Torah Portion of the Week: Mountain and Messenger

Parashat Yitro.

A woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld, for 'Die Bibel in Bildern,' 1860.
A woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld, for 'Die Bibel in Bildern,' 1860.

The Torah does not present a single, unequivocal description of how the Torah was granted to Israel. The Documentary Hypothesis posits that, in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) and subsequent portions, three independent narrative threads are interwoven, each describing God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai. In his article “What Really Happened at Mount Sinai?,” Baruch J. Schwartz analyzes the chapters depicting the granting of the Torah in order to isolate the original threads that are supposedly interwoven into a single narrative.

In the coming weeks, with the help of Schwartz’s analysis, we will trace the plot as it is presented in each of these threads. At the end, we will look again at the overall picture.

The best-known thread informs most of Parashat Yitro. Featuring the Ten Commandments, which have unique status, and most of the story of the revelation leading up to their presentation, this is the dominant thread of the three, treated as the definitive version of the granting of the Torah at Sinai. Schwartz notes, however, that this narrative calls the site of the revelation not Mount Sinai, but “the mountain” or “the mountain of God.”

In this narrative, God addresses Israel, proposing a covenant. Based on the gratitude Israel is expected to express to the Almighty for taking it out of Egypt, it includes a mutual commitment: God promises to turn Israel into “my treasured possession among all the peoples” (Exod. 19:5). Moreover, although he is Master of the (entire) Universe, he will grant Israel special status: “Indeed, all the earth is mine, but you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6). Israel, for its part, must show itself to be worthy of this status and must observe the commandments, whose content will soon be transmitted.

How are the Israelites to know what commandments to perform? That is the role of Moses, although first he must be officially appointed mediator between Israel and God. Thus, after Moses conveys to him the fact that Israel consents to enter into the covenant, God tells Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after” (Exod. 19:9).

According to God, his public revelation at the mountain of God is intended to prove to Israel that he is speaking to Moses and thus ensure that Israel will henceforth regard Moses as an authorized mediator, not a charlatan. The revelation will be auditory: Israel needs to hear God, not see him. However, Israel need not hear all the commandments directly from God – that will be Moses’ function. Israel need only hear a fraction – a few words or sentences – and Moses alone will hear the rest after gaining Israel’s trust following the initial aural revelation.

Parashat Yitro contains an additional depiction of God’s revelation that will be discussed in this column next week. For now, two important differences can be noted between the two descriptions that are interwoven here. In our current narrative, the function of the divine revelation is explicitly stated: “in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” That is why it is an auditory revelation. In contrast, the other revelation is visual: “for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exod. 19:11).

A second difference is that in the latter, visual narrative, God repeatedly warns Israel not to draw too near the mount to see him up close: “Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death” (Exod. 19:12). In our narrative, the situation is reversed: Israel fears proximity to God and must be persuaded by Moses to approach: “there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Exod. 19:16-17).

This narrative sequence leads to the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments, which introduce the Torah’s laws and which apparently – although this cannot be proven unequivocally from the text – were heard by the entire nation. Israel expresses fear of hearing God’s voice, asking Moses to be its mediator – precisely according to God’s plan: “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’ … So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was” (Exodus 20:15-18).

The next verse opens with, “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites’” (Exod. 20:19), followed by a quotation that continues into Parashat Mishpatim, which describes the body of laws Moses is commanded to transmit publicly to Israel. Before the laws are read out, God says, “You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens” (Exod. 20:19). As Schwartz explains, this constitutes a further implementation of the original plan: Since you witnessed God speaking to you, you can obey the laws that will be heard now, although you will not hear them directly from God.

The story depicted here contains two narrative and theological elements that will be crucial for understanding the religion of Israel. The first is connected to the concept of a commandment: According to this story, the Israelites’ way of life is based on a divine command. Obeying this command is not a means but an end and constitutes a realization of the covenant between God and Israel. The compliance with divine law is anchored in Israel’s initial agreement to accept its special connection to God, and that consent is a result of the compassion he shows when freeing Israel from bondage in Egypt.

The second element is linked to the concept of prophecy: Moses conveys the law to Israel, and God has initiated a public revelation before all Israel in order to appoint Moses his emissary. Henceforth God will reveal himself only through Moses’ mediation. The connection between the two elements will propel the story’s continuation forward. When Moses again ascends the mountain, it will be apparent that the Israelites cannot clearly distinguish between the mediator and God – a blurring of boundaries that will quickly lead to violation of God’s law.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.