The Mount Sinai Narrative: A Literary Analysis

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by R. Gil Student

Seven weeks after the Exodus, the Jewish people gathered around the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. This historic experience is described primarily in five chapters: Exodus 19-24. 1)Although see also Deut. 4 In a 2015 book, Prof. Benjamin Sommer of JTS dissects this passage into multiple sources in which he finds different accounts and perspectives, on which he builds a theology of “participatory revelation” with human contribution to the content of Torah. 2)Revelation and Authority: Sinai and Scripture in Jewish Tradition (New Haven, CT, 2015). Prof. Sommer acknowledges that the problems he identifies in the text can be resolved with interpretation, although maybe not to his satisfaction (p. 32). I would like to offer an alternative way to read the text that uses literary techniques to highlight the unity of the text, rather than the contradictions he sees.

In doing so, I will quote from a variety of sources including some Evangelical scholars who do not believe in the unity/single-authorship of the entire text of the Pentateuch (Evangelical is a very broad term) but see this specific passage as a single unit. I do this with caution, because I believe that the entire Pentateuch (from beis to lamed) was dictated by God to Moshe. In the case of this specific passage, these scholars support my belief in the unity of the text. (This returns to a theme I have mentioned many times, that the elegant Documentary Hypothesis has collapsed and most scholars have moved on to elaborate, complex theories because divine dictation is not an option for them.)

I. The Overall Text

Broadly speaking, the text can be divided into five sections (using, of course, the division of chapters and verses common in contemporary Jewish Bibles):
1) Ex. 19:1-25 – Narrative about the covenant being offered
2) Ex. 20:1-14 – Laws (general): The Ten Commandments
3) Ex. 20:15-18 – Narrative about the people’s fear of God
4) Ex. 20:19-23:33 – Laws (specific): Mishpatim
5) Ex. 24:1-11 – Narrative about the covenant being received. 3)The above breakdown is adapted from Joseph Sprinkle, The Book of the Covenant: A Literary Approach, p. 27.

Sommer, following his teacher Prof. Baruch Schwartz, divides the text into three sources (Revelation and Authority, pp. 46, 53, 61):
1) P: 19:1-2a; 24:16b-18a
2) E: 19:2b-9a, 16a-17, 19; 20:1-23:33; 24:3-8, 11b-15, 18b
3) J: 19:9b-16a, 18, 20-25; 24:1-2, 9-11a

As you can see, they leave Ex. 20-23 intact and only divide Ex. 19 and 24 into different sources. Therefore, we will first address chapter 19, then chapter 24 and then the overall flow of the entire text.

II. Chapter 19

Cassutto points out that Ex. 19 is written poetically, with the first two verses in meter (which can be seen more clearly by looking at the cantillation/trop), and God’s instruction to Moshe in verse 3 likewise. These verses diverge from standard narrative prose, indicating to readers that we are reading something special. (Note that this crosses sources according to Sommer.) Cassutto considers this entire Mount Sinai passage the peak, the most important section, of the Pentateuch. We will soon be surprised to see exactly which part is the real peak of this passage. Nahum Sarna (JPS Torah Commentary, Ex. 19:16) points out that the Bible’s frequent use of upheavals of nature in association with God’s revelation, as seen also in this passage, is confined to poetic texts.

In this chapter, we see Moshe going up and down the mountain, in conversation with God and the people. The activity can be confusing, and indeed probably was confusing to the people at the time. Similarly, the noise and cloud associated with God’s revelation — and the fear — created a confusion that the text conveys to the reader. To the Jews at Mount Sinai, this entire episode was overwhelming. We will soon see why this is an important message of the text.

However, Moshe’s activity can be pieced together fairly easily. What follows is my own summary of Moshe’s mountain travel in the beginning of the chapter and that of Richard Averbeck 4)“Pentateuchal Criticism and the Priestly Torah” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? (Wheaton, IL, 2012), pp. 171-172 for the end:

1) Moshe independently went up to the mountain to speak with God, who then called on him (Ex. 19:3) (Averbeck points out that this is similar to Moshe’s approach to the burning bush in Ex. 3:4)
2) Moshe went down to tell the people what God had said and they responded positively (v. 7)
3) Moshe went back up the mountain to report the people’s answer to God (v. 8)
4) God commands Moshe to go down to consecrate the people (v. 10) and he does so (v. 14)
5) Moshe brought people to speak with God at the foot of the mountain (v. 17)
6) Moshe ascended the mountain (v. 20)
7) God told Moshe to descend to ensure people observed the boundaries (v. 21). Moshe protested that it wasn’t necessary (v. 23) and God told him to do it anyway (v. 24), which he did (v. 25).

There is a lot of action here but this happened over the course of a few days, as Rashi, based on the Gemara (Shabbos 86b-87a), details by each day. More on this below.

T.D. Alexander 5)From Paradise to Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI, 2012), pp. 74-76. divides Ex. 19 into five sections:
1) 19:1-2a – Provides the time and place. Interestingly, the timing is unique, in that it dates the event back to the Exodus and not to the beginning of the year. This indicates that a practitioner of dividing the text into sources would be wrong to assign these verses to P, the source that supposedly gives dates normally.
2) 19:2b-8a – The Jews indicate willingness to accept God’s covenant
3) 19:8b-15 – Moshe and God plan for the revelation that establishes the covenant. This section depends on the prior section, in which the people expressed willingness to accept the covenant.
4) 19:16-19 – The revelation as observed by the people at the foot of the mountain. The opening of verse 16 referring to the “third day” links this section with the previous by “indicating that God’s promise to Moses (v. 9) is about to be fulfilled” (Alexander).
5) 19:20-25 – Conversation between God and Moshe on the mountain. This section highlights the sanctity of the mountain, which is not immediately visible and therefore not mentioned in the prior section. Note that Moshe’s reply in verse 23 indicates knowledge of God’s command in verses 10-13.

Alexander argues that each section builds on the prior. He concludes (p. 79), “In spite of frequent assertions to the contrary, the narrative displays substantial unity… As the chapter stands, it can be read as a continuous account, with later verses building upon those that have gone before.” Decades earlier, Cassutto (Ex. 19:25) reached a similar conclusion that “the entire chapter can be explained simply as a single continuation, and there is no reason to see in it sections from different sources.”

III. Chapter 24

Cassutto divides chapter 24 into four sections:
1) 24:1-2 – Instructions to Moshe
2) 24:3-8 – Covenant Making Ceremony
3) 24:9-11 – The Interview With God. Jewish leaders have a private meeting with God.
4) 24:12-18 – Moshe’s Ascent

Some scholars have argued that the repeated discussion of ascending the mountain (vv. 1,2,9,12,13,15,18) indicates different sources. However, the story flows easily without contradiction. First, note that the word “ascend” appears seven times in this chapter, implying that it is central to the text’s theme. The theme is further highlighted by the poetic ending in the last three verses, culminating in Moshe ascending the mountain for forty days and nights (Cassuttto points out the poetic language). The importance of this narrative chapter’s theme, in contrast to that of other narrative sections, highlights the key message of this entire text, as we will see below.

The seven ascents to the mountain are:
1) Command to Moshe and the leaders to go up to God (no mention of mountain) (v. 1)
2) Prohibition to the people (v. 2). Only Moshe and the leaders (mentioned in previous section) may ascend, consistent with ch. 19.
3) Ascent of Moshe and the leaders (v. 9). After the covenant ceremony, they fulfill the command in v. 1.
4) Command to Moshe without the leaders to go up to the mountain, without mention of approaching God (v. 12). Verse 11 says that Moshe and the leaders ate and drank. Presumably, they had to descend the mountain to partake in the sacrifices mentioned in verse 5. Now Moshe is told to go back up the mountain. Note that the eating connects this section with the prior.
5) Moshe and Yehoshua fulfill the command to go up to the mountain of the Lord (v. 13). (Netziv in Ha’amek Davar, ad loc., explains that “mountain of the Lord” means the vicinity of the mountain, since Yehoshua did not actually ascend the mountain.) Moshe specifically tells the leaders that this time is different and they may not join him (v. 14), thereby building on the previous section.
6) Moshe goes up to the mountain (v. 15), not necessarily the mountain of the Lord. Yehoshua goes as far as he can but stops to wait for Moshe to return. Averbeck believes that this does not describe an ascent but begins the description of what happened during the ascent, as in, “When Moshe went up to the mountain, the cloud covered…” 6)Averbeck, “Reading the Torah in a Better Way: Unity and Diversity in Text, Genre and Compositional History” in Paradigm Change in M. Armgardt et al ed., Pentateuchal Research (2019), p. 25.
7) Moshe goes all the way up, into the cloud and up the mountain (v. 18).

T.D. Alexander (From Paradise to the Promised Land, Grand Rapids, MI, 2012, pp. 67-68) defends the unity of 24:1-11. Scholars like Sommer separate verses 3-8 as a ceremony from a different source. In these verses, Moshe writes the Torah, builds an altar, brings sacrifices, reads the Torah and the nation responds approvingly. In verses 1-2,9-11, Moshe and the leaders see a revelation of God and eat. According to biblical critics, this revelation and eating are from a different source than the ceremony in verses 3-8. However, Alexander points to Deut. 27:1-8 where Moshe tells the people that when they enter Israel, they will write the Torah, build an altar, bring sacrifices and eat before God. In Deut. 27, we see that a covenant-ratification ceremony includes elements from across the verses of Ex. 24:1-11. The ceremonies in Ex. 24:1-2,9-11 and 24:3-8 are not from different sources but constitute, like Deut. 27, one combined ceremony from a unified text.

Like chapter 19, chapter 24 is a single unit, with subsequent sections building on the prior and combining with them to form a flowing text.

Averbeck (“Pentateuchal Criticism and the Priestly Torah,” p. 166) writes: “From a historical, cultural, literary, and ritual point of view, therefore, the whole passage [Ex. 24:1-11] makes perfectly good sense as it stands. It all hangs together very well as one unified original narrative account.”

IV. The Order of the Events

There are two ways rabbinic, Medieval and contemporary commentators read the different parts of this passage. Some read it sequentially, assuming that everything occurs in the order of the text. Others read it out of order, written this way to report simultaneous events without breaking the flow. Ramban (Ex. 20:15) says that the narrative after the Ten Commandments happened before God gave the Ten Commandments. People were scared by all the sounds and smoke and general confusion, and asked not to experience God’s revelation so closely and personally. This is an expansion of Ex. 19:16, “And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled.” Ramban explains that chapter 19 tells the story of God’s communications with the people. Their growing fear and hesitations would have interrupted the flow so that part of the story was told only after the Ten Commandments.

Ibn Ezra (20:16) believes that this took place after the Ten Commandments, and appears in the text in the right chronological place. The experience of the Ten Commandments overwhelmed the people and generated within them fear.

Rashi (Ex. 24:1,3) says that the third narrative in this text returns to before the giving of the Ten Commandments. It begins with an expansion of Ex. 19:10-14, with the command to separate from the mountain and prepare for three days. It continues with a different perspective on the revelation and concludes with events after the giving of the Torah (Rashi, 24:12). In contrast, Ibn Ezra (24:1) and Ramban (24:1) read chapter 24 in chronological sequence, as taking place after the prior teachings of Ex. 21-23 (Mishpatim).

Previously, the rabbis of the Mekhilta (Yisro, ch. 3) and Talmud (Shabbos 86a-88a) connect Ex. 19 and 24, assuming they happened simultaneously. Thus, for example, the Gemara says that on the fifth day of the month, before the revelation and Ten Commandments, Moshe built the altar and offered sacrices (Ex. 24:5-6,8). Ramban claims that R. Yossi Ben R. Yehudah in Mekhilta disagrees and believes the entire text follows chronological order. 7)Although Rav Ya’akov Mecklenburg, Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Ex. 24:1 and Netziv, Ha’amek Davar, Ex. 24:1 dispute this interpretation and argue that all the Sages believe Ex. 19 and 24 are simultaneous. See also Rav Menachem Kasher, Torah Shelemah, vol. 19, addendum 27.

According to Ramban, the end of chapter 20 happened earlier and was placed there for literary reasons. According to Rashi, chapter 24 happened earlier similarly (it isn’t clear whether Rashi agrees that the end of chapter 20 is out of order). According to Ibn Ezra, the entire passage follows chronologically, with everything in proper order.

From what I have seen, most modern scholars read the text in chronological order. However, Joe Sprinkle (The Book of the Covenant: A Literary Approach, pp. 18-27), similar to Rashi and the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, believes the passages are not in chronological order. He explains that the text uses a common biblical literary technique called “synoptic/resumptive.” He explains this literary method (p. 19): “The essence of this technique is that the narrator tells a story once, then picks up the story once again somewhere in the chronological sequence and retells it, often expanding the story or telling it from a different point of view.” According to this approach, chapter 19 summarizes the event in total with much of the detail added in the next three chapters, to avoid disrupting the flow of the summary.

According to Rashi, the events occur as follows:
1) First day of the third month since the Exodus (1 Sivan): arrive at the mountain (Ex. 19:1-2)
2) Second day: Moshe goes up the mountain, returns with God’s message which the people accept (19:3-8a)
3) Third day: Moshe goes up the mountain and God tells Moshe that He will reveal Himself to the people (19:8b-9a)
4) Fourth day: Moshe tells God that the people want to hear the revelation personally. God tells Moshe that the people need to prepare for three days, and then Moshe and the leaders should ascend the mountain (24:1-2). Moshe goes down the mountain and tells the people (19:9b-15), which they agree to do (24:3). Moshe writes down whatever part of the Torah already exists (24:4a).
5) Fifth day: Moshe wakes up early to build an altar, offer sacrifices, sprinkle the people with blood and read them the Torah, which they accept (24:4b-8). Moshe and the leaders ascend the mountain and receive a revelation, after which they descend and eat (24:9-11).
6) Sixth day: The big day of the giving of the Torah (19:16-25)
7) Seventh day and beyond: Moshe goes up the mountain for forty days (24:12-18)

V. Disorder and Meaning

Why, according to Rashi and others, is the Sinai Revelation recorded out of order? If we can only see the full picture by combining the narratives in chapters 19, 20 and 24, why not present it as one single, chronological unit? To some degree, this is like asking why art is necessary, if the artist can just write his message down in one sentence or paragraph. Why draw a picture or write a song? The message is more powerful when artistic and literary techniques are used, as we will see shortly.

Joe Sprinkle (The Book of the Covenant, pp. 24-27) offers multiple reasons for use of the synoptic/resumptive method in this passage. First, this technique allows for the telling of multiple, simultaneous stories. Additionally, splitting chapters 19 and 20 allows for switching between the perspectives of the omniscient narrator and that of the participants, which is key, as we will see below. Perhaps crucially, turning one narrative into three allows for an overall literary structure that highlights the key passage.

As we said above, Cassutto believes that the Sinai revelation is the peak of the Pentateuch. What is the peak of this passage? Let’s repeat the overview with which we began, but this time replacing bullet numbers with letters:

A) Ex. 19:1-25 – Narrative about the covenant being offered
B) Ex. 20:1-14 – Laws (general): The Ten Commandments
C) Ex. 20:15-18 – Narrative about the people’s fear of God
B’) Ex. 20:19-23:33 – Laws (specific): Mishpatim
A’) Ex. 24:1-11 – Narrative about the covenant being received.

Joe Sprinkle (ibid., p. 27) points out that this entire passage forms a chiasmus, a literary structure that repeats sections in forward and then reverse order. This serves to emphasize the middle of the passage. What is the middle of the Sinai revelation?

Sprinkle writes, “The central narrative accentuates the operating principle of the covenant, namely, the ‘fear of God.’” The key theme of the Sinai revelation is not law, although clearly that is also important. It is not holiness or approaching God (i.e. ascending the mountain), which is also important. It is fearing God. The mountain, and staying away from it, represents a fear of God. The people’s desire to approach God and hear Him directly, and their changing their mind, demonstrates their fear of God.

Chapter 19 teaches the importance of reaching out to God while maintaining a distance, which seems like a paradox but is not. Chapter 24 teaches about the covenant and revelation. Chapter 20, in the middle, shows the people learning the key lesson for the balancing act, the hardest part of religious life, needed in order to make the covenant.

Yes, a single narrative about the Jews receiving the Torah would have been more straightforward. It would tell us what happened during those six days in order, including every relevant fact. But it would not have taught us the key messages. And these lessons were not lost on the rabbis. Perhaps the most famous rabbinic expansion of this narrative is the Gemara (Shabbos 88a), which says that God lifted Mt. Sinai over the Jewish people’s head and said that they must accept the Torah or be buried right there. In four verses (Ex. 20:14-17), the overwhelming nature of Ex. 19 and Ex. 24, the confusion and fear, the distance necessary to approach, is encapsulated, culminating in 20:17: “in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.” This is the middle of the chiasmus, the pivot of the Mt. Sinai Narrative, a literary structure that only makes sense if we see this entire passage as a unified text.

 

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.Although see also Deut. 4
2.Revelation and Authority: Sinai and Scripture in Jewish Tradition (New Haven, CT, 2015).
3.The above breakdown is adapted from Joseph Sprinkle, The Book of the Covenant: A Literary Approach, p. 27.
4.“Pentateuchal Criticism and the Priestly Torah” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? (Wheaton, IL, 2012), pp. 171-172
5.From Paradise to Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI, 2012), pp. 74-76.
6.Averbeck, “Reading the Torah in a Better Way: Unity and Diversity in Text, Genre and Compositional History” in Paradigm Change in M. Armgardt et al ed., Pentateuchal Research (2019), p. 25.
7.Although Rav Ya’akov Mecklenburg, Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Ex. 24:1 and Netziv, Ha’amek Davar, Ex. 24:1 dispute this interpretation and argue that all the Sages believe Ex. 19 and 24 are simultaneous. See also Rav Menachem Kasher, Torah Shelemah, vol. 19, addendum 27.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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