And here they are: the liberated slaves, finally, coming “into the wilderness of Sinai” (v 1). This was long-planned: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain” (3:12). Moses had held up his end of the deal (more or less) and now speaks with God about “What next?” It’s a key moment in the text of Exodus, for it speaks to Israel’s identity and purpose. It’s almost an origin statement.
First, Moses is to remind them of what God has done for them so far: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (v 4). That is to say: this is all down to God. They stand now at Sinai completely indebted to the mercy of God and his rescue-plan.
Second, this debt is to be ratified as covenant. Verse 5 speaks of a covenant, with covenant terms to be obeyed. Israel—if they keep God’s covenant—will be God’s “treasured possession.” Among all the nations of the world, they will be particularly precious to God, a special nation with a special role. They will be “a priestly kingdom [literally, “a kingdom of priests”] and a holy nation” (v 6). Moses brings this message to the people, and the people accept this calling and agree to enter this covenant: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do” (v 8).
Israel, then, becomes a covenant community. This leads on to chapters 20–23 where we find the “Ten Commandments” and the more detailed teaching that follows, much of which unpacks the Ten Commandments. This leads, in turn, to the ceremony in chapter 24 in which sacrifices are offered and the people formally enter into the covenant with God. This leads to the instructions for the building of the Tent of Meeting in chapters 25–30.
In Exodus 40, the last chapter of the book, the glory of God fills the Tent of Meeting. God, as it were, “takes up residence” among the Israelites, symbolising that he is their God and they are his people. Whereas Exodus began with the Israelites enslaved to the Egyptians and seemingly forgotten by their God, it ends with Israel identified as a distinct people—a holy nation—with God in their midst, on the way to the land which God promised their ancestors.
Clearly, Israel’s arrival at Sinai in chapter 19 to meet with God is a key moment in this unfolding narrative.
The significant point
But what is going on in chapter 19? To answer that question we must go back to God’s promise to Abram, first given in Genesis 12:1–3 and restated at a number of points in later chapters of Genesis. Everything that happens in the OT after Genesis 12 flows from this promise that God gave to Abram. In these verses God promises Abram three things: descendants (at the time Abram was childless); a land in which his descendants will live; and that he will bless Abram and his descendants. But there is a fourth promise. God tells Abram that he will do these things for Abram and his descendants, not so that Abram’s descendants should keep all the blessing for themselves, but so that ultimately all the nations should be blessed.
We begin to see the promise to Abram fulfilled in Genesis. In Exodus, the promise moves on a stage. When God meets with the Israelites at Sinai, they are already on the way to the land that God promised their forefathers. And at Sinai the fourth part of the promise—the larger aim of blessing for the nations—comes more clearly into view as Israel is called to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6).
The words “holy nation” are quite easy to interpret: Israel is to be a special nation, a nation identified as God’s people, distinct from the other nations of the world, reflecting God’s holy character, owing their allegiance to God.
The words “kingdom of priests” tell us that the entire nation of Israel—not simply the Aaronic priests and the Levites—is to carry out a priestly role in relation to the other nations of the world. Israel’s priests, as later texts make clear, were supposed to teach the people in God’s name: “you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them through Moses” (Lev 10:11). Israel’s priests were therefore to represent God to the Israelites. This was symbolised by the fact that their priestly robes were made of the same materials as the curtains of the tabernacle, God’s holy dwelling place (see Exodus 26 and 28). So when God called Israel as a whole to be a “kingdom of priests,” he was calling them to teach the nations his ways, to act as his representatives before the nations.
How would they do this? By living according to God’s teaching. This is what we find in Exodus 19:5–6: “If you obey my voice… you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” These words are taken up with a similar sense in the NT, when the Apostle Peter tells his readers—Christians living in Asia Minor—“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet 2:9). Note how Peter speaks of Christians “proclaiming the mighty acts of God.” Just as God—speaking through Moses—called the Israelites to teach the nations his ways, so Peter speaks of Christians testifying to God’s power. This is the call given to Israel in Exodus 19. The detailed teaching that follows in chapters 20–23 fills out what it will mean for Israel to obey God’s voice and respond to God’s call.
A basic primer (Exodus 20–23)
Just to be clear, nothing here points in any way to what might be considered “salvation by works.” When Israel came to Sinai, they came as a people whom God had already saved (i.e., delivered from slavery in Egypt). The teaching in Exodus 20–23 was not given as a means of salvation, but so that Israel would know how God was calling them to live precisely as his saved people. It was given so that Israel would bear a good witness before the surrounding nations and thus fulfil its priestly calling in relation to the nations.
We see this in the Ten Commandments. The commandments cover two main topics: loyalty to God (worshipping God alone, having no idols, respecting God’s name); and treating one’s fellow Israelites rightly (no murder, no adultery, no theft, no false witness, no coveting of what belongs to one’s neighbour). Clearly, the two topics belong together. The same mixture is found in the more detailed teaching which begins around Exodus 20:22 and continues to the end of Exodus 23. These chapters cover a striking variety of topics: right worship; the rights of Hebrew slaves; violence, lethal and non-lethal; property and restitution; treatment of foreigners; treatment of debtors; the proper conduct of lawsuits; Sabbath keeping.
What are the main concerns of this teaching when you dig beneath the details? On the one hand, this teaching promoted commitment to God. We see this expressed at the end of chapter 20 in the instructions about the altars which the Israelites are to build to worship God, and in chapter 23 in the instructions about the three annual festivals which the Israelites are to hold, by way of remembering God’s goodness to them. On the other hand, it taught a commitment to maintaining the unity of God’s people, and to maintaining the Israelite nation as a genuine community. In their relations with each other Israelites were called to display qualities such as honesty, fairness, generosity, and commitment. These are some of the “core values” of Exodus 20–23.
In fact, you could sum up much of Exodus 20–23 in the word “community”. God wants his people to live in true community. That is why these chapters attempt to address threats to community and set out ways of dealing with these threats. You get a sense in these chapters that violence and injustice have the potential to rip Israelite society apart. Consequently, violence and injustice must be restrained and, where they occur, appropriately dealt with.
The world reflected in Exodus 20–23 is not a perfect world, and the Israelites are far from perfect human beings. In the world of Exodus 20–23 people fight, fall into debt, mistreat each other, use excessive violence, steal, and tell lies. Property goes missing, accidents happen, fires get out of control, oxen gore human beings and other animals, donkeys wander off and fall into pits. These chapters are realistic: they start where the people are. They do not begin by setting out an ideal picture of a just society and urging the Israelites to live up to it. Rather, they sketch the situation in Israel as it is likely to be and urge the Israelites to learn how to render justice to each other in that situation.
Interestingly, Exodus 20–23 assumes that Israelites will sin against each other, hence reparations of various sorts will be necessary. For instance, Exodus 21:12–26 addresses a variety of offences—manslaughter and murder, kidnap, grievous bodily harm, mistreatment of slaves, personal injuries—and sets out what is to be done in such cases. Sometimes compromises are necessary. It may be, for example, that the parties in a dispute disagree on the facts of the case. If so, one party has to swear an oath before God, and the other party has to accept that as the end of the matter (Exod 22:10–11). It’s not a perfect solution, but it brings closure.
These chapters are also strikingly egalitarian, particularly when read in their ancient Near Eastern context. Yes, there is a distinction between the status of slaves and maids and that of free citizens in these chapters. But, that aside, all Israelites are supposed to have equal standing before the law, regardless of social standing and wealth. In this respect Exodus 20–23 differs from other ancient Near Eastern law codes—for example, the laws of Hammurabi—which distinguished between the rights due to an upper-class person and the lesser rights due to a “commoner”. These chapters, in fact, demonstrate a particular concern for the vulnerable: for slaves, women, foreigners, and those who fall into debt.
We may not be particularly impressed with what these chapters teach in regard to these groups of people. We read, for example, that a man can sell his daughter into slavery, and the man to whom she is sold can even give her to his son as a wife (21:7–11). The only rights the woman enjoys in that situation are: (1) she cannot be sold on “to a foreign people”; (2) she is allowed to go free if she is not given proper food and clothing, without repaying the money that was given for her. This is not perfect justice, but it does ensure some justice for the woman—a fairly minimal justice, we may think, but better than what might otherwise have happened.
It is interesting to compare the detailed teaching of chapters 20–23 with the ideal set out in God’s call to Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and holy nation.” God was well aware what kind of people he was dealing with; he knew that the Israelites were a bunch of rather sinful priests. These chapters are perfectly realistic about the difficulties which redeemed—but still flawed—humans will face when they try to live together. But the aim of this teaching is that Israel should be a wholesome community whose members will treat each other fairly and with compassion.
That, in brief, is the teaching of Exodus 20–23. What were Israelites supposed to do with this teaching? I believe that they were meant, as we say, to run with it: not to regard it as setting the limits of their obligations towards God and fellow-Israelites, but to reflect on other areas of their lives to which the teaching might apply. And the teaching was not meant to be followed unthinkingly. On the contrary, it is clear from Exodus 20–23 itself that the Israelites were supposed to reflect on why it was right for them to follow this teaching. More than once these chapters address the issue of motive: we read that Israelites should respect the rights of resident aliens because they themselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt; or that creditors should treat debtors with compassion because God is compassionate.
In these and other ways, then, justice was to be administered in Israel, with the aim of maintaining Israel as a community, so that Israel might fulfil its calling of being “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” This would be good for the Israelites themselves, and it would bring God glory before the nations.
All these points I have made about Exodus 20–23 apply to the Book of Deuteronomy which takes up much of the teaching of Exodus 20–23. In particular, one passage in Deuteronomy 4 takes up from Exodus 19 the idea of Israel as a “priestly kingdom and holy nation” and asks: why should Israel follow the teaching given through Moses? Moses answers: you should do this because: this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? (Deut 4:6–8)
When Israel follows the teaching, the nations will look at Israel and they will be impressed at what they see—saying, “this great nation is a wise and discerning people”—and they will draw the conclusion that Israel’s God is a great and wise God. This highlights what we have seen, that one of the roles of Israel’s priests was to represent God to Israel; when Israel as a whole follows the teaching they will display God’s glory to the nations. They will be, precisely, a kingdom of priests, bearing witness to the nations regarding the character of their God. These texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy, then, set out Israel’s calling.
What is God saying to us?
Christians have been given the same task as Israel. Like Israel, we are called to be a “kingdom of priests,” to testify by our lives and (as we have opportunity) by our words to the power and love of the God who has saved us. This means that we should take seriously the ethical teaching of the Bible. The law was God’s gift to Israel. The Israelites did not have to work out for themselves how they should live; instead God gave them the law, teaching that set out both general principles (e.g., Exod 20:1–17) and detailed applications of those principles (Exod 21–23; Deut 12–26).
God’s aim was that Israel should know the blessing of living in true community, and that other nations would look at Israel, be attracted by what they saw, and be drawn to worship Israel’s God. The fact that Israel often failed in this (as most of the books which follow in the OT tell us) does not mean that this was fundamentally a bad idea. So too for us Christians. Ethics, doing good, living honourably, and upholding justice are not optional extras; they are part of our calling as Christ’s disciples. We should be concerned to honour God with all of our lives.
It is striking how the law in the OT covers all of life. It contains teaching relating both to religious practice (e.g., worship) and to everyday life (e.g., marriage, parenting, politics, justice, employment relations, even the environment). This tells us that commitment to God is something that should be reflected in every part of our lives, and not merely in that part which we choose to call “religious”. There should be no splits in our life: our faithfulness to God should be consistent, seven days of the week. Christ’s lordship takes in all of our life. What we do on “the other six days” matters just as much to God as what we do on Sundays.
Think of those “core values” of Exodus 20–23 listed above: honesty, fairness, generosity, and commitment. Should not our churches be known for these things? And if the outside world cannot see these things in Christians and in our congregations, why should they believe our gospel? The call to be a “royal priesthood and a holy nation” brings with it a great privilege. There is a great blessing which comes with this call—we Christians are God’s special people, the human agents of his purposes in the world. But with the call there also comes great responsibility—to take care that we bring glory to God by the way we live as well as by the gospel we proclaim.