What is the Book of the Covenant?
The Book of the Covenant is the name given in Exodus 24:7 to a code or collection of laws found in the preceding chapters, 20 through 23, as the terms of the covenant made with Yahweh, and given for Israel's guidance until a more complete legislation should be provided. In this covenant between Yahweh and Israel, Moses served as mediator; animals were sacrificed, the blood Thus shed being also called "the blood of the covenant" ( dam haberı̄th , Exodus 24:8 ).
This brief book of laws occupies a fitting and dearly marked place in the Pentateuchal collection. Examination of the historical context shows that it is put where it belongs and belongs where it is put. A few months after the Exodus (Exodus 19:1 ) Israel arrived at Sinai. Immediately at the command which Moses had received from Yahweh in the Mount, they prepared themselves by a ceremonial of sanctification for entrance into covenant relation with Yahweh. When the great day arrived for making this covenant, Moses in the midst of impressive natural phenomena went again to meet Yahweh in the top of the mountain.
On his return (Exodus 19:25 ), the words of the law, or the terms of the covenant, were declared to the people, and accepted by them. The first part of these covenant-terms, namely, the Decalogue (Ex 20:2-17), was spoken by the Divine voice, or its declaration was accompanied by awe-inspiring natural convulsions (Exodus 20:18 ). Therefore in response to the pleadings of the terrified people Moses went up again into the mountain and received from Yahweh for them the rest of the "words" and "ordinances" (Exodus 24:3 ); and these constitute the so-called Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22-23 ).
In this direct and unequivocal manner the narrator connected the book with the nation's consecration at Sinai. The prophets regarded the making of the Sinaitic covenant as the marriage of Israel and Yahweh, and these laws were the terms mutually agreed upon in the marriage contract. While it is not possible to arrange the materials of this document into hard-and-fast divisions, the following analysis may be suggestive and serviceable:
(1) directions concerning worship, specifying prohibition of images and the form of altar for animal sacrifices (Exodus 20:23-26 ); (2) ordinances for protection of Hebrew slaves, including betrothal, for a price, of daughter (Exodus 21:2-11 ); (3) laws concerning injuries, (a ) to man by man (Ex 21:12-27), (b ) to man by beast (Exodus 21:28-32 ), (c ) to beast by man (Exodus 21:33 , Exodus 21:14 ), (d ) to beast by beast (Exodus 21:35 , Exodus 21:36 ); (4) concerning theft (Exodus 22:1-4 ); (5) concerning damage to a neighbor's property, including violence to his daughter (Exodus 22:5-17 ); (6) sundry laws against profaning Yahweh's name, under which are included proper worship, avoidance of oppression and dutiful offering of first-fruits (Exodus 22:18-31 ); (7) against various forms of injustice and unbrotherliness (Exodus 23:1-9 ); (8) festal occasions, including the Sabbatical year and the three annual feasts: unleavened bread, first-fruits and ingathering (Exodus 23:10-17 ); (9) warning against certain wrong practices in their sacrifices (Exodus 23:18 , Exodus 23:19 ); (10) in conclusion, a promise of God's continual presence with them in the person of His Angel, and the consequent triumph over enemies (Exodus 23:20-33 ).
In this legislation are found two forms of laws or deliverances: (1) The ordinances (mishpāṭı̄m ), which deal principally with civil and moral matters, are like court decisions, and are introduced by the hypothetical "if"; (2) words, or commands (debhārı̄m ), which relate chiefly to religious duties, being introduced by the imperative "thou shalt." The critical analysis and dismemberment of the books of Moses, if accepted, renders the simple historical explanation of the introduction to this body of laws untrue and impossible.
The four chapters are assigned to JE, the Decalogue to E, and the Book of the Covenant to the Jahwist (Jahwist) or Elohim (E), the repetition of the Decalogue in Ex 32 through 34 being the Jahwist's account. Ordinarily the Book of the Covenant is held to be earlier than the Decalogue, and is indeed the oldest body of Hebrew legislation. However, it could not have been given at one time, nor in the wilderness, since the laws are given for those in agricultural life, and seem to be decisions made at various times and finally gathered together. Furthermore, this more primitive code either contradicts the later legislation of the Deuteronomist (D) and the Priestly Code (P) or reveals an entirely different point of view.
The chief contradictions or divergences are: nature and number of altars, absence of an official priestly class, and simpler conception of the annual feasts as agricultural celebrations. Jahwist-Elohim (JE) came into united form in the 9th or 8th century, but this body of laws existed much earlier, embodying the earliest legal developments of Hebrew life in Canaan. It is suggested by some, as Driver, LOT , although he does not attempt the analysis, that this code is itself a composite of various layers and ages.
True, or Biblical Conception
But in favor of the simpler interpretation of these laws as the ethical obligations of the new bond between Yahweh and Israel some statements deserve to be made. If a solemn league and covenant was made at Sinai - and to this all the history, all the prophets and the Psalms give testimony - there must have been some statement of the germinal and fundamental elements of the nation's moral relation to Yahweh. Such statement need not be final nor exhaustive, but rather intended to instruct and guide until later and more detailed directions might be given.
This is exactly the position and claim of the Book of the Covenant; and that this was the thought of the editor of the Pentateuch, and that this is the first and reasonable impression made by the unsuspecting and connected reading of the record, can hardly be questioned by candid minds. In answer to the criticism that the agricultural flavor of the laws presupposes settlement in Canaan - a criticism rather remarkable for its bland ignorance - it may be suggested: (1) Israel had occupied in Egypt an agricultural section, and must have been able either to form or to receive a body of laws dealing with agricultural pursuits. (2) They were on the march toward a land in which they should have permanent settlement in agricultural life; and not the presence of allusions to such life, but rather their absence, should cause surprise. (3) However, references to settled farm life are not so obtrusively frequent as those seeking signs would have us think.
References to the animal life of the flock and herd of a shepherd people, such as the Israelites were at Sinai, are far more frequent (Exodus 21:28 , Exodus 21:33 , Exodus 21:15 ; Exodus 22:1 , Exodus 22:10 ; Exodus 23:4 , etc.). The laws are quite generic in form and conception, enforcing such duties as would devolve upon both temporary nomad and prospective tillers of the soil. R. B. Taylor therefore (article in one-vol Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes)) accepts this code as originating in the desert wanderings.
In answer to the view, best presented by Wellhausen in Proleg . and W. R. Smith in OTJC , that this code is in conflict with later legislation, it may be said that the Book of the Covenant, as an ethical and civil summary, is in its proper place in the narrative of the sojourn at Sinai, and does not preclude the expectancy of more elaborate organization of both ceremonial and civil order. But the whole question relates more properly to discussion of the later legislation or of the particular topics in dispute (which see). For a thorough treatment of them consult W. H. Green, Hebrew Feasts .
Nature of the Laws
In the Book of the Covenant the moral elements strongly emphasized are: simplicity, directness and spirituality of worship; a high and equitable standard of right; highest consideration for the weak and the poor; humane treatment of dumb animals; purity in the relations of life; the spirit of brotherhood; and the simple and joyful life. Whatever development in details came with later legislation did not nullify the simple but lofty standards of the earlier laws.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).