Exodus 19 Study Notes


19:1-24:11 This section describes events surrounding the making of the covenant between the Lord and Israel, using practices and terms familiar in the culture. When a powerful king (the suzerain) would send a treaty to a less powerful king (the vassal), informing him and his people of the suzerain’s intention to rule them, the treaty contained: (1) formal self-identification of the more powerful ruler; (2) a review of the history between the parties as grounds for issuing and accepting the covenant; (3) the requirement of loyalty to the suzerain; (4) stipulations regulating future conduct of the vassal; (5) positive and negative consequences for obedience or disobedience; and (6) instructions for copying, storing, and publicly reading the covenant.

The Mosaic covenant with its laws was given to people who had expressed belief in the Lord (14:31)—people already rescued from Egypt. Its purpose was not to provide a means for people to initiate or merit a relationship with the Lord. Rather, the covenant was a means of communicating what Israel should do as a people who already belonged to him. The covenant was tied to what the Lord had already done for the Israelites. This was the reason why it was appropriate for them to keep it.

For its contents and system of values the covenant was further tied to what the Lord had done and would continue to do in the expression of his own character—for example, out of his concern for justice and his concern for weaker members of society. It contains some individual regulations that were shared with extrabiblical law codes and wisdom literature. In the covenant the Lord issued, these laws exist in a framework that ties them to the task of displaying the character of the Lord. Even as the actions of the Lord himself had revealed who he is, so the actions of his people were to display his character.

Other law codes (like that of the Babylonian king Hammurabi) were the pronouncements of a human king and might be offered to a deity to show that the king deserved the deity’s approval and support. Israel’s laws came from their God with the recognition that people who claimed the Lord as God should resemble him in their dealings. This was part of the benefit of belonging to him, not a means of acquiring this status (Dt 10:12-13).

19:1-2 The Sinai Wilderness is the setting for the rest of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and Nm 1:1-10:10. They would be there about eleven months.

19:3-6 God’s program for the future of Israel is the next step in the outworking of his plan in bringing Israel out of Egypt (6:7; Lv 26:12; Dt 29:9-13).

19:3 One purpose for Moses making three trips up the mountain and back (vv. 3,7-8,14,20,25) was to clarify visually the unique role and privileges he was granted. The people needed to acknowledge his authority as God’s representative and the importance of his message.

19:4 The Lord’s past provision should be the basis for Israel’s future decisions. The mention of being carried on eagles’ wings implied a comparison between the Lord’s bringing Israel out of Egypt and eagles that sometimes carried their young on their backs (Dt 32:10-11). Eagles were also noted for their speed, long flights, and high nests (2Sm 1:23; Is 40:31; Jr 4:13; 49:16; Ob 4).

19:5 The Lord wanted Israel to be known by what he had done as well as by what they would do. My own possession uses a word that is sometimes translated “treasure.” David used it to speak of his “personal treasures of gold and silver” that he had set aside for building the Lord’s temple (1Ch 29:3). In extrabiblical literature a king sometimes used a closely related word to speak positively of a vassal with whom he had a good relationship and where a king advertised himself on his royal seal as the treasured possession of a certain god.

19:6 The ideas of priesthood and holiness go together, since special requirements marked priests as set apart for special service that benefited others (Lv 21). The tasks of priests included helping people offer sacrifices to God, according to the need or condition of the person (Lv 1-7). Priests acted as judges, both in matters of ritual purity and in civil controversies (Lv 13-14; Dt 17:9; 21:5), and they taught God’s law (Lv 10:11; Mal 2:7-9). These tasks pointed to the work of Israel among the nations. As the priesthood in Israel was to the nation as a whole, so Israel should be to the other nations; as Israelite priests had unique requirements, duties, and privileges among the Israelites, so Israel would have unique requirements, duties, and privileges among the nations (Lv 20:22-26; Dt 4:5-8; 14:21; 26:17-19; Is 2:1-5). Now all who believe in Christ are a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1Pt 2:9).


Hebrew pronunciation [seh gool LAH]
CSB translation special possession, treasure
Uses in Exodus 1
Uses in the OT 8
Focus passage Exodus 19:5

Extrabiblical evidence confirms that segullah denotes acquired property, a reserve set aside as a personal possession. Six of the biblical references describe Israel’s people as God’s chosen, [“My own”] possession (Ex 19:5) or treasured possession (Ps 135:4). The other two concern the treasures of human kings. David consecrated segullah, or personal treasures, to building the temple, encouraging others to do likewise (1Ch 29:3,6-8). Solomon mentioned “the treasure of kings and provinces” that he had accumulated (Ec 2:8). Although God owns all nations, he uniquely acquired Israel by his initiatives with that people (Ex 19:4-5). But fulfillment of the potential in this acquisition was conditioned on Israel’s obedience to him. At the close of the OT God asserted his intent to make Israel his special possession in the “day of the Lord” through his compassion (Mal 3:17; 4:5). First Peter 2:9 cites Ex 19:5 as having a fulfillment in the church.

19:7-8 Moses explained the covenant to the elders, who apparently explained it to all the people, who accepted it unanimously.

19:9-25 The preparations for a meeting between the Lord and the Israelites continue the extended metaphor that compares the Lord to a great king issuing a covenant to his vassal. The Lord had chosen to come to Mount Sinai in a way designed to reveal his presence and to communicate with the Israelites, making it “private property,” where no one should expect to wander in and out oblivious to the wishes of the owner. For as long as the Lord visited that place, it was holy ground, an extension of his royal court. Approaching the mountain required a royal summons. It was not a casual meeting of equals.

19:9 This statement of God’s intention increases the gravity of future failures by the people to believe Moses.

19:10 The requirements to be purified and to wear clean clothes involved everyone in the preparation. When Pharaoh summoned him, Joseph likewise changed his clothes before appearing at court (Gn 41:14; cp. Gn 35:2; Nm 8:7; Rv 22:14).

19:12 Refusal to observe boundaries was a sign of disrespect. Those who violated the warning would die. Such was the case even with merely human kings whose sanctity and security measures had been violated (Est 4:11).

19:15 Abstaining from sex would prevent contact with semen, which caused ritual uncleanness (Lv 15:16-18). Considering the pagan practice of mixing sexual activity with religious rituals, this prohibition may also have contributed to separating such practices from worship of the Lord. If nothing else, it marked a life change and redirection of attention for the Israelites (cp. 1Co 7:5).

19:16-17 All these phenomena are associated with occasions when God revealed his presence (40:34; Jdg 5:4-5; 1Kg 19:11-12; Ps 18:6-15; Is 29:6; 30:30; 64:1-3; Rv 4:1,5).

19:18 Like the smoke of a furnace uses the word for “furnace” that also appears in 9:8,10. Its only other use is to describe the source of the smoke compared with what came from the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 19:28). The whole mountain shook violently uses the same Hebrew verb as the statement that “all the people in the camp shuddered” (v. 16).

19:21 Moses’s warning not . . . to see the Lord on penalty of death shows God’s concern to protect the Israelites and to reveal to them his awesome, personal reality. He cannot be treated as an object of curiosity that one might walk up to, examine at will, and then walk away from without personal engagement.

19:22 Some interpreters think reference to priests here and in v. 24 is anachronistic, since Aaron and his sons were appointed as priests at a later time (28:1; 40:12-15). Based on ancient practices, however, it would have been normal for selected Israelites to have functioned as priests even before the formal appointment of the Aaronic priesthood. Knowledge of sacrifices, intercession, consecration, and priestly activities is taken for granted throughout Genesis and Exodus (cp. Gn 14:18-20). In later years disobedient Israelites appointed priests to suit their own purposes (Jdg 17:1-5; 1Kg 13:33).