Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, as instructed by Yahweh (Exodus 13-15). However, the journey was difficult, and the people complained often. They complained about the threat of Egyptian soldiers at the Red Sea (Exodus 14)—and bitter water at Marah (15:22-27)—and the lack of bread and meat (Exodus 16)—and the lack of water at Rephidim (17:1-7). In each instance, Yahweh responded by giving them what they needed—deliverance at the Red Sea—sweet water at Marah—manna and quail—and water at Rephidim.
Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law) saw Moses trying to serve as judge for all the people and advised Moses to appoint able men to serve as “rulers of thousands, hundreds, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (18:21). Moses did so, which made his task much more manageable.
Then, “In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai” (19:1). That wilderness is the area near Mount Sinai—we don’t know its exact boundaries. It is called a wilderness because it is desert. There is little in the desert to sustain life—and certainly not enough to sustain the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The Israelites are now completely dependent on Yahweh for their survival.
EXODUS 19:2-6. IF YOU OBEY MY VOICE AND KEEP MY COVENANT
2When they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mountain. 3Moses went up to God, and Yahweh called to him out of the mountain, saying, “This is what you shall tell the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 4‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession (Hebrew: segulla) from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; 6and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy (Hebrew: qadosh) nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
“When they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness“ (v. 2a). As noted above, the wilderness of Sinai is the area around the mountain. It is a desert wilderness rather than a forest wilderness—an inhospitable place for human habitation.
“and there Israel encamped before the mountain” (v. 2b). Mountains tend to be visible for long distances—fifty miles or more—so “before the mountain” need not necessarily indicate that the Israelites are at the very base of the mountain. However, given the events that follow, it seems likely that they establish their camp close to the mountain. They will remain in this location for more than ten months (Numbers 10:11).
This is the same mountain where Moses received his original commission from Yahweh (3:1-7). There it was identified as “God’s mountain, Horeb” (3:1), but Horeb and Sinai are different names for the same mountain.
In both Old and New Testaments, mountains are places where people encounter God and/or experience some sort of revelation from God:
• At Mount Sinai, Moses will stand in Yahweh’s presence and receive the commandments.
• Later, Moses will die at Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 32:49-50).
• Elijah will defeat the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18).
• Solomon will build his first temple at Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3), and will build the famous temple at Mount Zion (1 Kings 6).
• Jesus will be revealed in all his glory at the Mount of Transfiguration (traditionally identified as Mount Tabor) (Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9; 2 Peter 1:16-18).
• Prior to his death, Jesus will pray with his disciples at the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39).
“Moses went up to God, and Yahweh called to him out of the mountain, saying, This is what you shall tell the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel'” (v. 3). Stuart sees this verse as poetic in its construction.
• The first two phrases (each ten syllables in the Hebrew language) make the same point—that Moses went up the mountain to meet with God.
• Stuart sees the word “saying” as a hinge between the first two phrases and the last two phrases.
• The last two phrases (each seven syllables in the Hebrew language) make the same point—that Yahweh told Moses to report to Jacob-Israel (two words referring to the same people) all that Yahweh reveals to Moses.
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians” (v. 4a). This refers to the ten plagues that Yahweh visited on the Egyptians and the drowning of pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. The plagues persuaded pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt, and the drowning of pharaoh’s army prevented the Egyptians from re-capturing the Israelites. Both were salvation stories.
“and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself” (v. 4b). This refers to their journey from slavery in Egypt to Yahweh’s presence at Sinai. Once again, it is a series of salvation stories, from the Red Sea to Marah to Rephidim and finally to Sinai.
“eagles’ wings” are a metaphor for strength and majesty (see also Deuteronomy 28:49; 32:11; Job 9:26; Isaiah 40:31). We often see eagles from our house—usually at a distance. Even at a distance, they are magnificent as the soar effortlessly above the water search for prey. Occasionally, we see an eagle soaring low above our yard. Those are “hold your breath” moments—like having a large plane thunder over your roof—except that the eagle soars silently and effortlessly.
Some years ago, we were visiting a trout hatchery in the California hills when an eagle suddenly swooped down to scoop up a trout from the water only a few feet from us. We had no idea what was happening, and it was like an explosion in our midst. A lead weight couldn’t have dropped so quickly out of the sky. This was powered flight—a dive-bombing eagle.
Later, we remembered hearing the eagle’s wings shattering the air—but we heard them only for an instant. And we remembered the eagle striking the water and grabbing the fish—that was the explosion. And then the eagle was once again high in the sky. The whole process took only a couple of seconds. The eagle’s power was awe-inspiring—and just a bit frightening. What if it had been after a pet dog or a cat or a baby? We would have had no defense whatsoever.
But the power of eagles is nothing compared to Yahweh’s power—and it is Yahweh who has saved Israel again and again and again.
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession (segulla) from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine” (v. 5). A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Essentially legal contracts, covenants typically describe what is required of each of the parties and the benefits that each can expect to enjoy.
In a relationship between two parties of unequal power, the more powerful person is in a position to dictate the terms of the covenant. In keeping with this reality, God always initiated covenants with people and established their terms. However, unlike most human covenants where the terms would favor the more powerful party, covenants between God and humans were generous to the humans.
The first covenant was established by God with Noah, and promised that “all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11).
The next covenant was established between God and Abram. God required of Abram that he leave his father’s house and go to the land that God would show him. In return, God promised to make of Abram a great nation and to bless him and to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). While the word covenant was not used in that transaction, it bears the marks of a covenant, because God outlined what Abram would have to do and what God would do for Abram. Later, God covenanted to give the land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates to Abram (Genesis 15:18). Still later, God covenanted with Abram to make him the father of many nations, even though Abram was old and had no children other than Ishmael, his son by a slave woman. As part of the covenant, God promised to give Abram the land of Canaan. God required Abram to observe circumcision for himself and for all his male progeny and members of his household, including slaves (Genesis 17:1-14).
Now Yahweh summarizes the responsibilities and promises associated with the covenant. Israel’s responsibility is to obey Yahweh. If they will do that, Yahweh will make them “my own possession” (segulla) among all of the peoples.
This word segulla apparently refers “to a king’s personal treasury, in distinction from what we might call the public purse” (Janzen, J. Gerald). While a king would be jealous of his prerogatives over public funds, he would value his personal funds even more highly. When Yahweh says that he will make Israel “my segulla among all peoples,” he is not promising to make Israel his only cherished people, but is promising to cherish them above all the peoples.
“and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy (qadosh) nation” (v. 6a). Yahweh instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that, if they obey his voice (v. 5a), they will become two things:
1. Israel will be “a kingdom of priests.” The Israelites will have priests of their own (the priesthood has not yet been established). Aaron will be the first priest (28:1ff). These priests will handle sacred responsibilities such as sacrificial offerings, and will serve as intermediaries between God and humans. One example of the latter duty was the entrance by the high priest into the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement to purify the people and make them fit once again to be God’s people.
However, this phrase, “a kingdom of priests,” suggests that there is a sense in which Israel as a nation also constitutes a priesthood. The question then arises: Why would a nation with a substantial corps of priests need to be ordained to the priesthood as a nation? The answer is that, just as the priests are responsible for the sacred affairs of their nation so that Israel will continue as a holy nation—so, also, will the nation of Israel be ordained as “a priestly kingdom” to serve the religious needs of other nations—to model holy living—to witness to Yahweh’s glory and majesty and power—to bring people from other nations into a saving relationship with Yahweh.
We see this function spelled out in the original covenant between Yahweh and Abram. In that covenant, Yahweh called Abram to leave his father’s house and go where Yahweh would direct him. In return Yahweh promised: “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you“(Genesis 12:3—emphasis added). That responsibility of the Israelites to the Gentiles will be emphasized in various places in the Hebrew Scriptures. One example is God’s call to Jonah to witness to the Ninevites.
Israel will be “a holy (qadosh) nation.” How could a nation called to be a “a kingdom of priests” be anything other than holy? Israel must be holy, because Yahweh is holy (Leviticus 19:2). We know that Israel often failed to live up to this calling—and Yahweh surely understood that they would do so—and yet holiness is the calling to which Yahweh calls Israel.
There is an emphasis on holiness in the Hebrew Scriptures that begins with the account of Moses at the burning bush. There God told Moses, “Don’t come close. Take your sandals off of your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). That verse gives us a clue to the meaning of holiness. Nothing could seem more common and less holy than ordinary dirt, but the Lord told Moses that the ordinary dirt on which he was standing was holy ground. While that verse doesn’t say so in so many words, it implies that the ground on which Moses is standing is holy because of the presence of God. God is holy, and God’s presence sanctifies all that it touches—even the soil beneath Moses’ feet.
That burning bush episode further tells us that God expects people who find themselves in holy circumstances to respond by acting reverently in the presence of the holy. In the burning bush episode, Moses was to demonstrate his reverence by maintaining a distance between himself and the burning bush. He was also to take off his sandals to show reverence for the holy ground on which he found himself standing.
The Hebrew word, qadosh, means holy in the sense that God has set aside a person or thing for a holy purpose. Thus the sabbath is holy, because God established the sabbath as a day of rest and worship. The tabernacle and temple are holy, because God set them aside as places for people to worship and to experience the presence of God. Priests and Levites are holy because God set them apart for his service. And Israel is holy because God chose Israel to be God’s covenant people.
“These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel” (v. 6b). Yahweh tells Moses to give Yahweh’s words to the Israelites—to all the people.
EXODUS 19:7-8a. ALL THAT YAHWEH HAS SPOKEN WE WILL DO
7Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which Yahweh commanded him. 8All the people answered together, and said, “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.”
“Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which Yahweh commanded him” (v. 7). While Yahweh commanded Moses to give his words to all the Israelites, Moses calls the elders together to give the words to them. This is not an act of disobedience. If Moses tried to address all the Israelites in one group, only the few thousand people at the front of the crowd could hear him. It he assembled one thousand people at a time to give them Yahweh’s words, it would take him years to complete the task. The only feasible way for Moses to carry out his task is to tell the elders what Yahweh has told him—and to allow the elders to take that word to the particular groups under their care.
“All the people answered together, and said, ‘All that Yahweh has spoken we will do'” (v. 8a). While Moses spoke only to the elders, all the people respond that they will do what Yahweh requires. This constitutes their formal acceptance of the covenant terms stipulated by Yahweh in verses 5-6. However, as we will see, the Israelites will keep their part of the covenant only sporadically and imperfectly.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bruckner, James K. New International Biblical Commentary: Exodus (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008)
Brueggemann, Walter, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Childs, Brevard S., The Old Testament Library: Exodus (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1974)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Craghan, John F., Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Book of Exodus (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1985)
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Exodus (Dallas: Word, Inc., 1987)
Durham, John I., Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 3 (Dallas, Word Books, 1987)
Fretheim, Terence E., Interpretation Commentary: Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
Janzen, J. Gerald, Westminster Bible Companion: Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Janzen, Waldemar, Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Exodus (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987)
Rawlinson, George, The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis-Exodus, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date given)
Stuart, Douglas K., The New American Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan