God’s grace and mercy discussed above within the context of the covenant and within the sacrificial system, however, is not to be compared with that of an indulgent grandparent who allows their grandchildren to do whatever they might want to do. God does care about how his people live, and in the Torah we are told of the ways that God demands how we are to live our lives. Remember the distinction made within creational monotheism in which the Creator God who brought Creation into being is distinct from all Creation. Creational monotheism is very much not like Deism in which the Creator God simply created and then had no concern with people or how they lived. Within creational monotheism Torah is a very important concept.
But another revolutionary aspect of this covenant which was also unique in the ancient world was the concept of ethical monotheism. Ethical monotheism was not a competing worldview but part of the biblical worldview. Ethical monotheism said that one’s ethics had to be a part of one’s faith in God. Ethics had to be tied to how you lived your life. In other words, you were God’s people; you had the Ten Commandments. Since the Torah was part of ethical monotheism so you were to live a certain way.
So Israel had this concept of ethical monotheism in which you had this one, true God who was holy and, therefore, that meant the people had to live in such a way that they were holy as God was holy. God’s people were to be holy too. This one, true creator God had become their God through the Exodus event. Since there was but one, true Creator God who had entered into this covenantal relationship with his people and who had delivered them from Egypt, therefore this marriage relationship between God and Israel would not work unless the Israelites did what they must in order to be blessed and fulfilled and remain exclusively devoted to this one, true God and not devoted to other (false) gods.
As such, the Ten Commandments – the Mosaic covenant, the law – are all about what had to follow. The people had to be exclusively devoted to this God and not turn to other gods. Therefore God demanded that when you were exclusively devoted to him, God had a lot to say about how you should live your life. If you were going to be God’s people, you had to live a certain way. This is called ethical monotheism.
So Israel was called to this ethical life which was a part of their exclusive devotion to this one, true God, the God of Israel. Hence, when the people had exclusive devotion to YHWH and followed YHWH’s ways, they were doing what scholars call ethical monotheism. We see ethical monotheism being expressed, for example, in Le 11 44 and in Le 19 1-2 where it reads: You shall be holy for I YHWH your God am holy. See notes there. This was a totally revolutionary concept found only in the Bible. This is where the Ten Words fit in. These are not only commandments concerning your relationship with God but they also concerning your relationship with others. That’s ethical monotheism. It was found no where else in the ancient world but in Judaism and in Christianity.
As another example of ethical monotheism, remember how things went wrong between God and humanity in Ge 3 in the garden. In Ge 3 the people became disconnected from God, and subsequently evil and wickedness entered the picture. Abraham was called by God, and then in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant the nation Israel was called to be God’s people. Part of the picture was turning that evil around so that God’s people would be holy like God was holy. If you were going to be God’s people, you had to live a certain way. This is called ethical monotheism.
Some people will not be surprised by this because they feel that religion includes ethics. That’s how we were raised in our Christian ethic of today’s world. As Christians ethical monotheism is part of this framework that we take for granted as part of what we think of as religion. That’s another surprising part of the Bible. Whether we are devotees of the Bible or reject the Bible, the Bible’s way of thinking has become so much a part of everyone’s thinking that the Bible is still the way everyone thinks. We think that ethics and religion are connected because that’s what we see in the Bible.
Therefore, one more part of this is that following this first commandment (you shall have no other gods except me) are all of these other commandments, many of which are moral in nature: You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal and so on. Notice that your exclusive devotion to God is expressed in how you live. This was unique in the ancient world. This way of arriving at one’s ethics was actually revolutionary in the ancient world.
In the ancient world religion and ethics did not go together. When one looks to the religions of Israel’s neighbors, the Canaanites and others, we find there was no connection between their worship of the various gods and how they lived their lives. Israel’s neighbors did not have directives from their gods for how to live. No where else in the ancient world (other than within Judaism and later Christianity) did you have this concept because other ancient people saw no clear connection between their religion and how they lived. The God of Israel told his people very specifically how they were to live. The Ten Commandments!
Christians today think, “Well, of course, if your are religious, you live an ethical life” but that was not the case to those people in antiquity who were not Jewish or Christian. In fact, when you read about the various divinities of Israel’s neighbors, like Ba’al and so on, you would not want to live like they lived – well, you might want to – but you couldn’t want to do it and still live an ethical life because these gods were the worst of murderers and adulterers filled with envies, lusts, and so on. (These other gods lived extremely disreputable lives!)
So if these other ancient peoples wanted to know how to live, they went to philosophy or to ancient wisdom traditions or to those who spun proverbs. You went hither and yon but never to the gods for heaven’s sake. They were the last ones who would tell you how to live because of how they themselves lived. The gods of the peoples surrounding Israel were anything but holy. Therefore, you didn’t have any call to holiness for the worshiper coming from those other gods outside Israel because they were not holy themselves. Israel’s neighbors believed worship and one’s moral life had nothing to do with one another. To Israel’s neighbors worship was some sort of magical transaction you undertook with the gods, and then you lived however you wanted to live.
Of course within the biblical framework it was and is very different. You have this one, holy good God and you were to be like that holy good God. Worship and one’s moral life had everything to do with one another. Hence, within Judaism the Ten Commandments said you had to be exclusively devoted to God and that was expressed in how you lived your life. Therefore, in the Bible your worship of God and how you lived and behaved toward others were intimately connected. Within the biblical world view God was holy and, therefore, God’s people had to be holy too. This is the Bible’s unique feature of ethical monotheism.
Scholars describe what is going on here in the Bible as this multi-faceted monotheism previously discussed: creational monotheism; providential monotheism; covenantal monotheism; and now ethical monotheism. Further, as we’ll soon see, there’s also eschatological monotheism. Just as creational monotheism was revolutionary; so also was ethical monotheism.
To see how ethical monotheism is expressed in the Ten Commandments, see Ex 20 1-3 and notes.
To see the ethical monotheism debate of Kant and Kierkegaard, see Ge 22 9-16, Ps 1 1-6 and notes.
end of ethical monotheism discussion
Again, there are those (the “less than wise”) who don’t know the Bible very well at all. They see the Bible as this legalistic book, a story about people earning favor by following the law of Moses and getting all involved in legalistic things like keeping the Sabbath. However, within the Jewish mindset the Torah was not understood as some form of legalism given to them so that they could earn merit, favor or brownie points with God. Instead, from the very get-go the story here tells us they kept the Torah not to get redeemed because before God had even given them the Torah, God had already saved them in the Exodus from Egypt! It was only following the Exodus that the Ten Commandments and all the other commandments were given in the context of the Abrahamic covenant.
So how were the Ten Commandments related to the Abrahamic covenant? They were an extension and reinforcement of the Abrahamic covenant. The Abrahamic covenant said ‘I am taking you to be my people. We’re going to be in a covenantal relationship, and here’s how you should live in response to that.’
Now in the Exodus God had redeemed his people with a mighty hand and brought them out of Egypt. How was the Mosaic covenant and the Ten Commandments related to that? Here is how you are to live in response. Here is how you are to live as the people of God. Therefore, the Torah was given after the Exodus in the gracious context of the covenant made with Abraham, and the Torah was given the context of that gracious covenant. The concept here is one of grace and mercy and forgiveness which is the total opposite of legalism. They were the covenant people of the Creator God and here was how they were to live. ‘I have redeemed you from Egypt; here is how you should live.’ Therefore, it was through the Abrahamic covenant that they were first delivered from bondage through the Red Sea on dry ground.
That is, following the Exodus, God’s people were wandering in the desert. They were still God’s people but they had to know how to live as God’s people were supposed to live. So God gave the Mosaic covenant as an add-on to the Abrahamic covenant, an add-on which provided the proper, needed information to the people, which showed them how there were to live as the redeemed children of God. God gave them the Torah to know how to live as God’s people. God had redeemed his people from Egypt not so that they could steal, lie, kill, commit adultery and worship other gods. Instead, God had delivered them from Egypt so that they might live as God’s holy people! Hence, the Mosaic covenant was given in the gracious context of the Abrahamic covenant and the Exodus.
Hence, there was nothing legalistic about the law. Instead, following the Torah was to be their response to God’s covenant love. Further, it was in the context of that covenant love that they were to respond. Their response to Torah was to be their (our) response to their (our) redemption, something they did, and we do, in thanksgiving to God because God had redeemed them (us). It’s something they did, and we do, in praise of God because God was their (our) deliverer. It’s why they (we) were to worship God.
Next, since the Torah was given in the context of the covenant, this helps us to understand that this covenantal relationship with God presupposed God’s grace and forgiveness. Remember the covenant formula within the Abrahamic covenant: I will be your God and you will be my people. We will see that unfold as the story behind the Story proceeds. For example, in God’s covenant with Moses (the Mosaic covenant) God gave Moses this sacrificial system – this whole complex system with all these different sacrifices. This sacrificial system allowed for a means of forgiveness when you fell and sinned. This sacrificial system which God had given to the people only worked because God’s people were in covenantal relationship with God.
So God gave them these sacrifices so that the sins of the people of God could be forgiven. As such, even when God’s people sinned against God, they simply had to return to God, offer sacrifices and their sins were forgiven. In fact, the people of Israel did not feel burdened by all of these “seemingly legalistic” laws. To the true Israelites who actually worshiped YHWH it was a delight to do God’s will as expressed in Torah. [For instance, this is why Paul can say in Pp 3 6 … as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Any devout Jew (one who knew and believed their Scriptures) could have said the same.]
Next, God’s grace and mercy were provided within the context of the Abrahamic covenant; grace and mercy did not come from the law. God’s law says “Do this; do that. Don’t do this; don’t do that.” But, when the people sinned, the sacrificial system offered grace and mercy to the people from within the gracious context of this Abrahamic covenant. That’s right. It was God’s grace and it’s found all through the OT! It’s not that they had to keep the Torah perfectly to stay in covenant with God. Instead, they were already in covenant with God so even when they didn’t keep the Torah perfectly, God had already provided them with a sacrificial system to make amends, a sacrificial system that offered forgiveness when Israel went astray, a sacrificial system which offered the means by which they could be restored to God. So if they sinned, forgiveness was built into this law of Moses. They could be forgiven through various animal sacrifices, animal sacrifices which always served as the type, the partial reality, the foreshadowing of the antitype, the full reality, the fulfillment to come, the ultimate sacrifice of the perfect lamb, once and for all, in Jesus of Nazareth, the sacrificial Lamb without blemish. Typology.
The law (Torah) itself contained all of these sacrifices whereby Israel’s relationship could be restored with God when they sinned. With the animal sacrifices the people were brought new to their God in forgiveness and mercy. This sacrificial system itself was ultimately built on the mercy and goodness of God. As such the animal sacrifices provided a means of being restored to God. All through the OT we have example after example of God’s law at work. See, for instance, Ps 1 and Ps 119 97. See notes there.
Thus, notice how this law therefore belonged in this gracious covenantal context. From this we can conclude that in the ancient Jewish view the law fit and functioned within the gracious covenantal context of the Abrahamic covenant – this unconditional covenant of love that God had made with his people of Israel through Abraham.
Additionally, behind God’s sacrificial system stood, and stands, God’s covenantal love. It all fits very nicely together. On occasion you may hear someone say that God’s grace and love are not shown until the NT with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but God’s grace and love were with us from the very beginning of the story in the OT. Sure, at this point in this story the Torah was central, but the Torah was to be understood as the means by which God’s people were to respond to God for what God had done in redeeming his Creation – then, in the Exodus, but also throughout time until the consummation of the kingdom of God when Jesus would return to judge and reign forever. Keeping the Torah was to be the people’s response to redemption; it was to be their a response to God’s grace. The Torah had been given in the gracious context of the Abrahamic covenant. That’s how this all fits together.