What Are, After All, YHWH’s Intentions?

Slowly the homeless nation made its way through the desert, dusty and mangy, scared and very suspicious. The word that spread around was that Moses was taking them to a mountain, the mountain of God. They had not the background and experience Moses had in these parts (See Gazing into Divine Fire, Oct. 8, 2014). Too much had happened over the course of the last 3 months for their minds to process. So many amazing miracles! So many mortal dangers! Along with this, there was the matter of massive identity shift. A few months back they were slaves and thought like slaves, and they no doubt viewed the world much like their Egyptian captors did; they were “Egytianized,” very pagan in their thinking (See Lev. 18:3). Their identity as YHWH’s covenant people through Abraham their father was a faint memory of the misty past.

In this state they found themselves under the shadow of this mysterious mountain to meet YHWH. We enter into their thoughts as they gazed up its sheer rocky flanks. This YHWH was a stranger to them. True, He miraculously brought them out of Egypt and bondage, but for what? Why did He do this, and what were His intentions? They have already accused Him of taking them out into the desert to kill them. As absurd as this seems, we must place ourselves in their sandals. They were as raw as could be, and possessed absolutely no spiritual knowledge of the Holy. We the readers are really not too far removed from them, and we certainly live and move among masses of people who are just like them.

YHWH gently begins to teach them the way of covenant. What we have in Ex. 19:3-6 is the very bed rock upon which the covenant is built. Indeed, these verses are the foundation for all the rest of the Pentateuch. It is here that YHWH reveals His intentions for Israel. To begin with, YHWH uses a very tender image to describe His love for His people: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (19:4). This last phrase “bringing them to himself” is especially startling. Pagan gods did not talk like this. The gods could never make themselves so vulnerable. In fact, it is hard to know how to respond to such intimate language from another human let alone God who as yet was still strange to them. Be this as it may, relationship begins with vulnerability, and YHWH is the first to make Himself vulnerable to the people.

What follows is a condition and a promise. The condition is their responsibility to be obedient by keeping covenant. The promise is three fold. First, they will become YHWH’s own special possession (v. 5, Heb. segulâ, a word elsewhere used for a king’s private treasury apart from the national, I Chron. 29:3). Israel will be God’s special possession of all the nations, the one He values the most. This speaks to their worth. Yet, Israel’s special status is juxtaposed to the phrase, “for the whole earth is mine.” Election of the part is in the context of the whole, for YHWH desires to reach the whole through the part. This becomes clearer with the second promise, that Israel would be a “kingdom of priests,” or more properly, a “priestly royalty” (v. 6, Heb. mamleket kōhanîm). Kings and priests were images of power to the ancient mind. Yet again, the implication is that they were to minister to the world, for priests stood before God in behalf of the people, in this case, to the rest of the world. Finally, they would be a holy nation (Heb. gôy qâdôš). On one hand, only God is holy for He is utterly unique and above and beyond all creation. On the other hand, Israel, by living in relationship with God through obedience to the covenant will reflect divine holiness to the world. This speaks of their dignity.

What are YHWH’s intentions for this frightened mass of humanity before the mountain? It is to restore to them the lost glory of Adam’s race. Intimacy with the divine changes one’s very identity from slave to God’s special possession, to a priest and king, to a holy likeness to God. Implicit in this identity change is a purpose that lay far beyond Israel as a nation, and that was to change the world around them. All this demanded intimacy with a holy God … intimacy is not easy for us fallen creatures, and it certainly is not easy living with a holy God, as we shall see in the ensuing narrative.

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