references to possessing the Promised Land, keeping free from idolatry, and reminders of God's power demonstrated in the Exodus from Egypt.
Both the general stipulations and the specific stipulations end with a choice between a blessing
and curse (11:26, 27-30).
4. The Covenant Stipulations - Specific Stipulations (12:1 - 26:19)
"These are the statutes and ordinances that you must observe ..." (12:1).
The specific stipulations give the practical outworking of ‘love God’ (first four of the ten Commandments) and ‘love your neighbour’ (last six of the ten Commandments) to maintain a true and living relationship with the God of the covenant. There is a mixture of ceremonial, religious, civil and criminal law. To Israel there was no distinction between the religious and the secular in life, or in their laws. All life was to be lived under the dominion of God. The broad scope of the law showed that no area of life was unimportant to the member of the covenant community. The laws cover both individual and community responsibility, and the relationship between the two. The community only remains healthy if its members were faithful.
As part of the covenant, God had promised that he would set his people above the other nations as a holy people (26:19). Therefore they needed to live God's ways as a witness to the nations. To claim to be God's people and to live as other nations lived would be hypocrisy. Through this section there are many warnings to avoid foreign religious practices. To do these would disrupt the covenant.
They are in typical form for near eastern law. Sometimes Moses gives a law and then explains its outworking, or the reason. For example the law (14:1) followed by the reason (14:2). Some laws are stated, some are preached. Some adapt previous laws for living in the land rather than the wilderness, some laws are repeated and some new ones are added.
The foundation of all of the laws is to love God, love your neighbour, and love strangers.
5. Blessings and Curses (Deut 27:1 - 29:20)
All ancient treaties had this portion, which would be to call upon the gods to bless the obedient,
or curse the faithless. Moses, of course, does not call on a pagan god, but instead he states God's
Word. The curses act as a solemn warning to the people that is an awesome responsibility to enter into a covenant relationship with God.
The blessings and cursings affect the whole community. Obedience to the Lord would result in blessing, long life, and possession of the promised land, while disobedience would lead to disaster.
They also show that God is Lord of history, and Lord of nature. He controls the other nations, and the course of nature, all the factors which will affect the future well-being of Israel. If they were obedient, he had power to grant blessing, controlling the affairs of nations to give Israel peace, and giving them health, long life, and fruitful crops as Lord of the created world. When David's empire expanded, it was God who made room for it. When the land gave forth plenty, it was God’s doing. If they were disobedient, they could not escape from God in any sphere of life. The strength of their army or the richness of the land would be of no help if the relationship with God was broken.
This portion becomes very important in the light of Israel's subsequent history, because all of the
events from the books of Joshua through to Nehemiah are summarised in these chapters. As they obeyed they were blessed. This occurred during much of the Book of Joshua, portions of Judges and under David and Solomon's rule). As they broke the covenant, so the covenant keeping God kept His promise and cursed them.
In the light of Israel's history this becomes a prophetic anticipation of their future. Furthermore, it shows the wickedness of mankind. Even with all the blessings of an intimate walk with God, people have a tendency to go their own way. This was the reason for the new covenant, which changed the law to be internal, with Jesus taking the curse instead of us (Jer 31:31ff; Gal 3:13ff).
6. Covenant Continuity (Deut 31:1 - 34:12)
This allowed for the covenant to continue after the death of the Suzerain. It also arranged for the
covenant to be read to the people from time to time, and renewed with each generation.
In Deut 31:1ff Joshua is commissioned before the people, and in Deut 31:9-13 the people are
instructed to read the law every seven years during the feast of booths (tabernacles).
Moses was preparing the people for the future without him, after his death. The Song of Moses is a reiteration of the blessings and cursings.