by Ed Gallagher

Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.

Exodus 19:5–6
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Moses on Mount Sinai, ca. 1900, Wikimedia Commons

Read Exodus 19:1–2. What has happened in the book of Exodus before this point? Egyptian slavery, the plagues, the exodus, the Red Sea crossing, the gift of manna. 

Now read Numbers 10:11–12. How long do the Israelites stay at Mt. Sinai? Nearly a year. The last half of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the opening of Numbers all happens at Mt. Sinai. 

What does the word ‘covenant’ mean? It basically means ‘agreement’ or ‘contract’. The Hebrew term is berith (pronounced buh-REET) and it appears 287x in the Old Testament. Can you think of some covenants that occur in the Bible? The Bible talks about various covenants (though the word berith is not actually used for all the covenants listed), such as the covenant with Noah (Gen 9), the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:18; 17:9–11), and the covenant with Israel mediated by Moses (Exod 19:5; Deut 5:2). All of these covenants are between God and people, but covenants could be made between two people (Gen 21:27; 1 Sam 11:1; 18:3; 2 Sam 5:3). 

Read Exod 19:2–8. Why did God make a covenant with Israel? According to Exodus 19:5–6, there seem to be two reasons. First, God desired to make Israel his treasured possession. A similar thought appears in Deuteronomy 7:6–8, which emphasizes God’s love for Israel and for the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). God selected Israel not because they had any merit, but because he loved them. 

Second, God wanted Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” What does this language imply about Israel’s function? It seems to imply that God had a purpose in mind when he selected Israel, that he wanted them to accomplish a task. What would it mean for Israel to be a kingdom of priests? Apparently Israel was supposed to represent God in this world, to live as a ‘holy nation’, which they would do if they obeyed the laws, and—by being holy—testify to the other nations about the holy God. 

Read Deuteronomy 4:5–8. According to this passage, what was one of the major reasons for God’s giving the Law to Israel? It was so that other nations would see the lifestyle of the Israelites and marvel at their God. (Very similar to Matt 5:16.) God’s ultimate vision is the redemption of all creation (Rom 8:21), not just the redemption of one people but of all nations. And so Isaiah describes the future as one in which the nations will stream to Zion in order to learn the law of the Lord (Isa 2:2–4; cf. Zech 8:23). God elected Israel because he loved Israel, but also because he loved the other nations, and he commissioned Israel to be an exhibit to the others. 

Remember also that Peter borrows the terminology from Exodus 19:6 to describe Christians as a ‘priestly kingdom’ (1 Pet 2:9), and he explains this thought by saying that his readers ought to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This verse suggests that our task as Christians is very similar to the task God laid before Israel, which is unsurprising, given that God considers us to be Israel (cf. Gal 6:16). Just as the Ten Commandments and subsequent laws challenged Israel to live by a high standard, so also the Christian should live by a higher standard (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, esp. Matt 5). 

Read Exodus 20:1–2. According to God, what is the basis for the covenant between God and Israel? God had already saved Israel. The salvation of Israel was an act of grace on God’s part. After God saved Israel, he laid out certain obligations for the people (cf. Eph 2:8–10). 

What was the point of the the laws? There were 613 commands in the Pentateuch (according to a traditional Jewish count), and there were several reasons for giving these particular laws. The laws perhaps served as part of a civil law code. But more importantly the laws revealed the character of God, and called Israel to reflect on his character and to imitate him. According to Paul, the commandment is holy and righteous and good (Rom 7:12), and it is our pedagogue leading us to Christ (Gal 3:24). The laws functioned as Israel’s responsibilities in the covenant; the laws molded Israel into a people that represented God. 

God knew that the Israelites would not always obey his commands. In ancient Israel, if you sinned, what were you supposed to do? God ordained various types of sacrifices for various purposes, some of which were to deal with sin (Lev 1–7). The sin offering is described in Leviticus 4, and the Day of Atonement ritual is described in Leviticus 16. Because Israel would not keep the Law perfectly, God built into the Law a means of dealing with sin through sacrifice. Of course, sacrifices should be performed with the correct attitude (1 Sam 15:22; Isa 1:10–20; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:21–24; Psa 51:16–17).

According to Paul, Christians are “not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). But Paul often quoted the Law positively to guide Christian practice (cf. 1 Cor 5:13, quoting Deut 13:5; 1 Cor 9:9, quoting Deut 25:4; Rom 13:8–10, quoting Exod 20 and Lev 19:18; Eph 6:1–3, quoting Exod 20:12). Note too that the Old testament does not present the Law as an unendurable burden but as a joy, as a sign of God’s love for Israel (Psa 1; Psa 19; Psa 119). In what sense could the Law bring joy and display God’s love?


God wants to dwell among his people (cf. Gen 3:8), which is why the last 16 chapters of Exodus are consumed with the construction of God’s abode, the Tabernacle. God wants his people to include all nations, and the covenant he makes with Israel is supposed to contribute toward that goal. By keeping the covenant, Israel will become like its holy God (cf. Lev 19:2), thus displaying his glory and grace in this world. 

Additional Questions for Discussion

Did God’s covenant with Israel mean that he did not care about the other nations?

Does God save Israel before or after they keep his commandments?

How did the ancient Israelites feel about the Law? See Psalm 1; 19:7–14.

Does Paul view the Law positively or negatively? See Rom 6:12–18; 13:8–10; 15:4. 

Additional Resources

Brent Strawn discusses the purposes of Old Testament Law.

John Walton discusses the meaning of covenants.

Craig Keener compares the Mosaic laws to other ancient Near Eastern law codes.

Here Keener discusses the relevance of the Old Testament laws for Christians.

The Bible Project explains Exodus 19–40.

Here The Bible Project and traces the significance of the Mosaic Law throughout the Bible.

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