Promise and Obedience
Israel’s Missional Relationship to God in Exodus 19
Exodus 19 is a hinge that transitions us from the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt to the giving of Torah, the Law at Mount Sinai. From here, the story slows and focuses on the relationship between God and Israel. In fact, Israel remains at Sinai from Exodus 19 through the rest of Exodus, through all of Leviticus and the first ten chapters of Numbers. The time at Sinai is essential for the development of God’s relationship with Israel. It is the time where God reveals His Law to His people, and urges them to follow it in response to His mighty acts on their behalf. The milestone moment of Exodus 19:1–8 both summarizes the preceding narratives of God’s deliverance and looks ahead to the unfolding of His covenant law. The fact that this text gives us the hinge between the story of redemption and the giving of the law makes this a very important text for the unfolding of Israel’s relationship with God.
Exodus 19:1–8 first shows us that God’s relationship with Israel is rooted in God’s provision for His people. We learn in vv. 1–4 that it is three months to the day from Israel’s escape from Egypt. During this time, they have been journeying across the Red Sea and through the wilderness before arriving at Sinai. Earlier chapters have detailed the challenges and tribulations of the trek, but thanks to God’s provision, Israel has persevered. As they arrive at Sinai, Moses goes up the mountain to meet with God, who reminds him of His provision in verse 4, using the image of carrying His people on eagle’s wings. This metaphor calls to mind two ideas. The first is that of protection. The Old Testament uses the eagle as an example of a bird that cares for its weaker young (see Deut. 32:9–11). The second image that “eagle’s wings” conjures is that of a fierce bird of prey. Jeremiah twice uses the image of an eagle to describe God’s attack on a foreign nation. In the context of Israel’s deliverance from slavery, the dual images of the eagle as protector and rescuer, as well as a fierce bird of prey are both in play.
As God and Israel move towards a milestone moment in Exodus 19, it happens in the context of God’s faithful provision. God reminds Israel that she bore witness to the plagues that secured her freedom, as well as the deliverance at the Red Sea, and the provision of water, manna, and quail in Exodus 16–17. Throughout the journey, despite Israel’s complaints and fears, God has faithfully provided.
God’s relationship with Israel is rooted in the promises that God makes to His people in verses 5–6. Here we read that all the earth belongs to God, but out of all the peoples of the earth, He has chosen to enter into a relationship with Israel. The promise that unfolds in these verses is described using three different images: 1) a treasured possession; 2) a kingdom of priests; and 3) a holy nation. Each image contributes to revealing the divine purpose of the relationship between God and His people.
1. Treasured Possession
The first claim is that Israel will be a ‘treasured possession’ out of all the nations of the earth. This is probably a reference to royal treasure such as gold and precious stones. The same word describes David’s wealth and treasure in 1 Chronicles. Even though the whole world belongs to God, He has chosen Israel to be His special treasure, marking them for a relationship with God. Some compare this to Israel being like the Crown Jewels of the Queen of England or the like. It is a statement of just how much value and worth that God ascribes to His people. He maintains His claim over all the nations of the earth (since “all of the earth is mine” in v. 5), but Israel is a special treasured possession. In this we hear echoes of God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 where God promises that all nations on the earth will be blessed through Abraham and his descendants. God is faithful to His promises to Abraham and is working out His plan for the world through Abraham’s descendants. Because Israel is God’s treasured possession, they have important roles to fulfill if they are going to bring blessing to all nations.
2. Kingdom of Priests
The book of Leviticus details the nature of the sacrificial system through which Israel communed with God. At its heart were the priests, who performed the sacrifices, invoked the name of God, and helped to ensure the presence of God remained in communion with His people. This culminated in the Day of Atonement when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and cleanse the sin of the nation for the year. Thus, the first and primary job of the priests was to mediate the presence of God to His people, keeping the relationship alive. Next, priests instructed the people about God and how to serve Him. The priests were given the responsibility to teach the Law to the people (see Deut. 33:10).
Combining these ideas of mediation and instruction, we get a glimpse of God’s promise to Israel here in Exodus 19. Both mediation and instruction have an outward focus. The priests do not mediate God’s presence for themselves, nor do they teach the law of God just to themselves. They look outward, serving the broader community of the people of God who are called to worship Him. If Israel obeyed God’s commands, she would be the nation that mediated God’s presence and taught God’s law to other nations whom God also claims. Israel is God’s treasured possession, yes, but this does not cut God off from the rest of humanity. Instead, Israel as the kingdom of priests looks outward, where Israel’s obedience and mediation of God’s presence means that the surrounding nations would see God. This demonstrates God’s heart for all creation. He can use His special people to make all peoples see Him and His glory.
3. Holy Nation
God’s third promise is that Israel would be a “holy nation.” This implies that Israel will be consecrated to God’s service by avoiding the activities, beliefs, and habits of the other nations that would make them unholy. Lev. 19:2 expands on this and calls on Israel to “be holy, because I am holy.” This holiness is then expressed in many realms, including Israel’s diet, freedom from idolatry, respect in family relationship, and sexual purity. Holiness even encompasses ethical behavior such as showing concern for the widow, orphan and foreigner. Consequently, holiness is not an opportunity for Israel to be “holier-than-thou.” This holiness, and Israel as a holy nation, means that they are consecrated to the service of God, which was to have an impact beyond Israel itself.
God’s relationship with Israel is rooted primarily in His provision and then His promises. God called Israel to Himself and provided for them so that they would be His treasured possession, His kingdom of priests, and His holy nation, who would mediate His presence here on earth. The milestone moment on Mt. Sinai promises a deep and interconnected relationship between God and His people that lays the foundation for blessing the entire world.
The relationship between Israel and God is rooted in obedience. Ex. 19:1–8 ends on a high note. We read that Moses summoned the elders, representing the nation, and that the people respond in faith and obedience. “All that the Lord has said, we will do!” This milestone moment, this affirmation of the covenant relationship between God and Israel receives nothing less than the full-throated support of the people of God.
Now of course, it is important to remember that this high point of faith and commitment of Israel to God’s command is not the norm. In only a few short chapters, Israel is going to abandon this commitment and worship the golden calf. Throughout the biblical narrative, Israel struggles to live up to the commitment made here in this milestone moment, and only through the grace of God does the relationship stay intact. The story of Israel on the other side of Sinai is filled with disobedience, idolatry, and moral failure. But, it is also a story of God’s continued faithfulness and commitment to His people. He raises up judges who protect Israel from its enemies. He chooses David, a man after God’s own heart, to redeem the idea of kingship through his obedience to God’s calling. He provides prophets who speak His words and continually implore Israel to return to the obedience they displayed at Sinai. Through these prophets, God even uses Israel as a witness to other nations. Elijah restores to life the son of the widow of Zarephath, Elisha cleanses Namaan the Syrian army commander from leprosy. Jonah’s preaching even brings repentance to Nineveh (much to his own chagrin)!
Ultimately, God continues to work out His purposes for Israel even as they disobey His commands. God refuses to abandon the people whom He called to be His treasured possession, His kingdom of priests, and His holy nation.
So, what is our response? How does the church of Jesus Christ respond to provision, promises, and obedience found in the relationship between God and Israel cemented at Sinai, so long ago?
Our first and best answer is to see how this passage plays out in the rest of Scripture. In 1 Peter 2:9–10, the apostle writes to the New Testament church of Jesus Christ and urges them to offer their lives as acceptable sacrifices. Peter goes on to encourage the church to live good lives among non-believers so that, even if they are accused of evildoing, their character and witness will speak for themselves. In the context of the church proclaiming the resurrected Christ in the middle of a hostile world, Peter takes the promises of Exodus 19 and tells his audience that the church is the continuation of the relationship between God and Israel. He says, once you were not a people; you were Jews, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Galatians, or Macedonians. Once you had not received mercy, but now, by God’s grace and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, you are a people—God’s people! You have received mercy and forgiveness for sins that frees you to proclaim the kingdom of God.
In this way, the church of Jesus Christ shares in the promised relationship between God and Israel in Exodus 19. We are the recipients of God’s provision, perhaps not in redemption from literal slavery, but in a relationship with a God who numbers every hair on our head and hears the cries of those who call out. The church receives the promises of Exodus 19: The church is God’s treasured possession, His kingdom of priests, and His holy nation.
Just as Israel was set apart as God’s treasured possession whom He had nurtured and protected on the way out of Egypt, so the church has the promise that it is something that God treasures and preserves. The church is the treasure that God claims, beginning with Peter himself, as Jesus proclaims in Matt 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Just as Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests, mediating the divine presence to the surrounding nations and instructing them in the laws of God, so the church is called to mediate Christ and His kingdom throughout the world. Sometimes our gaze can become too focused internally, on mediating the presence of Christ amongst ourselves, and forgetting the outward vision of the kingdom. To maintain the promise of the “kingdom of priests” our focus must once again be directed beyond ourselves to our communities, and the opportunities that God has granted us to be “salt and light” among them. Consider where you can mediate the presence of God by proclaiming His Word, by showing grace, mercy, and compassion to those who need it most, making the gospel come alive in our communities. We are a kingdom of priests, and God intends for our “kingdom” to encompass every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Just as Israel was called to set herself apart, and be devoted fully to God, so the church is called to be holy: set apart in behavior and belief. We know that salvation comes only from Jesus Christ, His perfect sacrifice, and the power of the resurrection. However, obedience to God reflects our heavenly citizenship, and the Lord calls upon us not to conform to the world and its sinful standards, but to be transformed and more Christ-like. This is not easy. On one end lurks the spectre of legalism, on the other, that of losing the gospel to cultural accommodation. But as individuals and as churches, we need to take seriously the call of Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2—God calls us to holiness. This sets the church apart from the excesses of the surrounding world, while also having our hearts broken for people who need to know the holy God of the universe.
Exodus 19:1–8 gives us the story of God and Israel preparing to enter into covenant relationship. Israel remembers God’s provision, clings to His promises, and commits to respond in obedience. This is a key moment in God’s redemption story, where the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are confirmed in His continued commitment to Israel. In response, following the teaching of Peter, we reflect on God’s provision in making us, who once were not a people, to be the people of God. We revel in the assurance of being God’s treasured possession, and take on the challenge of mediating His presence to the world as His kingdom of priests and His holy nation. May the response of the children of God today be the same as the response of the children of God at Sinai so long ago. May we join with Israel, declaring, “All that the LORD has said, we will do.”
Dr. Joel Barker is an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Heritage College and Seminary and also teaches as an adjunct at Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College.