(9) If you obey me fully and keep my covenant… – Exodus 19:5

The exit from Egypt does not go smoothly to start with. Despite the loss of their sons, the Egyptians quickly change their minds and pursue the Israelites into the desert to bring them back. The Israelites are chased until they are caught between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. The people are terrified and turn on Moses, something that will become a recurring theme in their relationship with their leader, but God tells Moses to hold out his staff over the sea which results in the water receding to enable them to cross on dry land. The Egyptians follow, but the water returns and they are wiped out. God’s people are now truly free.

They camp near Mount Sinai where God makes a covenant with them. A covenant is a legally binding commitment or promise and in this covenant the commitment from God is that the people of Israel will be his “treasured possession”, and a “‘holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6), meaning that they are set apart for him. However, this is a conditional covenant, it only applies to the people of Israel if they obey God fully and keep his covenant. This is a set of laws covering social, economic and religious life, which are spelled out in the second half of the book of Exodus, and throughout the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Along with Genesis, these first five books of the Bible are known as ‘The Law’. In Hebrew they are known as ‘The Torah’, meaning instruction or teaching, and they are also commonly known as ‘The Books of Moses’, as it was Moses who wrote or compiled them. The Law is the basis of all the rest of the Bible. The history, wisdom and prophetic books that follow in the Bible all contain many references to the Law and are collectively known as ‘The Prophets’. So, in Jesus’ time the Old Testament was referred to as “The Law and the Prophets” (see Matthew 7:12 and Acts 13:15) and these first 39 books of the Bible form the Old Covenant or the Old Testament, the Latin word for covenant. The New Testament is also built on the Law with Jesus both quoting it and fulfilling its demands (see for example Matthew 4:4,7,10 and Matthew 26:55-56).

Check out the Bible Bookcase to see how the books of the Bible would look if they were separate volumes.

The headlines of the laws for God’s people are the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20) and these set out the people’s obligations to God and to other people. They are to love God above all others, honour his name, not worship idols and keep one day a week work-free. In human relationships they are to honour their parents, respect the sanctity of life, to be faithful in marriage, not to steal, not to lie and to be content with their lot, not living in envy of what others have. These laws established honesty in government, the law courts and in the marketplace, alongside a genuine respect for human life and the family, all within a framework of worship of a God who loved and provided for his people, and they gave the people of Israel a unique identity and a great strength as a nation.

Some see the laws in the Bible as restrictive and some are difficult for us to understand. A young child doesn’t appreciate why its parents put a guard round a fire that it wants to touch or stop it running across the road. A teenager doesn’t understand why its parents are concerned about what their friends are like. But we grow up to know that our parents put all these restrictions in place because they cared for us, they wanted the best for us, and they loved us. So it is with God’s law. We may not understand the reason for every commandment, but as we come to trust in who God is and his intentions for us, then we will learn the wisdom of obeying his commands and for the benefits they will bring us.

These laws have never been surpassed and nations where life is cheap, relationships are transitory and where people cannot be trusted and the government and courts are corrupt are unhappy places for their citizens. It is no wonder that writing hundreds of years later an Israelite poet wrote that the law is “more precious than gold” (Psalm 19:10).

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