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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

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Commentary on Exodus

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Chs 19–24 :

The theophany, covenant, and laws at Sinai. The momentous encounter with God at Sinai is, for the Torah, the defining and seminal moment in Israel's relationship with God. Nevertheless, it is extraordinarily difficult to follow. It was transmitted in multiple versions that differed about the nature of the event and what God communicated to the people. The text clearly combines material from J, E, and P, but the relative paucity of identifying characteristics in several vv. has made it more difficult than usual to reach a consensus about which source they belong to. The combination of these sources, based on the redactor's perception that they are all true, resulted in significant tensions within the narrative. For example, according to 19.9 , the theophany was to be auditory: The people would hear God speaking to Moses, although it is not clear what they would hear. According to v. 19 it was a dialogue (possibly consisting of vv. 20–25 ), but 20.1 says that it was the Decalogue. In contrast, in 19.11 God speaks of a visual rather than auditory theophany, although in v. 21 He warns against the people trying “to gaze.” The account of Moses' writing and communicating the laws during the covenant ceremony in 24.3 and 7 apparently refers to the laws of 20.19–23.33 and seems unaware of the Decalogue; only in 24.12 does God summon him to receive the stone tablets, which played no role in the covenant just concluded ( 24.3–8 ). Moses' reports in 19.8b and 9b are redundant, as are God's two descents to the mountain ( 19.18a, 20a ), while “Come up to the LORD” ( 24.1 ) is a non sequitur since Moses has already done so ( 20.18 ). Despite, or perhaps because of, these tensions, the narrative has great power, expressing the multifaceted, ambiguous nature of revelation.

19.1–25 :

The theophany.

1–2 :

The anomalous order (contrast 16.1 ) seems designed to foreground the date because of the historic significance of what will happen at Sinai. The third new moon, the new moon of Sivan, counting the new moon of Nisan as the first ( 12.2 n. ). The Israelites will remain at Sinai for just short of a year (Num. 10.11 ). The wilderness of Sinai, the wilderness surrounding Mount Sinai, where Moses' mission had begun (see 3.1 and n.). The arrival there heralds the fulfillment of God's promise to Moses ( 3.12 ).

3–6 :

God announces the purpose, first revealed in 6.6–7 , toward which everything has led: Having redeemed Israel, as promised, He proposes a covenant relationship, as promised in 6.7 . This relationship is modeled on ancient royal covenants, in which a citizenry accepted a king, and on suzerainty treaties, in which a weaker king accepted a more powerful one as his suzerain. The covenant proposed here goes beyond the one established with Israel's ancestors (Gen. chs 15, 17 ). Here, God imposes specific, detailed obligations and, in return, promises Israel an especially close relationship with Him. This covenant, along with the earlier one, became the basis on which Judaism defined its relationship with God. As befits the solemnity of the proposal, much of God's statement is in a quasi‐poetic style, marked by parallelism and metaphors. According to the final form of the text, the terms of the covenant—which is formally established in 24.7–8 —are the Decalogue ( 20.2–14 ) and the “Book of the Covenant” ( 20.19–23.33 ).

3 :

House of Jacob, the Israelites, Jacob's descendants ( 1.1–5 ). According to Mek. Baḥodesh 2 , this phrase refers specifically to the women, while the children of Israel refers to the men.

4 :

God reminds Israel of what He has already done, since in the ancient Near East a suzerain's prior benefactions to a vassal, such as delivering him from enemies, are the vassal's motivation to accept a treaty with him (cf. 20.2–3 ). You have seen: The premise of the covenant is Israel's national experience. From biblical times on, Jewish belief has been based primarily on Jewish historical experience rather than speculative thought. On eagles' wings: God led Israel swiftly and safely through the wilderness, like an eagle training its young to fly, catching them on its back when they tire or fall. Cf. Deut. 32.11–12 . To Me, to Mount Sinai/Horeb, “the mountain of God.”

5 :

Treasured possession, Heb “segulah” is personal property: the private property of a king, as distinct from that used for public purposes (1 Chron. 29.3; Eccl. 2.8 ), or of economic dependents, such as a wife's nest egg or the “peculium” of a son or slave. One's personal stake in his private property gives it the connotation of something “treasured.” Although God owns all things, if Israel accepts His covenant He will cherish Israel because of His personal relationship with it. A Hittite king described one of his vassals by this term, and an ancient Syrian royal seal describes the king as the servant, beloved, and treasure of the gods.

5b–6a :

Although all the (peoples of the) world are mine, if you obey My covenant it is you who shall be My kingdom of priests and a holy nation: enjoying the status of priests, close to God and sacrosanct (Deut. 26.19; 28.9 ; and esp. Isa. 61.6; 62.12 ; for “holy meaning sacrosanct and inviolable,” see Jer. 2.3 ). Deuteronomy (Deut. 7.1–6; 14.2, 21 ) and later Jewish tradition converted this from a promise to a responsibility (noblesse oblige) requiring the entire Jewish people, not just the priests, to live by a code of holiness—God's commandments—and to serve as priests, bringing knowledge of Him to the world.

7 :

All that the Lord had commanded him, in vv. 3–6 .

8 :

Although they have not yet heard the terms of the covenant, the people willingly and unanimously accept God's proposal and promise to obey Him, as they reconfirm twice in 24.3, 7 .

8b–13 :

Vv. 8b–9a and 9b–13 seem to be alternative versions of Moses' report to God and God's reply. According to 8b–9a , God replied by telling Moses, privately, that He would come and speak to Moses in the people's hearing in order to confirm Moses' credibility. According to vv. 9b–13 He told Moses to prepare the people for His coming appearance, but did not divulge its purpose (cf. 20.17 ).

9a :

In order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after: Once the people personally overhear God and Moses conversing (v. 19b ), they will be convinced once and for all that Moses really is God's prophet. This conviction, first instilled in 4.1–9 and 14.31 , is essential for their acceptance of all the rest of the Torah, which God communicates through Moses after the people decline to hear Him directly following the Decalogue ( 20.16 ). In classical Jewish thought, the fact that the entire nation witnessed God speaking to Moses is the definitive evidence that the Torah is from God (Judah Halevi, Kuzari 1:87–88 ; Maimonides, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 8:1), though according to Saadia Gaon, this demonstration of the truth of Judaism was only a stopgap until the Jewish people could derive the same lesson by the slower process of reasoning (Beliefs and Opinions, Introductory Treatise, sec. 6 ).

9b–13 :

God's descent to the mountain will turn it into a holy place and it will accordingly have to be safeguarded from impurity and encroachment by zones of increasingly restricted access, like the Tabernacle.

10 :

Warn them to stay pure, lit. “purify them,” possibly meaning “have them purify themselves”—by laundering (cf. Lev. 11.25, 28, 40, etc.), abstaining from sexual relations (v. 15 ), and possibly by bathing as well (2 Sam. 11.2, 4 ).

11 :

Purification the day before witnessing a manifestation of God's power is also prescribed in Num. 11.18; Josh. 3.5; cf. Josh. 7.13 . Here an extra day is prescribed because of the momentousness of the event. Come down, from His dwelling‐place in heaven.

12 :

Set bounds, temporarily (see v. 13b ). Cf. 3.5; Josh. 5.15 . Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death, like unauthorized persons who encroach upon the sanctuary (Num. 3.10, 38 ).

13 :

Since violators become subject to death for touching the holy mountain (cf. Num. 4.15; 1 Chron. 13.10 ), they must be executed by methods that do not require touching them, lest they infect their executioners with its fatal holiness. Shot, by arrow. When the ram's horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain: It is never reported that this happened. The v. could mean that a final, long blast of the trumpet will later indicate when God has left the mountain and it is safe for people to go up; alternately, it reflects a different tradition that did not believe that contact with the mountain was deadly.

15 :

Do not go near a woman: Sexual relations produce ritual impurity, which disqualifies one from entering the sanctuary (Lev. 15.18; 1 Sam. 21.5–6 ). Some modern Jewish feminist exegesis, noting that this clause is clearly addressed to the men only and that it was not part of God's instructions in vv. 10–13 , infers that not regarding women as part of the active community reflects Moses' own, male‐centered, viewpoint, not God's. For a more inclusive view of women, see Deut. 29.10; 31.12 .

16 :

Thunder…lightning…dense cloud…: The arrival of God (v. 18 ) is heralded by these awesome forces of nature serving like a king's outrunners (2 Sam. 15.1; 1 Kings 1.5 ) and by a loud blast of the horn. See also 1 Kings 19.11–13; Hab. 3.3–5; Pss. 18.8–16; 68.9–10 . Outside the Bible these phenomena also appear in theophanies, particularly of storm gods. In Israelite tradition, although the LORD is no mere storm god, these motifs were taken over to describe the overwhelming power and majesty of the direct experience of the divine.

18 :

The Lord had come down upon it in fire, see 3.2 n. Like the smoke of a kiln, cf. Gen. 19.28 .

19 :

As Moses spoke, God answered him: The Heb verbs are iterative, indicating that Moses kept speaking and God kept answering him; what the people overheard was a dialogue. Its contents are not specified (it cannot be the dialogue of vv. 20–24 since Moses conveyed its contents to the people [v. 25 ], and it cannot be the Decalogue since that is a monologue; in the present context, however, the redactor may have believed it was one of those). In thunder, in a thunderous voice; cf. Pss. 18.14; 29.3–9; Job 40.9 .

21–24 :

Further instructions to prevent the people from encroaching and dying.

21 :

Lest many of them perish, see 3.6 n.; 33.20; cf. Num. 4.20; 1 Sam. 6.19 .

22 :

Even the priests who come near the Lord when performing their sacrificial duties ( 28.43; Ezek. 44.13 ) must stay pure, or “purify themselves,” like the rest of the people. Although priests will later have access to the sanctuary, at the theophany they are restricted like the rest of the people. Break out, strike them down; cf. 2 Sam. 6.8 .

23 :

Sanctify it, treat it like a sanctuary, by the restrictions specified above.

24 :

Come back together with Aaron: The summit of the mountain, like the Holy of Holies, is accessible only to Moses ( 25.22; 26.33; Lev. 16.3 ).

25 :

Spoke to them: He told them what God had said in vv. 21–24 .

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