In a previous post I discussed the election of Israel to be God’s special people. The election of Israel to be God’s special possession took place when he called Abraham to leave his country to go to a land that eventually would belong to him and to his descendants.
The election of Israel as God’s people was reaffirmed with the establishment of a covenant between God and Israel on Mount Sinai. It was at that time that Israel received instructions about its mission as the people of God.
The mission of Israel in the world is expressed succinctly in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
These words of God to Israel describe three different aspects of Israel’s mission. First, as the elect people of God, Israel has a special relationship with God because of their call and deliverance from Egypt. This relationship is expressed by the demands of the covenant. The covenant is a document that places the people of Israel under legal obligation to obey the demands which the covenant imposed upon them.
Second, as the special people of God, Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests. Third, as God’s special possession, Israel was called to be a paradigm to the other nations of the world.
The covenant between God and Israel was a suzerainty covenant, the type of covenant which required Israel to obey God’s demands. If Israel would obey God’s voice and keep his covenant, then Israel would become God’s special possession among all nations.
This requirement to obey the demands of the covenant came as a result of Israel’s decision to be God’s people and to carry out his mission in the world. The people responded to God’s demands with a commitment to obedience: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). Israel’s decision to follow God was a response to his love and grace.
Thus, when the people of Israel agreed to obey God’s law, their decision was a response to what God had done by calling Abraham and by redeeming them from their slavery in Egypt. This commitment to obedience was the foundation of the election of Israel and the basis for their mission in the world.
Israel was called to be an obedient people. Israel’s mission and destiny as God’s people in the world required them to obey God’s laws. Israel was to be different from all the other nations because Israel was chosen by the Lord to receive the promises he had made to the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 7:6-9). God redeemed the people from their bondage in Egypt in order to bind Israel exclusively to himself so that the nation could carry out God’s work in the world.
In addition to its legal responsibility to obey the demands of the covenant, Israel was also called to be a kingdom of priests. The mission of Israel as a kingdom of priests was to teach and instruct the nations about the nature of the true God. The author of the book of Malachi describes the ministry of the priests as follows: “For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge of sacred things, and people should seek instruction from him because he is the messenger of the LORD” (Malachi 2:7 NET).
In its mission to teach the nations, Israel had several religious distinctives that served as the basis for its message. First, Israel’s religion was to be focused on the worship of one God and one God only: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). However this commandment was understood, the worship of the God of Israel excluded the worship of other gods.
Second, the religion of Israel was to be aniconic: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5).
Aniconism made Israel’s religion different from the other religions of the Ancient Near East since most of them made graphic representations of their many gods, either as human beings, animals, or objects of nature.
Third, Israel should remember that God had entered its history to deliver them from Egyptian slavery. The memory of their deliverance became the basis for the treatment of the members of the covenant community (Deuteronomy 16:12).
Finally, Israel had a special history to tell the nations. Never before in the history of other nations had a God chosen to reveal himself in the way God revealed himself to Israel on Mount Sinai. This great act of salvation was also part of the message Israel was to teach to the nations.
Israel’s understanding of God, their religious practices, and their humane laws were to serve as a paradigm to the nations of the world. Just as the priests instructed the nation of their religious, legal, and moral responsibility to God, so Israel was to teach the nations.
The function of the priest in Israel was to be a minister of God and to lead the people in the worship of God. Thus, if Israel was to be a kingdom of priests, then the people as a whole were to serve God and minister to those nations around them and to all nations of the world.
As a people selected to be a special possession of God, Israel had a legal responsibility to respond in obedience to the demands of the covenant, a spiritual requirement to be a kingdom of priests, and an ethical responsibility to be a holy nation.
Israel, as a people of God, was called to be a holy nation: “And the LORD said to Moses,
‘Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel, You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy’” (Leviticus 19:1). As the people of God, Israel was called to be a paradigm to the rest of the world in respect to ethical living.
Israel’s call to holiness required ethical living. The laws Israel received at Sinai could be enforced by various penalties. However, the spiritual element of Israel’s call, to be a kingdom of priests, could only be enforced by ethical living. The holiness to which Israel was called required total submission to the will of God and a participation in the very nature of God. Israel was to be more than a mere representative of God to the nations. They were to reflect the deepest spiritual and ethical qualities of God himself. Thus, as the people of God, Israel’s mission was threefold: legal in responsibility, spiritual in practice, and holy in nature.
The election of Israel to be God’s people and its mission to the nations made Israel a unique nation with a unique destiny. It is within the context of Israel’s election and mission that the work of the prophets and the religious contribution of Israel to the world must be understood.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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