The Old Covenant, in distinction from the New Covenant, was
centered on Israel as a specific nation-state composed of people in a specific
ethnic group. Salvation in the Old Covenant era was primarily in/through
national/ethnic Israel. Israel, as a distinct ethnicity and nation, had its
roots in the Abrahamic Covenant, particularly as more specific land promises
and the rite of circumcision were added to the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis
17. As a nation, Israel was fully constituted in the Mosaic Covenant, wherein
the Jewish people were hemmed in by moral, civil, and ceremonial laws.
In time, God's covenant dealings with Israel came to focus on Israel's kings, through the Davidic Covenant. In the Old Testament economy, this covenant was particularly (though not exclusively) associated with the civil law. The Davidic Covenant re-established the principle of federal headship, which was first seen in the Adamic Covenant.
As God gave the Mosaic Covenant, He focused the ceremonial law on the priesthood. The priesthood was defined in terms of the Levitical Covenant. The Levitical Covenant clarified and codified the principle of substitutionary atonement, which was first seen when God clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins following their fall into sin.
There was no covenant explicitly mentioned when Aaron and
his sons were ordained as priests in Exodus 28-29. However, the Levitical
covenant is explicitly mentioned in later texts: Jer 33:21-22; Neh 13:29; Mal 2:1-9.
Moreover, even in the giving of the Law, the holy contributions to the LORD
which the Levitical priests enjoyed, were named as “a covenant of salt” (Num 18:19). Williamson notes:
In [Numbers] 25:10-13 Phinehas,
Aaron’s grandson, is awarded a ‘covenant of peace’ for his loyalty to Yahweh.
This is further defined as a ‘covenant of perpetual priesthood.’ It appears
that the latter was a reaffirmation of the covenant initiated with Aaron, the
ancestor of the Zadokite priesthood (1 Chr 6:3-15) and perhaps the Maccabean
priesthood (1 Mac 2:54). [P.R. Williamson, “Covenant,” New Dictionary of
Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 2000), 425.]
There were two main acts in which the Levitical priests were
to be involved:
1. Mediating the knowledge of God in the written Word to the
mediating the forgiveness of God through the
sacrificial system to the people.
There is a crucial difference between the Covenant of Works
given to Adam and the re-published Covenant of Works given to Moses. The Adamic
Covenant contained no provision for forgiveness. Eating the forbidden fruit
earned death and curses. It is only through another covenant arrangement–the
Covenant of Grace–that hope came into the fallen world.
In God’s covenant dealings with Abraham’s offspring, He
graciously extended covenant promises to a fallen people. God knew that the
people were sinners. This did not excuse their sin. Any sin by any individual
earns that individual the wrath of a holy God. On the other hand, an individual
sin by a citizen of Israel did not automatically forfeit the Old Covenant or
trigger all covenant curses under that arrangement. It was only when the
leadership–the kings and the priesthood–became corrupt that the people were
sent into exile. When the people returned from exile, the ongoing corruption of
the priests–those who were meant to be mediators–was a cause of prophetic
warnings (Mal 2:1-9), keeping the nation from ever again attaining its full
glory. This set the stage for the coming Messiah, who would establish a better priesthood.
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