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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Covenant, Book of the

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COVENANT, BOOK OF THE . The oldest code of Hebrew law which has come down to us is contained in Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33 . It receives its name from the expression in Exodus 24:7 , while its character as a covenant is demonstrated by the promises attached to the keeping of it ( Exodus 23:20-33 ). Owing to the confused form in which the Book of Exodus has been transmitted, doubt has been expressed as to the limits of the Book of the Covenant. Some maintain that the words in Exodus 24:7 refer only to ch. 23; others would make them include 21 23; Driver holds with the generally accepted opinion that the code begins with Exodus 20:22 . The close proximity of the Decalogue ( Exodus 20:1-17 ) might lead to the inference that both codes were given at the same time. But the Book of the Covenant is certainly not a law that was ‘delivered’; it is a series of decisions gradually gathered together. It has been incorporated by the compiler at this particular place in the Book of Exodus, with the intention of bringing the ancient codes together.

1. Contents . These fall into two broad divisions:

(1) mishpâtim , or ‘judicial decisions.’ In early Semitic life justice was administered according to a series of tôrôth , or judicial and priestly decisions, originally transmitted orally, but gradually written down for more exact use as precedents. The Book of the Covenant was such a series, and was probably committed to writing, in the first instance, to serve as a hand-book for those who had to administer the law. Hypothetical cases are put in the regular form, ‘If … then …’: e.g. Exodus 21:26 ‘If a man smite the eye of his servant or the eye of his maid that it perish; (then) he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake.’ Sometimes the form changes slightly; the crime and the punishment attached to it are stated in the briefest possible way: e.g. Exodus 21:12 ‘He that smiteth a man so that he die shall be surely put to death.’ This collection of mishpâtim reflects an extremely simple state of society. It deals with the rights of the male and female slave ( Exodus 21:1-11 ); murder and homicide ( Exodus 21:12-15 ); injuries to the body, not resulting in death ( Exodus 21:16-32 ); injuries to cattle ( Exodus 21:33-36 ); theft ( Exodus 22:1-5 ); arson ( Exodus 22:6 ); breach of trust ( Exodus 22:7-13 ); loans ( Exodus 22:14-15; Exodus 22:25-27 ); seduction ( Exodus 22:16-17 ). The injunctions put in the shorter form cover murder, abduction, the cursing of parents, bestiality ( Exodus 21:12; Exodus 21:15-17 , Exodus 22:19 ). The prominence given in this code to the ox, ass, and sheep ( Exodus 21:28 to Exodus 22:10 ) shows that it was originally drawn up for a society that was predominantly agricultural. In several respects, however, the code indicates a considerable measure of progress. A limitation is imposed on the lex talionis , in the drawing of a distinction between premeditated murder and accidental homicide. The service of a slave cannot last beyond six years unless with his own consent, and then his determination to remain in slavery is sealed by a solemn act. Apart from retaliation there is no punishment, except a pecuniary compensation. The thief who will not make restitution is the only wrong-doer who loses his liberty. The position of women is that the daughter is the property of her father, who receives money for her when he gives her in marriage, and also exacts from any who should dishonour her the price she would have brought as a bride; the injury is thought of as being done not to the daughter, who is only a chattel, but to the father.

(2) debârim , or ‘commands.’ In form, these are akin to the commands of the Decalogue, being introduced with ‘Thou shalt,’ or ‘Thou shalt not.’ In substance, they are concerned with religious observances to a much greater extent than the mishpâtim , and do not give the same prominence to agricultural life. Exodus 20:24-26 deals with the construction of an altar. (Stade, Bibl. Theol . § 57, thinks that this command is the product of a period of reaction in the time of the later monarchy, and that it was aimed at the brazen altar which Solomon had made, and at the centralization of worship in Jerusalem.) Other matters dealt with are witchcraft ( Exodus 22:18 ); the treatment of strangers ( Exodus 22:21 ); the reviling of God (or judges) and rulers ( Exodus 22:28-29 ); the offering of the first fruits and firstlings ( Exodus 22:29-30 ); the eating of animals found torn in the field ( Exodus 22:31 ); just judgment ( Exodus 23:1-3; Exodus 23:6-8 ); the year of rest, and the Sabbath ( Exodus 23:10-12 ); feasts ( Exodus 23:14-16 ). The three feasts mark points in the agricultural year, the beginning and the end of harvest and the end of the vintage. Leaven is not to be eaten in connexion with the blood of the sacrifice, and the fat of the sacrifice is to be burned the same night ( Exodus 23:16-19 ); but apart from these there are no matters of sacrificial ritual insisted on. Whoever sacrifices to any other god than Jehovah is to be placed under the ban ( Exodus 22:20 ). Exodus 23:20-33 seems to he the work of the compiler. The familiar style of Deut. appears in Exodus 23:23; but in this section there would appear to be vestiges of an older text ( Exodus 23:28-31 ).

2. Date . As to the date of the Book of the Covenant, there is no evidence save what the document itself affords us. But the state of society reflected in it is primitive. Agriculture is the industry of the people. The law of blood-revenge is just beginning to he modified; woman has as yet no property in herself; sacrifice is emerging from its primitive domestic character; there is as yet no clear conception of a State. The code would thus seem to date from the days of the desert wandering, and to he older than the Decalogue itself. See, further, artt. Exodus and Hexateuch.

R. Bruce Taylor.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Covenant, Book of the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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