In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai.
Verse 1. - In the third month. The month Sivan, corresponding nearly with our June. When the children of Israel were gone forth. Rather, "after the children of Israel had gone forth," or "after the departure of the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt." Compare Exodus 16:1, where the expression used is the same. The same day. Literally, "on that day" - which can only mean "on the day that the month began" - on the 1st of Sivan. The wilderness of Sinai. The plain Er-Rahah; as is now generally allowed, since the true character of the Wady Sebaiyeh has been shown by Dean Stanley (Sinai and Palestine, p. 76) and others.
For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.
Verse 2. - They were departed from Rephidim. See the comment on ch. 17:1, and compare Numbers 33:15. There Israel en-camped before the mountain. The bulk of the tents were no doubt pitched in the plain, Er-Rahah; but this may not have sufficed, and some may have been located in the Wady-ed-Deir, north-east of the Ras Sufsafeh, and others in the Seil-Leja to the west. The Ras Sufsafeh is visible from both these valleys.
And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel;
Verse 3-9. - THE FIRST COVENANT BETWEEN GOD AND ISRAEL. AS Moses, having reached the foot of Sinai, was proceeding to ascend the mountain, where he looked to have special revelations from God, God called to him out of the mountain, and required a positive engagement on the part of the people, before he would condescend to enter into further direct relations with them. If, through gratitude for what had been done for them in the deliverance from Egypt, and since, they would solemnly engage to obey God and keep the covenant that he should make with them (verse 5), then a fresh revelation should be made, and fresh engagements entered into; but not otherwise. Moses communicated the message to the people through the alders, and received the solemn promise, which he carried back to God. "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." Verse 3. - Moses went up unto God. From the time of his call Moses had known that Israel was to serve God upon Sinai (Exodus 3:12), and had regarded either one special peak, or the whole range as "the mount of God" - a place dedicated and set apart to Jehovah. It was natural, therefore, that, so soon as he reached the near vicinity of the mount, he should ascend it. The Lord called to him out of the Mount. God often accepts the will for the deed, and spares his saints a needless toil. Here, as Moses was on his way, God anticipated him, and calling to him out of the mountain sent him back to the people with a message. The house of Jacob. This rare expression, familiar to no sacred writer but Isaiah, recalls the promises made to Jacob of a numerous seed, which should grow from a house to a nation (Genesis 28:14; Genesis 35:11).
Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.
Verse 4. - Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians. God prefaces his appeal to Israel with respect to the future, by reminding them of what he had done for them in the past. In the fewest possible words he recalls to their recollection the whole series of signs and wonders wrought in Egypt, from the turning of the water into blood to the destruction of Pharaoh's host in the Red Sea. These, he implies, ought to have taught them to trust him. I bare you on eagle's wings (compare Deuteronomy 32:11), where the metaphor is expanded at considerable length The strength and might of God's sustaining care, and its loving tenderness, are especially glanced at in the comparison. Brought you unto myself. "Brought you," i.e., "to Sinai, the mount of God, where it pleases me especially to reveal myself to you."
Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
Verse 5. - Now therefore. Instead of asking the simple question - "Will ye promise to obey me and keep my covenant. - God graciously entices the Israelites to their own advantage by a most loving promise. If they will agree to obey his voice, and accept and keep his covenant, then they shall be to him a peculiar treasure (segullah) - a precious possession to be esteemed highly and carefully guarded from all that might injure it. (Compare Psalm 135:4; and see also Isaiah 43:1-4.) and this preciousness they shall not share with others on equal terms, but enjoy exclusively - it shall be theirs above all people. No other nation on the earth shall hold the position which they shall hold, or be equally precious in God's sight. All the earth is his: and so all nations are his in a certain sense. But this shall not interfere with the special Israelite prerogative they alone shall be his "peculiar people" (Deuteronomy 14:2).
And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
Verse 6. - Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests. Or "a royalty of priests" - at once a royal and a priestly race - all of you at once both priests and kings. (So the LXX. render, βασίλειον ἱεράτευμα; the Targums of Onkelos and Jerusalem, "kings and priests;" that of Jonathan, "crowned kings and ministering priests.") They would be "kings," not only as "lords over death, the devil, hell, and all evil" (Luther), but also partly as having no earthly king set over them, but designed to live under a theocracy (1 Samuel 12:12), and partly as intended to exercise lordship over the heathen. Their unfaithfulness and disobedience soon forfeited both privileges. They would be "priests," as entitled - each one of them - to draw near to God directly in prayer and praise, though not in sacrifice, and also as intermediaries between God and the heathen world, to whom they were to be examples, instructors, prophets. And an holy nation. A nation unlike other nations - a nation consecrated to God's service, outwardly marked as his by the symbol of circumcision, his (if they chose) inwardly by the purity and holiness whereto they could attain. These are the words. Much speaking was not needed. The question was a very simple one. Would they accept the covenant or no, upon the conditions offered? It was not likely that they would reject such gracious proposals.
And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him.
Verse 7. - And Moses came. Moses descended from the point of the mountain which he had reached, and summoned a meeting of the elders of the people. When they were come together, he reported to them totidem verbis the message which he had received from God. He is said to have laid the words "before their faces" - a Hebraism, meaning simply "before them."
And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.
Verse 8. - And all the people answered together. It would seem that the elders submitted to the whole congregation the question propounded by Moses; or at any rate submitted it to a popular meeting, fairly representing the congregation. No doubt the exact purport of the question was made known by the usual means beforehand, and the assembly was summoned to declare, by acclamation, its assent or dissent. The result was a unanimous shout of approval: - "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" - i.e., "we will obey his voice indeed, and keep his covenant" (see ver. 5). In this way they accepted the covenant beforehand, not knowing what its exact provisions would be, but assured in their hearts that all would be right, just, and good; and anxious to secure the promised blessings (vers. 5, 6) for themselves and their posterity Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord - i.e., Moses was the mouthpiece both ways. He took the messages of God to the people, and carried back ("returned") their answer.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the LORD.
Verse 9. - I came unto thee in a thick cloud. Literally, "in the thickness of a cloud." God must always veil himself when he speaks with man, for man could not bear "the brightness of his presence." If he takes a human form that form is a veil; if he appears in a burning bush, the very. fire is a shroud. On the present occasion it was the more needful that he should cover himself up, as he was about to draw near to the whole congregation, among whom were many-who were impure and impenitent. It was necessary, in order that all might be convinced of the Divine mission of Moses, for all to be so near as to hear him speak out of the cloud; but sinners cannot abide the near presence of God, unless he is carefully hidden away from them. Probably, the cloud out of which he now spoke was that which had accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt, and directed their march (Exodus 13:21, 22), though this is not distinctly stated. That the people may believe thee for ever. In "the people" are included their descendants; and they are to "believe Moses for ever, because the law is in some sense of eternal obligation on all men" (Matthew 5:18). And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord. It is not easy to assign a reason for the repetition of this clause from vers. 8, in almost identical terms. There were no fresh "words of the people" to report. We can only say that such seemingly needless repetitions are in the manner of archaic writers, who seem to intend in this way to emphasise a fact. The acceptance of the covenant by the people beforehand, completed by Moses reporting it to God, is the necessary basis of all that follows - the required preliminary to the giving of any covenant at all.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes,
Verses 10-15. - THE PREPARATION OF THE PEOPLE AND OF THE MOUNTAIN FOR THE MANIFESTATION OF GOD UPON IT. The people having accepted God's terms, the time had come for the revelation in all its fulness of the covenant which God designed to make with them. This, it was essential, they should perceive and know to come from God, and not to be the invention of Moses. God, therefore, was about to manifest himself. But ere he could do this with safety, it was requisite that certain preparations should be made. Before man can be fit to approach God, he needs to be sanctified. The essential sanctification is internal; but, as internal purity and holiness cannot be produced at a given moment, Moses was ordered to require its outward symbol, external bodily cleanliness, by ablution and the washing of clothes, as a preliminary to God's descent upon the mountain (vers. 10, 13). It would be generally understood that this external purity was symbolical only, and needed to be accompanied by internal cleanliness. Further, since even the purest of men is impure in God's sight, and since there would be many in the congregation who had attempted no internal cleansing, it was necessary to provide that they should not draw too near, so as to intrude on the holy ground or on God's presence. Moses was therefore required to have a fence erected round the mountain, between it and the people, and to proclaim the penalty of death against all who should pass it and touch the mount (vers. 12, 13). In executing these orders, Moses gave an additional charge to the heads of families, that they should purify themselves by an act of abstinence which he specified (ver. 15) Verse 10. - Go unto the people. Moses had withdrawn himself from the people to report their words to God (vers. 8, 9). He was now commanded to return to them. Sanctify them. Or "purify them." Purification in Egypt was partly by washing, partly, by shaving the hair, either front the head only, or from the entire body (Herod. 2:37), partly perhaps by other rites. The Israelites seem ordinarily to have purified themselves by washing only. To-day and to-morrow. The fourth and fifth of Sivan, according to the Jewish tradition, the Decalogue having been given upon the sixth. The requirement of a two-days' preparation marked the extreme sanctity of the occasion. Let them wash their clothes. Compare Leviticus 15:5. Rich people could "change their garments" on a sacred occasion (Genesis 35:2); the poorer sort, having no change, could only wash them.
And be ready against the third day: for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai.
Verse 11. - The Lord win come down. Jehovah is regarded as dwelling in the heaven above, not exclusively (Psalm 139:7-10), but especially and therefore, when he appears on earth, he "comes down" (Genesis 11:5-7; Genesis 18:21; Exodus 3:8; etc.). In the sight of all the people. That a visible manifestation of the Divine presence is intended appears, unmistakably, from verses 16 and 18.
And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death:
Verse 12. - Thou shalt set bounds. The erection of a fence or barrier, between the camp and the mountain - not necessarily all round the mountain - seems to be meant. This barrier may have run along the line of low alluvial mounds at the foot of the cliff of Ras Sufsafeh, mentioned by Dean Stanley (Sinai and Palestine, p. 43), but cannot have been identical with them, since it was an artificial fence. That ye go not up into the mount. Curiosity might have tempted some to ascend the mount, if it had not been positively forbidden under the penalty of death; carelessness might have brought many into contact with it, since the cliff rises abruptly from the plain. Unless the fence had been made, cattle would, naturally, have grazed along its base. To impress the Israelites with a due sense of the awful majesty of God, and the sacredness of everything material that it brought into close relations with him, the mount itself was declared holy - none but Moses and Aaron might go up into it; none might touch it; even the stray beast that approached it must suffer death for its unwitting offence (ver. 13). Whosoever toucheth the mount. The mountain may be "touched" from the plain - it rises so abruptly. Shall be surely put to death. A terrible punishment, and one which, to modern ideas, seems excessive. But it was only by terrible threats, and in some cases by terrible punishments (2 Samuel 6:7), that the Israelites could be taught reverence. A profound reverence lies at the root of all true religious feeling; and for the education of the world, it was requisite, in the early ages, to inculcate the necessity of this frame of mind in some very marked and striking way.
There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.
Verse 13. - There shall not an hand touch it. Rather, "there shall not an hand touch him." The transgressor shall not be seized and apprehended, for that would involve the repetition of the offence by his arrester, who must overpass the "bounds" set by Moses, in order to make the arrest. Instead of seizing him, they were to kill him with stones or arrows from within the "bounds," and the same was to be done, if any stray beast approached the mountain. When the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount. By translating the same Hebrew phrase differently here and in verse 12, the A. V. avoids the difficulty which most commentators see in this passage. According to the apparent construction, the people are first told that they may, on no account, ascend the mountain (ver. ,12), and then that they may do so, so soon as the trumpet sounds long (ver. 13). But they do not ascend at that time (ver. 19), nor are they allowed to do so - on the contrary, Moses is charged anew to prevent it (ver. 21-25); nor indeed do the people ever ascend, but only Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy eiders (Exodus 24:1, 2). What, then, is the permission here given? When we scrutinise the passage closely, we observe that the pronoun "they" is in the Hebrew, emphatic, and, therefore, unlikely to refer to "the people" of ver. 12. To whom then does it refer? Not, certainly, to "the Elders" of ver. 7, which would be too remote an antecedent, but to those chosen persons who are in the writer's mind, whom God was about to allow to ascend. Even these were not allowed to go up until summoned by the prolonged blast of the trumpet.
And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes.
Verse 14. - In obedience to the commands which he had received (ver. 10), Moses returned to the camp at the foot of Sinai, and issued the order that the people were to purify themselves and wash their garments during that day and the next, and be ready for a great solemnity on the third day. He must also, at the same time, have given directions for the construction of the fence, which was to hedge in the people (ver. 12), and which he speaks of as constructed in ver. 23.
And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.
Verse 15. - Come not at your wives. Compare 1 Samuel 21:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 7:5. A similar obligation lay on the Egyptian priests (Porphyr. De Abstin. 4:7); and the idea which underlies it was widespread in the ancient world (See Herod. 1:198; Hesiod. Op. et Di. 733-4; Tibul. Carm. 2:1; 51:11, 12.) The subject is well treated, from a Christian point of view, by Pope Gregory the First, in his answers to S. Augustine's questions (Bode, Hist. Eccl. 2.).
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.
Verses 16-20. - THE MANIFESTATION OF GOD UPON SINAI. All was ready. The fence had been made (ver. 23); the people had purified themselves - at least so far as externals went. The third day was come - there was a breathless hush of expectation. Then suddenly, in the morning, the presence manifested itself. "There were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud" (ver. 16); "and Mount Sinai was altogether on a 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" (ver. 18) Or, as the scene is elsewhere (Deuteronomy 4:11, 12) described by Moses - "Ye came near and stood under the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice." The phenomena were not a mere "storm of thunder and lightning, whereof Moses took advantage to persuade the people that they had heard God's voice" - not "an earthquake with volcanic eruptions" - not even these two combined - but a real theophany, in which amid the phenomena of storm and tempest, and fire and smoke, and thick darkness, and hearings of the ground as by an earthquake shock, first the loud blast of a trumpet sounded long commanding attention, and then a clear penetrating voice, like that of a man, made itself heard in distinctly articulated words, audible to the whole multitude, and recognised by them as superhuman - as "the voice of God" (Deuteronomy 4:33). It is in vain to seek to minimise, and to rationalise the scene, and tone it down into something not supernatural. The only honest course is either to accept it as a plain record of plain (albeit miraculous) facts, or to reject it altogether as the fiction of a romancer. Verse 16. - There were thunders. Literally, "voices," as in Exodus 9:23; but there can be no doubt that "thunder" is meant. A thick cloud. Compare above, ver. 9, and the comment ad loc. The voice of the trumpet. Literally, "a trumpet's voice." The word used for "trumpet" is not the same as in ver. 13; but the variation does not seem to have any importance.
And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.
Verse 17. - Moses brought forth the people out of the camp. The camp itself must have been withdrawn to some little distance from the foot of the mount, so that a vacant space intervened between the first tents and the "fence" which Moses had caused to be erected almost close to the mount. Into this vacant space Moses now led "the people" - i.e., the chief of the people - so bringing them as near as they might come to God.
And mount Sinai was altogether on a 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.
Verse 18. - Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke. Literally, smoked, all of it. Kalisch suggests that "the dense clouds from which the thunders broke forth had the appearance of smoke." But the reason assigned - "because the Lord descended on it in fire," seems to imply real smoke; and. the same re-suits from the comparison of it to "the smoke of a furnace." The whole mount quaked greatly. Scarcely "through the vehemence of the thunder" (Kalisch), for thunder does not shake the earth, though it shakes the air - but rather by an actual earthquake. Compare Psalm 18:7; Matthew 27:51-54; Acts 4:31; Acts 16:26.
And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.
Verse 19. - When the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder. This is a somewhat free translation; but it gives well the real meaning of the Hebrew. We may conclude that the trumpet's blast was not continuous. It sounded when the manifestation began (ver. 16). It sounded again, much louder and with a much more prolonged note, to herald the actual descent of God upon the mount. This time the sound was so piercing, so terrible, so intolerable, that Moses could no longer endure to keep silence, but burst out in speech. Were his words those recorded in Hebrews 12:21 - "I exceedingly fear and quake" - words not found now in the Old Testament - or were they others which have been wholly lost to us? It is impossible to say. His speech, however, had the effect of bringing the awful preparations to a close - "Moses spake, and God. answered him by a voice, and the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai."
And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up.
Verse 20. - On the top of the mount. Not, probably, on the highest point of the Sinaitic group, the Jebel Musa, which is out of sight from the plain Er-Rahah, where the Israelites must have been assembled; but on the highest part of the face of Sinai fronting that plain, the Ras Sufsafeh, which would be to the Israelites at the base "the top of the mount." The Lord called Moses up. Perhaps with Aaron, who certainly accompanied him when he next ascended (ver. 24), and who seems to be glanced at in the phrase used at the end of ver. 23
And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.
Verses 21-25. - The further warning to the people and the priests. It is very remarkable that, after all the directions given (vers. 10-13), and all the pains taken by Moses and the Israelites themselves (vers. 14, 15, 23), God should still have thought it necessary to interpose with a fresh warning, and to send Moses back from the top of the mount to the bottom, in order to communicate the renewed warning to the people. We can only suppose that, in spite of the instructions previously given and the precautions taken, there were those among the people who were prepared to "break through" the fence, and invade the mount, and who would have done so, to their own destruction (ver. 21), but for this second warning. The special mention of the "priests" (vers. 22, 24) raises the suspicion, that this proud and rebellious spirit was particularly developed among them. Accustomed to the exercise of sacred functions, they may have been inclined to regard their own purity as equal to that of Moses and Aaron; and they may even have resented their exclusion from a sacred spot to which the two sons of Amram were admitted. Apparently, they had conceived that the injunction to go through the recognised ceremonies of purification (ver. 10) did not apply to them, and had neglected to do so, on which account a special command had to be issued, addressed to them only (ver. 22). Verse 21. - Charge the people lest they break through - i.e., "lest they force a passage through the barrier made by Moses" in accordance with the command given in ver. 12. And many of them perish. Irreverent gazing on holy things was forbidden by the law (Numbers 4:20), and on one occasion (1 Samuel 6:19) was actually punished with death. It did not, however, require a law to make it an offence, natural reason being quite sufficient to teach the duty of reverence.
And let the priests also, which come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them.
Verse 22. - Let the priests also. It has been objected, that no priests had been as yet appointed, and that we have here therefore an anachronism. But every nation in ancient times had priests, appointed on one principle or another: and the Levitical priesthood must be regarded as having superseded one previously existent, not as the first priesthood known to Israel. We have a second mention of priests, previous to the appointment of Aaron's sons to the office (in Exodus 24:5), which confirms the present passage. Sanctify themselves. The verb used is identical with that which occurs in ver. 10; and there is no reason to believe that any different sanctification was intended. The natural inference is that the priests had neglected to sanctify themselves. (See the introductory paragraph.) Lest the Lord break forth. Compare 2 Samuel 6:8, where we have an instance of such a "breaking forth" upon Uzzah.
And Moses said unto the LORD, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.
Verse 23. - The people cannot come up. Moses can only have meant, that the people could not approach the mount unwittingly, since the fence commanded (ver. 12) was made. But to scale the fence, or break through it, was of course possible. (See ver 13.)
And the LORD said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the LORD, lest he break forth upon them.
Verse 24. - And the Lord said... Away, Get thee down. God wholly rejected the plea of Moses, that there was no need to give an additional warning. He knew best, and would not have issued the order to "go down and charge the people "(ver. 21), unless there had been a need for it. In the abrupt words "Away, get thee down," we may see a rebuke, addressed to Moses, for his folly in thinking that he could change the purposes of God. Thou and Aaron with thee. This is the first express mention of Aaron as called to ascend with Moses. But it is quite possible that he may have accompanied his brother in either or both the previous ascents (vers. 3, 20. Compare Exodus 10:1, 3; Exodus 12:21, 28; etc.) But let not the priests and the people break through. Both the priests and the people were to be again solemnly warned that it would be death to break through the fence. This warning seems to have been sufficient.
So Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them.
Verse 25. - So Moses went down. After the sharp rebuke addressed to him in ver. 24, Moses made no further resistance, but returned to the camp, delivered the warning to priests and people, and having so done re-ascended the mount with Aaron.