The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
The stipulations element of the covenant (וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י, v.5) is followed by the divine promise of Israel’s special position, which is presented with three terms. The first of three descriptions held out to Israel is סְגֻלָּה, which has been translated into English as “peculiar treasure” (KJV), “treasured possession” (ESV; NIV; cf. NASB; RSV; HCSB), and “special treasure” (NLT). The precise meaning and origin of סְגֻלָּה is somewhat obscure. Given the importance of understanding this term in order to understand the immediate passage as well as Israel’s intended position throughout Biblical history, the exegete does well to investigate סְגֻלָּה.
Out of its eight Biblical uses, twice סְגֻלָּה carries a secular or common use as it refers to literal treasure. In 1 Chronicles 29:3, David speaks of all the resources, including his own special treasure (סְגֻלָּה), which he is donating to the building of Solomon’s temple. In Ecclesiastes 2:8, Solomon mentions gold, silver, and סְגֻלָּה among many other pleasures he sought in vain. However, סְגֻלָּה came to be employed in a theological-figurative sense (e.g., Ps 135:4). As Sarna and Hamilton note, a connection between the Hebrew סְגֻלָּה (segulla) and Akkadian sikiltum may exist. Sikiltum occurs in a royal seal parallel to the description of Abban king of Alalakh as the servant and beloved of the god, Alad. Similarly, in an Ugarit text from a Hittite king (identified as “the sun”) to Hammurapi of Ugarit, a potential cognate of סְגֻלָּה occurs parallel to a word referring to Hammurapi as a friend-servant. Such parallels suggest that sikiltum, and correspondingly סְגֻלָּה, connotes a special relationship (Sarna, 104; Hamilton, 303). In Malachi 3:17, YHWH uses סְגֻלָּה to describe the remnant that fears Him. Again, such texts indicate that סְגֻלָּה connotes a unique relationship. Therefore, according to Stuart, in Exodus 19:5, סְגֻלָּה indicates God’s intention to create for Himself His own particular people. As he says,
“This represents the separation of his chosen people from the general world population, or, stated in terms of the overall biblical plan of redemption, the beginning of the outworking of his intention to bring close to himself a people that will join him for all eternity as adopted members of his family.” (422)
In like thought, according to Childs, if Israel demonstrates faithfulness to God’s covenant, she will achieve this special relationship (367). In other words, these scholars claim that סְגֻלָּה primarily serves to define Israel’s relationship to God; “Israel is God’s own people, set apart from the rest of the nations” (Childs, 367). Interestingly, in the Pentateuch exclusively, this language of Israel as God’s סְגֻלָּה always occurs hand in hand with Israel’s unique election and subsequent call to holiness (Ex 19:5; Dt 7:6 14:2 26:18; Sarna, 104; Hamilton, 302). In other words, Israel’s unique “otherness” from all other nations as a result of her election and special relationship to God is to result in Israel’s “otherness” in action, ethics, religious service, etc.
In conclusion, although used to refer to an individual’s literal special treasure, a “prized possession” if one will, סְגֻלָּה entered the figurative as well as the religious sphere to denote something or someone of a unique, privileged position similar to that of one’s literal “prized possession.” In Exodus 19:5, God states that if Israel is faithful to His covenant, such a position will be hers. God holds his people as his “prized possession,” His special and most valued treasure. What a privilege! And, as a result of this special position, God’s people are called to special conduct unique from those that are not God’s people.