We hear a lot today about nations operating in the national interest. Sometimes, hopefully often, that is a good thing. Like keeping people safe and protecting them from aggression. There are times though, when ‘national interest’ is code for naked national self-centredness.
The book of Exodus was written after God delivered his people from a superpower which, to put it bluntly, was just operating in the national interest.
Ancient Egypt was a mighty nation, dominating the world stage at the time. And Pharaoh was using the people of Israel as cheap labour – the cheapest, actually, because they were slaves and had no choice in the matter.
So God’s people cried out. And the Lord heard their cry.
Pharaoh, however, ignored it. He made the people of Israel work even harder. Worked them to death.
Because Pharaoh valued production above people. Pharaoh would have fitted comfortably into some of today’s developing world labour markets. Places where the dollar matters most, where questions are never asked about the actual human cost of the item or the project.
Into this kind of ugliness came the Lord of life: Yahweh the Rescuer, the Saviour.
“The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey — the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3:7–9, NIV)
The Lord hates it when any people are oppressed. Even more so when they are his people. So he led them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. He led them across the Red Sea on dry ground. The Lord did this because of his covenant with Israel. He had promised to bless them, and make them a blessing. He had promised to make their descendants as numerous as they stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. God’s promises matter. He never goes back on his word.
So now, with the Red Sea sand still stuck between their toes, as they camped on the border, ready to enter the land of promise, God renewed his covenant with them:
“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”” (Exodus 19:4–6, NIV)
These verses show the kind of nation Israel was to be:
First, in contrast to Egypt, and other nations, Israel was not to be a nation driven by seeking treasure. They would find their comfort in being treasure. Yahweh’s treasure! They would not need to find their security or significance in things because Yahweh was their security. The fact that they were loved and saved and rescued by him was their significance.
Second, Yahweh called Israel to be a kingdom of priests. It sounds like an odd thing for a country to be. How can a nation have a priestly function?
Well, we know that a priest is someone who represents others in a religious context. A mediator. A go between.
So, Israel was to represent the nations to the Lord. They were to bring the needs of the nations around them to his throne of grace. In times of famine they were to pray. They were to act compassionately in times of disaster. They were to ask the Lord to be merciful and gracious to all the peoples around them.
But it wasn’t just bringing the nation’s needs to the Lord. They were also to bring the Lord and his will to the nations. They would proclaim the truth of God and invite other nations to accept him in faith and live under his covenant. As priests, then, they spoke on the nation’s behalf to God, and on God’s behalf to the nations.
Third, they were to be a holy nation. We tend to think holiness has to do with religious acts and places. In the Old Testament, holiness is not first and foremost religious acts and things. Holiness is a personal quality. To be holy is to be separate, to be distinct, to be set aside for a particular purpose.
So, thinking that through, how would this nation show their holiness? The answer is that they would reflecting the character of the Lord in their national and personal lives. This would happen as they followed the Lord’s commands as a nation and as individuals:
1. worship only God
2. worship no idols
3. use God’s name only with reverence
4. remember the Sabbath day, allowing for rest and worship
5. Honour your father and your mother
6. You shall not murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall give false testimony or lie
10. You shall not covet what belongs to others
As God’s people did this, they would be displaying a life and values radically different from Egypt and every other nation on earth.
…a life and values radically different from every other nation on earth … this transformed life is one of the ways they would be a blessing
What was their motivation? Well, they did not obey in order to be loved and rescued. Yahweh already loved them and rescued them. They were already his special possession. The answer is that their obedience was all about gratitude and thanksgiving. It was not a requirement to earn love, but a response to the love the Lord had freely given. This changed and transformed life would be one of the ways they would be a blessing to the nations around them.
It was as if the Lord was saying, you have come out of a nation where people treasured wealth and power more than people…
You will not live for treasure or possessions. You will live because you are my treasured possession.
You are a Kingdom of priests: you will bring the nations needs to me, and you will bring my will to the nations.
You will be a holy nation. You will separate yourself from all the dehumanising values of oppression that you saw in Egypt. You will be different, distinct, to all that.
This call presented Israel with their identity. They would be totally unique as compared with all the nations around them. The Lord’s work in them was to be a total reorientation of life. A radical alteration how they were to engage the world around them.
This call was to shape the national ethos of God’s people. In my next post I’ll pose the question of how that is relevant tot God’s people today.