1.4. Two Levels of Covenant: the “Patriarch’s Covenant” and the “Sinai Covenant”

We have already noted in our commentary on the Book of Genesis that the covenant of the Patriarchs, mentioned many times in the Torah, was a covenant of ideals, a covenant to create a people and to possess a land, a covenant of direct connection with God[1]. But this covenant included no legislation or any detailed system of commandments.

The word “Patriarch” (from pater, “father”) is itself a clear reference to family, to relations between parents and children. Family relations are built on love and understanding, not on the law. If the relationship of a husband and wife, or of parents and their children, is determined primarily by legalities, surely this is a family that has already splintered apart. While it is true that laws affect all family relationships, those laws normally remain only on the periphery of the system and not at its core. God’s relationship with the Patriarchs is thus comparable to family relations, in which legal principles exist, but do not play the primary role.

At the national level, however, social relationships are constructed differently. Love for one’s fellow human being is always very important, but the foundation of a properly functioning nation is a fair legislative system. In our dealings with family members, we expect to receive their love. But in the larger society, we mainly expect that all members of society will comply with the rules. Life at the national level necessarily includes a sound legislative system.

Moses, raised from infancy in the royal household of Pharaoh, the head of state, likewise communicates with the people in the manner of a legislator, not as a father[2]. In line with his upbringing, Moses believes that the life of the nation is governed primarily by the law. He is therefore particularly well-suited to induct the people into the Sinai covenant – the covenant of the Ten Commandments and its numerous detailed laws.

The line of the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – is the “Divine Immanence” that makes itself felt within every human being, The Patriarchs therefore feel the Torah as an integral part of themselves; this is Jewishness at the family level. The line of Moses is the “Divine Transcendence” that is revealed to man from the outside, from Above, from Sinai. This is Judaism at the national level.

The level of the Patriarchs is critically important. But for the advancement of mankind the “chosen family” would not suffice. It was therefore necessary to create the “chosen people,” because humanity consists not only of individuals and families, but of nations too, and only a nation can correct other nations. Therefore, the meaning of the life of the Patriarchs consisted in giving birth to a nation, of which the covenant of the Patriarchs, the covenant of love, affinity, and trust, was the first stage, which then had to be supplemented with the Sinai covenant, the covenant of law and justice.

Moreover, the “covenant of the law” must not be allowed to displace the “covenant of ideals”; the Sinai covenant was meant to complement the covenant of the Patriarchs, but not replace it. While the mitzvot, the Divine commandments as expressed in the Torah, are an integral part of Judaism, it is a major misconception (albeit, unfortunately, a rather common one) to consider those commandments the central essence of Judaism. The reality is quite the opposite. The foundation of Judaism is the ideals of the Patriarchs; the Sinai commandments are only a tool for implementing those ideals.

This duality of the Jewish covenant with God can be seen in the double meaning of the commandment of circumcision. Circumcision is an important element of both the covenant of the Patriarchs and the covenant of Sinai, but its meaning in these two covenants is different. In the Sinai covenant it is just one of the 613 commandments, but in the Abrahamic covenant it is symbolic of the entire covenant as a whole.

When Moses goes to lead the Jews out of Egypt, he does so on the basis of God’s promise “when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (3:12). That is, he is already working within the framework of the future Sinai covenant. He therefore reasons, that just as all the Jews in Egypt (those who have not been circumcised from infancy) will have to be circumcised before the Exodus[3], so will his own children be circumcised at the same time, along with everyone else. It makes no sense to Moses for his son to be entered at this time into the covenant of Abraham, which, to his thinking, has now already lost its relevance. By underestimating the enduring relevance of the covenant of the Patriarchs, Moses came very close to being the cause of his own death.

After God goes to considerable lengths to persuade him, Moses agrees to lead the Jews out of Egypt. That is, he assumes the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s physical heritage, but he has not yet fully accepted their spiritual heritage, nor does he identify with their “covenant of ideals.” Because he believes that the essence of God’s covenant can be reduced to the Law, it is precisely for this mistake that God “sought to kill him.” But, more precisely, not to kill, but only to show him that the covenant of the Patriarchs still retained its relevancy and remained in force, and that without that covenant, Moses’ mission would be devoid of meaning.

Moses marriage to a Midianite woman, a descendant of Abraham, expresses the connection he feels to Abraham’s special status, his chosenness. However, this does not imply for Moses any essential connection with the covenant of the Patriarchs. Zipporah, by circumcising their child, is able to rectify the situation and redirect Moses’ orientation[4].

Thus, in the story of the Burning Bush, Moses abandons his plan to create a new people from himself, and in the circumcision incident he acknowledges the importance of Abraham’s covenant. But all this happens under duress, which means that Moses’ assent to God’s requirements is still incomplete.

Moses must thus undergo yet another stage of development, in order to correct and surmount, through his own efforts, his prior, erroneous attitudes. This will happen on Mount Sinai, when Moses’ previously rejected plan to become the progenitor of a new nation will again seem plausible, because God Himself will propose it to Moses. When Moses on Mount Sinai refuses to create a new nation from himself, he refuses by his own free will, which becomes the most important step for Moses’ further development.

Generally speaking, God’s relations with the heroes and greatest personalities of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the Patriarchs and the prophets, are very often constructed according to this scheme. Over an initial, lengthy period, God works to move a person from his current position toward a different, more correct one. Then, when the change finally takes place, God will suddenly relieve the person of all previous pressure, with all possible paths now lying open before him, allowing him to exercise his own free choice. At just that moment, when a person is again free to choose and by his own free will and not by coercion he chooses the better position, his true spiritual growth then takes place.

As we noted in our commentary to the book of Genesis, this is also how God’s relationship with Abraham develops in the matter of choosing an heir. God eliminates each of Abraham’s potential heirs in turn – first his Haran disciples, and then Eliezer, Lot, and Ishmael – which means that Abraham must now turn all his attentions to Isaac. But when Abraham finally agrees to make Isaac his heir, God suddenly (through the story of the Akedah) orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, and the matter of Abraham’s heir becomes again an open question. Only after Abraham himself designates Isaac as his heir does the connection between them become complete[5].

Here, too, we see something similar happen with Moses. First, God exhorts Moses to not create a new people, but to bring out from Egypt the nation that already exists. He explains that the Sinai covenant can come to pass only on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant. But then, in the incident of the golden calf, again God suddenly gives Moses the opportunity to choose. For indeed, if we view the Jews who created the golden calf from the perspective of the “covenant of the commandments,” the Jews have violated the covenant and have thus forfeited their chosenness. Perhaps, then, it is worthwhile to return to Moses’ original plan to create a new nation from himself? When Moses refuses this option by his own choice, he passes his most important test and rises to a new level of personal development.

The issue being decided here is this: What is more important – the national aspect (to create a nation specifically from the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) or the religious aspect (to create a nation from people who observe the laws of the Torah)? The Sinai covenant would seem to give preference to the religious aspect, the observance of the commandments, while the line of the Patriarchs is clearly ethnic, with kindred relations playing the main role – father and son retain their inner connection irrespective of religious prescriptions.

When Moses, the leading supporter and promoter of the “covenant of the commandments” supports an ethnic, nationally oriented line, he thereby acknowledges that the national aspect takes precedence over the religious. If Divine revelation is to be received, there must first be a people prepared to receive it. Therefore, the people come first, and the Torah second.

The nation, the family, and parental ties all represent something incomparably deeper than the observance of the law, even if it is the Divine Law. A nation must exist before the Torah can be realized, and not vice versa. The essence of Israel as a nation inheres in this principle, which states that “the national aspect takes precedence over the religious,” that the Jewish people remain the Chosen People, even when individual Jews violate the covenant, and that the Divine light enters the world primarily through the Jewish people. Without all the aforementioned, the Jewish people could not bring Divine light to humanity.

The Midrash further emphasizes the paramount importance of Abraham’s covenant by offering us the following image. The angels, upon seeing Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, were indignant. “Who is this person to receive the Torah? What has he done to deserve it?” God then made Moses’ face identical in its appearance to the face of Abraham. And he told the angels: “Have you not eaten dinner with him recently?” (referring to the story of Abraham’s hospitality to the angels, Gen. 18:8). Only then did the angels assent.

The meaning of this Midrash is that the Torah from Sinai cannot come into the world if it does not have the covenant of the Patriarchs as its foundation. The idea that “God made Moses’ face identical in its appearance to the face of Abraham” means that Moses is heir to the Patriarchs, and that the Sinai covenant is only the continuation, an implementation detail, of the Abrahamic covenant. Only after that condition is fulfilled, will the angels (i.e. the universe) then agree to the giving of the legislative component of the Torah. In other words, the ideals promulgated by the Patriarchs occupy the central position in Judaism, while the Torah’s commandments and laws are only secondary to them.

Ideals are the central value, and only for their sake God gives the Torah to humankind and communicates with them. The commandments are only auxiliaries to those ideals, because the ideals cannot be realized unless the commandments are observed. But if the commandments are allowed to supersede the ideals, if the Jewish religious world, as sometimes happens, is guided first and foremost by the commandments, the effect will be a significant distortion of the Divine order of things, which only leads to a degraded form of Judaism.

[1] On the ideals of the Patriarchs, see Bible Dynamics, vol. 1, Genesis, §12.4.

[2] Not by mere chance, then, does Moses, in raising an objection with God concerning the Jewish nation, express himself in the following terms: “Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers?” (Num. 1:12).

[3] A man who has not been circumcised is strictly forbidden to partake of the Passover sacrifice (Exod. 13:48). In this way, circumcision is inextricably connected to the Exodus.

[4] In our commentary to the book of Numbers (12:1 ff.) we will consider in detail Zipporah’s all-important role as a wife and personal counterbalance to Moses.

[5] See Bible Dynamics, Genesis, chapter 23.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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