Session 7 | Understanding What Covenant Law Is

➡ Average Reading Time: 12 minutes Understanding What Covenant Law Is

Learning Objectives

When you finish this session, you should be able to:
  • Understand how the First Testament  uses analogy
  • Know the six parts of an ancient treaty
  • Understand the form of the Mosaic Covenant and what the intention of the Covenant was
  • Identify the stipulations specifically and generally
  • Understand Casuistic and Apodictic Law
  • Know how the First Testament Law and the Second Testament relate
  • Apply Second Testament Law for today

Session Preview

This Session provides an overview of the First Testament covenant. First, we will see how analogy works in the First Testament to help communicate the purposes of God. Then, we will overview the Lord-Servant Treaty. Next, we will observe that the Mosaic Covenant follows this ancient form. Then, we will look at the ten stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant. Next, we will see the difference between Casuistic and Apodictic Law. Then, we will discuss the relationship between the First Testament Law and the Second Testament. Finally, we will provide the reader with some help for interpreting and applying First Testament Law.

Where We Are Going

The Lord-Servant Treaty
The Mosaic Covenant
Redemption/Exodus Followed By Covenant/Law
Casuistic and Apodictic Law
Casuistic Law
Apodictic Law
The Second Testament and the Covenant/Law
Some Help For Interpretation and Application
Interpretative Ideas

Reading Assignments


The study of Covenant/Law does not carry with it the same kind of biblical enthusiasm that a study concerning Gog and Magog or the number of the beast in Revelation would carry. However, the study of Covenant/Law is important because it provides for us the names for the two parts of the Christian Scripture.

The language of Covenant/Law should be understood with similar light as other parts of the First Testament are afforded. Each of the following examples contains an analogy. God’s relationship with Israel is to be compared to something within the human experience.

The background of the First Testament age gives us some indication of what covenant-law meant to the ancient Hebrew. God often used comparison as a method of communication. His relationship with Israel is often compared to something within the human experience. As an example, when Hosea was delivering one of his final messages to Israel about God’s displeasure with them, he said the following:

Like a bear robbed of her cubs,
I will attack them and rip them open.
Like a lion I will devour them;
a wild animal will tear them apart. (Hosea 13.8)

In poetic language, Hosea states that God is going to destroy Israel in the same manner that a mother bear would destroy anyone who robbed her of her cubs. This is easy to understand because the human experience of a mother bear is much the same in every place and age. An Eskimo would understand this comparison as well as an Israelite.

I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the desert,
through a land not sown. (Jeremiah 2.2b)

Jeremiah used poetic language to suggest that God and Israel are joined like a husband and wife who have just been married and are on a honeymoon. The prophets use lots of language which can cross-culturally be understood without much need for change. I am not saying that an Israelite marriage was like a modern American marriage because the practices and attitudes have changed. The fundamental action of newlyweds is such that the main point, which is being communicated, will not be missed.

Israel was holy to the Lord,
the firstfruits of his harvest;
all who devoured her were held guilty,
and disaster overtook them,
declares the Lord (Jeremiah 2.3)

This analogy comes from an understanding of a specific part of the legal code of Israel, i.e., first fruits. Every year at Pentecost, the firstfruits of the harvest were brought to God. They were treated as something holy, i.e., it had been separated to God. If an Israelite treated the firstfruits like the rest of his crop, he was guilty of sacrilege. Jeremiah is suggesting to his readers that while the children of Israel were in the desert, they were like God’s firstfruits and anyone who devoured her would be treated by God as one who committed sacrilege.
The same may be true of covenant-law. God used a form from the ancient world to make Covenant/Law with his children. To understand the form helps one understand the content or more bluntly, if you don’t know the form, you will make the content says something that God was and is not saying!

The Lord-Servant Treaty

The Lord-Servant treaty as an ancient treaty was essentially an elaborate oath. To understand its form will allow the reader of Scripture to make sense of what is being said and keep folks from reading some spiritual meaning into the text that is not there. There were six parts to an ancient treaty:

  1. The Preamble: This part of the covenant demonstrated that the two parties of the covenant were not equal.
  2. The Historical Prologue: This section confirmed that the relationship between the two parties of the covenant was built on the basis of what the Lord had done for the servant.
  3. The Stipulations of the Treaty: This segment shared the essential obligations of the servant concerning their lifestyle in relationship to the lord of the covenant as well as the obligations of living everyday life.
  4. The Provision for Disposition of Text and Public Reading: The object of this portion was to give the servant a specific time to remember the stipulations of the covenant.
  5. The List of Divine Witnesses: The covenant was validated within this list.
  6. The Blessings and Curses: The last section of the covenant was to verify for the servant that if he kept a relationship and followed the stipulations, he would receive continued protection and blessings from the lord. However, if he decided to break Covenant/Law, he would not receive continued protection, and instead of a blessing, he would receive curses from the lord.

Note: stipulations were not given to perform in order to become God’s children; they were performed because they were God’s children.

The Mosaic Covenant

It is commonly agreed that the form of the Lord-Servant Treaty was the basis for the covenant given to Moses. Lord-Servant Treaty is the form of the Mosaic Covenant.

  • The Preamble: Exodus 20.2a
  • The Historical Prologue: Exodus 20.2b
  • The Stipulations Of The Treaty

Basic Exodus Exodus 20.3
General Exodus Exodus 20.4-17

  • The Disposition Of The Text: Exodus 25.16; Deuteronomy 10.1-5; Public Reading: Deuteronomy 31.10-13
  • The Blessings And Curses – Deuteronomy 28.1-68

Blessings: Deuteronomy 28.1-14
Curses: 28.15-68

Redemption/Exodus Then The Covenant/Law

  • The law was never intended to be a system of legal observances by which you could earn God’s acceptance if you obeyed it.
  • The Commandments are the stipulations of the covenant relationship, which is rooted in grace!
  • They are basic statements on the quality of life that must characterize those who belong to God.
  • All of Scripture knows only one way of salvation–the grace of God.
  • God reveals his redemptive purpose always based on grace, not on man’s ability to obligate God to save him because he has kept the law.


This list of stipulations follows a general form that moves from the particular to the general, from the specific command to a general meaning. While absolute, each command provides a general directive for individuals and communities.

  1. No Other Gods: God’s uniqueness and supremacy
  2. No Graven Images: God’s concern for proper worship
  3. Not Taking Name in Vain: The dignity/power of God’s name and being
  4. Keep Sabbath Holy: God’s claim to His creatures’ time, his concern for Re-creation
  5. Honor Parents: Recognition of legitimate authority
  6. No Murder: Reverence for life; human right to live; unauthorized or premeditated
  7. No Adultery: The sanctity of marriage, the home, human sexuality
  8. No Stealing: Respect for property
  9. No False Witness: Respect for reputation; good name; honesty
  10. Avoid Coveting: Contentment

Casuistic and Apodictic Law

The ancient code that follows the Ten Commandments is often called the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 21-23). This section, as well as other parts of the Pentateuch, contains both casuistic and apodictic laws. They are general statements and exemplary cases to serve as a guide for those charged with implementing them.

Casuistic Law

This is case law. It has a distinctive if…then grammatical structure. It is stated in the impersonal third-person style which makes it easy to recognize. The “if” clause describes the case, the “then” clause describes the legal penalty for infractions. An example of case law is Exodus 21.18-19;

Condition: If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed,

Penalty: the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party, however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.

Israelite case law resembles ancient Near Eastern law. The roots of the genre predate Israel’s entrance into history. Israel’s case law primarily treats civil or criminal cases rather than religious ones.

Exodus 21-23 serves as an example of this kind of law. Here are case studies that serve as guides for determining the outcome of other similar cases. They do not state every kind of case which could occur. They are illustrations of the right target to shoot at or the right way to respond.

Apodictic Law

The second major category of law is apodictic (absolute) law. Apodictic law organizes laws in categorical directives such as commands and prohibitions. Instead of finely tuned case descriptions, they issue absolute orders about right and wrong and allow no exceptions. They feature direct personal address such as “you shall/shall not.” These laws primarily treat moral and religious matters. This is the prohibition-style which issues commands like “you shall not murder.” It is the best-known form. In blunt terms, it means, “don’t do this!” While less common, the admonition issues a positive command like, “Honor your father and your mother…” (Ex. 20.12, cf. v. 8). The admonition commands “do this!” without considering any exceptions.

Another kind of apodictic law derives its name from its grammatical form. The participle law deals with capital crimes. An example of this is in Exodus 21.12, “Anyone who hits a person and kills him must be put to death.” The Hebrew participle anyone who describes the case while the main verb put to death describes the penalty. Notice the statement is categorical and allows no exceptions.

Finally, there is the well-known apodictic law known as the law of retaliation. An example is found in Exodus 21.23-25.

…if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Like other apodictic law, it addresses the audience personally (“you are to…”). Its subject is premeditated crimes that involve bodily harm. The legal principle is equivalence for injury and penalty. This genre also predates Israel as an ancient world legal practice.

The law gives a standard by stating an example. It does not mention every possible situation that could arise. These statements of law were meant to be viewed as reliable guides, not technical descriptions of all possible conditions which could ever take place.

The Second Testament And The Covenant/Law

How are we to understand the relationship of the teaching of the Second Testament to that of the First Testament?

Paul is the most profound spokesperson concerning the Law in the Second Testament. He speaks from the focus of a Christian thinker sharing a theological interpretation of two ways of righteousness: grace and legalism.
Romans 9.30-32 will help us understand what Paul means when he speaks of the Law. Romans 9.31 tells us that the Law showed Israel what a right relationship with God was. Romans 9.32 shares that Israel misused the Law by believing that it was a way of attaining righteousness by their works instead of through faith.

The heart of the First Testament is not characterized by legalism. The Law was not given as a means of achieving a relationship with God. The context of the Law was the covenant that was given to Israel by the gracious hand of God. Israel became God’s people, not because they deserved it or earned it, but because God chose to make them his people. God made Israel, his own people by redeeming her from the bondage of Egypt. The Law was a means of binding Israel to God. It provided a standard for obedience by which relationships could be maintained.

When the nation of Israel became disobedient concerning the stipulations of the covenant, God raised up prophets to tell her that she had been rejected by God as his own. The prophets told Israel that God would raise up a faithful remnant that was righteous in deed and heart. Even in the First Testament, we have the roots of the distinction between the nation Israel and the new Israel, i.e., the church. It was to the latter that God would write the Law on their hearts (Jer. 31.33).

In the Second Temple Judaism years, a fundamental change occurred in how the people of Israel understood the Law. If one obeyed the Law, he could become God’s child. The Jewish person in the first century came to believe that repentance played a large role in keeping the Law. The righteous man was not one who actually succeeded in keeping the Law; he was the one who intended to keep the Law, strived to keep the Law, and repented when he failed to keep the Law.

Thus, when Paul speaks concerning the Law, what may be foremost in his mind is what the Law had become in Judaism, not how it had started with God and Israel.

Some Help For Interpretation and Application

It is important to remember that the aim of the Law was instructional, not judicial. First Testament Law poses an interpretive challenge for the Bible student with a Western mindset. Our basic problem is that we share a common misunderstanding about the nature of the Law in the First Testament. For us, law brings to mind images of a massive legal code or a feeling of legalism. The First Testament legal sections do not constitute a comprehensive legal code. Rather, they present a select sample of illustrative cases to topics whose legal principles were to serve as a guide to Israel. The purpose of these legal codes was to teach Israel fundamental values, not to provide them with a handy legal library.

The First Testament law is best understood within its covenant framework. It articulates the stipulations of the covenant, which was made between God and Israel. The First Testament law represents the personal demands of God, rather than an abstract system of morality or a technical legal code. We must interpret laws relationally, as guidelines that governed the life of Israel. In return for his protection and blessing, God expected Israel to obey what the law commanded.

The First Testament law can be divided into five distinct types:

  1. Criminal law defines offenses against God and the whole community. It includes a penalty. (Ex. 21.16; 22.18).
  2. Civil law which treats disputes between the citizens of Israel. Primarily this is in case law form. It details provisions and penalties for cases like assault, accidental injury, damage, negligence, slavery, and property disputes.
  3. Family law which defines the judicial role of the Israelite family. Within this area are guidelines for the marriage of a childless widow (Deut. 25.5-10), inheritance (Deut. 21.15-16), and the redemption of mortgaged family property (Lev. 25.23-31).
  4. Cultic law that regulates Israel’s specific religious practices, such as Sabbaths, festivals, tithes (taxes), offerings, sacrifices, dietary, and hygienic rules.
  5. Charitable law which included various kinds of humanitarian guidelines. Herein, were the laws to protect and provide for the weak and vulnerable, such as widows, orphans, and resident aliens (Ex. 22.21-27; Lev. 19.9-10).

The modern Bible student often asks the question: How does the law apply to me as a believer today? There are two fundamental interrelated assumptions about the nature of the First Testament law that help answer this question. First, it appears that God intended the First Testament law to serve as a paradigm for ethical, moral, and theological principles. In short, the law is more than a temporary, dispensable cultural phenomenon. Believers who dismiss it as outmoded and irrelevant deprive themselves of the teachings God conveyed through it.

Second, to properly understand the First Testament law, the Bible student must discover the cultural timeframe. As an example, consider the perplexing law that decrees that a woman’s menstrual bleeding makes her and everything she touches unclean (Lev. 15.19-30). This law appears to be rather harsh and somewhat unfair in that it makes a woman untouchable one week out of every four. How would the historical timeframe help one understand that passage?
To answer this question, we must understand some of Israel’s background. The following footnote reference will help you see some of the historical information about this subject. [ref]Female Purity. Tirzah Meacham (leBeit Yoreh). Jewish Women’s Archive (Niddah).[/ref]

An example comes from Deuteronomy 22.8,

When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.

The passage teaches that we should have a concern for the safety of our neighbors. We might suggest today that a person riding in our car fasten his or her seatbelt when riding in our car. The example may be different today, but the proposition is still the same. If we do not recognize the original point of the Scriptural guideline, we cannot recognize the real point we must reapply to our own culture.

Interpretative Ideas

These are a few interpretative ideas that will help us from making the First Testament laws say something they were never intended to say.

  • Discover the literary type of the law being studied. The collection in which an individual law appears will serve as its literary type. To discover the context, investigate the surrounding laws for interpretive clues.
  • You should endeavor to understand the original meaning of the laws in light of their cultural background. In order to do so, consult a Bible dictionary, commentary, or other background sources.
  • Apply the laws to its Second Testament counterpart. As an example, laws aimed at Israel as a whole could apply to a nation in today’s world.
  • Understand the First Testament in light of the covenant given to Israel by Moses. Determine what the first hearer could have heard when faced with the issues of casuistic and apodictic law. Decide what the explicit teaching was.
  • Understand the original intended truth and then reapply it in a cross-cultural example.


  • Remember that the Covenant/Law had meaning within the context of Israel. God spoke to his people a message. That message is still needed today within our own culture, but that doesn’t mean a tit-for-tat exchange.
  • The message of the First Testament covenant is fulfilled in Jesus in the Second Testament. However, this does not mean every aspect of the Law was abolished!

Community Discussion Questions

➡ |CDQ Info|

  • How does understanding analogy help you understand God’s relationship with Israel?
  • Why do you think that God required Israel to read the text publicly on a yearly basis?
  • How does understanding the form of the Lord-Servant Treaty help you understand grace and law?
  • Can the First Testament case law still be used in the church today? Why or Why not?
  • How does the concept of absolute law fit into today’s society?
    Should Apodictic law be a model for the church today?
  • How does this concept help you understand Paul’s writings about Law and Grace?
  • How does keeping the Ten Commandments help you relate to God?
  • How does dismissing the First Testament laws as not relevant for today’s believer deprive the Second Testament believer of the word of God?
  • How would applying OT meaning to a Second Testament counterpart help you keep from interpreting and applying a passage meant for the community to you individually?
  • Do you believe that regardless of the situation, all passages in Scripture have meaning and application for an individual? Why or Why not?

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Read Me First


Throughout these sessions, I have used the word ecclesia (singular) for the usual word church and ecclesiae (plural) to indicate a church in a particular geographic place, i.e., the ecclesiae at Corinth, meaning the whole of the many smaller ecclesia that met in homes in Corinth. This is to distinguish between the Institutional Church model (IC) and ecclesia that meet in cities and towns around the world. The ecclesiae written about by the authors of the Second Testament were not the same as what the “church” has become over the years of its existence. Usually, but not always, folks think of a church as a place where they go to a building and set in rows of pews and listen to music and sometimes sing and listen to sermons by a pastor or senior pastor. The ecclesiae of the Second Testament time did not invoke this model.


I have discovered over the years that if you want to try and change minds about something special, you have to venture out and reword it in order to grasp a foothold for a new refreshed understanding of the idea presented by the word. Such is the case between "church" and "ecclesia."


Happy Reading!

Read Me Second


Referenced verses in the text of this study are not used to prove some point of view. They are merely markers where the subject matter is referenced by other books and authors. To gain a larger view of each quote, a serious student of the Holy Writ would take the time to view the reference and see what the background is. The background provides tracks on which the meaning of a text rides. So knowing the context of a referenced passage would help the reader to gain a more thorough understanding of an author than just the words quoted and marked by a verse number that was not a part of the original author's text, which as you might remember was performed on the text in a random fashion many years later.


Happy Reading!

Read Me Third


The verses that are referenced in these sessions are not meant to prove a point. They are simply pointers to where the idea being written about may have a correlation. In order to see if they accomplish the thesis presented by the original author, a student should read, at a minimum, the chapter in which the verse is found as well as trying to ascertain what the original author may have meant to say to the original audience.


Of course, this is a lot of work but it is beneficial work. If one does not understand what the author meant when it was written and the audience could not have understood by what was written, then the words on the page can mean anything that a present reader may assign as a meaning, thus distorting what God was inspiring for the original writer to write to the original audience to hear.

A great and recent book by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird entitled The New Testament in Its World would be a wonderful addition to your reading helps.


Happy Reading!

Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)