In order to make sense of covenants, people followed a certain pattern that governed the content and form of a covenant. A summary document representing the entirety of the relationship was usually provided. As the superior party, God alone determined the content of the covenant he made with Israel. And in giving the Ten Commandments and the Torah laws, he followed the traditional covenant form of the time.

The Preamble

This part of the covenant identified the two covenant parties. In the Torah (first five books of the Bible), God established the identity of the parties in the creation story. He was the creator, and Israel was his creation. In the covenant summary (the Ten Commandments), he said simply, "I am the Lord your God" (Ex. 20:2).

The Historical Prologue

The history leading to the creating of the covenant was recited to prove the right of the superior party to make it. In the Ten Commandments, for example, the summary is simply "who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex. 20:2). In the Torah, the history of the covenant is laid out in the books of Genesis and Exodus.


The Torah contains 613 requirements God placed on his people. He placed even more obligations on himself by promising to pay the consequences if either party failed to keep the covenant. In summarizing the law, these requirements were simplified to ten commandments (Ex. 20:3-17). Some scholars have noted that Jesus reduced this summary to just two obligations (Matt. 22:37-40).

Blessings and Curses

Keeping a covenant brought specific rewards, and breaking it brought specific penalties. In the Ten Commandments document, God promised to punish children to the third and fourth generation for disobedience. But he also promised to show love to a thousand generations for those who followed his law (Ex. 20:5). The Torah contains additional blessings and curses.

The Summary Document

The short summary document, which could be easily read and stored, summarized the entire covenant and so represented the total relationship between the parties. When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, they provided the summary document of God's covenant with Israel.

Storing the Documents

Normally, two summary documents were made; each party kept one in a sacred place. It seems clear that each tablet of the Ten Commandments contained all of the commandments. One copy was God's, and the other belonged to the people of Israel. Because he wanted to draw near to his people, God asked Moses to take both copies, symbolically saying that his sacred place would be with his people.