3 while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ex 19:3–6). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
3–6 The “sign” given to Moses in 3:12 is fulfilled here (v. 3): he has returned to the “mountain of God” (3:1). When Moses “goes up” (see Notes) the mountain, Yahweh delivers his “eagles’ wings speech.” A twofold title is used for God’s people (v. 3): “house of Jacob” (a reminder of their humble beginnings; cf. Ge 28:13; 35:11; 49:7) and “the people of Israel” (a statement as to what they have become: a nation).
While it is difficult to determine for certain, it seems that Moses makes three trips up the mountain of God in this chapter (19:3–7, 8–14, and 20–25).
The metaphor of the eagles’ wings could refer to one of the eight species of eagles (nešārim) found in Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. But most likely it is the Palestinian vulture. This metaphor is developed most extensively in Deuteronomy 32:9–11, where the loving compassion, protection, strength, and watchfulness of God are compared to the majestic bird’s attributes. As the young eagles are carried on the adult wings and brought out of their nests and taught to fly, so Yahweh has lovingly carried and safely delivered Israel. Moses writes in Deuteronomy:
For the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.
In a desert land he found him,
in a barren and howling waste.
He shielded him and cared for him;
he guarded him as the apple of his eye,
like an eagle that stirs up its nest
and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them
and carries them on its pinions. [emphasis mine]
This same imagery of God as swooping down like an eagle is used in Isaiah 40:30–31, where “even youths … and young men … will soar on wings like eagles.”
This covenant (first given to the patriarchs), however, while unconditional in its transmission and bestowal, was indeed conditioned with regard to its enjoyment and personal participation (see Kaiser, 93–94, 111, 130, 156–57). The presence of the “if” (ʾim) in v. 5 does not pave the way for Israel’s declension from grace into law anymore than an alleged presence of a condition paved an identical fall for the patriarchs (Ge 22:16–18; 26:5) or for David (2 Sa 7:14–15; 1 Ki 2:4; 8:25; 9:4–5; Pss 89:30–37; 132:11–12).
The six verses (vv. 3–8) of this eagles’ wings speech and its response are cast in the familiar Near Eastern suzerain treaty form. Mendenhall (“Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition,” BA 17 : 50–76) has demonstrated that the Hittites in the middle second millennium used a literary pattern to write their treaties imposed by strong kings on their vassals that is similar to the literary pattern found in these six verses and in Exodus 20. This pattern is as follows (see Richard J. Sklba, “The Redeemer of Israel,” CBQ 34 : 3–4):
Preamble: v. 3b, a summons by God
Historical prologue: v. 4
Stipulations: v. 5a
Blessings: vv. 5b–6a
Acceptance in a solemn assembly: vv. 7–8
Three titles summarize the divine blessings that an obedient and covenant-keeping Israel will experience: they will be a “treasured possession” (v. 5), “a kingdom of priests,” and “a holy nation” (v. 6; see Notes). “Treasured possession” signifies that Israel will be God’s valuable property and distinct treasure (Dt 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Ps 135:4; Mal 3:17; cf. Tit 2:14; 1 Pe 2:9) set aside for a marked purpose (see Notes). Unlike real estate, this type of property is moveable, and like everything on earth, it too is owned by God (Ex 19:5). Israel is royal property, God’s special possession marked out for special purposes!
As a whole, the people of Israel are being called to be a national priesthood, “royal priests,” but unfortunately the people decline the privilege. The title “kingdom of priests” occurs nowhere else in the OT, but the call for all to minister in a priestly way is unmistakable. Interpreters have debated why a priesthood should be talked about so early when God has not yet designated one in Israel, but that misses the point that all are at first called for this task. Therefore the original purpose of God is delayed (not scrapped or forever dismissed) until in NT times the priesthood of all believers is once again proclaimed (1 Pe 2:9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; see Kaiser, 103–13).
This is why they are to be at once priest-kings and royal-priests (Isa 61:6; cf. 1 Pe 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6)—everyone in the whole nation. This expression is not a parallel phrase or a synonym for a “holy nation”; it is a separate entity. The whole nation is to act as a mediator of God’s grace to the nations of the earth, even as Abraham was promised that through him and his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Ge 12:3).
“Holy nation” designates Israel as a separate and distinct nation because her God is holy, separate, and distinct, as are God’s purposes and plans (Dt 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; Isa 62:12; cf. 1 Pe 2:9).
This whole synopsis of God’s suzerain treaty with his vassal Israel is remarkably personal. It begins in v. 3 addressed “to the sons of Israel” (libenê yiśrāʾēl) and concludes with an inclusion in v. 6 “to the sons of Israel” (ʾel-benê yiśrāʾēl). Its first and last clauses are introduced by an emphatic plural “you” (ʾattem, vv. 4, 6) along with two other references to a plural “you” in v. 4 (ʾetkem).
19:3–6 / God … the Lord called to him from the mountain. The Lord’s first words to Moses upon his return to Sinai contain the formality of poetic parallelism: say to the house of Jacob / tell the people of Israel. The short but powerful speech that follows this introduction contains the primary themes and the structure of Mosaic faith (Muilenburg, “Form and Structure”). Brueggemann called it “the most programmatic for Israelite faith that we have in the entire tradition of Moses” (Brueggemann, “Exodus,” p. 834). Rabbinic tradition notes the inclusivity of the parallel address, with “house of Jacob” specifically referring to the households of women and children.
The Lord’s intentions with regards to this redeemed people are immediately clear. God asks them to declare their intentions. Verse 4 describes the three stages of their journey and the Lord’s provision in it. The second part of God’s speech (vv. 5–6) presents an invitation to a special vocation in the world. God attaches a conditional promise to this offer to serve the Lord as intermediary between God and the other nations of the earth. God called Israel to be his holy nation and a kingdom of priests to the world.
This call begins with a description of God’s grace in three stages: bringing Israel out of bondage, providing for them in the wilderness, and guiding them to an encounter with God that would continue to transform their lives. The Lord reminds them that they had indeed been witnesses to these gifts. They had seen “what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” The Lord spoke very personally, saying: “I did,” “I carried you,” and “I brought you to myself.” The point is that it was the Lord who brought them out of bondage, who carried them through their fears in the wilderness, and who brought them beyond those external and internal forms of oppression to worship God. They did not seek God before God sought them. They did not begin by keeping laws or making sacrifices. They simply cried out for help. Their relationship with God began with God’s own unexpected mercy and provision. Moses expands the reference to the Lord carrying Israel on “eagles’ wings” in his song at the end of the wilderness sojourn in Deuteronomy 32:10b–11.
The second part of the Lord’s first message for the people at Sinai was an invitation for a reciprocal relationship. It begins with the conditional statement, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant.” The most obvious reference is to the covenant that was about to be given: the book of the covenant (21:1–23:19). The people’s agreement to this condition in verse 8 could be read as a declaration of their intent to receive that covenant. On the other hand, the Abrahamic covenant was also clearly on the table in Exodus, both before and after the meeting at Sinai. The reference to the Lord’s covenant need not be read exclusively. God’s work in the world extended through the exodus and at Sinai, but this did not supersede the earlier covenants. Sinai’s grounding in the promises made to the cultures of the world through Abraham would become dramatically evident in 32:13–16. During the golden calf crisis, the appeal to the Abrahamic covenant was enough for the Lord to preserve Israel and the Sinai covenant. Moses had also previously imparted case law from the Lord (18:15–16), the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread and firstborn statutes (12:1–11, 21–27, 43–50; 13:1–16), and the Sabbath commands (16:16–30).
The result of their acceptance of the covenant was not, as is sometimes assumed, simply their salvation. Rather, it indicated something larger that encompassed the Lord’s mission for the whole earth and all the peoples.
“out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.
Although the whole earth is mine,
you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
The meaning of “treasured possession” is found in the parallel line that further defines it, “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This is something new. For the first time in Scripture since the mention that God would bless all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:3; 22:18), the Lord adds a dimension to the relationship between God and other peoples. Israel would be a treasured possession among all nations as a holy nation in as much as it was a kingdom of priests. The phrase “kingdom of priests” provides an interpretive key to the Lord’s offer. Priests mediate God’s law and grace. If they were all priests, then their calling was to mediate, through all that they were and communicated (e.g., written Scripture), the word and life of God to the world. The context for Israel’s mediating work would be the kingdom of Israel, the political reality in which some in each generation lived faithfully, preserving God’s social vision for the world and God’s written word.
A second interpretive key is found in the phrase “Although the whole earth is mine” (v. 5). In the Exodus context, that the “whole earth” belonged to the Lord meant the reversal of the domination of chaos and the proclamation of the Lord’s reputation, that the Lord might be known “in all the earth” (9:16)
Another, better, translation is: “because the whole earth is mine, I choose you to be a kingdom of priests in order to bring it blessing.” This reading uses the immediate and the broader Genesis-Exodus context. Israel is thus not seen over against less honored nations, but as a nation chosen in order to bring the blessing (Fretheim, “Whole Earth,” p. 237).
The transformation or restoration of the nonhuman creation often accompanies the transformation of God’s people in Scripture. Because the whole earth belongs to the Lord, the wilderness that the people initially experienced as an inhospitable place was made hospitable. God transformed undrinkable water at Marah. Bread rained down from heaven and quail abounded in the Sin wilderness. A waterless place burst forth with abundant water at Horeb. Isaiah described a similar transformation in the promise of the people’s return from Babylon (Isa. 35:6–7; 41:17–18; 43:19–21; 48:21). Paul described the transformation of the nonhuman creation as bound up with human transformation in the new creation (Rom. 8:21–23). The whole creation was thus at stake and involved in the Israelites’ decision at Sinai.
“These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” The Lord wanted Moses to repeat these words immediately to the Israelites. God wanted them to declare their intentions regarding this offer for them to enter into a partnership for the world’s sake. This served as Israel’s call narrative, mirroring Moses’ own call (3:10–12).
19:3 from the mountain. The sign which the Lord had given particularly to Moses when he was still in Midian (3:12), that God had indeed sent him, was now fulfilled; he was with the people before the mountain of God. house of Jacob … sons of Israel. In employing this dual designation for the nation, the Lord reminded them of their humble beginnings as descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, who had been with them in Egypt, and of their status now as a nation (children = people).
19:4 bore you on eagles’ wings. With a most appropriate metaphor, God described the Exodus and the journey to Sinai. Eagles were known to have carried their young out of the nests on their wings and taught them to fly, catching them when necessary on their outspread wings. Moses, in his final song, employed this metaphor of God’s care for Israel and especially noted that there was only one Lord who did this (Dt 32:11–12).
19:5, 6 Three titles for Israel, “My own possession,” “a kingdom of priests,” and “a holy nation,” were given by the Lord to the nation, contingent upon their being an obedient and covenant-keeping nation. These titles summarized the divine blessings which such a nation would experience: belonging especially to the Lord, representing Him in the earth and being set apart unto Him for His purposes. These expanded ethnically and morally what it meant to have brought them to Himself. “For all the earth is Mine,”in the midst of the titles, laid stress upon the uniqueness and sovereignty of the Lord and had to be understood as dismissing all other claims by so-called other gods of the nations. It was more than the power of one god over another in Israel’s situation; it was the choice and power of the only Lord! See 1Pe 2:9, where Peter uses these terms in the sense of God’s spiritual kingdom of the redeemed.
19:4–6 The Lord calls Israel to be faithful to his covenant even before he has revealed all of its particulars (v. 5). What they have seen in Egypt (v. 4) reminds them that God’s covenant relationship with them is prior to and essential for their living as his people.
19:6 When the Lord calls Israel a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, he is not referring exclusively to the role that Aaron and his sons will fill as priests (28:1) but also to what Israel’s life as a whole is to represent among the nations. By keeping the covenant (19:5), the people of Israel would continue both to set themselves apart from, and also to mediate the presence and blessing of the Lord to, the nations around them (see Gen. 12:3; Deut. 4:6; note on Isa. 61:5–7). When Peter applies these terms to the church (see 1 Pet. 2:5, 9), he is explaining that the mixed body of Jewish and Gentile believers inherit the privileges of Israel, and he is calling the believers to persevere in faithfulness so that those around them “may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).
19:6 The privileges of Israel prefigure the higher privileges of the NT church (1 Pet. 2:9–10), won through Christ’s redemption (Heb. 10:10).
19:4 brought you to myself. God’s deliverance from slavery was not just liberation, but adoption. He brought them out and carried them through the wilderness to bring them to Himself, to make them His (Gen. 17:7 note).
19:5 obey my voice and keep my covenant. Terms summarizing the proper human response to God’s gracious covenant (Gen. 17:2 note). The latter phrase (Gen. 17:9, 10; 1 Kin. 11:11; Ps. 78:10; 103:18; 132:12; Ezek. 17:14) always refers to fidelity to a previously revealed covenant. Since 6:4 has referred to the Exodus as the fulfillment of the patriarchal covenant, the revelation at Sinai must also be seen as an extension of the Abrahamic covenant.
treasured possession. As the following clause shows, God means that Israel will be His personal treasure within what is more generally owned (1 Chr. 29:3). Israel is separated by God’s election from the world that belongs to Him.
19:6 kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Israel is to be a priestly royalty, a holy nation set apart from the world as a priest was set apart in ancient society. The emphasis here falls on Israel’s relation to God rather than on any priestly ministry to the nations, yet Israel’s relation to the Lord also bears witness to the world. Verses 4–6a reflect the Abrahamic covenant of Gen. 12:1–3. What this passage prescribes for Israel, the new covenant makes a reality for believers (1 Pet. 2:9–10; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
 Kaiser, W. C., Jr. (2008). Exodus. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis–Leviticus (Revised Edition) (Vol. 1, pp. 471–473). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Bruckner, J. K. (2012). Exodus. (W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston, Eds.) (pp. 171–174). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ex 19:3–5). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 174). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
 Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 120). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.