The Ten Commandments, A Covenant Guarantee of Liberty
After 400 years of slavery in a foreign land, the people of Israel beheld the long-awaited promise of a deliverer. Israel's release from the physical bondage in Egypt is matched only by our release from the spiritual bondage of sin through Christ. The Lord clearly demonstrated His sovereignty and power by directly confronting Egypt's pagan gods: Osiris and Isis (gods of the Nile), Heqt (a frog-headed goddess), Uatchit (who manifested himself as an Ichneumon fly), Ptah and Apis (sacred bulls), Nut (the sky goddess), Seth and Isis (the gods of agriculture), Ra (the sun god) and Pharoah himself (the god-man). He lead His people through the desert, parted the Red Sea and brought them safely to the foot of Mt. Sinai with the entirity of Egypt's military defeated.

What happened up on Mt. Sinai? What exactly was given to Moses? Was it merely "the law?" A set of petty legalisms to further enslave His people? The Israelites viewed the covenant established at Mt. Sinai much as we view our constitution. We view our constitution as a mark of liberty, guaranteeing our freedom from external control and codifying our rights as citizens. What God gave His people was a treaty, a political document, listing the blessings and curses associated with accepting His rule. This was a "pivotal, formative event in Israel's concept of God." He was their king and they were set to be a nation of priests to mediate between God and all the nations of the world.

At Sinai, God provided Israel with a national constitution under God. Exodus 20, Leviticus 19-26 and the whole of the book of Deuteronomy directly parallels the structure of other Near East treaty documents of the 15th century BC. To illustrate, take a look at Exodus chapter 20. Ancient treaties had five sections:
1. The Preamble
This section identified the two parties of the covenant. In the Torah, God established the identities of the parties in the creation story. He was the Creator, and Israel was his creation. In the covenant summary, the Ten Commandments, he said simply, "I am the LORD your God" (Ex. 20:2).

2. The Historical Prologue
In this part of the document, the history leading to the cutting of the covenant was recited to prove the right of the superior party to make it. In the Torah, the stories of the Fall, Noah, Abraham, and the Exodus are detailed as the basis for God's making the covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai. In the Ten Commandments, the summary is simply, "... who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex. 20:2).

3. Requirements (Commandments)
The Torah contains 613 of the requirements God placed on the people with whom He was in relationship. The number of obligations he placed on himself was even greater. In the summary of the commandments, these requirements were simplified to 10 (Ex. 20:3?17). Some scholars have noted that Jesus reduced his summary even further, to just two (Matt. 22:37?40).

4. Blessings and Curses
Keeping a covenant brought specific rewards, and breaking a covenant brought specific penalties. In the Torah, such blessings and curses are many and varied. Moses summarized both in Deuteronomy 28 in a powerful challenge to the Israelites. The summary document also contains curses and blessings scattered throughout the discussion of the requirements (see, e.g., Ex. 20:5,7 for curses, and Ex. 20:6,12 for blessings).

5. The Summary Document
The summary document served two purposes. Because it was short, it could be easily read and stored. Because it summarized the entire covenant, it represented the total relationship between the parties. Normally, two copies of this document were made, and each party would take a copy and put it in a sacred place for safekeeping.

Note especially that two copies of this summary was made. When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets, it is likely that these were two copies of the same document. It is significant that God gave Moses both copies with the instruction to keep them both in the Ark of the Covenant. He is in effect saying that His most holy place and the most holy place of Israel is one and the same. It is also interesting to note that ancient treaties bore a sign of the king in the middle of the document to show its authenticity and binding nature. At the center of the ten commandments, we find the Sabbath, a sign of God's sovereignty and grace, to forever remind Isreal of its covenant with a Holy God.

God established the Jewish nation as the first nation to know the liberty of rule by law rather than by king by giving them a national constitution outlining their responsibilities and the protections and blessings they could expect as a part of entering faithfully into this agreement.

Previous posts on this topic:

Freedom: An Ancient Custom of Rights and Responsibilities
Liberty: The Roman System of Acquired Privilege
The Garden of Eden: A Model of Christian Liberty

, , , , ,