Yitro (Exodus 18:1 – 20:23)

EXODUS 18:1-12

The scandal of the Torah to the world at large is God’s particular relationship with Israel. It is keenly felt by Bible readers who are not Jewish. The common Christian response is to deemphasize or allegorize Israel’s peoplehood and specific covenant with God. In other words, Torah depicts one people on earth as having a specific, exclusive, and hereditary covenant with God. But Christianity believes that God’s relationship with people is universal, not specific to any ethnic identity. Given that the Torah is part of the “sacred text” of Christianity, how can these two disparate ideas be reconciled? The usual answer in Christianity is a kind of allegorization: Israel is a figure for “the church.” Much that is said about Israel can be reinterpreted as God’s love for the church.

This is not a consistent or rational explanation at all. Nor does it concord with the literary evidence or even the theological rationale used in the New Testament for relating “Jew and Gentile.”

In a theology more closely tied to the text of Torah, prophets, and New Testament, we see that God has always had both a universal love for all human beings and, at the same time, an exclusive relationship with Israel. The two ideas are not at odds. A reader does not have to explain away the one — the covenant with the Israelites — to make sense of the other — God’s salvation and love offered to all of humanity.

Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, is case in point. Unlike some other key figures in biblical history (Ephraim and Manasseh, Caleb, Ruth), Jethro does not become an Israelite. He remains a Gentile, a Midianite. Yet we read of him bringing burnt offerings to Adonai and eating a sacred meal at the base of Sinai with Aaron the high priest and all the elders of Israel.

Jethro’s inclusion in the people of God is complete. There is no divide, no barrier at all between his identity and his relationship with God. God accepts this Gentile who comes to him without requiring him to become something other than what he is. Jethro exemplifies the Abrahamic promise: I will bless all the families of the earth through your offspring. He comes to know God through Moses and the Israelites.

Jethro hears of the Exodus (1-4), Jethro brings Zipporah and sons to Moses at Sinai (5-9), Jethro’s faith and covenant with Israel (10-12).

Torah does not follow a chronological order, at least not always. It tells the Jethro story out of sequence, as recognized by virtually all commentators ancient and new. Jethro comes to Moses while Israel is encamped at Mount Sinai, as it says in vs. 5, “where he [Moses] was camping at the mountain of God.” But Israel does not arrive at Sinai until chapter 19.

We find that Jethro has been caring for Moses’ family throughout the events of the Exodus. This is new information. A midrashic story [a creative exposition by the rabbis] exists explaining that Aaron argued Moses into leaving his family with Jethro and not bringing them into the perils of Egypt.

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is called by two or possibly three different names in Torah. Some would argue (Cassuto, for example) that the name Reuel is used when he is depicted as a Midianite priest, but Jethro when his relationship to Moses is in view. Cassuto also argues that Hobab is the son of Reuel/Jethro. But this is really Cassuto avoiding the more obvious explanation: Jethro is the name the E source uses and Reuel is the name in the J source. As for Hobab, he is Reuel/Jethro’s son (Num 10:29) who is mistakenly called Moses’ father-in-law in Judges 4:11. The name “Jethro” means something like “abundance” or “superiority.”

How do we explain this narrative being placed here out of sequence? It comes right after the story of the battle with the Amalekites. The Kenite clan of Midianites, of which Jethro is a priest, is also a Bedouin type people like the Amalekites. Torah i showing that Israel’s feud is not with all the nomadic desert dwellers, but only the Amalekites specifically. Radak (David Kimhi) explains, in a comment on Judges 1:16, that this story is here to show the contrast between Kenites and Amalekites in Israel’s dealings (Sarna). This is strengthened by a reference in 1 Samuel 15:6 (Sarna).

Jethro offers animals as burnt offerings to Adonai and dines at a sacred meal with Aaron and Moses and the elders of Israel. Torah is showing that Jethro is in a covenant relationship with Israel and that God accepts the worship and allegiance of non-Israelites. Interestingly, Jethro does not submit to circumcision and does not join the tribes of Israel as a convert. He is accepted as a gentile.

EXODUS 18:13-23

The Torah makes justice a central issue. The story on the way to Sinai includes this scene with Moses’ father-in-law helping organize a system of justice for the fledgling nation. The law code which is soon to come in Exodus 20 will give priority to justice as a matter of Israel’s founding principles. Deuteronomy will famously say, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (16:20). The prophets rail against injustice in society and declare it to be the reason for Israel’s downfall. Isaiah 1:23 says: “Your rulers are defiant, accomplices of thieves. Each of them loves a bribe and chases after payments. They do not adjudicate for orphans and the case of a widow does not come before them.”

God cares about the plight of those who are treated poorly, who become victims of the powerful. The thousand daily injustices that occur around us are part of the evil he will annihilate in bringing down the world to come over this present world.

Jethro’s description of what qualifies a man (yes, the Israelites tended to see men as leaders, with a few notable exceptions) rings with poetry and truth. אַנְשֵׁי־חַיִל anshei chayil, which could be rendered “men of ability” or “valiant men.” יִרְאֵי אֱלֹהִים yir’ei Elohim, “those who revere God.” אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת anshei ‘emet, “men of truth.” שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע sōn’ei vatzat, “those who hate a bribe.” The form of this description uses repetition, as is common in Hebrew poetry:

“Envision from all the people,
valiant men, those who revere God,
men of truth, those who hate a bribe.”

It’s a simple standard we can apply to ourselves and to those we choose to lead us in our society.

Moses judges morning to evening (13), Jethro criticizes this procedure (14-18), Jethro proposes a judiciary and a hierarchy (19-23).

One of the first issues of peoplehood is government. Remarkably, Israel gave credit for one of its major institutions to the Midianite father-in-law of its founding leader. When Deuteronomy retells the story, Jethro is not mentioned (see Deut 1:9).

Moses’ work of judging involves two basic categories: deciding suits and giving instruction in divine law and guidance. Jethro advises that Moses continue to do what only he can do: represent the people to God as a mediator and fulfill the role of the ultimate teacher of divine law. But beneath him he can appoint lower judges to handle suits and to instruct in law.

Vs. 21 gives an interesting set of qualification for judges: men of worth (character), who fear God (obedient), men of truth (having integrity), who hate unjust gain (not motivated by bribes). The idea of some being over thousands and others over hundreds, fifties, and tens puts the military ordering of Israel into the judicial system as well. Jethro’s system establishes a hierarchy, with Moses remaining as the supreme court for difficult cases.

EXODUS 18:24-27

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Covenant and Conversation) observes that לֹא־טוֹב lō tōv, “not good,” occurs only twice in the Torah. Jethro uses it when he observes Moses working all day long to hear the cases of the people. And it is used in Genesis 2 where God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

God is about to declare Israel “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). But before he does we get this passage about the work of justice and appointing many leaders among the people. Rabbi Sacks observes that when it comes to monarchy, the work of ruling alone, this is fitting only for God. But in terms of human leadership, the task must be spread out among many people. He calls it a democratization of leadership.

The Torah is very definite in its approach to this topic. God is about to give the Ten Words, the summation of the covenant code by a representative ten commandments. And the story preceding it, about Jethro and Moses and the emergence of a justice system in Israel, is filled with the symbolic use of the numbers seven and ten (see “Overview” below for the details).

What is the covenant with Israel really? Why is Torah so much about this idea of a covenant involving instructions, leadership, wisdom, uprightness, and the pursuit of an ideal people in a land of blessing?

God is showing Israel that life in this present world can be more like life in the world to come. Or we can say, since the concept of afterlife is not something Torah teaches about specifically, life in the human sphere can be more like the ideal, the plane where God resides, where things like death and injustice are conquered and abolished.

The work of ridding society of all things evil is not a simple task. It is not something we are likely to accomplish in a hundred lifetimes. But Torah holds up the ideal and urges us to work toward it. In great wisdom the sages said, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:1, Mishnah).

It is not good that we relinquish the role of leading the world to a small group of powerful people. There are wrongs to right and injustices to fight and powerless people who need our help. Torah’s ideal is that many people, able men and women who fear God and hate corruption, would get involved. Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, is everyone’s job.

Moses follows Jethro’s plan (24-25), hard cases referred up to Moses (26), Jethro returns to his country (27).

In every section of Exodus, Cassuto notes the use of numbers and repetitions in the text. In this Jethro story, for example, the final editor has used the numbers seven and ten. The number seven needs no explanation, but the use of ten is likely an allusion to the ten words (commandments) that are about to be given.

Jethro occurs seven times in chapter 18. To make this happen, his name is not used after vs. 12. After that he is simple called Moses’ father-in-law. Father-in-law occurs thirteen times and, when added to Jethro, makes for twenty uses, which is two times ten. The word davar (word, thing) occurs ten times (not counting one plural use, devarim). Of course, the ten words of Exodus 20 are each one individually a davar. The verb asa (do, make) occurs ten times and the ten words are things (devarim) to be done (asa).

Jethro is a figure like Melchizedek in some ways, a priest of a foreign people who recognizes in Israel the work of the true God and who joins with the faithful.

EXODUS 19:1-6

It is a common sentiment in Jewish life, “Being chosen hasn’t been the best for us.” History has borne out the tragedy of the Jewish situation, a peculiar people, a nation that will not completely assimilate, a a tribe despised by many and persecuted.

Many Bible readers who are not of Jewish descent either assume that they too are included in the chosen-ness expressed in Exodus 19 or they desire it as if it were a blessing greatly to be wished.

Sabbath. Dietary law. Wearing fringes. Eighth day circumcision. Being a son or daughter of the commandment (bar or bat mitzvah). Fasting on Yom Kippur. Eating matzah for the seven days of Passover. Reciting Shema. The calling “you will be for me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” is not an empty divine proclamation. Nor is it n easy lifestyle to live out in practice.

Even so, many who are not Jewish desire it. The mistake is when people individualize this calling and these promises: “I want this for me.” But it is not for me, for you (singular). It is for us (if you are Jewish) or them (if you are not). It is a calling for a group, a people, a tribe.

Another mistake is making it a principle instead of reading it as a specific covenant: “If I keep Sabbath and dietary law, I will be a priest and a holy person and God will bless me.”

The promise is for a particular nation living in a specific land carrying out a distinct way of life which, if it is fully embraced by the whole nation, will bring paradise on earth. To relativize or individualize the Torah covenant is to ruin it.

But isn’t it unfair? Are the majority of God’s sons and daughters on this planet unloved, unholy, and without a priesthood? May it never be! From beginning to end the Bible offers blessing and a way of life to all the nations, the Goyim, the Gentiles, all the families of the earth. The particular covenant with Israel is like a father’s way with his firstborn child, but he loves all his children. If he loves the oldest with everlasting love, all people will know he has that same kind of love for them too.

Israel arrives at Sinai (1-2), Moses goes up to hear from God on the mountain (3), I bore you on eagle’s wings (4), you will be my treasured possession (5), you will be a kingdom of priests (6).

The Israelites arrive at Sinai on “the very day,” the בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה bayyōm hazzeh. That is, they come to the mountain on the first day of the third month. They left Egypt on a full moon (Passover, being the fifteenth on the Bible’s lunar calendar, is always full moon). The month was Aviv (now called Nisan) when they left. They traveled through Iyar and arrived the first day of Sivan. It was the first day of the seventh week, a fitting number for a holy occasion.

A few days after they arrived, more than three days for sure, God would give the ten words that epitomize the Torah. The Biblical holiday known as Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) begins on the fifth of Sivan, perhaps exactly the same day the Torah was spoken from Sinai.

Cassuto observes that the first two verses of our chapter are told in a poetic rhythm following a 2:2 | 2:2 pattern. This section is treated as of higher importance and the poetic language elevates its diction to alert the reader that momentous events are occurring. The story does not begin with the usual וַיְהִי vayehi, “and it happened,” but with a record of the day of the year on which they arrived. It is a high occasion. The whole account is elevated discourse. The people make camp, but Moses goes up, immediately and without rest. The divine voice comes to Moses from the mountain, apparently with Moses nearby but not at the top. This is an audible voice, as indicated by the verbs used for speech.

In a land of mountains and desert, the eagle is a good metaphor for God bringing his people out of bondage. He has brought them, as an eagle carrying its young (cf. Deut 32:10-11), to a safe mountain peak.

Vs. 5 is the first mention of a covenant God is making with the Exodus generation (prior mentions in the book refer to the covenant with the patriarchs). The covenant formula is simple: if Israel will diligently obey (an infinitive plus finite verb clause, שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ, shamō’a’ tishme’u) and keep covenant with God (שְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־בְּרִיתִי, shemartem et-beriti) then God will take Israel as the treasured people of all the nations. This is to say, God is God of all the peoples of the world, but he will make Israel his treasured people, the ones closest to his heart. God emphasizes “all the earth is mine,” so he already is Lord of Israel and all other nations.

This taking of Israel is a new step in the relationship, but God’s dominion already exists in fact. Vs. 6 teaches that Israel will be as priests to the other nations. That is, we will be set apart for a special holy calling in life and other peoples will learn of God from us. The Sinai covenant is a missionary calling, a calling not embraced adequately by the people of Israel, though the prophets and psalmists celebrated it. Cassuto says, “The proposal envisages a bilateral covenant, giving Israel an exalted position among the peoples in [light] of the acceptance of a special discipline.” Sabbath, dietary law, tzitzit, and the laws of the sanctuary are a special discipline for Israel alone as the priestly people among the nations. Israel’s holiness requirements are to be higher than those of the nations.

EXODUS 19:7-19

Two related themes confront us in this Sinai narrative: the mystery of God’s being and the act of belief and obedience his Presence demands. The people, unlike Moses, saw a puzzle, a bewildering riddle, that challenged their ability and willingness to believe. God withheld a fuller revelation of his being from them. We might ask why God did not show himself as clearly to everyone as he did to Moses. We also wonder why some people get more insight than others. What is the relationship between God disclosing himself and our belief?

The Sinai story is a mosaic pieced together from both the northern kingdom’s version (E) and that of the southern kingdom (J). There are repetitions as well as difficult to fit together genres including cosmic mountain, covenant making, priestly instructions, and prophetic oracles (Carol Meyers, New Cambridge Bible Commentary). The final edited narrative requires the reader to do some harmonizing and read between the lines a bit to make sense.

It is a story of a theophany, a mystery. “I am coming to you in a thick cloud,” God says (literally “in the thickness of the cloud,” בְּעַב הֶעָנָן). God explains the reason for the thick cloud, “In order that the people may hear when I am speaking with you and also trust in your ever after.” The theophany (visible manifestation) of God is related to the purpose of creating trust (belief) in the minds of the people. God fosters faith by the manner of his appearance on the mountain. What does this all mean?

God’s appearance is related to the act of belief and obedience required from the people. They will primarily see that God reveals himself to Moses. The revelation to the people is less direct. This is a huge realization, because for nearly all people the disclosure of God comes through human messengers and ancient texts rather than personal, direct revelation. To say it simply: our faith is based to a large degree on words in a book passed down to us (a.k.a., the Bible).

The human element of faith, the fact that it comes to us mediated by people, those who came before us and those who teach us now, is a reality of an invisible and hidden God. God hides himself and we can only look to teachers from the past to find the truth about God’s nature and his will.

The Bible does not depict faith as a straightforward exercise, but rather believing in spite of. In spite of mystery. In spite of hiddenness. In spite of the existence of evil. In spite of God’s apparent absence.

God is still showing himself from the thickness of the cloud. Like Israel, we perceive Moses and the priests and prophets and sages going in to hear from God. The message is mediated to us through them. And yet, if we commit ourselves to the act of belief, it is powerful: “We have never been the same since the day on which the voice of God overwhelmed us at Sinai,” (Heschel, God in Search of Man).

The people commit to the Sinai covenant (7-8), God will appear to Moses in a thick cloud (9), consecration of the people for three days (10-15), the signs of theophany begin (16-19).

Israel commits to follow the covenant, but the reader knows this commitment will be short-lived. The togetherness of the people at Mount Sinai, with everyone committing to the covenant, is typical of human nature. In moments of great inspiration we are willing, but even shortly after we pledge, we begin to fail. So right after Sinai we will see the people not living up to this great affirmation. The story is a reminder to every generation: we accepted God’s calling and committed to it. Now we have to live it.

The peak of Sinai is like the Holy of Holies, says Ibn Ezra. Moses alone can enter and God’s Glory appears, but is veiled in cloud. Moses will see no form. The people can only see the invisible God from a distance as a Glory (shining light) within a cloud. A famous book of Christian mysticism calls it the Cloud of Unknowing. This unknown writer says we can perceive God with love and not with our eyes.

God makes much of the mediator role of Moses. The reader knows God can and does appear in many forms. Why did he choose a Light within a Cloud? This veiled appearance allows the people to see Moses approaching God and entering the cloud. Therefore they know that Moses met with God and brought true instruction back. They have assurance that Moses is a reliable messenger and servant. Yet they will not perceive the deeper mysteries of God which are too much for people to handle, except, it seems, for a few strong individuals.

God orders the people to “consecrate” themselves. This is slightly problematic because no purity laws have been given. The only purification rituals Israel knows at this point would be from the surrounding nations and their worship practices. Yet they find now that in preparation for an appearance of a powerful theophany they must launder their clothes. They must keep away from the mountain, which is now holy and not to be profaned by human contact other than Moses. They must abstain from sexual intercourse in order, again, to be symbolically pure for the revelation.

When the day comes, God’s manifestation is not in some form of being or creature, but of storm, fire, smoke, earthquake, and cloud. In many other texts God is described not as being the storm itself, but in the storm or as a rider of the cloud. The atmospheric signs are not God himself, but rather like his footprints or heralds of his coming. God appears as a fire in a thick cloud at the summit. The thunderous sounds mix with a sound like the shofar. In the future, the shofar blast will be associated with God’s voice.

EXODUS 19:20 – 20:14 (17 in Christian Bibles)

The Torah given on Mount Sinai sets forth the essence and epitome of God’s requirements for Israel in a short set of ten “words,” often referred to as the Ten Commandments. How these Ten Commandments are numbered depends on whether you follow the Jewish, Catholic-Orthodox, or Protestant enumeration. Is it possible to go back, before traditions altered the way readers view these commandments?

They are given as the first look into God’s covenant requirements for Israel, a people being chosen as the priestly nation among all of the nations of the world. They are not comprehensive, but representative. They show the kinds of things a priestly nation will do and not do. They contain prohibitions and performative commandments. They contain theological statements such as “I am Adonai your God,” “I am a jealous God,” and “in six days Adonai made heaven and earth.”

The Ten Commandments contain three major ideas. Sole allegiance to Adonai. Moral prohibitions for a just society. The establishment of the weekly Sabbath as Israel’s “temple in time” (meaning that the commandment sanctifies a regular time and makes sacred a recurring occasion).

The ethical treatises and codes of other nations tended to be written by the king as a sort of moral justification for his reign. Israel’s code is a covenant with the divine. The Ten Commandments used to have a more central place in Jewish worship and liturgy until the early centuries of the common era when Christian theology claimed them for Christianity and denied Israel’s place as God’s priestly people. Therefore the Ten were removed from their prominent place in Jewish liturgy and prayer and relegated to a lower status.

Perhaps those of us who might want to reclaim their significance should do so by reciting them. If we keep in mind that they came from a divine theophany and that they are the epitome of the covenant, then we will read them as words of primary importance. Exclusive loyalty to God, uprightness in our actions, and remembering God in the weekly cycle of time — these are the practices set forth by the Ten Commandments. Their place in our lives should not be understated.

A second bounding of the mountain as sacred (20-25), the Ten Words (20:1-14 (17 in Chr Bibles)).

Moses ascends Sinai three times in chapter 19: in vss. 3-8 where he receives the basic promise of the covenant, in vss. 9-15 where he receives commandments about bounding off the mountain and purifying the people, and then from vs. 16-24 where he receives a second command to warn the people. He will apparently ascend the mountain again before chapter 20, though the text does not mention this fourth ascent.

The bounding off of the mountain is heavily emphasized, coming up three times in the chapter. In the theology of the priests of Israel the realm of the “holy” (“sacred,” “that which is designated for divine purpose”) is dangerous. Misuse of sacred things is a kind of blasphemy and may cause death. The seeming purpose of the concept of “holiness” (in its biblical sense and not its watered down religious sense) is to teach how different the divine realm is from the human. There are things in the human realm which are completely unacceptable in the divine.

Vs. 22 mentions Israel’s “priests,” but this seems problematic since the Levitical priesthood of Israel has not yet been established. We see in Numbers 3:11-13 and 8:16-18 the firstborn in Israel were the priestly class before God established the Levitical priesthood.

Moses comes down the mountain for the final warning to the people to avoid crossing into the holiness of Mount Sinai when God’s manifestation is upon it. Without a word, we are to assume that Moses ascended a fourth time and brought Aaron with him (see vs. 24) before God speaks the “Ten Words” in chapter 20.

What are these covenant “words,” often referred to as the “Ten Commandments,” though the Bible does not call them this? It is only in Deuteronomy that they are first called the “Ten Words” (as in Deut 4:13). In fact, here in Exodus 20 (and also when repeated in Deuteronomy 5) they are not numbered. Which is the first “word” and are there exactly ten?

Lacking any clear enumeration, it happens that three different religious streams over time have numbered them three different ways: the Jewish, Catholic-Orthodox, and Protestant versions of the Ten Commandments. In the Jewish numbering, “I am the Lord your God,” is the first. In the Catholic-Orthodox tradition, 20:1-6 is all the first commandment (in the end, the two commandments about coveting in vs. 17 of the Christian Bible become commandments 9 and 10). In the Protestant numbering, “you shall have no other gods” is the first and “you shall not make a sculptured image” is the second.

The Ten Words, as Deuteronomy calls them, are representative of the whole system of Torah. They are the epitome of a divine teaching made practical for a humanly imperfect world. They are the basis for making a society move closer to the ideal of the divine realm.

They are not, contrary to commonly held Christian notions, a universal law, but are very Israel-specific. It is a feature of later Christian theology that turned the Ten Commandments into a set of timeless moral principles. The text of the Torah repeatedly says these are covenant words between God and Israel. There is no statement in Torah relating these commandments to other nations besides Israel. Therefore, the obvious incongruity of the Sabbath commandment with Christianity (Christians do not keep the Sabbath) is best explained by the simple fact that the Ten Commandments are for the Jewish people. Attempts to relativize the Sabbath — weakening it to a command to set aside a day to attend religious services or making it a vague principle that human beings need rest — overlook completely the context of the book of Exodus. Perhaps what confuses Bible readers is the fact that most of what is in the Ten Commandments is basic morality. Of course Christians should not murder, steal, or bear false witness. But it is not the Ten Commandments themselves which make these actions wrong.

If we look at the Ten Words in Exodus 20 from the culture and worldview of ancient times, what can we say about them? What is unique about them? First, they demand sole allegiance to Adonai (without denying the existence of other gods). While there are examples in other ancient cultures of a primary allegiance to a particular god over and above other gods, no ancient religion was as strident as the Torah in demanding sole allegiance. Umberto Cassuto, in his Exodus commentary, also lists other unique qualities of these commandments. The emphasis on God’s transcendence, his separation from creation and lordship over it, goes beyond other nations’ conceptions of the divine. The institution of the weekly Sabbath is something new. “Sabbaths” in Near Eastern culture were occasional holidays proclaimed by the king and usually related to some royal accomplishment. Israel’s weekly Sabbath introduced the world to a new way of keeping time, dividing it into seven-day periods. The Torah invented the concept of the “week.”

EXODUS 20:15-23 (18-26 in Christian Bibles)

The study of the Torah is daily and continual and repetitive.For those who learn to appreciate this kind of study, it is a way of centering the soul and probing the deepest questions of our existence.

According to a beautiful sermon (midrash) from the ancient rabbis of Galilee (in Song of Songs Rabbah), Jewish boys and girls could have been born with innate Torah knowledge. If only the Israelites of the Sinai generation had not said, “You speak to us and we will obey, but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (20:16(19)), then they would have heard God’s own mouth disclosing Torah wisdom. If this had happened, according to the ancient midrash, Torah would have been implanted in the soul of every Jewish person indelibly.

The reason we need study — continual, ongoing, repetitive, rhythmic — is the surrendering of the divine voice at Sinai. Only Moses heard Torah in God’s voice.

But are the rabbis and sages really sad about this loss? Are we?

No, the act of engaging with Torah, mining its details like gems, is one of the joys of life (at least for some of us). If all this knowledge was innate, we would not be ready for it. This present world is not yet perfected. While we rise and fall on the waves of circumstance it is good for our minds, emotions, and all other faculties to be focused on learning. A day is coming when the knowledge of Adonai will fill the earth like water does the sea (Habakkuk 2, Isaiah 11). But this is not that time.

Books. Teachers. Ideas. Words. Commandments. Revealed things. Friends to discuss them with. Scrolls and decorated books. Commentaries. The world of Torah study is filled with them. Our condition as permanent learners is not a terrible fate.

Reading the Bible should be a rhythm, not a treasure hunt or school lesson. A rhythm is a cadence that moves us, a pulse we live by. It repeats and cycles. We find ourselves moving with it. The effect of rhythm on a person is powerful, irresistible. As the rabbis of ancient Galilee intended to say with their sermon, it could have been another way, but we’re happy with the way things are.

The people fear God’s voice (15-17), Moses hears from the cloud and relays it to Israel (18), instructions for worshipping (19-23).

Because the Sinai story is pieced together from multiple sources, it seems confusing in 20:15 (20:18 in Christian Bibles) when we read that the Israelites had just heard the thunder and the shofar (ram’s horn) and were afraid. It’s confusing because we last read about the terrifying sounds back in the previous chapter. But much has happened in between.

The reason for the chronological confusion is simple. Exodus 20:15 (18) picks up again with the E source, the northern kingdom’s version of the story, which we last heard from in 19:19. Everything in between 19:19 and 20:15 is from the J source and an ancient version of the Ten Words. The reader can see this if we place 19:19 right before 20:15 and read it as it probably was before the sources were combined:

“And the sound of the shofar was rising and becoming tremendously loud. Moses was speaking with God and he was answering with an audible voice (19:19). . . [Skipping over 19:20 – 20:14] . . . And all the people witnessed the thundering and lightning, the blast of the shofar and the mountain smoking. They saw it and trembled and stood at a distance (20:15).”

The E version of the giving of the Torah continues from 20:15 (20:18 n Christian Bibles) through the middle of chapter 24.

The surprising thing that the Torah is telling us is that the only part of the Torah the Israelites heard from God is the Ten Words. All the rest of the “Book of the Covenant” (21:1 – 23:33; see 24:7 for the origin of the name “Book of the Covenant”) was not spoken directly to Israel, but is the result of what God told Moses on Sinai.

The early rabbis, sages in Galilee in the early centuries of the common era, wrote homilies about this amazing fact, homilies known as midrashim (midrashim is the plural of midrash). These short sermons of the early rabbis have been passed down to us concise sayings meant to be easier to memorize. In Song of Songs Rabbah, a collection of these midrashim in which Song of Songs is interpreted as a love story between God and Israel, we find a remarkable midrash about Israel asking Moses to relay God’s words instead of God telling them directly.

If Israel had chosen to hear God’s voice for the whole Torah, the midrash says, then people would not have to study Torah. Had God’s own voice delivered the Torah directly, it would have become part of the very fabric of Jewish souls, being known to every Jew from birth. But since that generation allowed Moses to intermediate, that power was lost, and now Torah is constantly forgotten and must be learned over and over again. Therefore, said the sages, Torah requires continual study and repeating over and over again.

Prior to the giving of the “Book of the Covenant,” the text digresses briefly to give instructions for a makeshift altar and place for Israel to worship while Moses is on Sinai. 20:19-23 are provisions for worship before the Tabernacle is built. Earthen altars and stone altars were used by the patriarchs and will still be used even after the Tabernacle is built in various circumstances. No steel implement is to be used on altar stones. The rabbinic theory about this is that steel implements are weapons of war and unfit to come near the altar of God.