The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 1)

Israel as the People of God

The first part of this series (cf. the introduction), looking at the Old Testament background of the “people of God” concept, will focus on the central idea of Israel as God’s uniquely chosen people. This ethnic-religious aspect of the concept is fundamental to the thought-world of the Old Testament, and deserves careful consideration, especially since it differs so markedly from the later Christian understanding, and is apt to be misunderstood by many today.

It is to the Pentateuch, containing as it does traditional narratives of Israel’s earliest history, that we must turn for the key passages which establish the idea of Israel as the “people of God” (on this expression itself, cf. the brief discussion in the introduction). With the exodus from Egypt, Israel essentially comes into being as a distinct nation, though the roots of the Israelites as a chosen people go back to the traditional (patriarchal) narratives in Genesis, and the binding agreement (covenant) God established with Abraham and his descendants. This subject will be discussed in detail (along with the Genesis passages) in the next part, on the Covenant. Instead, it is best to begin with the exodus traditions, as recorded in the book of  Exodus.

Exodus 2:24-25

Chapter 1 establishes the point of conflict for the narrative—viz., the mistreatment and oppression of the Israelites (the descendants of Jacob) by the Egyptians. The resolution for the conflict is set forth in chapter 2, presenting Moses as the chosen one who will lead the people out of bondage; two episodes are used for this—the perilous birth of Moses (vv. 1-10), and his flight to Midian (vv. 11-22)—both episodes illustrating the conflict, between Israel and the oppressive Egyptians. At the close of these two chapters, the stage is set for the Exodus narrative, with the notice of Israel’s continuous cry to God for help (v. 23), and God’s response (vv. 24-25) to it. The wording of the latter is most significant for our study, as it introduces the theme of Israel as God’s people:

“And (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] heard their groaning, and (the) Mightiest remembered His binding (agreement) [tyr!B=] with Abraham, with Yiƒµaq, and with Ya’aqob, and (the) Mightiest saw (the) sons of Yisrael, and (the) Mightiest knew.”

There are four repeated statements here which specify <yh!ýa$ (°E_lœhîm, “the Mightiest [One]”, i.e. God) as the subject of the verbal action—four verbs in sequence: hear (um^v*), remember (rk^z`), see (ha*r*), know (ud^y`). These verbs are used to focus the drama:

    • hear—God heard the collective groan of the people =>
      • remember—it brought to mind the binding agreement (covenant) He had made with their ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) =>
        • see—He recognized the Israelites, as the sons of Jacob (Israel), and thus heirs to the promises/obligations of the covenant =>
          • know—He truly recognized them as a people belonging to him (through the covenant bond)

The climactic statement that God “knew” His people must be understood as in contrast with the earlier notice that the king of Egypt (the new Pharaoh) did not “know” Joseph (1:8). This key verb (ud^y`) occurs repeatedly in the book of Exodus, and has a wide semantic range which the English translation “know” does not entirely capture. Here, as in the earlier notice of 1:8, the term carries a strong covenantal connotation. A bond had been established between Pharaoh and Joseph (cf. the Joseph narratives in Genesis), which extended to the Israelite people as a whole. For a time they obtained a privileged and protected position in Egypt; but this all changed with the “new king” that came to the throne. The new Pharaoh did not recognize the prior relationship with Joseph and his people, and, instead of the covenant bond, there was active hostility against Israel. As noted above, this hostility and oppression serves as the conflict-point for the Exodus narrative.

Exodus 3:1-6ff

The historical traditions of chapter 3, follow directly upon the notice in 2:24-25, and serve to develop the theme of Israel as God’s people. Exodus 3:1-4:17 narrates the call and commission of Moses, whereby God chooses him as the leader who will bring Israel out of Egypt. It is, however, the details in chapter 3 which are most relevant to our study, since here we find the fundamental religious (and theological) tradition identifying the God of Israel as YHWH (hwhy). This is altogether more significant, from the standpoint of the Exodus narrative, than many readers and students today realize. The two propositions go hand in hand: Israel as God’s people, and the identification of YHWH as Israel’s God.

Chapter 3 begins (vv. 1-6) with the manifestation of God (theophany) to Moses in the ‘burning bush’ on Horeb, called the “mountain of God” (<yh!ýa$h* rh^, “mountain of the Mightiest”). This marks what follows as a unique revelation of God, to Moses, and, at the same time, for the people of Israel as a whole. The climactic moment of revelation comes in verse 6, which echoes the earlier notice of 2:24 (cf. above):

“…I (am the) Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of your father, (the) Mighty (One) of Abraham, (the) Mighty (One) of Yiƒµaq, and (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The expression “God of (the) father” (ba* yh@ýa$) involves a genuinely ancient tradition, well-attested in the book of Genesis (26:24; 28:13; 31:5, 29, 42, 53; 32:9; 43:23; 46:1, 3; 49:25; 50:17; cf. also 24:12; 48:15, 21), and confirmed by 2nd millennium B.C. parallels in the Semitic world (cf. Cross, pp. 4-12ff). It is, distinctively, an ethnic-religious expression, identifying a deity with a particular family, clan or tribe. The recognized deity serves as the patron and protector of the people, in a manner comparable to the ancient “binding agreement” (i.e. covenant) concept. Certain ancestral deities (i.e., deified ancestors) fill this role as well; however, in the case of Israel, it is the Creator and high God °E~l who acts on their behalf as the “God of the(ir) father(s)”. It was He who appeared to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as is stated here, and as the Genesis narratives clearly indicate.

The word used here, <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), came to be the common term for referring to deity (comparable with “God” in English). It is related to the older Semitic word °il(u) (= °E~l, la@), which would appear to mean something like “mighty (one)”. The plural form <yh!ýa$ is, in my view, best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural—i.e. “the Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier articles on El and Elohim, respectively.

What is most important in the Exodus 3 narrative is how the deity who reveals himself to Moses identifies himself as the God of the Israelite ancestors (i.e., the Creator °E~l), and also by the name represented by the tetragrammaton (hwhy/YHWH)—Yahweh. This is the focus of God’s message to Moses in verses 7-15, which may be divided as follows:

    • Vv. 7-10—Announcement that He will act on behalf of His people, through Moses as His chosen representative
    • Vv. 11-12—The promise that He will be with Moses
    • Vv. 13-15—His identification as the God of the Fathers (v. 13), with the divine name of YHWH (v. 14), both aspects now definitively united together (v. 15)

For a more detailed discussion of the critical issues involved in these verses, see the supplemental set of notes, as well as my earlier article on the name Yahweh.

In his subsequent commission to Moses (vv. 16ff), God (YHWH) reiterates his role as protector of the Israelite people, implying that the belong to him (as His people), in a special covenantal relationship going back to the time of Abraham. Moses is to gather together the leaders (elders) of the Israelites in Egypt to give them this message (v. 16), a point repeated again for emphasis in 4:5. This assembly of the representatives of Israel symbolizes an early stage of the new nation taking shape—the people that will emerge from Egypt with a new ethnic-religious identity, centered on the revelation of YHWH as their God.

In Part 2, we will examine how this theme is developed further within the Exodus narrative, by looking at the exodus event itself, the essence of which had already been expressed in chapter 3—most notably, by the declaration of YHWH in verse 10:

“And now, go, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and (you must) bring out my people, (the) sons of Yisrael, from Egypt!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *