“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6).
These words of Yahweh appear at the beginning of the Sinai pericope, within the context of the theophany in which Yahweh reveals himself to the Israelites on Mount Sinai after the people left Egypt. The theophany on Sinai was the climax of Israel’s journey out of Egypt. These words of Exodus 19:4-6 encapsulate God’s purpose for Israel as it begins to live as the people of God in the world.
Yahweh had redeemed the Israelites from bondage, brought them to the mountain on which he had appeared to Moses and now he was providing Israel with an understanding of what he expected from them as a redeemed people.
After redeeming Israel from Egypt, Yahweh was about to establish a special relationship with the nation. Because of God’s mighty act of redemption, Israel would become God’s treasured possession among the nations and would carry out God’s mission in the world as a priestly kingdom in order proclaim God’s glory and mediate God’s blessings to all families of the earth.
By becoming a holy nation at the service of a holy God, Israel would demonstrate to the nations what it means to serve the true God. In the text cited above, verse 4 describes Israel’s redemption from Egypt. Israel’s redemption serves as the basis for all that follows. By redeeming Israel from Egypt, Yahweh became her savior and protector. Verses 5 and 6 detail what God expected from Israel and the nature of the relationship God was establishing with the nation. These verses are pivotal for the proper understanding of the existence of Israel and its mission in the world.
This text also provides the proper understanding of Israel’s future in the Promised Land. This declaration that Moses was to present to the people of Israel had special significance because it expressed a new perspective in the relationship that began with the call of Abraham. These words clarify the unique identity of Israel as the people of God.
The history of Israel as God’s special people in the world begins here. Israel’s destiny as a special people will be based on the degree of fidelity with which Israel adheres her vocation as the people of God.
The words of Yahweh to Israel are a reaffirmation of the promise God made to Abraham and of the covenant God established with him. In clarifying Israel’s mission in the world, God was confirming the promises he made to Abraham. Israel was to have a special mission to the nations. The universal mission which Israel received at Sinai was a reformulation of what God told Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3:
“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Genesis 12:1-3).
God promised Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation. God also affirmed that Abraham’s descendants would have an intimate relationship with him. In addition, God told Abraham that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
In Genesis 12:1-3 God shows his love for all the nations; in Exodus 19: 4-6, God shows his special love for a particular people. The establishment of God’s relationship with Israel began with the proclamation of God’s mighty acts of behalf of Israel (v. 4); it follows with the declaration of the conditions that will be the basis for this new relationship (vv. 5-6), and concludes with the response of the people and their commitment to God’s demands (vv. 7-8).
The three terms in Exodus 19: 4-6, “treasured possession,” “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation” are key terms which help clarify the scope of Israel’s mission in the world. These three terms are integrally related, for one cannot exist without the other two. The three terms are to be interpreted in relation to each other.
The first term “treasured possession” defines Israel’s relationship with God. The Hebrew word segullah means “personal property.” This means that Israel was God’s personal possession: “For the LORD has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel as his own possession” (Psalm 135:4).
The second term, “a kingdom of priests” means that Israel was consecrated to the service of God. Since the priest was an intermediary between God and the people, Israel was to be God’s representative to the nations. Israel was also to stand before God on behalf of the nations. Israel’s mission was to bring God’s light to the nations and to bring the nations closer to God.
The third term “a holy nation” expresses Israel’s special calling. Israel was set apart to become a holy people in the service of a holy God.
The election of Israel to be God’s special people must be understood in relation to God’s purpose to redeem the world. Israel was redeemed to become God’s own people. Because of its intimate relationship with God, Israel became a “holy nation.” Israel’s mission in the world was to be a kingdom of priests. Yahweh made Israel his special nation to serve as his instrument in bringing redemption to all the nations of the world.
Israel was called to be a witness to the world. Because God is the creator of the whole world, God has a special concern for the nations of the world. All the nations of the world need to experience his redemptive power in the same way Israel experienced God’s redemption from Egypt.
God’s purpose for all the nations of the world is for them to participate together with Israel in the blessings of salvation. When the nations join Israel in the worship of God, then the prophetic vision will become a reality:
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants . . . these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary