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).
19:3–8. These verses reveal the covenant itself and reflect the provisions of a standard ANE suzerain treaty (that is a treaty between an underling and an overlord; see J. W. Marshall, “Decalogue,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity: 2003], 173ff.). There was a standard pattern or formula to such treaties: preamble (“Hear ye, hear ye”; 19:3); history of relations between the vassals and their master (“This is how we have arrived at this stage in our relationship”; 19:4); stipulations (“This is what you [underling] will do”; 19:5a); promises/blessings (“This is what I [overlord] will give you”; 19:5b–6a); formal presentation (19:6b–7); and formal acceptance (19:8). A covenant such as this was meant to elevate and formalize an already extant relationship (see Hamilton, Exodus, 301). Here the relationship with the nation was based on the Lord’s promises to the patriarchs (cf. 6:8; 13:5) and on His sovereign and gracious deliverance of them from bondage: bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself (19:4).
The stipulations obey My voice and keep My covenant (19:5) were thus not the means to earn the promises (as noted above, those promises had been given to the patriarchs Abraham [Gn 12:1–3; chaps. 15; 17], Isaac [Gn 26:24], and Jacob [Gn 28:13–15; 35:11–12), but the way to live so as to enjoy the promises. The idea is “If you obey and keep the commandments you will prove to be My own possession …” (19:5). They already were His people (see Hamilton, Exodus, 301). God gave Israel the law to ensure that Israel would be able to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant by avoiding sin and therefore, the consequences of experiencing the temporal discipline of God.
If God disciplined them, the nation would be driven from the land (Dt 28:64–65) and they would not be able to experience His glory and blessings. A further result would be that the Abrahamic covenant could not be fulfilled in its entirety. Eventually, of course, Moses anticipated Israel’s inability to keep the law (Dt 31:29) and predicted that God would make the fulfillment of the promises possible for Israel through receiving the circumcised hearts of the new covenant (Dt 30:6). Thus, God gave these laws to Israel because only by living as He commanded and according to His standards by His own nature could they expect to enjoy His blessings. “In essence, the Sinaiatic covenant spells out the type of nation that Yahweh intends Israel to be.… Israel, the patriarch’s promised descendants, could enjoy the divine-human relationship anticipated in Genesis 17:7–8 only by maintaining the ethical distinctiveness enshrined in God’s instructions to Abraham (‘Walk before Me and be blameless,’ Gen 17:1)” (P. R. Williamson, “Covenant,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002], 150).
The blessings were summarized in three “titles”: they would prove to be My own possession (“unique treasure,” a “chosen and special status”; Dt 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Ps 135:4; Mal 3:17), they would be a kingdom of priests, and they would be a holy nation (19:5–6; cf. 1Pt 2:9). These titles indicate that as a new nation (in the truest sense “under God”) they had a unique relationship with the Lord, they had a unique responsibility to the rest of humanity, and they had a unique standing in the world of nations—a new name and privilege, a new responsibility, and a new character. These titles speak of the nation’s royal (kingly), priestly, and prophetic standing before God and before the world, among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine (19:5). This has been called the “Great Commission” of the OT (cf. Youngblood, Exodus, 90).
In sum, to enjoy their promise-based relationship with God they had to accept it. Then they had to commit to it; that is, they had to commit to live by the stipulations and live up to the blessings. The people were enthusiastic at this point, answering, All that the Lord has spoken we will do! (19:8). Sadly this commendable sentiment was not always matched with consistent action.
19:5–6. This proposal made by God (My covenant) would give Israel an exalted position among the nations in view of their acceptance of God’s righteous standards. If they accepted and obeyed the covenant stipulations, God promised to make them His treasured possession (cf. Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 26:18; Ps. 135:4; Mal. 3:17). They would be His own people, highly valued by and related to Him. Also they would become a kingdom of priests, that is, each member of the nation with God as his King would know and have access to Him and mediate on behalf of each other as did priests. Also they would be a holy nation, a nation morally pure and dedicated entirely to the service of God. God redeemed Israel so that she might be in touch with and separated to Him.
19:5 — “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.”
What an amazing thing to be called the “special treasure” of God! Obedience always brings blessing, and far more than we can imagine.
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.
19:6 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).
19:5 a treasured possession The Hebrew term used here, segullah, refers to both inanimate objects and servants as personal property (Eccl 2:8; 1 Chr 29:3). In ancient Near Eastern covenant-legal literature, the term used here sometimes describes those in covenant with a deity—a context reflected here.
all the earth is mine Though all the earth and its nations belong to Yahweh, Gen 11:1–9 describes God disinheriting the nations of the world. After the Babel event, God turned the nations over to lesser gods (Deut 32:8–9; compare Deut 4:19–20). In the next divine act recorded in the ot, He called Abram and promised him a line of descendants that culminated in the sons of Jacob—the 12 tribes of Israel—who now stand before Him at Sinai.
19:6 a kingdom of priests The only instance of the Hebrew phrase used here in the ot, although the language of Isa 61:6 is similar. The reference to a kingdom presupposes a king, who would be Yahweh. Phrases like this in the ot demonstrate that the Israelites resisted the idea of human kingship prior to the establishment of the monarchy (e.g., Judg 8:22; 1 Sam 12:17).
holy This refers to being set apart from that which is common (or profane). It indicates something devoted to God’s presence and specific use.
you will speak Yahweh begins the conversation by describing His broad plans for the people. He commands Moses to inform the elders and the people of their moral and spiritual obligations to Him.
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).
19:5, 6 This is a loving promise to Israel that they will be highly esteemed and carefully guarded (cf. Ps. 135:4; Is. 43:1–4). This will be an exclusive relationship with Yahweh, one that is not to be shared equally with others. God planned for Israel to be a theocracy with all the people directly accountable to God (cf. 1 Sam. 12:12). This they forfeited, however, by unfaithfulness and disobedience. As a “holy nation,” they were consecrated to God’s service, outwardly marked as His by the symbol of circumcision and inwardly identified by purity and holiness.
19:5 The Lord wanted Israel to be known by what he had done as well as by what they would do. My own possession uses a word that is sometimes translated “treasure.” David used it to speak of his “personal treasures of gold and silver” that he had set aside for building the Lord’s temple (1Ch 29:3). In extrabiblical literature a king sometimes used a closely related word to speak positively of a vassal with whom he had a good relationship and where a king advertised himself on his royal seal as the treasured possession of a certain god.
19:6 The ideas of priesthood and holiness go together, since special requirements marked priests as set apart for special service that benefited others (Lv 21). The tasks of priests included helping people offer sacrifices to God, according to the need or condition of the person (Lv 1–7). Priests acted as judges, both in matters of ritual purity and in civil controversies (Lv 13–14; Dt 17:9; 21:5), and they taught God’s law (Lv 10:11; Mal 2:7–9). These tasks pointed to the work of Israel among the nations. As the priesthood in Israel was to the nation as a whole, so Israel should be to the other nations; as Israelite priests had unique requirements, duties, and privileges among the Israelites, so Israel would have unique requirements, duties, and privileges among the nations (Lv 20:22–26; Dt 4:5–8; 14:21; 26:17–19; Is 2:1–5). Now all who believe in Christ are a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1Pt 2:9).
5. Now, therefore. God declares that He will ever be the same, and will constantly persevere (in blessing them), provided the Israelites do not degenerate, but remain devoted to their Deliverer; at the same time, He reminds them also, wherefore He has been so bountiful to them, viz., that they may continually aspire unto the end of their calling; for He had not willed to perform toward them a single act of liberality, but to purchase them as His peculiar, people. This privilege he sets before them in the word סגלה, segullah, which means all things most precious, whatever, in fact, is deposited in a treasury; although the word “peculium,” a peculiar possession, by which the old interpreter has rendered it, is not unsuitable to the passage; because it is plain from the immediate context, that it denotes the separation of this people from all others; since these words directly follow: “for,” or, although “all the earth is mine;” the particle כי, ki, being often taken adversatively, and there is no doubt but that God would more exalt His grace, by comparing this one nation with the whole world, as it is said in the song of Moses, “When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel; for the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (Deut. 32:8.) The sum then is, that whilst the whole earth is in God’s dominion, yet the race of Israel has been chosen by Him to excel all nations. Whence it is evident, that whereas the condition of all is alike, some are not distinguished from others by nature, but by gratuitous adoption; but, in order that they should abide in the possession of so great a blessing, fidelity towards God is required on their part. And, first, they are commanded to listen to his voice, (since no sacrifice is more pleasing to him than obedience, 1 Sam. 15:22;) and then a definition of obedience is added, viz., to keep His covenant.
6. And ye shall be unto me. He points out more clearly, and more at length, how the Israelites will be precious unto God; viz., because they will be for “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” By these words, he implies that they will be endowed with sacerdotal as well as royal honours; as much as to say, that they would not only be free, but also like kings, if they persevered in faith and obedience, since no kingdom is more desirable, or more happy, than to be the subjects of God. Moreover, he calls this “an holy kingdom,” because all the kingdoms of the world were then in heathenism; for the genitive, according to the usual idiom of the language, is put for an adjective, as if he had said, that they would enjoy not merely an earthly and transitory dominion, but also a sacred and heavenly one. Others understand it passively, that God would be their king; whilst mortals, and for the most part cruel tyrants, would rule over other nations. Though I do not altogether reject this sense, yet I rather prefer the other, to which also St. Peter leads us: for when the Jews, who by their refusal of Christ had departed from the covenant, still improperly gloried in this title, he claims this honour for the members of Christ only, saying, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood,” &c. (1 Pet. 2:9.) But the passive sense would not accord with these words, viz., that believers are subject to the priesthood of God, for the Apostle gracefully applies the words to take away the unacceptableness of novelty; as if he had said, God formerly promised to our fathers that they should be to Him for a royal priesthood. This privilege all, who separate themselves from Christ the Head, falsely lay claim to, since He alone makes us a royal priesthood. Meanwhile he teaches, by this apparent adaptation of the words, that what had been spoken by Moses is actually fulfilled. And, in fact, Christ appeared invested with the kingdom and the priesthood, that He might confer both of these privileges upon His members; whence it follows, that whosoever divorce themselves from Him, are unworthy of either honour, and are justly deprived of them. The nation is here called holy, not with reference to their piety or personal holiness, but as set apart from others by God by special privilege. Yet on this kind of sanctification the other depends, viz., that they who are exalted by God’s favour should cultivate holiness, and thus on their part sanctify God.
Ver. 5.—Now therefore. Instead of asking the simple question—“Will ye promise to obey me and keep my covenant?”—God graciously entices the Israelites to their own advantage by a most loving promise. If they will agree to obey his voice, and accept and keep his covenant, then they shall be to him a peculiar treasure (segullah)—a precious possession to be esteemed highly and carefully guarded from all that might injure it. (Compare Ps. 135:4; and see also Is. 43:1–4.) And this preciousness they shall not share with others on equal terms, but enjoy exclusively—it shall be theirs above all people. No other nation on the earth shall hold the position which they shall hold, or be equally precious in God’s sight. All the earth is his; and so all nations are his in a certain sense. But this shall not interfere with the special Israelite prerogative—they alone shall be his “peculiar people” (Deut. 14:2).
Ver. 6.—Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests. Or “a royalty of priests”—at once a royal and a priestly race—all of you at once both priests and kings. (So the LXX. render, βασίλειον ἱεράτευμα; the Targums of Onkelos and Jerusalem, “kings and priests;” that of Jonathan, “crowned kings and ministering priests.”) They would be “kings,” not only as “lords over death, the devil, hell, and all evil” (Luther), but also partly as having no earthly king set over them, but designed to live under a theocracy (1 Sam. 12:12), and partly as intended to exercise lordship over the heathen. Their unfaithfulness and disobedience soon forfeited both privileges. They would be “priests,” as entitled—each one of them—to draw near to God directly in prayer and praise, though not in sacrifice, and also as intermediaries between God and the heathen world, to whom they were to be examples, instructors, prophets. And an holy nation. A nation unlike other nations—a nation consecrated to God’s service, outwardly marked as his by the symbol of circumcision, his (if they chose) inwardly by the purity and holiness whereto they could attain. These are the words. Much speaking was not needed. The question was a very simple one. Would they accept the covenant or no, upon the conditions offered? It was not likely that they would reject such gracious proposals.
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