Commentary on Exodus 19:2-8a
This pericope can seem almost incidental, falling as it does between the “big moments” in this section of Exodus. It comes after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and the LORD’s provision of food and drink as the Israelites traveled through the wilderness (Exodus 14-17). Likewise, it comes before the giving of the law atop Mount Sinai (Exodus 20-23). Exodus 19:2-8a recounts the arrival at Mount Sinai and an initial meeting atop Mount Sinai between Moses and the LORD. It’s a settling in, so to speak.
These transitional moments, though, often have much to say about identity and character. In this passage from Exodus, these emphases appear across a timeline describing who God has been and who God will be as well as who the Israelites have been and who they will be.
The structure of the passage highlights the passage of time, with verses 2-3 and 6b-8a forming an inclusio around the central speech of the LORD in verses 4-6a. The outer ring focuses on the present moment. In verses 2-3 the Israelites are camping at the foot of Mount Sinai, resting after their journey. In response to God’s call, Moses heads up the mountain. In verses 6b-8a Moses recounts what the LORD has told him, and the people affirm that they will do these things.
The location at Mount Sinai recalls Moses’ experience with the burning bush prior to his taking leadership over the Hebrew people. The people’s arrival at Sinai (called Horeb in Exodus 3:1 and in other Old Testament traditions) signifies God’s faithfulness at having fulfilled the pronouncement that the people would worship on this very mountain. The present moment, then, recalls their past rescue from Egypt, even as they move toward their new future.
The central verses, consisting of God’s speech to Moses for the people of Israel, focus on the past and the future. In just three lines, the LORD captures the recent past and, in doing so, shares something about divine identity and character.
The relationship between Israel and the LORD has been marked by the Exodus from Egypt. In verse 4 the LORD first reminds the Israelites about the power shown against the Egyptians. While the type of power shown through the plagues and the drowning of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea can be disconcerting for contemporary audiences, for the Israelites it was nothing less than salvation. The LORD is their savior.
This salvation is exemplified with the analogy of an eagle carrying little ones on its wings. While the eagle here is likely a vulture, the image of a bird soaring up above the fray, carrying the vulnerable Israelites out of danger paints a beautiful image of care and salvation—even if the reality of wandering through wilderness didn’t feel exactly like soaring above the fray. The accompanying line reminds us that God did not act only to bring the Israelites out of Egypt but also was drawing them close to accompany them into their future.
Verses 5-6a describe who the people of Israel will be as they move with God toward a new future. As those saved by the LORD, carried as on wings of eagles, the Israelites will be in covenant relationship with the LORD. They shall keep this covenant, the stipulations of which will be recounted in coming chapters. Being a keeper of the covenant, though, is as much about identity as it is about obedience. As keepers of the covenant, the Israelites shall be God’s own treasure, valuable as nothing else is, the chosen of all peoples. As we just read, the LORD did not only bring the people out of Egypt but also brought them to God’s own self.
In verse 6 the people are also given the role of priest, holy and set aside for a particular purpose. One recalls the words spoken to Abram that through him, all the peoples of this world would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Now Abram’s descendants, this chosen people, take that vocation on their own shoulders.
Our present, past, and future
These words in Exodus are addressed to a particular people in a particular situation, but they also function as an ongoing description for all heirs of the covenant. This offers possibilities for preachers to consider the past, present, and future of a congregation in light of God’s words. More broadly but no less personally, the “you” in this passage may be extended beyond a congregation or those gathered to all whom God has carried, all whom God has brought near.
The question of what it is to be a priestly people, to show God in the world, is a challenging question and one ever in need of revisiting. First is the danger of being overly insular, as if being a priest means God will only ever work through a particular people or group. Moses’ own experiences with his Midianite wife and in-laws put that idea to rest. More productive is the question of how the Church might live into this vocation of being a holy priesthood.
This moment at the foot of Mount Sinai—after experiencing gracious salvation but before receiving the law—is a moment of tremendous opportunity. We know that there were times when this role of being a holy priesthood was interpreted in an overly narrow and even dangerous manner, and that continues to be a danger. But the present moment also remains a moment to revel in the relationship between God and those whom God loves, to hear words of promise and chosen-ness while imagining a future shaped by them.