2 They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.Exodus 19:2–8 (NRSV)
[Editor’s note: A version of this post from our archive first appeared on June 8, 2020.]
God breaks into human history in startling ways, defying expectations. Today’s readings from the common lectionary are an excellent reminder of this.
In Genesis 18, Sarah laughed at the audacious promise of a child that would mean canceling her appointment with a geriatric specialist and seeing an obstetrician-gynecologist instead. How could such a thing even be possible? She witnessed the rebirth of hope long dead.
Generations after Sarah, the Israelites languished in a form of landed servitude in Egypt. Joseph had designed a system to enable the nation to survive the famine. Unfortunately, it became a tool of oppression to facilitate state ambition.
In his book, On Exodus: A Liberation Perspective, George V. Pixley describes the “Asian mode of production” that characterized Egyptian political and economic life:
“The rural poor . . . owed their labor to the state when the state demanded it. Technically the state was proprietor of all lands, and collected a part of the harvests as tribute, or land rent. Nevertheless, the farmers continued to live on these lands, and left them only when the king had need of them for a state undertaking, such as the construction of pyramids or the reinforcement of a dyke. When the king was capable of respecting the rhythms of farm labor, he demanded direct labor for the state only in times of relative leisure, and the system functioned well, even though all persons were legally the king’s slaves.” (3)
If Pixley is correct, then the Israelites were not slaves in the modern sense of the word. They had lands at their disposal (Goshen) and owed the same service to the state as any resident of Egypt, whether native Egyptian or immigrant. However, they were clearly the subject of disgust by the Egyptians and the victims of cruel racist policies meant to crush them. Exodus 1:12 reads,
“But the more the Egyptians crushed the Israelites, the more they multiplied and spread out. And the Egyptians were disgusted by the faces of the sons of Israel.”
The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cried out for deliverance, and YHWH heard them (Exodus 2:23).* Notice carefully: YHWH did not offer to comfort the Hebrews. YHWH did not tell them to endure their situation because things would all work out in the end, or because after death they would be “in a better place.” Instead, YHWH acted on covenant promises made with their ancestors by entering history.
God got involved in politics by disrupting the system.
YHWH began this startling work by selecting Moses, a Hebrew raised in an Egyptian household. As an infant hidden in the reeds, Moses had narrowly escaped death by Pharaoh’s hand by passing through the waters of the Nile. As an adult, he fled Egypt to live as a foreigner in Midian. At Sinai, YHWH sought out this living miracle, appeared to him in glory, and commissioned him to free the Hebrews from their impossible situation. You know the story. But have you noticed how Moses’ own story is the first half of a repeating pattern?
Rescue in the Reeds – Revelation at Sinai – Commissioning
Here is how it plays out: God sends Moses to rescue the people from death by Pharaoh’s hand by bringing them through the waters of the Reed Sea. Moses’ first order of business after leading them across the sea is to retrace his steps to Sinai so the people can meet the God responsible for their deliverance. YHWH meets the Israelites in a glorious self-revelation, and immediately commissions them as royal servants.
Rescue in the Reeds – Revelation at Sinai – Commissioning
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6).
Servitude they know. But not this sort of service. Pharaoh had pushed them harder and harder, expecting more and supplying less. He had tried to kill their sons and crush their women with grief.
YHWH is different.
- Rather than crushing them, this God mandates a day of rest for everyone in the community (Exodus 20:8-11).
- Rather than asking them to make more with less, this God gives them something for nothing – food out of nowhere (Exodus 16). It is theirs for the taking.
- Rather than calling them “lazy,” YHWH calls them “treasured” (cf. Exodus 5:8). And this is the word I want to tell you more about.
The Hebrew word translated as “treasured possession” in Exodus 19:6 is segullah. It is not merely a warm fuzzy term, as if God is expressing fondness for the Israelites. Segullah is political. It corresponds to the Akkadian word sikultu and the Ugaritic word sglt. Both of these words denote a patiently accumulated treasure, but are also employed metaphorically in treaty contexts. In a treaty, segullah designates an individual who is specially selected as the ambassador of the king – one who can be trusted to represent the king’s interests.
This one word (segullah) signals YHWH’s intent to enter a covenant relationship with Israel, appointing Israel as a specially selected representative to the nations. The ten stipulations of this covenant are spelled out in the following chapter, Exodus 20, and inscribed in duplicate on stone tablets, another clear indication of a covenant-in-the-making. The lists of instructions in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy flesh out what covenant faithfulness looks like in daily life.
The laws at Sinai are no ball-and-chain, implementing a new form of slavery. They express the practical dimensions of life in freedom, the boundaries within which the nation can experience a life-giving form of service to the One who graciously rescued them from servitude. In short, they are revolutionary.
When most of life feels out of our control, it is especially important to remember that God’s people have been commissioned to represent God among the nations, even now. Especially now. In a rather audacious move, Peter applies the covenant titles of Sinai to the church in 1 Peter 2:9, calling them “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” – that is, God’s “treasured possession.” From Peter’s perspective, all believers in Jesus are included in Israel’s story regardless of ethnicity. Christian identity is grounded at Sinai – we are rescued ones, treasured ambassadors. For Christians, the actual content of our calendars matters far less than our faithfulness in representing the One who rescued us.
Another reading today, Psalm 116:16, captures the essence of the Exodus narrative:
“Truly I am your servant, LORD;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.”
The faithfulness of the psalmist is rooted in the faithfulness of his mother against the backdrop of God’s rescue operation. Freedom comes first, then service based on the moment of commissioning at Sinai, modeled after those who have influenced us by their own devotion to God.
From my perspective, the ultimate breaking-into-human-history was the incarnation of Jesus, another dramatic form of self-revelation that disrupted the status quo and turned politics-as-usual upside down. God defied expectations by coming in human flesh in order to rescue us from sin and death and our entrapment in this world’s system. Jesus appeared to us as God-made-flesh, a glorious revelation of immanence. And then he commissioned all of his disciples to represent him among the nations:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The pattern repeats: Rescue – Revelation – Commission
As those who have been rescued and have beheld our Lord’s glory, Christians are now privileged to serve God faithfully among the nations. We are no longer slaves to fear, to human masters, to world systems, to sin and death. We have been set free for joyful service to the One we recognize as King over all.
* YHWH is the personal name of the God of Abraham’s family (sometimes vocalized as “Yahweh”). While “God” is a title that could refer to any number of gods of the nations, YHWH specifically refers to the God who creates and redeems the world. The name YHWH in Hebrew is represented in English Bibles by the word LORD in all capital letters.