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. 

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