The commandment to structure Israel's government according to the law of God is a covenantal command. Since this government model was given at Sinai, it was a model of law as well as of covenant. This covenant had the seeds of what we know as American Constitutionalism, which emphasizes limitations and spheres of jurisdiction and power.
Hebrew political scholar Daniel Elazar explains that the separation of powers is not naturally inherent. "Politically, a covenant involves a coming together (con-gregation) of basically equal humans who consent with one other through a morally binding pact supported by a transcendent power, establishing with the partners a new framework or setting them on the road to a new task, that can only be dissolved by mutual agreement of all the parties to it."1
Elements of the Covenant
Israel's covenant had all of these components: a congregation of liberated people, a morally binding pact and new framework of life called the Testimony of Witness given at Sinai that only both parties could dissolve, with God's support. The political and religious structure was patterned after the revealed law of God. Israel's new task was to be obedient to that law. They agreed to the terms of the covenant, which included agreeing to the sanctions for rebellion. When Israel rebelled, they agreed to dissolve the covenant. In turn, God also agreed and forsook them-divorcing them and sending His law out to the Gentiles through the preaching of the gospel.
But this covenant model of government was not a model only for Israel, but was of universal importance for all nations. Israel was to be the template for all governments in all nations. Moses says to Israel in Deuteronomy 4:5-8, "Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?" God, through Moses, is reminding this new generation of Israelites of the importance of covenant concerning political affairs.
Since all of Western civilization's founding documents are more or less Biblically based, the structure of the Hebrew government should be of immense concern to us today. The idea of government comes directly from God. Unlike the theories of John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau or Thomas Paine, government is not man's idea. It did not originate out of a need for men to live together in an orderly fashion, and it is not a necessary evil. In the realm of eternity, before the foundation of the earth, within the Godhead, there existed the internal government of the triune deity. When God created man in His own image, He created him with governing knowledge and the ability to govern himself. God governs man according to His holy law, and man is obligated to self-governance. Man was created to be a self-governing creature, under God's law, which would guarantee his liberty and happiness, provided that he maintained obedience.
Through His covenant, God offers Israel the freedom to obey or disobey. Since the Spirit was not at work in most of Israel's first generation, they were unable and unwilling to obey and therefore were kept from the inheritance of promise at Canaan. Elazar explains that, "He [God] offers humans freedom under the terms of the covenant, retaining the covenantal authority to reward or punish the consequences of that freedom at some future date."2 The Sinai covenant set the stage for every nation whose goals are righteous judgment and justice. It was to set the stage for all governance and politics.
Since the Biblical covenant is grounded in ethics and moral commitments, whenever the Biblical model of covenant polity is enforced, power and justice together are effective both morally and operationally. Elazar shows that history is full of examples of national covenanting to protect that nation from gross apostasy, such as during the European Reformation. "[D]uring the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Swiss and the Dutch, the Scots and the English Puritans not only conceived of civil society in covenantal terms, but actually wrote national covenants to which loyal members of the body politic subscribed. Similar covenants were used in the founding of many of the original colonies in British North America. Covenantal thinking was the common mode of political conceptualization and expression during the American Revolution, where it was reflected in any number of constitutional documents."3
On the other hand, whenever the Biblical model of government is neglected, power and justice are perverted, giving way to injustice. The result is cultural disintegration, statism, and eventually tyranny. Thus it is so important for governments to have a perfectly infallible standard of law and government. Nations that do not adhere to God's covenant are doing exactly what Israel did when they rebelled against the covenant of God's law. The results will be the same.
The Parties to the Covenant
Not only was the covenant to structure the nation of Israel, set up her laws, and provide a righteous model for the entire global order, but it was to establish a relationship between the parties involved. The key focus of covenant is on relationships. By establishing His covenant with Israel, Elazar says that God was making a relationship "constitutionalizing." The strength of the relationship between God and Israel was to be based upon the Hebrew constitution: the law of God. Elazar says that "God's covenant with Israel established the Jewish people and founded it as a body politic while at the same time creating the religious framework which gave that polity its raison d'etre, its norms, and its constitution, as well as the guidelines for developing a political order based upon proper, that is to say, covenantal relationships."4
Without covenant identification, Israel could not really be a cohesive civil and religious body politic. They could not have ecclesiastic or national standing without becoming a legitimate religious and political body. The covenant gave them legitimate standing as a godly commonwealth, without which they were nothing but Egyptian slaves. Peter comments on this fact in 1 Peter 2:9-10: "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy." Paul also comments in Ephesians 2:11-12, "Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world."
God's covenant brought the Israelites independence but not autonomy. It brought them freedom but not licentiousness. It also brought them protection under God's power. Through God's covenant governing structure, Israel had a moral commitment first to God, and then to each other.
According to Elazar, the Sinai covenant has two parts. The first portion is the Decalogue, consisting of the Ten Commandments and all the laws of Exodus 20-23. This portion of the law established the principles of divine law and human governance and later would be considered Israel's political compact. The second portion translates those laws into a constitutional framework.
While the covenant of God deals primarily with basic civil and criminal law, basic religious obligations, and basic moral laws of Israel's polity, the most direct political message has to do with the occupation of the land promised to Israel. God was going to transfer the land that had been lost in Adam back to His people. Rushdoony observes the following: "To understand the Bible, we must begin with the fact that it is a covenant book ... [it is a book of] grace and law, [and is] given as an act of saving grace, and a law for the redeemed to live by. One aspect of grace given to the people ... is the gift of the land. The land is the locale where the life of grace is lived and the covenant law is kept. This fact of victory and possession is celebrated in Israel's liturgy of [Psalm 135 & 136]." Rev. John Otis comments on covenantal dominion in his book Preaching and the Victory of the Gospel, "In 2 Samuel 7:10 God promises a place for His generations to live and prosper ... this sounds familiar to the promise [God gave] to Abraham in Genesis 17:8 where God would give his seed a land as an everlasting possession. The land promised to Abraham was but a down payment to God's Covenant people down through their generations. Romans 4:13 demonstrates that the promise really entailed the whole world. Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth."
When Christ appeared as the ultimate covenant guarantee, He confirmed the covenantal promise so that its realization would not be dependent upon His people's natural obedience to the covenant per se, but rather through faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit unto lawful obedience. Rushdoony writes in his commentary on the Book of Hebrews that "Man is the recipient of God's grace and salvation because man is the creature called into being by God's creative word to exercise dominion and to subdue under God the creation He had made ... All things are to be placed in subjection to man IN Christ ... This is the purpose of Hebrews, to bring the church to an awareness and knowledge of its purpose and goal in Christ. It is far more than the salvation of our souls, important as that is; the purpose of our salvation is to recall us to the creation mandate. We are not saved for ‘flowery beds of ease', but for God's Holy purpose, [which is] a new creation wherein justice reigns. It does not have us as its focus but rather the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and justice."5 Therefore, whenever the Scriptures speak of the covenant, it is referring to a broad array of areas including religion, political, government, and dominion.
The Covenant and the Land
In Deuteronomy 11 God focuses upon covenantal dominion and land possession. Some points worthy of noting in this text are, first, the obedience to the covenant being essential and guaranteeing strength if Israel were to inherit the land, and furthermore, the promise of long life to many generations in the land provided they remained covenant keepers. It was a good land flowing with milk and honey, which is a reference to the abundance of the gospel presence in the land-a land very unlike Egypt. Egypt's system of religion and government was pagan and failed at every point to regard His sovereignty and law. The Israelites' land was not structured at all like Egypt. The Israelites were not supposed to fix the broken system of religion and government. Rather, they were to replace it with a righteous system based upon a covenantal structure of law taken from the Scriptures. Replacing one failed pagan system with another failed pagan system hoping that it will remedy the cultural problems is altogether illogical.
God tells Israel, "For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from hence ye came out, where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs: But the land, whither ye go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water of the rain of heaven" (Deut. 11:10-11). Then He tells Israel that they have to obey the commandment to love God and serve Him, and they will prosper, "And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, That I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil" (Deut. 11:13 -14). Finally, God sets the covenant sanctions for rebellion: "Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; And then the LORD'S wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you" (Deut. 11:16-17).
Discipling the Nations
When Jesus told the disciples that they were to go into all the world with the law and the commandments in Matthew 28, He was telling them that the covenant obligation was to structure men and nations according to the commandments of God:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Mt. 28:19-20)
Most people misunderstand "discipling the nations" to mean going on missionary trips to the farthest corners of the world, leaving their native countries behind, but that is not what Christ was saying. He was telling His followers that the mission of the gospel is a national focus, including individual people, but focused on changing cultures. The Greek word Jesus uses for "teach' means ‘to enroll as a pupil." The topic of their learning would be the covenant law of God.
The important implication of the commands God gave Israel was that the covenant placed the nation under the kingship of God. God was to be considered the direct governor, with assisting prime ministers. The words used denoting the judges and political ministers of the Hebrew republic are Eved Adonai, which mean "lesser gods." Ranking God as sovereign and His prime ministers as underlings was to remind Israel that they were placed in hierarchy under God. The rulers were to maintain a core of judges and civil magistrates to handle the affairs of the various tribes.
The government of Israel was structured as a safeguard against tyranny. Since men naturally seek dominance, God sets up a division of authority and powers. Elazar explains: "The Israelite polity was one of separate but shared powers ... It was so built that power never could be concentrated in a single human authority. Each of these [domains of government] is independent of the others, drawing its authority directly from Divine mandate, though both in theory and in practice the bearers of each [domain] must work with the others in order to govern the [whole]."6
Elazar concludes: "In the [final] analysis, the Pentateuch constitutes one comprehensive constitutional document in three parts. Genesis, the first book, establishes the setting for the emergence of Israel and its constitution with two sets of basic covenants with Abraham, and the other patriarchs establishing Israel as a people. Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers constitute the second part based upon the exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Sinai, and its auxiliary additions, establishing the Adat Bnai Israel or the Israeli Congregation. The third part, Deuteronomy, is a summarization and reinstatement of the second under the changed conditions of permanent settlement in the land of Israel."7
Under the Pentateuch's conditions of government, God tells Israel to go in and possess what is rightfully theirs by covenant inheritance. They were not to fear, but rather were to go in the strength and power of the Lord in the full assurance of faith, with tenacity, resolve, and courage. This was their commission and glory.
1. Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel: Biblical Foundations and Jewish Expressions (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publications, 1995) See http://www.jcpa.org/dje/books/...
3. Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant as a Political Concept, http://www.jcpa.org/dje/books/...
5. Rousas John Rushdoony, Hebrews, James & Jude (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2001), 16-17.
6. Daniel J. Elazar, Deuteronomy as Israel's Ancient Constitution: Some Preliminary Reflections, http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articl...
7. Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel.
- Paul Michael Raymond
Rev. Dr. Paul Michael Raymond is the pastor of the Reformed Bible Church (RBC) in Appomattox, Virginia, since relocating there from NY in 1998. He has initiated many educational projects including the RBC in-house Home-Educators’ Academy, the New Geneva Christian Leadership Academy (college) with its extensive research library, and a Theological bookstore and café. He also continues to be an influential figure in the local community, and interactive among various Virginia state venues, as well. He has been a guest speaker on a number of radio programs, news interviews, and conferences, in addition to writing articles and opinion pieces in various newspapers, magazines, and internet blogs.
Dr. Raymond and his wife, Jane, have been married for 32 years and have three children and two grandchildren.