God's Suzerain-Vassal Treaty
Exodus 19:1-3 (ESV) On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel:...” Exodus 20:1 “And God spoke all these words, saying, 'I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. "You shall have no other gods before me."
Outline. After escaping Egypt and traveling through the desert to Mount Sinai, God spoke to Moses and Aaron on the mountain. Then they came down and revealed God's covenant and the ten commandments to the people. Before God's Suzerain-Vassal treaty could be fully delivered, the people were filled with fear upon seeing God's power and asked Moses to intercede with God on their behalf. The Lord then gave stipulations about idols and altars before continuing with the Law.
Historical Context. Precise dating of Exodus is debated, but typically places the events at Mount Sinai in either the mid 15th Century BC or early 13th Century BC. The precise location of Mount Sinai itself is also debated. Traditionally it is placed in the south of the Sinai peninsula, but other mountains in the north of the Sinai peninsula and even the Arabian peninsula have been proposed. The most pertinent historical details is the Suzerainty treaty formula, a typical Ancient Near Eastern covenant between unequals that the Israelites would have understood, that God used to establish His relationship with His people. Exodus reveals a similar format: a preamble (20:1-2a), historical prologue (20:2b), stipulations (the ten commandments and the law starting in 20:3), provisions (the text was to be read to the people (24:7) and placed in the Ark (25:16)), invocation of divine witnesses (Moses erected 12 stone pillars (24:4)), and blessings and curses (blessing is mentioned in 20:24, but curses are absent until Leviticus; the people took an oath (24:3,7)) (Elwell, 53-54)1.
Message Summary. Since God is the King and Ruler of all, His relationship with humanity is one of a King to His people, in which they must honor & worship Him on His transcendent terms.
Dominant Theme. God's reign over all and the establishment of how the Israelites were to relate to God clearly reveal the Kingdom of God theme in Mosaic Covenant and giving of the Law. God's transcendence is seen through the symbolic volcanic eruption of Mount Sinai and “...the thick darkness where God was” (21:21). Only God's voice is portrayed anthropomorphically. The thunder, lightning, “trumpets” and smoke of the volcano also reveal God's sovereignty over nature. God's covenant reminds the Israelites that He is sovereign over all the nations, and by extension history itself, when He brought them out of Egypt to give them the land promised to Abraham.
OT & NT Correlation. Elements of the Suzerain-Treaty can be seen back through Genesis, albeit with fewer elements of the full formula, with: Abraham (12:3), Noah (9:12), and Adam & Eve (1:28-30). As seen above, the Suzerain-Treaty continues through the book of Exodus and finishes in the book of Leviticus (which further promotes the view that both books were given during the time the Israelites camped at the foot of Mount Sinai). The treaty is reread, as a reminder with commentary from Moses, to the people throughout the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 1:5; 28:1-68; 31:9-11, 16-30; 32:1) before the Israelites finally take the promised land. Once established in the land, the people are reminded of the Covenant and the Law innumerable times in the following Old Testament writings. The New Testament similarly makes numerous references to the Covenant and the Law for a variety of purposes (renewing expectations (Eph. 5:3), explaining the role of the law (Rom. 7:7, Gal. 3:19), etc.). However, Jesus Christ shed the greatest light on God's relationship to the people. Jesus first served as a type, reliving Israel's dessert wanderings and testings, yet without failing, to model perfect obedience to God's Covenant (Matt 4:1-11). Jesus then explained that He had come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). It's undeniable that Jesus' ministry was “Kingdom of God centric.” Finally, through the cross, He bore the curses of the Covenant due to the people's failure, and served as the fulfillment of the sacrificial system.