The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
In Exodus 19:6, as conditioned on Israel’s obedience, God marks Israel’s special position with three descriptions. The second of these is מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים (“kingdom of priests”) Since an understanding of this phrase is central to an understanding of the immediate text, Israel’s calling in the subsequent Biblical drama, as well as various New Testament passages that employ language from this passage, the exegete does well to investigate this phrase.
In Exodus 19:6, YHWH identifies Israel’s intended position as a result of keeping God’s covenant as being מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים (“a kingdom of priests”). The syntax of this phrase allows itself to be interpreted two ways: (1) a kingdom (domain or realm) of priests over whom God rules. Or (2), a kingly (royal) priesthood, “the exercise of royal office by those who are in fact priests” (Gentry, 319). Nonetheless, Israel is specified with this collective priestly function. Hamilton presents two possible theological meanings (or emphases) for this idea. The question is whether this phrase addresses Israel’s relationship to God or to the nations. On the one hand, מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים may express Israel’s privileged position in relationship to God. To Israel alone has God revealed Himself in this way through His Exodus-redemption and this nation-covenant. And just as priests alone were privileged to enter the holy place, only Israel has this special access to His mediated presence through the tabernacle (and eventual temple). But, on the other hand, מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים may refer to a mediatorial role to which YHWH has called Israel (Hamilton, 304). Just as priests mediated between God and the worshiper, so Israel was to be God’s priests unto the nations. Stuart advocates the latter position: “they [Israelites] were to represent him to the rest of the world and attempt to bring the rest of the world to him,” and thereby bring to fruition the responsibility inherent in God’s words to Abraham to be a blessing and that all nations would be blessed through him (Gen 12:2-3; Stuart, 423). Stuart provides four ways in which Israel might have served as priests to the nations:
(1) Israel would be an example to the people of other nations, who would see its holy beliefs and actions and be impressed enough to want to know personally the same God the Israelites knew. (2) Israel would proclaim the truth of God and invite people from other nations to accept him in faith as shown by confession of belief in him and acceptance of his covenant. . . . (3) Israel would intercede for the rest of the world by offering acceptable offerings to God (both sacrifices and right behavior) and thus ameliorate the general distance between God and humankind. (4) Israel would keep the promises of God, preserving his word already spoken and recording his word as it was revealed to them so that once the fullness of time had come, anyone in the whole world could promptly benefit from that great body of divinely revealed truth, that is, the Scriptures. (423)
As Sarna well summarizes, “the priest’s place and function within society must serve as the ideal model for Israel’s self-understanding of its role among the nations” (104; cf. Childs, 367).
So does מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים refer to Israel’s privileged position before God or her mediatorial relationship to the nations? This author suggests a both/and solution. Certainly, the immediate context deals with Israel’s relationship to God; the pericope contains no direct reference to Israel’s obligations to the nations. Nonetheless, Israel’s mediatorial relationship to the nations is a passive one, not an active one as in the case of modern missionaries; they are called, not necessarily to witness, but to be a witness. By being who they are called to be in relationship to God, they serve as priests unto the nations.
Gentry argues that מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ (“a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”) should be taken as one description, rather than two. These two parallel terms share a hendiadys relationship in which both descriptions consider the same topic from a variant perspective (318). Contrary to this perspective, Childs claims that apart from a brief parenthetical remark (כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ) three distinct descriptions are provided, which nonetheless ought “to be interpreted in relation to one another” (367). Childs claims that while סְגֻלָּה specifically addressed Israel’s relationship to God, מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים defines her relationship to her neighbors (367). Either way, for the sake of this brief paper, מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים will be examined on its own terms.