By a covenant of letter Paul has in mind the Mosaic covenant. His reference in verse 7 to the shining face of Moses on his descent from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law makes this clear. The Mosaic covenant was a unilateral agreement that structured every aspect of Israel's social, religious, physical and civil existence from the time of Moses until Paul's day. The sum total of commandments that regulated the Jew's life were numbered at 613. This did not include rabbinic interpretations of the law (the Tannaim of the Mishnah), which were also considered binding. Paul, however, now calls this covenant "old" (v. 14). Ever since, Judaism—not to mention certain branches of Christianity—has been loath to agree.
Someone once said that "second-best is the worst enemy of the best." People have always tended to cling to the old even when something far better is offered (Barclay 1954:191). Most of us have been in churches with diehards who insisted that the old way of doing something was necessarily the right way. There is security in clinging to the familiar, even when the familiar leads eventually to our undoing (death, v. 7; condemnation, v. 9). Paul faced this difficulty at Corinth—How to convince the diehards in the church that the new way, and not the old, was the right way?
Paul's shift from letters of recommendation to a consideration of the old and new covenants is judged problematic by most. What prompts him to consider these too covenants in such great detail (and in such stark contrast)? Some think that a letter written on the heart (v. 3) leads Paul to think of the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:33 and, in turn, the old covenant engraved on stone tablets. Others suppose that the letter written by the Spirit in verse 3 calls to mind the finger of God on the stone tablets of the law. Recent studies seek an explanation in a Moses polemic of rival missionaries (for example, Georgi 1986). This seems likely; otherwise verses 7-11 give the impression of being no more than a temporary excursus.
Paul's emphasis in particular on the greater glory of the new covenant suggests that his opponents associated themselves in some fashion with Moses and the law—but not with its legalistic side, since there is no mention of circumcision or obedience to the law (see the introduction). In view of Paul's use of the Jewish tradition of the overpowering splendor of the Mosaic ministry, it is probable that these intruding missionaries appealed to Moses as a model of spirituality and to the law as the key to a victorious Christian life. Moses, who was accredited by God through the working of wonders, signs and miracles, would have been the ideal figure to lend credibility to their ministry. And the tablets of the law, which came in such a blaze of glory, would have functioned as the perfect letter of reference.
What to do when old ways die hard? Paul's overall approach is not to denigrate the Mosaic covenant but rather to demonstrate the superiority of the new covenant over the old. To do this he uses a Jewish form of argumentation called qal wahwmer, or what today we would label an a fortiori argument (from lesser to greater). His line of reasoning is that if the glory of the old covenant was transient yet came with such overpowering splendor that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of its minister as he descended from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law, how much greater must the new covenant be, whose splendor is permanent and whose glory does not fade. The implication is that though the Mosaic covenant can impart an initial glory and credibility to its ministers and adherents, because of its transitory character it has no lasting effect. Therefore for these visiting preachers to link themselves with a covenant that is fast becoming obsolete is to suggest that their competency is fading and their credentials are of no lasting importance. It is only the new covenant with its enduring splendor that can impart a permanent and lasting credibility to its ministers.
Paul's evaluation of the Mosaic ministry is even more to the point. Far from being the key to the victorious Christian life, it is in reality a ministry that brings nothing but death (v. 7) and condemnation (v. 9) to those of God's people who strive to live by it. To be a minister of the old covenant is therefore to be an instrument of death and destruction. The new covenant ministry, on the other hand, brings the Spirit (v. 8) and righteousness (v. 9). So to be a minister of this covenant is to be an instrument of life and salvation.
The role of the law in the life of the Christian is an important issue in the church today. Is Paul saying that the Christian is to have no contact with the law whatsoever and to do so is to bring about one's own condemnation and death? How can this be, since elsewhere he speaks of the law as "holy, righteous and good" and "spiritual" (Rom 7:12, 14)? The key phrase in the discussion is "under law," which Paul uses in Romans 6:1-23 and Galatians 3:21—4:31; 5:13-26 to refer to the role of Mosaic law in strictly supervising every aspect of the life of God's people (Belleville 1986:59-60). It makes clear to us our obligation, oversees our conduct and rebukes and punishes our wrongdoing. The difficulty is that it does not give us the ability to overcome the prevailing influence of sin in our lives. So, as with any legal code, to break the law is to incur judgment. And we all inevitably do break God's law because our sinful nature inclines us in this direction. Lamentably, the penalty for breaking God's law is death (Rom 7:10-11).
Paul, nonetheless, can say that the Mosaic law is holy, righteous and good. This is because its demands reflect the character of its Creator. But the breaking of the law incurs God's judgment. This is why the role of the law was only a temporary one—"until Christ came" (Gal 3:24, TEV, RSV, JB, NEB). With the advent of Christ came a new covenant, one that is based on a familial, not a legal, relationship to God. We are still commanded not to kill, steal and so on—not because it is our obligation in a covenant relationship, but because it is appropriate behavior for a member of God's family. What is also needed is a change of nature. This too is provided for under the new covenant. With Christ's coming, the Spirit, rather than sin, becomes the controlling principle in the life of the believer. The power that was lacking under the old covenant is now there for us to be the kind of moral people God intended. This is essentially what Paul means in verses 7-11 by the ministry that brings the Spirit and righteousness as opposed to the ministry of death and condemnation.
The grammar in verses 7-11 is difficult to follow, but the point in each case is clear. Engraved in letters on stone (v. 7) recalls Moses' descent from Mount Sinai with the too tablets of the law. Stone tablets were normally used for royal, commemorative or religious texts, or for public copies of legal edicts. A metal chisel or graver was used to carve the letters onto the stone face. The tablets themselves were normally rectangular in shape and measuring no more than 17.5 x 11.7 in. (45 x 30 cm). The use of the perfect tense (en + typow, "to hammer in") points to a permanent, unchangeable state of affairs. The letters that were chiseled into those too rectangular stone tablets were there to stay.
Paul distinguishes these tablets in too ways. First, he calls them "a ministry of death" (v. 7). The genitive can be descriptive ("a deadly ministry") or, more likely, objective ("a ministry that dispensed death," NEB, RSV). Death is the penalty for being a lawbreaker under this covenant. Second, he says that these stone tablets came with glory. The term glory (doxa) is the LXX's translation of the Hebrew word kabod, which comes from a root meaning "to be heavy, weighty." Here it applies to something that is weighty in outward appearance. Nowadays we would call someone described in this way "flashy" or "handsome." Here it refers to the fact that Moses' face shone as he descended with the tablets of the law. So bright in fact was this splendor that Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was (v. 7). The verb atenizō means "to look intently at," "to gaze earnestly at." Today we might say that the Israelites could not keep their eyes glued on him, much as they were fascinated by the spectacle of his shining face. The word for fading (kata + a-ergon) means "to cause to become idle" or "to render ineffective or powerless," not "to abolish" (KJV). To cause light to become idle or inactive is effectively to cause it to "fade" (virtually all modern translations). The present tense indicates that Moses' splendor was "in the process" of fading (ten katargoumenhn). Paul's point is that although the brilliance of Moses' face was overpowering, it was a brilliance that immediately began to fade, symptomatic of the transient character of the ministry that it represented.
By comparison, the new covenant ministry will be even more glorious (v. 8). Why? Because it is a ministry not of death but of the Spirit. The too genitives must be taken in the same way. If the Mosaic covenant is a ministry that "dispenses death," the new covenant is a ministry that "dispenses the Spirit" (objective genitives). More than this Paul does not say. But elsewhere it is clear that the gift of the Spirit is the centerpiece of the new covenant (e.g., Gal 4:4-7). The future tense of the verb is to be noted. While the old covenant ministry came (egenhthe) with glory (en doxh), the new covenant ministry will be (estai) with glory (en doxh) (vv. 7-8). Paul is undoubtedly thinking of "the glory that will be revealed in us" when Christ returns (Rom 8:18). This future glory is "our adoption, the redemption of our bodies" of which the gift of the Spirit is the "firstfruits" (Rom 8:23). The same idea occurs in 2 Corinthians 5:5, where Paul states that God "made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." He may also be thinking of Jesus' teaching that he will come again "on the clouds of the sky with great power and glory" (Mk 13:26 and parallels).
To speak of the Mosaic covenant as a ministry that dispenses death would have sounded blasphemous to Jewish ears. It was the uniform opinion of the rabbis that what Moses gave the people of Israel were "words of life," not words of death (as in Exodus Rabbah 29.9).
Paul goes even further in verse 9 to call the Mosaic covenant a "ministry of condemnation"—something that incurs God's judgment, not his blessing. In line with the previous genitives, the genitive here should be construed as objective (the ministry that condemns). The Greek word for "condemnation" (katakrisis) is a rare one, occurring in the Greek Bible only here and in 7:3. It refers to a verdict of guilty or to the passing of sentence against someone.
In contrast, the new covenant is a "ministry of righteousness." The term righteousness (dikaiosyne) is common in Paul. Normally it refers to the act of doing what is right or what God requires. Here, however, as a counterpoint to "condemnation" it is to be understood in the legal sense of being declared innocent (TEV) or acquitted (NEB). Paul's contention is, then, if the Mosaic covenant is a ministry that condemns and yet is accompanied by splendor, how much more glorious must be the ministry that declares people innocent!
In verses 10-11 Paul takes his argument one final step and advances the idea that the splendor of the old covenant is not only dwindling but also completely eclipsed by the surpassing glory of the new covenant. This is because the Mosaic ministry is temporary, while the new covenant ministry is permanent. In short, with the arrival of the new covenant, the Mosaic covenant is no longer the "big kid on the block." The text reads literally: "For that which has been endowed with splendor is now not endowed with splendor on account of the surpassing splendor." The grammar is at best tortuous. The idea is that the greater light obscures the lesser—or as someone once said, "When the sun has risen the lamps cease to be of use." The covenant that was once glorious now scarcely appears so in light of the splendor of the new. In comparison with is literally "in this part." Paul could be saying that the Mosaic covenant "was endowed in part with splendor" (that is, had a limited glory) or, as is more likely, that the Mosaic covenant "in this case had no splendor at all" (that is, on account of the surpassing splendor of the new covenant).
The shift from feminine (the splendor of Moses' face, v. 7) to neuter (the splendor of the Mosaic ministry, vv. 10-11) is to be noted. The Mosaic covenant is pictured as belonging to a vanishing order, an economy that began to fade immediately after its inception, as was typified by the dwindling splendor of Moses' face (M. J. Harris 1976:336). The conclusion Paul draws from this fact is that if the ministry that was vanishing was ushered in with great pomp and circumstance (dia doxhs), how much more spectacular must be the ministry that lasts. These are amazing statements for a Jew to make—albeit a Christian one—and ones to which Jews in Paul's day did not on the whole take kindly. For the Jew, the law was eternal and lifegiving. While there are occasional expressions in Jewish literature of an expectation that the law would suffer modification in the messianic age, there is every belief that it would endure forever.