How Do You Understand the Covenants of the Bible? (Part 4)

In Exodus 31:12-17, God made another covenant with the people.  This is a separate covenant from the one between God and the children of Israel and it is a sign that God is their LORD: “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the God who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.”’” It is a perpetual covenant throughout all their generations forever. Again, as noted previously, perpetual and forever are translated from the same Hebrew word. This covenant would never be replaced. It was based on the law of the weekly and annual Sabbaths. As we explain in our free booklet, And Lawlessness Will Abound:

“By observing and being mindful of this sign, Israel would understand that it is God who sanctifies them, and Israel as a nation would become a sign to the other nations of this world, as the keeping of God’s Sabbaths does single one out.

“This separate Sabbath covenant between God and His people was never abolished—neither were the laws of God commanding us to keep His weekly and annual Sabbaths holy. And, since Christians are to be spiritual Jews (Romans 2:28–29; Galatians 6:16; Revelation 2:9; 3:9), they have a two-fold obligation to keep God’s Sabbaths—first, because God commands us to do so; and second, because they are under a specific covenant or agreement that God made with both physical and spiritual Israel, for all generations.”

Looking back to the statement of the laws of the covenant in Exodus 23:32-33, God told them that when they went into the land of Canaan, “You shall make no covenant with them”—the people currently living in the land—“nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against Me. For if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”

This command is repeated in Exodus 34:10-13 when God made another covenant with Israel after they had sinned by building a golden calf: “And He said: ‘Behold, I make [better: “I am making”, so the New International Version; similar the Living Bible and the New American Bible] a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD. For it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I am driving out from before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images.’”

This was again repeated in Deuteronomy 7:2-4. God here tells the people not to allow their sons to marry the daughters of the people of the land, nor their daughters to marry the sons of the people of the land: “…and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the LORD will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly.”

In Deuteronomy 7:9-10, God reminds the people of His faithfulness: “Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face.” This faithfulness for a thousand generations is basically everlasting.

There is a strong warning to those under the covenant in Deuteronomy 17:2-5: “If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the LORD your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing His covenant, who has gone and served other gods and worshipped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded, and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones.”

When the children of Israel entered the land under Joshua, they were deceived by the Gibeonites. These people had heard how the Israelites under Joshua had defeated fortified cities. They therefore sent ambassadors to Gilgal. Joshua 9:6-9 states: “And they went to Joshua, to the camp at Gilgal, and said to him and the men of Israel, ‘We have come from a far country; now therefore, make a covenant with us.’ Then the men of Israel said to the Hivites, ‘Perhaps you dwell among us; so how can we make a covenant with you?’ But they said to Joshua, ‘We are your servants.’ And Joshua said to them, ‘Who are you, and where do you come from?’ So they said to him: ‘From a very far country your servants have come, because of the name of the LORD your God; for we have heard of His fame, and all that He did in Egypt.’”

The reason Joshua and the men of Israel were deceived is mentioned in Joshua 9:14-15: “Then the men of Israel took some of their provisions; but they did not ask counsel of the LORD. So Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them to let them live; and the rulers of the congregation swore to them.” They did not ask counsel of the LORD but used their own human reason. However, when they found out that the Gibeonites were close neighbours, they did not attack them because of the covenant they had made, but instead made them slaves for service at the house of God. Joshua 9:27 says: “And that day Joshua made them woodcutters and water carriers for the congregation and for the altar of the LORD, in the place which He would choose, even to this day.”

Shortly after this, the kings of five neighbouring cities who had heard that the Gibeonites had made peace with Israel decided to attack Gibeon. Joshua 10:3-4 reads: “Therefore Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, Piram king of Jarmuth, Japhia king of Lachish, and Debir king of Eglon, saying, ‘Come up to me and help me, that we may attack Gibeon, for it has made peace with Joshua and with the children of Israel.’”

The response by the Gibeonites was to ask for help from Joshua, reminding him that they were the servants of Israel. Joshua 10:6 states: “And the men of Gibeon sent to Joshua at the camp at Gilgal, saying, ‘Do not forsake your servants; come up to us quickly, save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the mountains have gathered together against us.’” The result was that Joshua and the men of Israel attacked at the LORD’s direction, not using their own human reason as before, and the LORD assisted Joshua in destroying the Amorites. In fact, this was the time when, at Joshua’s request, God caused the “sun to stand still” for about a whole day so the men of Israel had time to defeat the enemy (compare Joshua 10:12-14). We see here that the children of Israel fought at the LORD’s direction. God was helping the children of Israel to keep the covenant they had made with the Gibeonites, even though they should not have made it in the first place. God even stopped the earth rotating (to the people looking at the sky, it appeared as if the sun stood still) which shows how important He considers it is to keep a covenant.

The next mention of the Gibeonites is in 2 Samuel 21:1. This shows again how seriously God considers the keeping of a covenant, and how God expects His people to be faithful, even when the covenant was made against His directions and without seeking His advice: “Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, ‘It is because of Saul and his bloodthirsty house, because he killed the Gibeonites.’” So because of Saul’s breaking the covenant with the Gibeonites, God sent a famine on the land of Israel.

It is of interest that the modern day Falashas in Ethiopia are considered by the state of Israel to be descended from the Gibeonites, and in 1975 were accepted by the Chief Rabbinate as Jews and were allowed to migrate to Israel. (See the Q&A “Who are the modern-day Gibeonites?”) 

The whole of Leviticus 26 presents a list of blessings for keeping God’s laws and the covenants which are based on God’s laws, and cursings for breaking God’s laws and covenants. And yet, even if they were to break God’s laws and covenants and would be taken into captivity, Leviticus 26:44-45 informs us that God will not break His covenant because He is a faithful God: “Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, nor shall I abhor them, to utterly destroy them and break My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the LORD.”

In this passage in Leviticus 26, the covenant God is referring to is the one He made at Sinai with the children of Israel. Back in Leviticus 26:42, God brings up the covenants He made with the patriarchs. If the people who have broken their covenant with God confess their iniquity, “Then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham I will remember; I will remember the land.” The land was specifically mentioned in the covenants God made with the patriarchs.

Another covenant that God made with Aaron and the children of Levi is mentioned in Numbers 18:19: “All the heave offerings of the holy things, which the children of Israel offer to the LORD, I have given to you and your sons and daughters with you as an ordinance forever; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD with you and your descendants with you.” Reference to the covenant of salt was already made in Leviticus 2:13: “And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt.” Salt, as well as being a flavouring, is also a preservative. It is also extremely durable symbolizing that God’s covenant with Levi is also durable or everlasting.

Salt is mentioned because it pictures permanence. Because the Levites were given no inheritance in the land, God gave them all the tithes in Israel in return for the work of the tabernacle of meeting.

This particular covenant between God and the Levites is mentioned in Malachi 2:4-8 where God is condemning the priests who were not performing their duty: “‘Then you shall know that I have sent this commandment to you, That My covenant with Levi may continue,’ Says the LORD of hosts. ‘My covenant was with him, one of life and peace, And I gave them to him that he might fear Me; So he feared Me And was reverent before My name. The law of truth was in his mouth, And injustice was not found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and equity, And turned many away from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, And people should seek the law from his mouth; For he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But you have departed from the way; You have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ Says the LORD of hosts.””

So the obvious question is, why did God make a perpetual covenant with the tribe of Levi, which is also referred to in Jeremiah 33:18–22? Exodus 32 begins to provide part of the answer. This passage describes the time when Moses had gone up to the mountain to receive instructions about the worship of God and the formation of the priesthood. The people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain and they said to Aaron to make them gods to go before them. Aaron fashioned a golden calf and the people worshipped in front of it. We read in Exodus 32:25-29, “Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, ‘Whoever is on the LORD’s side—come to me!’ And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel: “Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.”’ So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, ‘Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother.’” They, as a tribe, were willing to stand up for God and His laws.

This was repeated in Deuteronomy 10:8-9 where this separating of the tribe of Levi is again described: “At that time the LORD separated the tribe of Levi to bear the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister to Him and to bless His name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion nor inheritance with his brethren; the LORD is his inheritance, just as the LORD your God promised him

In Numbers 25, the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They were also joined to Baal of Peor, so God sent a plague on the people. When one of the men “presented” a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, Phinehas took a javelin in his hand and thrust both the man of Israel and the woman through their bodies. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel (compare verses 6-8).

We read in Numbers 25:10-13 that God made a covenant with Aaron’s grandson Phinehas: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel, because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal. Therefore say, “Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.”’”

In Deuteronomy 4:30-31, there is a prophecy that if the people sinned and worshipped false gods and were sent into captivity, God would not forget them if they repented: “When you are in distress, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, when you turn to the LORD your God and obey His voice (for the LORD your God is a merciful God), He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them.” (Compare Deuteronomy 5:2-3 and Leviticus 26:45.)

(To Be Continued)

Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)