Parashat Yitro / 'User-friendly' Biblical Images

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“The Ten Commandments,” illustration from a 1907 Bible card from the Providence Lithograph Company.
Yakov Z. Meyer

After the Children of Israel assemble at Mount Sinai, and just moments before God bestows the Torah upon them, the biblical text states: “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on 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” (Exodus 19:18).

The Torah uses a concrete image to describe the fiery atmosphere on the mountain to which God descends: “the smoke of a furnace.” In this context, the sages present the following homily: “Was this ordinary smoke? No, because it is written in the Torah, ‘furnace.’ But was this an ordinary furnace? No, because it is written, ‘and the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven’ [Deuteronomy 4:11]. So why then does the Torah use the word ‘furnace’? To be kind to the ear and to give it something that it can hear” (Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Behodesh: 4).

The Torah’s description of how Mount Sinai looks when God descends to it does not satisfy the homilist, who is apparently unhappy with the verse’s internal dynamics. To show that the smoke that envelops the mountain is no ordinary smoke, the text adds to the phrase “was altogether on smoke,” the image of “as the smoke of a furnace.”

However, the image of the furnace does not exactly suit the lofty stature of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Thus, the homilist introduces a parallel verse, from the Book of Deuteronomy, which presents another kind of description. There, Moses warns the Children of Israel that they must not forget the event at Mount Sinai, which they themselves witnessed, reminding them of the physical, natural aspects accompanying it: “And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven, with darkness, cloud, and thick darkness” (Deut. 4:11).

Mount Sinai was entirely enveloped in smoke, but the smoke did not resemble that of a furnace, rather something far grander and more impressive, as described here. So why does the Torah, in this week’s portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), use only partial images? The answer, the midrash tells the reader, is that the Torah wants to “be kind to the ear and to give it something that it can hear.”

In other words, the text deliberately gives partial information that will be user-friendly for (or friendly to the ear of) the reader, who can then better imagine the grandeur of the granting of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The above midrash provides two more examples of user-friendly biblical passages: “It is written, ‘The lion hath roared, who will not fear?’ [Amos 3:8]. But it is God who imparts the lion with strength and courage, correct? However, the Bible describes God by drawing analogies with his creations, to be kind to the ear and to give it something that it can hear.

“Similarly, it is written, ‘and, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east; and his voice was like the sound of many waters’ [Ezekiel 43:2]. But it is God who imparts the water with strength and courage, correct? However, the Bible describes God by drawing analogies with his creations, to be kind to the ear and to give it something that it can hear.”

The prophet Amos asks, “The lion hath roared, who will not fear?” and then explicates the meaning of those words: “The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” Why should we describe God, who created lions and gave them strength and courage, as a lion? The homilist explains the gap between signifier and signified by referring us to the “addressee” of the text: the reader, or more specifically, the reader’s ear, which uses the power of imagination to grasp the true meaning of the verse. Avoiding more precise images that cannot be perceived by the reader, the Torah opts for easily understood images.

The above verse from Ezekiel can be seen in the same light. The abundant water, argues the homilist, is also God’s creation; this image, like the one in Amos 3, is user-friendly, and intended to convey an understandable message concerning God and his voice.

However, one cannot draw an exact parallel between the verses from Ezekiel and Amos, on the one hand, and the passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy, on the other, because the partial image in Exodus is only fleshed out in Deuteronomy. Thus, the concept of user-friendliness is different in the latter two verses.

One can perhaps understand this better if one takes into consideration the different literary natures of the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Whereas Exodus seeks to offer a direct description of the scene at Mount Sinai, the depiction of that scene in Deuteronomy proceeds from Moses recounting the event to the Children of Israel prior to their arrival in the Promised Land. But this explanation is actually insufficient, because the ear to which the description is directed is not that of the Israelite standing before Moses, but rather that of the reader, who proceeds from Exodus to Deuteronomy and hopes to imagine the awe-inspiring scene at Mount Sinai.

When the midrash speaks of the verse in Exodus as being easily understood, the goal is to present two parallel categories of reading: a pinpoint reading and a “horizontal” one. The former reading of the scene at Mount Sinai is a straightforward one that the reader’s ear can absorb. And yet, the Torah itself “shatters” the furnace image in the passage from Deuteronomy, thereby emphasizing what it is lacking. This fuller description of God’s self-revelation at Mount Sinai thus destroys the image in Exodus, turning it into nothing more than a didactic tool – a “softened” version of the tangible furnace image that is meant to “be kind to the ear.”

The entire picture of the event at Mount Sinai as depicted in Deuteronomy is available only to those readers who are capable of reading the Torah horizontally – that is, those able to accept the coexistence in the Torah of a host of cryptic passages. Such readers are able to grasp profound, sharp images because they are able to disengage from a linear narrative and to read the Torah text in a circular manner, again and again.

This is also the kind of reading that the homilist performs in the above midrash. Apparently, the Torah “prepares itself” for parallel readings: a narrower reading that conceals a great deal, and the homilist’s reading, which in essence circumvents what the ear can hear and understands the text in accordance with an entire system of hidden images – a system that the Torah has prepared for itself.