Reading Exodus with Leon Kass: What Is the Covenant?

God’s proposed covenant does not look to men of virtue or point to rule by philosophers or kings or prophets. The covenant is made with each and every person.

Moses on Mount Sinai by Jean-Léon Gerome, 1895-1900. Wikipedia.

Moses on Mount Sinai by Jean-Léon Gerome, 1895-1900. Wikipedia.

Feb. 5 2021
About the author

Leon R. Kass is dean of the faculty at Shalem College, professor emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. A physician, scientist, educator, and public intellectual, he served from 2001-2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Once a week for the next few months, Mosaic will be publishing brief excerpts of Leon R. Kass’s new book on Exodus, Founding God’s Nation. Curious about one of the foundational texts of the Jewish tradition? Read along with us. To see earlier excerpts, go here.

This week, Jewish communities all over the world begin their study of Exodus 18:1-20:23, a portion of the text known by its first significant Hebrew word, “Yitro.” Yitro is the name of Moses’ father-in-law, the Midianite priest who visits the Israelites in the wilderness. He advises Moses on the administration of justice for the people, counseling him to appoint men of valor to dispense justice. 

Three months after the Israelites depart from Egypt, they arrive at God’s mountain in the wilderness of Sinai, where God offers the people of Israel a new mission:

And Moses had gone up to God, and the Lord called out to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob, and shall you tell to the Israelites: ‘You yourselves saw what I did to Egypt, and I bore you on the wings of eagles and I brought you to Me. And now, if you will truly heed My voice and keep My covenant, you will become for Me a treasure among all the peoples, for Mine is all the earth. As for you, you will become for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; these are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:3-6)

Upon accepting the terms of this covenant, God then appears to the Israelites through thunder and lightening and a horn exceedingly loud. Moses then ascends the mountain in order to receive the Ten Commandments, a subject that Leon Kass has previously written about in Mosaic.

In this week’s excerpt, Kass offers an interpretive suggestion about how to understand God’s covenant with Israel.


Leaving all these linguistic perplexities [explored in the previous sections, dedicated to what a “kingdom of priests” is, and what a “holy nation” consists of] to the side, it seems fair to say that the Lord is offering Israel something new under the sun. Given their experience, the people should recognize, in the very presentation of the offer, that it is a novel opportunity. And given all that we readers of the Torah have seen, so should we. Hearing what the Lord, through Moses, tells them, the people should think as follows. We have seen the evidence. We know the truth of what the Lord has told us. We have arrived on the world stage thanks to His power against the Egyptians and His providence in bringing us (“on eagles’ wings”) to Himself, here at His “holy mountain.” And now we know why He did it. We are to occupy a special place among the nations of the world: to be a nation apart (holy), yet with a priestly relation to the others. In both aspects, we will bear ourselves in a special relationship to the Lord, a relationship that requires (only!) that we hearken to His Voice and keep His covenant.

We readers, having vicariously seen much more than the Israelites, should think as follows. One people will from now on be defined by their special relationship to the Lord, Who rules over all the earth. That special relationship will blur or at least reduce the distinction between the human and the divine, between the profane and the sacred. It will “mix” together the holy (k’dushah; “separateness”) with nationhood and with ordinary life (thus, paradoxically, making “the separate” no longer altogether separate): obedience to God’s words sanctifies everyday life. The people will eventually be summoned to be kadosh as the Lord is kadosh. And through the devoted deeds of this people, He-Will-Be-What-He-Will-Be will acquire for the first time an established and acknowledged national place in the human world.

This covenantal arrangement is crucial for God’s overall project for humankind and for addressing the obstacles that stand in its way. From the beginning of His relationship with Abraham and his immediate descendants, and more recently from the beginning of His relationship with the Children of Israel in Egypt, God has sought to form them into a people that will bear His preferred way for humankind, so that this people, living in accordance with this way, will be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. Everything in the story so far has pointed to this purpose, which will now be made explicit in the people-constituting covenant to be enacted at Sinai. The constitutive principle of the Israelite nation will be the people’s covenantal relationship with the divine. Striving to fulfill its obligations under the covenant, Israel will then bear the truth and goodness of that relationship before the other nations of the earth.

The specifics of the covenant have yet to be revealed. But its overall form already lays down one crucial political principle: the covenant is to be made with the entire people—with each and every one—not merely an elite. Jethro had suggested to Moses an aristocratic (or oligarchic) principle, at least as regards judges and judgment: the rule of the best human beings. Moses, although at first ruling monarchically, adopted Jethro’s principle: he appointed anshey ḥayil, manly men or wealthy ones, to do the judging. But God’s proposed covenant does not look to men of virtue or point to rule by philosophers or kings or prophets. It speaks rather of and to the entire body politic. In place of talk about personal virtue, it speaks of obedience and holiness, k’dushah. Moses will remain God’s agent and champion, but the founding event will constitute the people not around the manly virtues of the few but around the god-seeking aspirations of the many.

God has no illusions about the people. He knows their weaknesses and their propensity to stray. But He also knows that the excellence and self-command of a Moses are neither widely possible nor even sufficient to create a worthy human community. With the call to k’dushah, to holiness, God is proposing a way of life that paradoxically embraces the limitations of all the people beneath the mountain. Though hardly heroic, and notwithstanding their periodic grumbling, each in his or her own (albeit limited) way has willingly embraced the project to this point. The call to holiness addresses directly the people’s need to work through the human penchants for error and evil, so well exemplified in the stories of Genesis and Exodus. Later, specially appointed priests will mobilize and dramatize some of the passions that lead to chaos and will channel them into pathways that are at once cathartic, liberating, and elevating. Whatever it means, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” will be an entity in which ordinary human beings—not just the elite—can come as close to God as is humanly possible. God’s project is not just to raise philosophers, aristocrats, or prophets to the heights of human possibility, but to enable all of us to live well despite our considerable limitations. Whatever holiness turns out to mean, God has in mind an elevated way of life in which not just a few but everyone can participate. The success of His plan, however, first requires that the people accept the covenantal offer. We do not have long to wait for their answer.

Excerpted and adapted from Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus by Leon R. Kass. Published by Yale University Press in January 2021. Reproduced by permission.

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