The Covenant of Sinai vs. the Covenant at the Plains of Moav

  • Rav Tamir Granot

Introduction: Duality of Covenants in the Torah


The Torah describes two covenants that were forged between God and the nation of Israel - the covenant of Sinai, and the covenant at the plains of Moav:

These are the words of the covenant which God commanded Moshe to make with Bnei Yisrael in the land of Moav, aside from the covenant which He made with them at Chorev. (Devarim 28:69)

Each of the two covenants includes a system of mutual commitments, conditions, and – at the conclusion of each – blessings and curses.

For what reason are there two covenants? Why is one covenant not sufficient? This question is of fundamental importance for an understanding of the structure and content of Torah in general, since extensive tracts of commandments belong to these two covenants. In addition, the chapters of Sefer Devarim that are devoted to Moshe’s speech, with its guidance and admonitions, are presented as preparation for the second covenant, and they need to be understood within that context.

Aside from the general question as to the need for two covenants, the issue of their differing content is also puzzling. If these were two identical covenants, we might explain that - for whatever reason – one covenant would not suffice; there was a need for two formal ceremonies of forging the covenant. In this case, we would conclude that the forging of the second covenant was in fact a renewal of the first one, intended either for the benefit of the younger generation, because of the fact that they were about to enter the land of Israel, or for some other reason.

However, the content of the second covenant is markedly different from the content of the first one. Obviously, the covenantal framework is similar: Am Yisrael is asked to observe God’s commandments as a condition for receiving reward, and is threatened with punishment if it does not follow God’s commandments. But a closer look at the content and style shows that the elements of which the covenants are comprised are different. There are mitzvot that are mentioned only in Sefer Devarim, but not in Sefer Vayikra, and vice versa. Commandments that are mentioned in both covenants are formulated and/or explained differently, and the foundational principles of the covenants in each case differ. The conditions of the covenant diverge, as do the lists of blessings and curses appended in each case.

This shiur will explore the separate significance of each covenant, thereby attempting to understand why the Torah provided two covenants rather than one.

a. Focal Point of the Covenant

Any covenant, by definition, creates a certain connection between its parties. The exact nature of that connection is the essence of the covenant. Thus, for example, when nations sign peace treaties, they intend to create a relationship of peace between the nations. This “peace” may have as its objectives (or manner of expression) friendly relations and full cooperation, a “cold peace,” or even just a ceasefire; the nature of the connection which the parties seek to create will generally be expressed in the content of the covenant.

In the same way, the covenants between God and Israel are intended to create a connection between the two parties, and they have certain defined objectives.

Let us examine the central elements of each covenant.

1) Covenant of Sinai (Vayikra 26)

The forging of the covenant, we recall, is recorded in parashat Mishpatim:

He took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the nation, and they said: “All that the Lord has spoken, we shall do and we shall hear.” And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it upon the nation, and he said: "Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has forged with you concerning all of these things." (Shemot 24:7-8)

In parashat Bechukotai we find a summary of the contents of the covenant, along with the blessings and curses that accompany it.[1] Obviously, the crux of the covenant is the acceptance of the commandments and the obligation to obey God; in this respect there is no difference between the two covenants. But what is the purpose of the covenant, and what are its results?

If you follow My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them, then I will give you rain in its time, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall give their fruit. And your threshing shall continue until the vintage, and the vintage shall continue until the time for sowing, and you shall eat your bread to satiety, and shall dwell safely in your land. And I shall give peace in the land, and you shall lie down with none to make you afraid, and I shall remove evil beasts from the land, nor shall the sword pass through your land. And you shall pursue your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall before you by the sword. And I shall turn to you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and I shall establish My covenant with you. And you shall eat the old grain, and remove the old grain to make way for the new. And I shall place My Sanctuary in your midst, and My soul will not abhor you. And I shall go amongst you, and will be your God, and you will be My nation. I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from being their slaves; I have broken the bars of your yoke and caused you to walk upright. (Vayikra 26:3-13)

The above passage contains the conditions of the covenant, the reward promised for its observance, and its intended purpose. The conditions of the covenant are delineated in the passage beginning, "If you follow My statutes…" The reward for observing the covenant is described in detail, its principal elements being rain, material abundance, victory over enemies, peace and security, and fertility. The climax of the covenant is the promise, "I shall place My Sanctuary in your midst and My soul will not abhor you; and I shall go among you and be your God, and you will be My nation."

This is the purpose of the covenant. It is based on the idea of the Divine Presence resting amongst the nation of Israel and in the midst of the land. The verses link the promise that God will dwell in our midst to the promise that He will be our God. Indeed, if God is in our midst, then He is truly also our God – in the sense of sovereignty and rule. Hence, He is our King and our Ruler.

2) The covenant of the plains of Moav (Devarim 28)

In the description of the covenant at the plains of Moav, we find the same elements that appeared previously in the description of the covenant at Sinai.

i) Conditions of the covenant: “If you will diligently obey the word of the Lord your God, to observe and perform all of His commandments which I command you this day” (Devarim 28:1). While the condition is similar in both covenants, as noted, it should be pointed out that Moshe addresses the commandments that are conveyed "this day" – i.e., on the plains of Moav, making no explicit reference to the commandments that were conveyed previously, at Sinai or in the Tent of Meeting.

ii) The reward for observance of the covenant follows immediately after the condition, in the same verse: "Then the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth." Further on, following the introductory declaration, "Then all of these blessings will come upon you and overtake you…," the Torah lists several specific blessings: fertility, abundance, victory in war, and rain (28:2-13). We see plainly that, despite the difference in their formulation, the material blessings here are very similar to those enumerated in Sefer Vayikra.

iii) In the covenant at the plains of Moav, too, the Torah sets forth explicitly the purpose and climax of the covenant:

The Lord will establish you unto Himself as a holy nation, as He has promised to you, if you observe the commandments of the Lord your God and follow His ways. And all the nations of the earth will see that you are called by the Name of the Lord, and they will fear you… And the Lord will make you as a head, and not as a tail, and you will be only "above," and not "underneath." (28:9-10, 13)

These descriptions take us back to the opening blessing of the covenant: "Then the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth" (28:1). In other words, the purpose of this covenant is the prominence of the Jewish people as God's chosen nation, and the clearest expression of this is that "all the nations of the earth will see that you are called by God’s Name." While this will also be expressed in the political realm (as in, "You will lend to many nations, and you will not borrow…" in verse 12), this would seem to be a corollary that merely accompanies the essential point: the full manifestation of Israel’s chosenness as God’s nation.

This idea, which stands at the heart of the blessings, is introduced as part of the preface to the covenant, explaining its main significance:

This day the Lord your God commands you to perform these statutes, and the judgments, and you shall observe and perform them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have avouched the Lord this day as your God, to follow His ways and to observe His statutes and His commandments and His judgments, and to obey Him. And God has avouched you this day to be His special people, as He has spoken to you, and to observe all of His commandments. And He will make you high above all of the nations which He has made, in praise and in name and in honor, that you may be a holy nation unto the Lord your God, as He has spoken. (26:16-19)

These verses highlight the mutuality of the covenant, thereby emphasizing the following ideas.

Firstly, "We avouch You and You avouch us" – i.e., the Jewish people declare God’s uniqueness, and God declares Israel’s uniqueness.

Secondly, our recognition of the uniqueness of God is expressed in the commitment to accept Him as God (i.e., as Sovereign and Ruler), to follow His ways and to observe His commandments.

Thirdly, God’s assertion of the uniqueness of Israel finds expression in His placing them "high above all of the nations… in praise and in name and in honor."

It is clear that the same ideas which are formulated in the introduction to the covenant reappear in similar language in the blessings. Corresponding to, "And to place you high above all of the nations," we find, "The Lord you God will place you high above all the nations of the earth"; corresponding to, "A holy nation unto the Lord your God,” there is, “The Lord your God will establish you unto Himself as a holy nation.” Obviously, then, these verses are not only meant as part of the promise of reward, but, in fact, represent the essence and purpose of the covenant.

Differences between the Two Covenants

If we compare what the Torah is telling us in the two covenants, we discover a significant difference between them. The covenant at Sinai rests on the ideal of God’s Presence dwelling amongst the Jewish people: if the covenant is upheld, God will dwell in the midst of the camp. The covenant of the plains of Moav, in contrast, rests on the idea of the selection of Israel, and their being made "high above the nations."

Indeed, among the promises in the covenant of Sinai, there is no mention of the idea of Israel’s chosenness and superiority over the nations. The covenant on the plains of Moav, on the other hand, makes no mention of the Divine Presence dwelling amongst Israel. The land of Israel is described, in the covenant on the plains of Moav, as "the land which the Lord your God gives to you" (27:3), while in the covenant of Sinai it is described as the land in which God dwells.

The same difference is reflected in a comparison between the curses in the two covenants. The curse is the flip side of the covenant – what we will lose if, heaven forefend, we do not fulfill it. In Sefer Vayikra we read:

I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and leave your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols, and My soul will abhor you. And I shall make your cities waste, and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I shall not smell the sweet savors that you offer. (Vayikra 26:30-31)

In other words, the destruction of the Temple is a central element of the punishment. While it could be argued that a literal reading of the verses may indicate that they refer only to pagan temples, the general intention seems to include God’s Temple, too, since the climax of the unit is, "I shall not smell the sweet savors that you offer" – and this is immediately followed by a description of exile.

Sefer Devarim makes no mention of all of this. Here, a central aspect of the punishment is Israel’s defeat at the hands of enemies:

Your ox will be slaughtered in your presence, but you will not eat of it; your donkey will be stolen from before you and it shall not be returned to you; your sheep will be given to your enemies, and you will have none to come to your aid. Your sons and daughters will be given to another people, and your eyes shall see and will fail with longing for them all the day, but you will have no power. The fruit of your land, and all of your labor, will be consumed by a nation that you have not known, and you will be only oppressed and crushed always… the stranger who is in your midst will rise up over you, higher and higher, while you sink lower and lower. He will lend to you, but you will not lend to him; he will become as the head, and you will become as the tail. (Devarim 28:31-44)

The curse concludes, in the final verse of the covenant, with the words:

The Lord will return you to Egypt in ships, by that road of which I spoke to you, saying: "You shall not see it again;" and there you will be sold to your enemies as man-servants and as maidservants, and no one will buy you. (Devarim 28:68)

Like the blessings, the curses in Sefer Devarim deal with the status of the Jewish people: slavery to the nations; the material abundance which is not just lacking, but is being enjoyed by others; the stranger who attains more and more power, the opposite of the promise in the blessing – "You will be only above." All of this expresses Israel’s fall among the nations. The concluding words of the curse emphasize this point with an especially devastating image: God will return the nation to Egypt, thereby, as it were, retroactively nullifying Israel’s chosenness, which is based entirely upon the Exodus. All of these ideas, emphasizing (in the blessing) the chosenness of Israel from among the nations and depicting (in the curse) their fall, is entirely omitted from Sefer Vayikra.

To Be Your God

There is one notion that appears to be common to both covenants: "to be your God." However, closer examination reveals that in this regard, too, there is a significant difference between them.

The covenant in Sefer Vayikra states that the Lord, for His part, will be our God. In the covenant of Sinai this is a Divine act, which comes about as a reward for our upholding of the covenant: "I shall go among you, and shall be your God."

In the covenant in Sefer Devarim, the acceptance of God’s Divinity is part of the commitment assumed by Am Yisrael: "You have declared the Lord this day to be your God." This is not an act performed by God, but rather an act that is initiated by the nation.

This difference correlates with another underlying discrepancy between the two covenants, which is also manifest in a crucial stylistic difference. The covenant of Sinai is one that is presented by God Himself, and therefore it is formulated in the first person: "If you follow My statutes…"; "I shall make My sanctuary…," etc. The covenant of the plains of Moav is one that is presented by Moshe, and it is formulated in the third person: "God has avouched you this day"; "the Lord your God will place you high…," etc. It is true that the Torah makes clear that God commanded Moshe to make this covenant: “These are the words of the covenant which the Lord commanded Moshe to forge with the people of Israel on the plains of Moav,” and it is illogical to propose that Moshe presented it of his own initiative without Divine approbation. Nevertheless, the presentation of the covenant by Moshe, and the absence of an explicit, detailed command to Moshe, indicate that it is the nation, as it were, that initiates the covenant, rather than God.

b. Thematic Aspects of the Covenants

What are the conceptual ramifications of the differences noted above between the two covenants?

1. Attitude towards the Land

The role of the land, from the perspective of the covenant in Sefer Vayikra, is to be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. It must be remembered that Sefer Vayikra as a whole is concerned with the Divine Presence: the first part is devoted to the focal point of God’s Presence – the Mishkan, the Sanctuary; and the climax of the Sefer is the revelation of God's glory in the Mishkan and upon the altar. The second part of the Sefer deals with the Divine Presence within the land. The covenant at the end of the Sefer completes this exposition by setting down the conditions for God’s Presence in the land of Israel.

This perspective awards the land of Israel a lofty religious and spiritual status. Only this land is worthy of the Divine Presence, and the Jewish people must make themselves worthy of this. God tells them: "The nations that were here before you performed abominations and the land expelled them." Thus, the land assumes a primary, metaphysical status, with a personality of its own – all because it is the place of the Divine Presence. The Jewish people merit to live in the land because they have been chosen "to cultivate it and to guard it," in order that it will be worthy of its destiny.

This helps us to understand the close connection between the covenant in parashat Bechukotai and the section describing shemitta, the sabbatical year, and yovel, the jubilee year, which follow immediately afterwards and are read together with it.[2] The laws of shemitta and yovel – especially as they are described in Sefer Vayikra – express the ideal of the sanctity of the land: the land must rest; no one can exercise permanent, limitless ownership on the land, for “the land is Mine.” The covenant is the means by which the metaphysical idea of the land of Israel being God's land takes on legal standing.

It is also clear now why it is specifically exile that comes as a punishment for the violation of the laws of shemitta, according to the curses of Sefer Vayikra. The nation that violates shemitta is failing to respect the sanctity of the land; therefore, the nation is no longer worthy of living in it. Exile is the natural consequence that emerges from an insensitivity to the land's intrinsic sanctity.

None of this is mentioned in the covenant in Sefer Devarim. Here, the land is the reward that the nation receives for guarding the covenant. The land here is presented as a gift, not as a value or an entity of primary, independent importance. We are not told here that the land expels the nations that are dwelling in it; the land is certainly not said to expel the Jewish people. In Sefer Devarim, the mechanism of punishment is different: if the nation of Israel does not fulfill the covenant, the nations will seize the land from them. This is an expression of Israel’s descent from its former status, for the land of Israel – God's blessed gift to Israel – is in foreign hands. The land, then, is a reward, rather than a value: "the land which the Lord your God gives to you" (Devarim 28:8).

Both of these perceptions of the special nature of the land of Israel have far-reaching ramifications for the description of the status of the land during the period of Israel’s exile. In the curses of Sefer Vayikra, the land is described as being desolate: "Then the land will enjoy its rest period" (26:34). Not only will Israel not be living in the land, but even the other nations will be unable to inhabit it: "I shall make the land desolate, and your enemies, who live in it, will be astonished" (26:32). The Jewish people will have defiled the holy land, and the land will therefore have expelled them, but any other nation will also defile it. Israel's exile is a period of purification for the land. Since it is God's land, no other nation will be able to dwell in it permanently; it waits, then, in anticipation of Israel’s redemption. At the end of the curses, when the Torah describes God's arousal to redeem the people, we read: "I shall remember My covenant with Yaakov, and My covenant with Yitzhak, and I shall also remember My covenant with Avraham, and I shall remember the land." In other words, the redemption of the land from its desolation is a central reason for redeeming Israel from exile.

In contrast, according to the covenant at the plains of Moav, the Jewish people receive the land as a reward for guarding and fulfilling the covenant. The giving over of the land of Israel to the Jewish people is an expression of the nation being chosen by God. Thus, when the Jewish people sin, the curses describe how the land is given over to other nations, and the Jews observe how another nation enjoys the fruits of their land:

The fruits of your land and all of your labor will be consumed by a nation that you have not known… the stranger who is in your midst will rise up over you, exceedingly high, while you will sink exceedingly low. (28:33, 43)

This situation, in which other nations and strangers enjoy the fruits of the land, represents the inversion of the positive side of the covenant. There is no greater curse for a person that to see someone else, who was previously subservient to his authority, ruling over him and his property. Ramban notes in his commentary on Sefer Vayikra that the curse, "The land shall be abandoned in the hands of your enemies," really contains a sort of concealed blessing, for, at least, the Torah promises that the land will not be given over as a possession to another nation, but will wait for Israel’s return. In Sefer Devarim there is no such "blessing" here, since the giving of the land (along with the rest of the blessings and abundance) to another nation, appears as the clearest possible expression of Israel’s descent "exceedingly low."

2. Who is at the Center – God or Man?

The world-view of Sefer Vayikra, and of the covenant of Sinai, is a theocentric one. Divinity lies at its center. This perception is expressed in the defined realms described in the Sefer (consisting of inner and outer circles, with the Mishkan in its midst, and the Holy of Holies and the Divine Presence itself at the center of the Mishkan), but is expressed, even more importantly, in the understanding of the purpose of observing the Torah and the covenant. The purpose of the covenant and the purpose of the Torah as a whole is the manifestation of the Divine Presence. As the Ramban explains (Shemot 25:2), God desires to live within the world, but a king cannot exist without a people, and therefore God "needs" Israel, as it were. Sefer Vayikra describes all that is done in order for God to have a dwelling place. The purity of the Sanctuary, and the sanctity of the camp, serve as the platform and foundation for the possibility of God’s revelation in the world.

Sefer Devarim adopts the opposite world-view: an anthropocentric one. The focal point is man, and, specifically, the nation. Of course, it is God Who took us out of Egypt and who redeems us; however, He does so not for His own sake, but for ours. Divine Providence acts out of loving kindness, and the land is given as a gift. Sefer Devarim as a whole is built on the foundation of "that it will be good for you" – personally and nationally. The purpose of the Sefer is to create a nation that lives a good life before God, with kindness and social justice at the heart of it. God promises the Jewish people that if they maintain this position, they will be made high over all of the nations.

3. The Theology of the Torah

Sefer Vayikra is based on the assumption of immanence. God is to be found within the world; God's glory is revealed in the world, and His presence in the Mishkan – and, later, in the land – is fixed and essential. In the blessings we read, "I shall make My dwelling place in your midst" (26:11) and in chapter 9, "God’s glory will be revealed to you" (verse 6). The main subject of the Sefer is God's Presence in defined places.

Sefer Devarim makes no mention of this concept. There is no reference to the Mishkan (literally, "dwelling place") here at all; an instance of Divine Revelation is noted in connection with Moshe’s own tent of meeting, and of a one-time Presence there.[3] As discussed in the shiur on parashat Ekev, when Sefer Devarim discusses the Tablets of the Covenant, in the episode of the golden calf, it speaks of a functional wooden box in which the tablets would be placed, not the Mishkan where God’s Presence would reside. And as noted in the shiur on parashat Re’eh, the place where the Jewish people are destined to serve God is "the place which God will choose to make His Name dwell there," not a defined place that exists in some geographical location. It is not clear where this place will be, and in any case, it is not God Himself who dwells there, but rather only His Name. As noted in the shiur on parashat Va-etchanan, even when Sefer Devarim describes the revelation at Sinai, it negates any tangible experience of revelation: "For you saw no image…" (4:15); "I stood between God and you at that time" (5:5). The Divinity of Sefer Devarim is transcendent: God exists beyond this world, in heaven.

It seems that all of these points are connected. A transcendent theology assumes perfection and inertness. God is in need of nothing. He transcends, absolutely, any act or need. Sefer Devarim therefore describes the relationship between God and the world in terms of absolute kindness; God shows us kindness for our sake, not for His.

The transcendent view leaves man at the center, while the immanent view draws man and God closer to each other, and perceives the Divine in human terms: God "needs" a place, as it were; we act for His sake, etc. As noted above, the land, in Sefer Vayikra, is holy because God actually dwells within it; it is His home and His place. Hence, the land is important in its own right, and it is the land that will expel the Jewish people if they sin. According to Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, only God’s Name is attached to us and to the land; the land, then, is not His, but ours. The land "cannot," conceptually, belong to God (contrary to the explicit assertion in Sefer Vayikra – "for the land is Mine" in 25:23) because God exists outside of the world; no particular place in the world can be attributed or attached to Him. The revelation of God in the world comes about only through man: "All the nations of the world will see that you are called by God’s Name."

This understanding explains one of the great innovations of the covenant of the plains of Moav, which we have not yet addressed. In this covenant, in addition to the conditions of the covenant of Sinai, there is an obligation that we imitate, or resemble, God: "… if you observe the commandments of the Lord your God and follow His ways" (28:9). As surprising as this sounds, following God’s ways is a demand that appears only in Sefer Devarim, while Sefer Vayikra calls for following God’s statutes and observing His commandments. According to Sefer Devarim, while God is not tangibly present in reality, a person, through his actions, can reveal God’s glory, by following His ways. Moral behavior is, according to Sefer Devarim, the most important religious obligation. One who "walks in God’s ways" thereby reveals God’s glory. Sanctification of God’s Name is the moral behavior of a servant of God, as Chazal and the Rambam express it: “'You shall love the Lord your God' – i.e., God should become beloved [to others] through you.”

Appendix: Two Possible Implications

  1. Sefer Devarim introduces the national-moral world-view: the nation is at the center of its philosophy and ideology. Man is at the center. One of the major arguments in analyzing the processes that led to secularization in the modern era is that the Protestant Reformation, the essence of which was a relinquishing of the immanent foundations of Christian faith (Jesus as the son of God, the Church as logos or the sacraments), actually paved the way for the growth of modern culture. The placing of human values at the center, the rise of humanism, the glorification of human intellect and creativity and scientific criticism, all found their place only after God was removed from the world – but prior to the beginning of secularization. "Removed" here is meant in the sense that God was no longer recognized as being part of the world, He was no longer present in it; rather, He transcended it. Perhaps there is something to be learned from this argument – after a careful translation and filtering in the transition from Christianity to Judaism – as to the influence of the different religious perspectives of the various Sefarim of the Torah on our social and religious lives. The growth of intellectual, modern, and Zionist Judaism were better suited to group with transcendent views of God than, for example, in the hassidic community, which was imbued with the belief that "there is no place that is devoid of His Presence," and "the whole world is full of His glory."
  2. The two world-views described here in relation to the status of the land of Israel have assumed, over the course of Zionist history, two different forms, representing the two main schools of Zionism. These may, in very generalized terms, be referred to as "the Zionism of the nation" – as founded by Herzl, and "the Zionism of the land," as set forth by Rav Kook and his religious-Zionist disciples.[4]

In Herzl’s view, the land is of instrumental value.[5] It is a necessary condition for the solution of the national problem, which is the primary value. The main problem is the problem of the Jewish nation; the land may serve as a platform for the solution of the problem.

According to the "land Zionists," the redemption of the land of Israel is the crux of Zionism. This is the holy land, God's land, and we, in our lives, serve its redemption.

If the land is a reward or a gift, then we may trade it and decide that peace within a small land is preferable to war over a larger land. But if the land is God's land, the holy land which is His dwelling place, and we come to serve it, then there is no room for any such consideration. We may not relinquish the end for the sake of the means, and therefore we are obligated to guard, maintain and fight for every part of God's land.

In the classic words of our Sages, "Both these and those are the words of the living God" – which is true in Halakha, as in ideological debates. Thus, we have perhaps discovered the root of some of the fundamental controversies in our lives in the words of the living God in His holy Torah, which give off many sparks: "God spoke one utterance, but we hear two."


Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]  I elaborated on this at length in the shiur on Bechukotai last year.

[2]  The two parashiot – Behar and Bechukotai – were uttered at Sinai on the same occasion, as we deduce from their introduction and conclusion, while all the units comprising the rest of the Sefer were conveyed from the Tent of Meeting. This point, too, was developed in the shiur on parashat Bechukotai.

[3]  See, for example, the appointment of Yehoshua, Devarim 33.

[4]  Rav Mordekhai Breuer z"l described these positions in an article in "Nekuda" magazine two years ago.

[5]  This concept was made clear by the Uganda Plan.