Exodus: Israel’s Unique Identity

Israel’s identity as a chosen people is linked to its mission.

Jabal Musa in the Sinai wilderness, traditional site of Mount Sinai.

With chapter 19, the Book of Exodus marks a momentous moment in the story of Israel’s liberation. The people have arrived at Mount Sinai.* There Israel will accept its new identity, which will also be its new mission in the world at large.

Once at the mountain, Moses ascends it to meet with God. God shares with Moses the proposition that God will present to the people of Israel. God has selected Israel out of all the nations of the earth to be his treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). 

What does that honor mean? It means Israel will be given a special mission among the nations of the world. The text delineates that mission in two phrases (Exodus 19:6):

  • Israel is to be a priestly kingdom (as translated by the NRSV). Another translation could be a kingdom of priests.
  • Israel is to be a holy nation.

These two phrases are not singling out a select group within Israel for these two missions. They are conferred upon the whole people. 

Israel will go on to set apart a particular group of men to preside and serve at the people’s worship and sacrifices and to instruct the people in God’s law. That select group will come to define the functions of priesthood. But in Exodus 19:6 the particular mission of priests is extended to include the whole people, and not just the designated priests alone. Israel as a people will function as priests on behalf of all the peoples of the earth. 

In the life envisioned for Israel, the sacred and the secular will never be fully divided. The binary life will be transformed into a unitary life.

Also Israel is to be a holy nation or people. Their way of living is to reflect the holiness of the God who has chosen them. In the way they live their lives and conduct their affairs in the world, they are to reflect God’s ways. And how are we to understand God’s holy ways? That will become clearer in the chapters ahead (and in the rest of the Pentateuch) as Moses spells out the laws that are to govern Israel’s life.

Note that holiness, however, will not be limited to just cultic actions in the context of worship. It will embrace the wholeness of life–in all its family, political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions. In the life envisioned for Israel, the sacred and the secular will never be fully divided. The binary life will be transformed into a unitary life.

Bringing God’s Blessing to the World

God is giving Israel this unique mission not so Israel can stand as superiorly privileged in contrast to all the other nations of the world. They are not given the role of ruling the world. (That is the role Rome will later claim, as is clear from a reading of The Aeneid, Rome’s great national epic.). 

Instead, the creation of Israel serves a far larger purpose of God. Through Israel God intends to bring God’s blessing to all the world. This is emphasized by the phrase indeed, the whole earth is mine (Exodus 19:5). The Biblical scholar Terence Fretheim suggests that the import of the word indeed is because. He goes on to say: Israel is commissioned to be God’s people on behalf of the earth which is God’s.**

This gives a special cast to the concept of chosenness. Israel is given a special honor indeed. Israel is to be a kingdom of priests. But that honor is not understood as a privilege of superiority, but as an honor of service. So as priests preside in cultic events throughout the world (in all religions) on behalf of the people they serve, so Israel is to provide a kind of priestly service on behalf of the nations of the world. And their service is tied up with the holiness of their way of living. They are to manifest to the world the way of life that mirrors God’s ways in the world. 

If they fulfill this mission well, they will experience their life as a nation in which all Israelites experience the blessings of shalom—the blessings of personal and national well-being and of an inner, social, and spiritual harmony with God and neighbor. This life will become so alluring to other peoples that they will want to learn how the Israelites do it.*** Thus the blessings of God’s shalom will be shared throughout the world.

That seems to be the understanding of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 2:3:

	Many peoples shall come and say,
	“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
		to the house of the God of Jacob;
	that he may teach us his ways
		and that we may walk in his paths.”
	For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
		and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Unfortunately for the prophets like Isaiah, historic Israel has botched its mission by a way of life that is manifestly not consistent with the way of God, as outlined in the Torah. So he places the fulfillment of the mission in the future, in days to come.

What I think we need to notice in this conception of the role of Israel in the world is that the emphasis moves strongly to the side of responsibility over privilege. Indeed one might say: Is not the responsibility in fact a burden? The great Jewish rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is not afraid to use that word in describing the mission of the Jewish people. He writes:

The sages tell us that when we become a holy people and a nation of priests, we accepted ‘the burden of the kingdom of heaven.’ This expression shows that accepting the sovereignty of heaven is not a matter of uttering a watchword or expressing enthusiasm. On the contrary, even an agreement in principle means the acceptance of a burden that is not at all easy or comfortable.  

God’s Proposal to Israel

Two other things need to be noted about the account that Exodus 19 gives. First, this mission is offered to Israel as a consequence of its liberation from Egypt. Israel is not offered it as a prerequisite of liberation. Rather God has liberated Israel first, and now God offers this unique mission as a further development of the relationship that was established first with Abraham and now with all the people through their liberation from Egyptian bondage. 

That liberation was an expression of love. That comes through in God’s words: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself (Exodus 19:4). We find by reference to a passage in Deuteronomy 32:10-13, that the import of the imagery of the eagle is to focus our attention on the motherhood of God. Throughout its wanderings in the wilderness, God has been hovering over the people as a mother eagle hovers over her young and feeds and protects them. It is a loving God who invites Israel into this mission, not a rapacious deity. God’s loving grace precedes God’s call to a holy life.

Second, God does not impose this mission on Israel without Israel’s consent. The text uses the language of condition. The text reads God saying: Now therefore, IF you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. (Exodus 19:5). Israel has the choice of accepting this role in the world.††

In verse 8, we find Israel accepting God’s proposition. Moses sets before the people the offer God has made. And the text says: The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.

What is striking about Israel’s acceptance is that Israel accepts even before the people know the specifics of what it means to obey the voice of God and to keep the covenant…Israel will have to trust that what God comes to ask them to do will be an expression of his motherly love.

One might envision this as a proposal of marriage. God has proposed to Israel. Israel has accepted. They are now betrothed. The marriage will be sealed in chapter 24, with the sealing of the covenant. 

This pact between God and Israel will be known in the Bible as the covenant. It carries both rights and responsibilities. And it will become the organizing principle of Israel’s religious and national life. Violations of this pact will become consequential chapters in the life of Israel, bringing national disaster.

Extension of Israel’s Mission to the Christian Church

I cannot leave this text, however, without acknowledging its influence not only on Jewish thought, but also on Christian thought. The most striking example comes in the First Letter of Peter in the New Testament. The apostle writes to scattered Christian communities in Asia Minor. He writes to encourage them, but also to remind them of their responsibilities. 

In verses 2:9-10, we find himself saying to these communities of Christians:

…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Here the language of Exodus 19 is applied to the Christian community. How can he do that? I think the only legitimate way he can do so is if he understands these Christians as adopted and extended members of the people of God. And as members of God’s people they share in the mission of historic Israel.

In sharing that mission, Christians share with Jews in the burden. For anytime our life as individuals or as church communities fall short of the holy standards we express, we bring discredit not only on ourselves, but also on the loving power and powerful love of God. Hypocrisy is the constant sin that haunts a religious vocation. 


* There is no scholarly agreement on the location of Mount Sinai. Long standing tradition identifies it with Jabal Musain the middle of the Sinai. Interestingly, the Israelites never established any commemorative shrine at the site of the mountain, nor was it ever a goal of pilgrimage. That awaited Christian action, with the establishment of the monastery of St. Catherine in the 6th century A.D.

** Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation Commentary Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. Page 212.

*** We see a similar dynamic at work in many business self-help books on the market. The authors focus on a particular company or companies, try to analyze their secrets for success, and then hold up those success strategies for others to emulate and copy.

**** Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005. Page 150.

† I have specially highlighted the word if to make this point clear.

†† What is striking about Israel’s acceptance is that Israel accepts even before the people know the specifics of what it means to obey the voice of God and to keep the covenant. The Ten Commandments as well as the rest of the Torah law have not yet been given to Israel. Israel will have to trust that what God comes to ask them to do will be an expression of his motherly love. Is this not the experience of Christians as well when they accept baptism and incorporation into the people of God which constitutes the church? We accept God’s grace without knowing the full consequences that acceptance will have for our lives. 

The Warning Light Is Glaring Bright

American Christianity is following in the footsteps of ancient Israel.

I am taking this post to depart momentarily from my series on the book of Exodus. I do so to call attention to a recent article published in Atlantic magazine by the author Peter Wehner. It is titled: The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart: Christians must reclaim Jesus from his church.

I do so to recommend your reading it. There is a serious crisis going on in America’s evangelical churches. They are being torn apart by politics and cultural issues taking priority over Jesus and the gospel. You may not agree with Wehner, but I think he is right on target in analyzing what’s happening in the evangelical world, and to some degree in American Christianity as a whole. Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are not immune to these kinds of factional forces.

When I read an analysis like this, my mind goes back to the Hebrew prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They picture an ancient Israel that placed Israelite nationalism, spiritual complacency, prosperity, and the worship of false gods/values above the values of justice, righteousness, and a compassionate commonwealth. The prophets called for a radical change of mindset and of public spirit. 

The Israelites ignored their prophets. In fact, partisans within both kingdoms fought strongly to silence the prophets. The result? Both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had no strength to resist invading foreign powers. They were wiped off the political map of the Middle East. 

We encounter a similar story in the Judean/Galilean commonwealth of the mid-1st century. Political and religious factionalism tore that commonwealth apart, leading to the launch of a disastrous revolt against Rome. It resulted in the fall and destruction of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple.

Factionalism played an important role in that downfall. We get the sense in ancient accounts of the siege of Jerusalem* that terrorizing factions within the city may have done as much to ensure the city’s fall as did the besieging Romans. 

I fear something similar awaits American Christianity as a whole if it continues in the ways that we see today. Today’s Christians will so discredit the name of Christianity that future generations will eschew anything containing the Christian label. We will have produced a spiritual antibody in the public spirit that will ensure future stalwart resistance to anything Christian.** 

The more I read the Hebrew Bible, the more I come to believe that it is essential reading for interpreting our own spiritual condition accurately. 


* The most extensive account of the revolt and the fall of Jerusalem is the account given by Josephus in his The Jewish War.

** Something like this happened in the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment values like rationalism, promotion of science, and rejection of supernaturalism were in part spiritual reactions to the violence and religious wars of the Reformation.

Exodus: Antidote to Burn-out

Moses received needed advice from a trusted source: His father-in-law.

Meeting of Moses and Jethro by James Tissot, 19th century

As Israel moves deeper into the Sinai wilderness, we see Moses make a mistake common to inexperienced leaders: he tries to do it all (Exodus 18). He is leader of the march. He serves as Israel’s delegate in consultations with God. He sits as judge in resolving disputes among the people.

As Israel arrives at Mount Sinai, Moses receives a trusted visitor, his father-in-law, the Midianite priest and tribal leader, Jethro. Jethro has heard of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and of the exploits of his son-in-law. He comes to hear about them in person. He brings with him Moses’s wife and two sons, so the family can be reunited. 

Moses tells Jethro about all God has done in Egypt. Jethro breaks into a praise blessing of God. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods… he declares (Exodus 18:11).

A Perceptive Observer

Jethro also observes as Moses goes about his daily leadership duties. He notes that Moses is trying to do everything. Jethro recognizes that Moses’ routine is a formula for early burn-out. He decides a word of caution is needed.

He counsels his son-in-law to share his duties with other capable assistants, especially in the onerous work of judging disputes among the people. Moses has been trying to settle each case personally, spending precious energy on an endless task. People are waiting for long times to hear their cases brought before the judge. Impatience may cause them to lose confidence in Moses and his leadership. Also judging disputes is diverting Moses from other important duties.

Jethro advises that Moses select competent subordinates to handle many routine cases, reserving only major issues to come to Moses’ decision. Not only will this save Moses’ energy, but it will allow Moses to devote his attention to the indispensable job of consultation with God and instruction of the people. Moses sees the wisdom of Jethro’s advice and puts it into practice.  

I find it interesting that the challenge Moses faces is the same challenge that the apostles face in the infant church, as described in Acts 6:1-6. There the apostles are spending precious energy ensuring that members of the small community are getting fed with daily meals. This waiting on tables diverts them from other important work.

So they propose that the community select seven men to oversee these acts of daily administration so the apostles can devote themselves to their important work of prayer and preaching/teaching. The church chose what we know as the first seven deacons. 

Wisdom from the Outsider

Division of labor was a needed innovation in both infant communities.

But what I also find interesting in the Exodus account is that this innovation is not suggested to Moses by God, but by someone outside of the faith community of Israel. Jethro may recognize and praise God, but Jethro is a not a member of the community nor a beneficiary of the liberation from Egypt. He is a kind of semi-outsider. Yet Moses does not discount his advice for that reason.

There have been times in Christian history when some Christian groups have been dismissive of any wisdom or knowledge that cannot be sourced directly from the Bible or Christian tradition. One voice of that attitude was the early church father Tertullian, who asked the question “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” It was his colorful way of dismissing any relevance of pagan learning or wisdom when it came to church matters or the Christian life. 

But this is not the stance of the biblical canon. The Old Testament canon includes a number of books that scholars call wisdom texts. They include Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes and well as several psalms (e.g., Psalms 1, 32, 37, 49, 111, 112, 128).

A striking feature of this wisdom literature is the fact these texts show some derivation from sources outside Israel. For example, scholars have noted that Proverbs 22:17-24:22 (which the biblical author gives the subtitle The Words of the Wise) closely parallels much of what is said in an ancient Egyptian work of wisdom, The Instruction of Amenemope. And Proverbs 31 is said to be wisdom given by his mother to King Lemuel, a non-Israelite. 

Israelite sages were not afraid to draw upon and learn from wisdom coming from sources outside their own tradition. It shows a remarkable openness to what the sages considered true knowledge regardless of its origin. 

Wisdom literature as a whole rested its authority on the authority of experience. Biblical scholar Glenn Pemberton describes this authority in this way: 

Unlike prophets and priests, sages derive their understanding of God and life with God from what they see or experience, as well as what others have seen and experienced. They accept these insights as normative or God-given, just as a prophet regards a vision or a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.*

In this canonical stance, life experience has an equal place at the table of discussion along with Scripture and inspired speech in determining how we as faithful people are to live and conduct our affairs. This is a needed caution for all those raised in a Protestant tradition as I was. We often place our sole attention for guidance in the life of faith on the Bible. But the wisdom literature of the Bible suggests that that is an unbalanced stance. Life experience has a valid voice, too, and we ignore it at our spiritual peril. **

In paying attention to the counsel he received from Jethro, Moses did not.


* Glenn Pembeton, A Life that Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdman Publishing Company, 2018. Page 9.

** One Protestant tradition that has broadened the sources of authority for the development of doctrine and theology is the Methodist tradition. Following John Wesley, Methodists have grounded doctrine and theology in four sources of authority: Scripture, Christian tradition, reason, and Christian experience. These four sources are known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. True to Protestantism, however, the Quadrilateral regards tradition, reason, and experience as always subject to the primary authority of Scripture.