When we get to Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, the Israelites have recently been rescued from hundreds of years of bondage in Egypt. They have lost sight of who they are, they have been indoctrinated into the false stories and worship of Egypt, and they have suffered the physical, emotional and psychological trauma that is distinct among those who have suffered the cruelty of slavery.
They are wounded. They are scared. They are confused. They are desperate.
Amid this fear, Yahweh descends upon Mount Sinai and calls Moses up the mountain. In this mysterious and dramatic scene, Moses acts as the mediator between God and the Israelites, and in the ensuing interaction, God is reminding the Israelites who they are, renewing His covenant with them and redefining how they should live as His people in a broken world. God is “re-storying” His people.
The Reminder: Who the Israelites Are
God called the Israelites to be His children, but for over 400 years, they have been slaves under Pharaoh’s whips and idols. Yet these people, long burdened with the title and terror of slavery, are now standing at the foot of the mountain while the God of the universe calls them His “treasured possession,” a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation.” The Israelites do not have to be defined by their past because God has given them a new identity in Him.
God follows this pattern throughout Scripture; before telling His people how He expects them to live, God always reminds them of the work He has done on their behalf and who they are in light of His great work. This pattern is reflected in Paul’s letters in the New Testament. The beginning of his epistles tend to emphasize who we are because of what God has done, and then they move to how we should live in light of who we are.
The Renewal: God’s Covenant With His People
The people gathered at Sinai are God’s covenant people, yet something new seems to be happening in God’s covenant with Moses. It’s important for us to see that God is fulfilling covenant promises that He had made to Abraham long ago—the people are going to be brought into the Promised Land, they are going to be many in number, and God is going to take up dwelling in their midst (Gen. 12, Gen. 15). At Sinai, God is reiterating these promises to Moses, but He is also specifying what this covenant participation will look like.
Our story is not radically different from the Israelites’. As Christians, we too are covenant participants who have been freed from slavery.
God renews His covenant with His people to prepare them to dwell with Him—the Holy God—in a land filled with pagan nations, in a way that will shine the glorious character of Yahweh out to the broken, sin-sick world.
The Redefinition: How God Calls His People to Live
In order to live in the midst of God’s presence, the Israelites’ lives would have to radically change. God establishes His covenant—including a great many laws—with Moses to explain exactly how He expects His people to live in His presence. This portion of Scripture can be difficult to understand, and there are many faithful ways of viewing the role that the law plays in God’s relationship with Israel. But a central point is that God uses the law to redefine how His people will be a light to the world.
The story of Exodus doesn’t begin with God coming down to the Israelites in Egypt and saying, “Hey, if you guys just do these things, I will rescue you from slavery.” The story of Exodus, which is being retold at Sinai, is God telling His people, “Because I have rescued you from Egypt, I am calling you to obey my commands.”
What Sinai Means for Us Today
Our story is not radically different from the Israelites’. As Christians, we too are covenant participants who have been freed from slavery—by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—to be redefined as we live a life of holiness in the sight of the world. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10).
We were once slaves to sin, yet God has called us to be His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). Through His Word, He reminds us who we are, renews His covenant with us and redefines how we are to live as His people in a broken world. God, again, is re-storying His people.