Exodus 19:16-20:21 Not-So-Close Encounters

Questions: To whom did God give His commands? How? Why? Where? Which? “Read More” to pursue answers.

Exodus 19:16-20:21

And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that [was] in the camp trembled.

Having dealt yesterday with the commandments in the abstract, today I want to consider them in context; in particular, I want to understand what the people (`am) who first heard them were feeling. When I read 20:18 (below), I realized I needed to go back to 19:16 (above) since both refer to the noise (qowl), lightning (baraq or lappiyd) and trumpets (showphar) coming from the mountain (har).

And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw [it], they removed, and stood afar off.

Their reaction was first to tremble (charad) and then to stay away (`amad rachowq). But what happens in between?

I was surprised to discover that the people as a whole appear to have met (qir’ah) with God (‘elohiym), at least from a distance:

And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.

Let me walk through the “blocking” (in the theatrical sense) to see how it all fits together. Moses first delivers (yatsa’) the people to the base (tachtiy) of the mountain. Then Yahweh (Y@hovah) apparently descends (yarad) towards the mountain, with much (m@`od) fanfare:

And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.

Moses, who presumably is still with the people at this time, calls out (dabar) to God, who replies (`anah):

And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.

Next it looks as if God lands (yarad) on the mountaintop (ro’sh), and calls (qara’) Moses to come up (`alah).

And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses [up] to the top of the mount; and Moses went up.

But, apparently all God wants at the moment is for Moses to go back down (yarad) and warn (`uwd) the people not to crash (harac) the meeting:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.

Moses protests that they’re properly delimited (gabal):

And Moses said unto the LORD, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.

But that doesn’t satisfy God, who still makes him go (yalak):

And the LORD said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the LORD, lest he break forth upon them.

Interesting how Aaron gets a pass. Anyway, Moses takes the hint and goes (yarad) back to the people for another warning talk (‘amar):

So Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them.

Which would imply that — unlike in the movies — Moses is actually down on the ground with all the people, listening along with them when God tells (dabar dabar) the Ten Commandments to everybody:

And God spake all these words, saying,

Fascinating. As well as reminding me to not trust Hollywood , it forces me to rethink how God wants to communicate with us. On the one hand, God is very strict about not letting just anyone approach. On the other, He broadcasts His core message to the entire audience — the heart of which seems to be:

I [am] the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

That is:
a) I am Yahweh (Y@hovah)
b) I am your God (‘elohiym)
c) I am your deliverer (yatsa’)
d) Nobody (‘acher) else is

I find it strange that the first commandment is phrased in the negative — not having other gods, versus “worship me alone.” Then again, so are virtually all the others (as discussed yesterday):

II. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

III. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain

IV. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

V. Honour thy father and thy mother

VI. Thou shalt not kill.

VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal.

IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.

To be sure, the repeated phrase “Thou shalt not” doesn’t seem to be in the Hebrew, presumably being part of the conjugation (e.g., “Kill not!”). But apart from (IV) and (V), everything is phrased in the negative. Perhaps more significantly, the whole tone of this passage is negative: don’t come too close! And the people certainly seem to get that point (finally picking up after to 20:18).

And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.

I’ve heard some commentators chide the Israelites for not wanting to hear (shama`) from God directly, but that seems unfair. Apart from a few foundational truths like these, God really does seem to want them to get their information from Moses. In fact, the whole display appears calculated to literally put the fear (yare’) of God upon them:

And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.

And in fact, that’s what happens; the people stay (`amad) away (rachowq) while Moses draws near (nagash):

And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God [was].

At the same time, I sympathize with those commentators. As a good Protestant, it rankles to have a priest interposed between me and God. As a charismatic, intimacy with God is one of my chief desires. This flies in the face of almost everything I’ve been taught about having a relationship with God. Surely the people deserve more! I can understand why some scholars see this as nothing more than a cheap ploy by Moses (and perhaps Aaron, who was also invited up) to maintain control over the Israelites by playing on their superstitions.

And yet…

The majesty, sovereignty and sheer otherness of God is not something to take lightly. Maybe having a healthy fear and respect for God really is an essential precondition to intimacy — especially given where the Israelites were coming from.

Too, it does seem that God chooses to work through human leaders, whom He wants us to trust. Even though they’re insecure, unreliable, and whiny — as we’ve already seen Moses to be.

Why? I don’t know. I do know that a similar dynamic seems to be at work in human fatherhood, where to the extent we are in awe of our fathers, their approval and validation becomes that much more powerful. This thus reflects a hermeneutic principle I call “contextual optimality” — that we see God doing the best He can for His people at that time, based on where they are and what He has to work with. That doesn’t mean He’ll always treat us the exact same way, or ask precisely the same things of us, but does imply He’ll do something similar in similar situations, because its the “right” thing to do.

For whatever reasons, God decided it was more important for the Israelites to first learn to fear Him and listen to Moses (rather than, say, the other way around). I suspect the fact that I dislike this approach says more about me than it does Him…


God, I am reminded once again that the first command is to acknowledge You as Lord and God, and not to place my own understanding or desires over the brute fact of Your existence, and the obligation I have to You as Your child and creation. Perhaps I too need to return to Sinai, to relearn that holy fear you took such pains to teach the children of Israel. Grant me a vision of you power and splendor, and remind me of my frailty and weakness. Grant me grace and humility to receive the words You’ve truly spoken through the prophets, priests, and apostle’s you’ve called. Yet Lord, at the same time, do not quench the desire I have to draw near to you, since you are not just my God, but also my Father in Christ. And it is in His name I pray, Amen.

About the Title:

God’s mountaintop appearance has an interesting resonance with the groundbreaking Close Encounters of the Third Kind that was a huge phenomena in my youth.