Reading Scripture carefully leads to the discovery of really weird things. Every once in a while, you will read something, even something familiar, and discover something not only new, but bizarre. Like this statement the writer of Hebrews makes about the “covenant”:
For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives.Hebrews 9:15-17 NASB (emphasis mine)
If you have ever read this before, did it ever strike you as odd that the first covenant was only valid once God died? It doesn’t say that? Read it again, look at what I’ve made bold. There was a covenant mediated by Moses, so there must, of necessity, be the death of the one who made it, right? So, how is it that the covenant of Moses wasn’t a “treaty” or “contract” between Yahweh and His people? How is it that this “covenant” was a “will”?
Well, for the covenant mediated by Moses to be a “will”, either God was the One who dies so the people can inherit, or the people die so God can inherit. The typical wording used throughout Scripture is that the people “inherit” the Promised Land, the land Yahweh promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That would mean that God dies, under the Mosaic Covenant. I don’t remember that ever being a part of the covenant made at Sinai.
So, is that what Nicodemus is saying? Is that what the writer of Hebrews, this man who has already shaken comfortable understanding, exploded traditions, and dismantled paradigms, means by these verses? Is he saying that God died when He made the covenant at Sinai? Well, not literally, but figuratively in the sacrifices, did they represent the people or God?
All along, the writer of Hebrews has been focusing on the ministry of the priesthood, specifically, the high priesthood of the Mosaic Covenant. In that ministry, one of the odd elements is the amount of blood used over everything, including the priest. He wears these linen clothes, and then they are sprinkled with blood. Gold items used in the tabernacle, beautifully made, also sprinkled with blood. Nice new stiff white outfit, now with blood spatters all over it. Lovely.
It’s the blood. We say that about Jesus’ death, and how He purifies us from all unrighteousness. It’s the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from sin. And here, the writer of Hebrews is explaining why that is true.
Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “THIS IS THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT WHICH GOD COMMANDED YOU.” And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood.Hebrews 9:18-21 NASB
When I’ve read Exodus 24 in the past, I’ve studied it at what I thought was a thorough level. But when I read that Moses had the people sacrifice peace offerings to God, and sprinkled the blood on the altars, the people, and the book (verses 3 through 8), it never occurred to me that it represented the death of God. I always assumed it represented the death of the people.
Basically, if the covenant at Sinai was a “will”, who dies, and who inherits? Since the references have been to the people inheriting the promised land (Ex. 32:13, 33:54), then doesn’t that mean that God dies for it to go into effect?
Don’t panic. I figured you might be by this time. Don’t. Remember what Nicodemus is doing here: he’s supporting an argument for the intercessory ministry of Jesus on our behalf with the Father. Nicodemus has supported his assertion by replacing the priestly sacrifices under the law of Moses with Jesus’ self-sacrifice. So, in his argument, God dies (i.e. Jesus dies, but is resurrected), and the (new) covenant is established through His death, like a “will”.
The confusion is arising because Nicodemus is also trying to connect sacrifices with the ratification of the covenant. And the covenant at Sinai was ratified with sacrifices, and blood was sprinkled over everything, just as he claims. So, how does the self-sacrifice of Jesus, once-for-all-time, relate to the sacrifices at the ratification? That was different from the sin offerings because it sanctified rather than justified (as in forgiveness).
On the other hand, you could say that there really isn’t much distinction between sanctification and justification because sin is what makes people “unholy” in the first place. So, my questions may be taking the connection further than Nicodemus may intend. That’s why I didn’t want you to panic. The truth remains that we have a relationship with our Creator through His efforts alone in the death of Jesus.
So, it may not change anything to ask whether the first covenant was a “will”, but it may be an interesting rabbit to chase. What would it mean if the sacrifices ratifying the first covenant with Moses represented God rather than the people. And before you get all hot and bothered about such thinking disrespecting God, read Genesis 15. God moving between the carcasses He is subjecting Himself to the promise, so the sacrifice represents Him, not Abraham. If He’s okay with it, don’t be afraid to walk the same path, but only do so to explore the depths of the love of our Creator for His creatures, you and everyone else.
Okay, my view through the knothole was really more questions than answers, but there you are. What’s your view through your knothole?
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation