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The Sinai Covenant: A Nation Begins

Updated on June 22, 2010
Layout of a tabernacle
Layout of a tabernacle
Satellite view of Sinai
Satellite view of Sinai

Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Ex. 20:3)

Thus begins the covenant that would unite a nation. From semi-nomadic traditions, a disparate people became conscious of their unity through the Sinai Covenant. These tentative beginnings would prove to be the bond which held them together through the millennia. Regardless of their status of statehood, Israel’s contract with YHWH has proved to be unique, sure, and enduring. Through comparison of the formula for Hittite covenants we can establish the Sinai Covenant’s pre-conquest age. Further confirmation of its age and enduring quality is evident in the later prophets who “based themselves on it and were forever appealing to it” (Vriezen 10). This contract appears to be an identifiable starting point of the Nation Israel.

Israel’s religion “does not confront us with a cut-and-dried system of religious ideas and assured beliefs, but much more with a process of spiritual growth…” (Vriezen 8-9). A clear distinction must be made between three forms of Israeli religion. The first form is distinguished as a patriarchal religion, the second involves the Hebrews who stay in Canaan during the patriarchal emigration to Egypt, and the third includes those people who take part in the Exodus from Egypt (Vriezen 9-10).

In contrast with the Sinai covenant, the patriarchal covenants “promise personal protection and future material blessings” (Kaufman 222). Where idolatry is the major issue of the contract in the Sinai, it does not represent the prime motive in patriarchal religion. There were never “fight[s] with idolatry, nor do the patriarchs ever appear as reproaching their contemporaries for idolatry” (Kaufman 222) – likewise with apostolic prophesy. “No patriarch is charged with a prophetic mission” (Kaufman 222). This first title is dealt to Moses.

Whereas Moses’ predecessors derive their lives and culture from their Egyptian home of many generations, the patriarchal element remaining in Canaan assimilated influences from the Canaanite culture. Mixtures of their Hebrew tribal gods with El and Ba’al created a very different religion from the Exodus or Sinai experience.

The Sinai experience results in a covenant or contract between YHWH and the Israeli people. In exchange for protection and guidance from YHWH, the Israelites agree to some basic rules and regulations, later known as the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue. Ambiguous verifiable historical information, and the merging of Exodus stories and Conquest tales clouds the precise details of the history surrounding the Covenant. Further disparity comes from trying to extricate the Sinai details from biblical text, which in the immediate centuries following the Sinai experience, many writers (notably the J,E,P and D writers) add to and expand the basic covenant. In Paul Charles Bertrand’s thesis paper The Davidic Kingship and the Sinai Covenant, the writer establishes that between two distinct religious traditions (northern Israel and southern Judah), the northern tradition derives mainly from the Sinai experience, because “…Yahweh’s relationship to his people is a direct outgrowth of the Sinai Covenant…” (Bertrand 1). The writer who is more concerned with the Covenant, and therefore central to our theme, is the Elohist writer.

The Elohist author displays many distinguishing characteristics within his syntax selection, style and even themes. Syntactically he uses the name Jethro to refer to Moses’ father-in-law, where the “J” writer uses Ruel or Hobab. Mount Sinai is designated as “Elohim” or “Horeb” in the Elohist tradition. “Elohim” is also the name he prefers to use for YHWH for pre-exodus references which provides for more historical accuracy. The “E” writer is more focussed on the Israelites being God’s people, and does not include in his writings stories of creation. His concentration on prophesy gives the impression he had contact with the northern prophets. Above all the Elohist author concerns himself greatly with the special relationship found in the Covenant between God and His people. According to Bertrand the passages of the texts which seem to bear out in Elohist favour are: Ex. 19:2 – 8, 16, 17, 19; Ex. 20:18 – 21 (the offer of the covenant and YHWH’s theophany), Ex. 24:1, 9 – 11 (the ratification of the Covenant with the elders), Ex. 24: 3 – 8 (the ratification of the Covenant with the people as a whole), and Ex. 20: 1 – 17 (the text of the Decalogue).

The claim that the Elohist writer is the author of the preceding passages is based on further factors. Unlike the “J” author who has YHWH descend upon the mountain, “E” claims YHWH is already there. “E” also does not mention the mountain as named Sinai, whereas “J” does. Common to the Eloist tradition the “elohim” term for God is used, as well as YHWH. Through “E” one gets the sense that God and man are utterly different where man fears the power; instead of “J”’s anthropomorphic sense. That “E” is less interested in priestly structure is obvious in the lack of “ritual sanctification – a temple, and therefore a later southern concern” (Bernard 7).

The Ten Commandments


The covenant can be divided into four groups, or two groups depending on the theory. In the four group theory the first three commandments place emphasis on God’s claim to his people. He requires complete commitment from them and will tolerate no rivals. The next two commandments “are special institutions for the protection of basic realities of society” (Metzger 737). The following three commandments provide for the sanctity of human life, marriage, and sexual practice. In the fourth group the commandments reveal the importance of public behaviour. Within the theory of the division of two sections of the Decalogue the idea is the same. The “first part of the list expresses the people of Israel’s special connection with the God… [which] … requires connection with their God” (Firmage 17). The commandment instructing the honour of parents bridges the separation of the two sections by equating the authority structure of parents with God, giving the sense that higher authority “constitutes an authority to be respected” (Firmage 17). The second section includes those commandments which are “socio-moral [in] character” (Firmage 17). Whether broken into two or four sections, the basic premise of the Covenant first deals with commandments relating to a relationship with God, followed by the individual’s relationship to his or her community.


The primary and most important aspect of the Sinai covenant is delivered in the first commandment of the since acknowledged Decalogue which states; “I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2 – 3). The significance of this opening statement and command reveals the basic unifying tenet of the people Israel. They are to have only one god, and all power is centralised in this one being. This is considered the “heart of the Decalogue” (Kaufman 233). Because other gods were a part of the people’s history the first commandment ensures they are now bound to one god.


The second command “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image….” (Exodus 20: 4 – 6) further emphasises the power of YHWH where “there would be no magic, no attempt to constrain Yahweh to act in ways his human colleagues deemed appropriate” (Greeley 100). YHWH’s power would not and could not be bound by humanity’s limited views or misinterpretations. In the third commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20: 7), again points to power – the power of words or names. The ancient mind believed a name could “represent(ed) reality [and] … essence”” (Greeley 120). This command “prohibited … the misuse of religion…” (Greeley 120), and prevented the community in using God’s name for trivial purposes.


In commandment four they are told to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20: 8), where the word “holy” means to keep separate from the ordinary. Many ancient Middle East peoples often considered the seventh day to be a day fraught with the activity of demons (Greeley 129), so therefore to be free from the demons at work, one should remain at rest and away from the normal course of daily events. This is modified in the Sinai tradition to allow the people to recuperate from their six days of work where they could also meditate and consider their unique relationship to their Covenant partner YHWH. Through this commandment and the following six, the well-being of the community at large is under consideration.


From verses twelve through to thirteen there forms the basis of a united community whereby respect of one another would strengthen their unity. Not only does it serve to unify the community, but provides “behavioural activities … [which are] evidence that …[they] …believe in the covenant and [honoured] it in… [their] lives” (Greeley 143). These laws could be acted upon, if broken, by a governing body as opposed to the final commandment which “cannot be enforced and hence is not punishable by human”(Firmage 15). Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour’s (Exodus 20:14).

Covetousness could only be punished by God so “this command considers the violation of ethics” (Firmage 15 – 16). Not only did coveting imply that an individual “had not really put his trust in Yahweh” (Greeley 205), but in the ancient mind within “any closely knit community one man’s success is another man’s failure” (Greeley 203). Only an ethical rule such as the tenth commandment could address this possibility.


According to Moshe Weinfield in his essay The Decalogue in Israel’s Tradition, “Anyone who does not observe these commandments excludes herself or himself from the community of the faithful. This is the function of the Decalogue” (Firmage 15). There was an added function of the Decalogue which proved to be of a more day to day practical guide. Not only did it purport to “protect individuals from the religious community’s misuse of divine power to serve its own ends” (Metzger 737), but allowed  a “human need for rest … and the preservation of human dignity against any kind of exploitation” (Metzger 737). It maintains a community where the combination of self and property is recognised and respected (Metzger 737), and calls for truth in front of courts and/or elders. Ideally, life could be lived without the twisting of lives due to desire of another’s goods. It bound a scattered people and would continue through modification by way of expansion into law which would initialise the development of a nation. This formula for a covenant contract can be traced back to the Hittites, which helps to authenticate its age, and adds credible evidence to claims of Israel’s beginnings.


The Hittite and Midianite Connection

Although there is disagreement in the scholarly community, certain similarities to Hittite treaties between King and vassal would suggest that the Sinai Covenant can be dated to include the pre-conquest era which comprises the wandering semi-nomadic from Exodus tradition. John Bright in A History of Israel writes “that the treaties of this type were not specifically Hittite in origin, but rather represent a treaty form which was widely used in the ancient Orient in the second millennium BC” (Bright 150-151), and are known to us through ancient texts. Palestine and like areas were influenced, as the Late Bronze Age ended, by elements travelling from the north and thus could have been known by Israel.

The Hittite formula begins with a preamble where the King identifies himself to his vassal. It is followed by a prologue which relates the relationship between vassal and King, and the beneficial services which the King has already performed, for which the vassal owes gratitude. Next, detailed rules and regulations are given in the stipulation section of which the vassal is expected to obey. Finally the treaty, or a copy, is to be placed in the vassal’s shrine (Bright 151).

The parallels with the Sinai agreement can not be ignored. Firstly, the preamble which identifies YHWH is evident in Exodus 20: 2. Secondly the prologue can also be found in verse two which states “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20: 2). The third requirement of stipulations is readily apparent in the text of the Decalogue which also contains similarities of specific rules such as not having any other King or God, and where Hittite vassals “are to refrain from enmity with other vassals” (Bright 152), so the Decalogue forbids “actions as would encroach upon the rights of fellow Israelites” (Bright 152). Fourthly, the Ark of the Covenant could be considered the vassal’s shrine. Yet despite these similarities the arguments of some scholars that the Sinai Covenant was adapted at a later post-conquest period must be addressed.

To begin, the Hittite treaty form “did not disappear with the fall of the Hittite Empire in the thirteenth century BCE” (Bright 153), as many features can be found in the Assyrian texts after the eighth century. The established Israel may have adopted the formula at this time. Yet even though the Hittite formula did survive to the Assyrians, there were marked differences – most notable in the increase of curses, and the absence of blessings making it very “different in spirit from the Biblical covenant” (Bright 154). Some would argue even if the Hittite covenants were used to model the Sinai Covenant that it was written at a later date in the post-conquest era, but this does not explain how such a diverse people could hold together for two hundred years without some sort of plan or agreement in place to unify them (Bright 149).

That something unique occurred to the wandering Israelites at Sinai which would unite them in a special way cannot be denied. This is strengthened by the manner in which they entered Canaan after the Sinai experience. Their monotheistic ties to YHWH prove to be the factor which hold them to their goals of conquest in Canaan. According to Th. C. Vriezen in The Religion of Ancient Israel, “the conflict between Israel’s religion and that of the Canaanites could never have been raged with such intensity, had the belief in Yahweh not already been formed before Israel made contact with the other religion” (Vriezen 129). Had they entered Palestine without their distinct relationship to YHWH, but with vestiges of Egyptian and/or other desert religions, like the Patriarchal fathers before them they “could never have stood their ground spiritually speaking” (Vriezen 129). The Canaanites were far superior in all cultural respects. But with the promises of YHWH and the covenant backing up their faith, the people of Israel were able to resist being amalgamated into Canaanite culture thereby retaining their special identity. This special bond they realised with YHWH brings to the fore a question of this identity.

Who was YHWH, and where did He originate? Some scholars believe the YHWH connection came through Moses and his ties with the Midianite clans (Bright 127). It is possible that Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a priest of YHWH. Other clues point to this YHWH/Moses connection. Discoveries made in the copper mines of Timna, south of the Dead Sea indicate YHWH worship. When the Egyptians ceased exploiting the mines and Midianite labour, the Midianites continued to mine. Remnants of a tent shrine, as well as defaced sculptures of Hathor were uncovered in which “one is reminded of Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness and also, perhaps of the prohibition of images which was characteristic of her faith from the beginning” (Bright 127). And although we can’t know for certain that YHWH was worshiped before Moses, despite the many clues which seem to fit, we do know that “through the work of Moses, Yahwism was completely transformed and given a new content” (Bright 127). The question of the actual location of the Sinai mountain doesn’t seem to detract from this Moses/YHWH connection.

From its Sinai roots the concept of YHWH and covenant moved toward Canaan. Despite the great numbers of nomadic immigrants suggested by tradition, history dictates the exodus consisted of “smaller family units” (Bright 168). Yet these smaller numbers would draw converts to the newly realised religion. In a normal historic context, such a comparatively small group would have been assimilated into their new surroundings – it was “a pattern followed again and again in the Near East, in Canaan, and also among tribes of Israel” (Vriezen 155), but not so with the new immigrants. They survived and thrived to eventually dominate enough to establish with new generations and natives of the area to reaffirm and extend their Sinai covenant at Shechem (Bright 168). Their influence and culture grew as did their laws. And even though through the growth of their nation and laws they borrowed some traditions from “people absorbed into her structure of the same stock as her own ancestors … only such procedures as were compatible with the spirit of Yahwism could be used” (Bright 173). By the twelve century BCE Israel was firmly established due in part to the declining influences of Egypt. During the Judges period Israel’s economy improved, yet a period of “Theological irregularity” ensued. With their assimilation of other people also came the re-emergence of Canaanite religions, particularly with Ba’al. Some of the agrarian Israelites “propitiate[d] the gods of fertility” (Bright 178), to the extent of confusing the worship of Ba’al and YHWH. From the break-up of the tribal league, through Philistine threat, the unification of north and south, through to David’s reign and the split of that unification after Solomon’s death, Israel marched forward in time to the period of the Prophets, where once again an emphasis was laid upon a purer form of covenant and YHWH.

The Prophets stood out as the conscience of the People Israel. “They were the first to conceive of the doctrine of the primacy of morality, the idea that the essence of God’s demand of man is not cultic, but moral” (Kaufman 345). A new experience, born from Israel’s economic success and its acceptance of a monarchy created societal decay. Israel grew from an agricultural economy where tribes and families owned the land, to a monarchy where the “king’s right of confiscation became a new means of acquiring property …” (Kaufman 347). With the Aramaean wars the average person became increasingly impoverished. Wealth was in the hands of a few as “war profiteers bought out the lands and the houses of the poor masses” (Kaufman 347). Famine, drought, plague, and captivity gave birth to the prophets as they watched YHWH’s temples and His covenant violated.

“The prophets do look to the very foundations of Yahwism, familiar to them from ancient tradition” (Vriezen 195). They became “conscious of their responsibility for the entire nation” (Vriezen 195), and brought about a new religious awareness. They stressed absolute loyalty to YHWH and His covenant, yet added the new element of judgement. Through their messages of judgement and salvation the people of Israel were able to endure their exile, maintain her faith, and return to build again. Therefore the prophets seemed to have had more influence in the future than in their own time. The importance of the prophets is clearly evident in our religious texts of today.

From its nomadic beginnings, witnessed by several small tribes or families escaping the tyranny of Egypt, the Sinai Covenant played a prominent role. Through its simple beginnings, an odd amalgamation of people united to form a nation that has endured to its present form in a world where a large portion of its population still recognises its basic tenets. With such a pedigree, the Sinai Covenant can be said to be the beginning of a nation.

                             Works Cited
Bertrand, Paul Charles. The Davidic Kingship and the Sinai Covenant 
     Thesis. Saint Mary’s University: Halifax NS, 1980.
Bright, John. A History of Israel. Louisville KT: Westminster John 
     Knox Press, 2000.
Firmage, Edwin B., Bernard G. Weiss, John W. Welch. Religion and 
     Law. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990.
       Weinfield, Moshe. “The Decalogue in Israel’s Tradition.” Firmage 
       3 – 47.
Greeley, Andrew M. The Sinai Myth. New York: Doubleday &
     Company, 1972.
(The) Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text. Philadelphia:
     The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955.
Kaufman, Yehezkel. The Religion of Israel. Chicago: The University
     Of Chicago Press, 1960.
Metzger, Bruce M. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford: 
     Oxford University Press, 1993.
Vriezen, TH.C. Religion of Ancient Israel. Great Britain: The West-
     Minster Press, 1967.


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