On Eagles’ Wings: The Encounter at Sinai
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.” (Exodus 19:4, NKJV)
There are several key places in the Bible in which God reveals Himself in a personal and powerful way to His people as a whole – marking the course for generations to come and defining who they are to be as a people. One of those formative encounters for the Jewish community (and by extension the Christian community as well) took place at Mount Sinai, in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Led by Moses, one of the most prominent figures in Israel’s history, the people of Israel had just been delivered by God from the tyranny of 400 years of enslavement in Egypt. On the other side of the dramatic Red Sea crossing, God continued to work miracles on their behalf, such as when He provided manna from heaven to sustain the Israelites in the wilderness, despite the complaining of the people when they faced hardships on the journey.
Exodus 19 records the historic moment in time when Israel was encamped at Sinai, just as Moses was about to receive the Ten Commandments that would form the basis of God’s covenant with His people as a nation. The place where they had stopped – in the midst of a massive desert – was to become known throughout the following centuries as the foundation for Judeo-Christian civilization.
In verse 3, Moses went up the mountain and prepared to meet with God on behalf of the people. In verses 4 to 6, the pivotal summary message that Moses received for the people of Israel was declared by God:
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Remarkably, God declares that He has personally carried His people “on eagles’ wings” and prepared them for this moment when He would reveal His purpose to them. From this encounter, there are several major elements of the initiation of God’s covenant that we can see taking place.
1. History was made by the voice of God coming to the people of Israel.
From the days of Abraham, God had demonstrated that He had purposed to make Abraham’s descendants a vast group of people, comparable in appearance to the number of the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). Although He had spoken clearly to the man Abraham, now His intention was to speak clearly to the people as a whole to prepare them to walk in relationship with Him as their God.
God’s voice coming to His people distinguished Him from the gods made of silver and gold in the other nations, who “have mouths but they do not speak; eyes they have, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear” (Psalm 115:5-6). The God of Israel was and is a living being, the omnipotent Creator of all things.
As is still the case today, to be among those who would serve God requires being able to hear His voice and follow His commandments, so that we may have a relationship with Him. This is the very thing that was taking place as the sound of God’s voice thundered from the mountain and Moses received the commandments for the people.
2. Israel’s call as a people was revealed as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
In later chapters of Exodus and Leviticus, we can see that God enacted a priesthood in Israel to minister in His presence on behalf of the nation of people. This was the sacred calling of the tribe of Levi, in which they as a tribe were to be devoted to preserving the daily worship in the tabernacle in the wilderness and later in the temple in Jerusalem.
In the same way that the Levitical priests fulfilled this role in relationship to the people of Israel as a whole, so the entire nation of Israel would be a priesthood before God in relationship to the whole world. They were to be a nation of priests who by their holy calling were to open the way for the blessings of God to come to all the nations, for as God said to them from Sinai, “all the earth is Mine.”
From the very beginning, Israel’s special relationship with God was not to be an end in itself; it was to be a catalyst for other nations to also enter into relationship with the God of Israel.
3. The character of God in his dealings with Israel was displayed before the entire world, to reveal the type of God that He is.
In the language that God uses to address His people, we see a powerful tenderness and care, demonstrated in His favor bestowed on them: “… how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.” God was setting apart this people for Himself – showing that His might and His power would find the greatest expression in His utter commitment of love for a people. He wanted this people to be close to Him so that He could demonstrate His covenant faithfulness towards them.
In addition, His heart can be seen in what He commanded Israel to do: to establish a nation with values of morality and truth that have served as a foundation for the Judeo-Christian society that we live in today. The type of covenant that He was establishing with Israel, both through the Scriptures that have been preserved and also through God’s personal interactions with Israel, was for all the nations to witness – to know that He is a faithful God who continually keeps His Word, without fault or betrayal.
From the encounter at Sinai, the mission of the people of Israel before this awe-inspiring God was clear. They were to be His earthly representatives as a holy nation, and their presence in the earth was to shine as a “light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49:6), so that God’s salvation would reach to the ends of the earth.
Today as people of faith from many nations, let us remember and give thanks for the God of Israel and His covenants with His people – for by His covenant faithfulness we have been invited into relationship with God and into the proclamation of His character throughout the world, for His glory!
Watch this edition of “Bishop and the Rabbi” where Bishop Robert Stearns and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield discuss the Torah portion “Yitro” which includes the Exodus 19 account of the Children of Israel on Mt. Sinai.