Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 13-15). However, the journey was difficult, and the people complained (Exodus 14; 15:22-27; 16; 17:1-7). In each instance, Yahweh responded by giving them what they needed –– deliverance at the Red Sea –– sweet water at Marah–– manna and quail–– and water at Rephidim.
Then, “In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai” (19:1) –– the wilderness area near Mount Sinai –– we don’t know its exact boundaries. It is a desert wilderness in which there is little to sustain life –– and certainly not enough to sustain the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The Israelites are completely dependent on Yahweh for their survival.
In a theophany (an appearance by God) characterized by thunder, lightning, the loud blast of a trumpet, smoke, and fire, Yahweh appeared to Moses and the people (19:16-25). Yahweh allowed Moses to take Aaron with him as he ascended the holy mountain, but warned Moses to tell the people not to come too close to the mountain lest Yahweh “break forth on them” (19:24).
On that mountain, Yahweh gave Moses the Ten Commandments –– literally the Ten Words (20:2-17). Yahweh then gave Moses laws having to do with the altar (20:22-26), slaves (21:1-11), violence (21:12-27), property (21:28-35), restitution (22:1-15), several miscellaneous laws (22:16-31), justice (23:1-9), justice (23:1-9), the Sabbatical Year and the Sabbath (23:10-13), and annual festivals (23:14-33).
Moses wrote down what Yahweh had said (24:4). He sent young men to offer burnt offerings (24:5). He put half of the blood in basins, and then sprinkled the other half on the altar (24:6). He read from the book of the covenant (presumably the words he had written in 24:4), and the people responded, “All that Yahweh has spoken will we do, and be obedient” (24:7). Then Moses sprinkled blood on the people, referring to it as “the blood of the covenant” (24:8).
Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders went up the mountain, where they saw Yahweh (24:9-11).
EXODUS 24:12-14. COME UP TO ME ON THE MOUNTAIN
12Yahweh said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and stay here, and I will give you the tables of stone with the law and the commands that I have written, that you may teach them.”
13Moses rose up with Joshua, his servant, and Moses went up onto God’s Mountain. 14He said to the elders, “Wait here for us, until we come again to you. Behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever is involved in a dispute can go to them.”
“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and stay here'” (v. 12a). As noted above, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders accompanied Moses to this point (24:9-11). Now Yahweh calls Moses to come to him higher on the mountain, and to do so by himself.
“and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and the commands that I have written, that you may teach them” (v. 12b). We will learn later that these tablets are two in number, and the writing on them will be “written with God’s finger” (31:18). We will learn later still that these tablets included the Ten Commandments (literally, the Ten Words) (34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:22; 10:2-4). As we noted above (also see the “Postscript” below), the Ten Commandments constitute only a small fraction of the commandments that Yahweh will give Moses. Moses will record the rest of the commandments (24:4; 34:27).
These tablets (or the replacement tables written after Moses breaks the originals) will reside in the Ark of the Covenant, along with a pot of manna and Aaron’s rod that budded (Exodus 25:21; Deuteronomy 10:5; 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10; Hebrews 9:4).
“Moses rose up with Joshua, his servant“ (v. 13a). Joshua first appeared when Moses charged him with the responsibility of fighting the Amalekites (17:8-13). On that occasion, Moses, Aaron, and Hur went to the top of a mountain to observe the battle, which Joshua and his men were waging. When Moses held up his hands, Israel prevailed. When Moses wearied of holding up his hands, Amalek prevailed. So Aaron took one arm and Hur the other and held them aloft so that Joshua defeated the Amalekites.
Now we find that Joshua has become Moses’ assistant. He will reappear at 32:17 and 33:11, and will be one of only two faithful men among the twelve spies chosen to reconnoiter Canaan (Numbers 13). After Moses’ death, Joshua will become Moses’ successor, and will lead Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua 1).
“and Moses went up onto God’s mountain” (v. 13b). The next verse makes it clear that Moses and Joshua leave the elders behind as they proceed up the mountain. This verse sounds as if Moses leaves Joshua behind at some point as Moses moves further up the mountain. However, that is uncertain.
“He said to the elders, ‘Wait here for us, until we come again to you. Behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever is involved in a dispute can go to them'” (v. 14). As noted above, we first met Aaron and Hur in Exodus 17, when they held Moses’ hands aloft at the battle with the Amalekites.
Aaron is Moses’ brother (6:20), who assumed a significant leadership role along with Moses during preparations for the Exodus (4:10-16, 28-30; 5:1-20; 7:1-25; 8:5-25; 9:8; 10:3-16; 11:10; 12:1-50) –– and in Israel’s wandering in the wilderness (16:2-10, 33; 17:10-12) –– and at Sinai (19:24). He is a descendent of Levi (6:16-25). Yahweh will appoint him to be the priest in charge of the Levites (Numbers 3:5-10).
However, Aaron will soon assume an unfortunate role in the golden calf incident. When the people ask him to make gods for them, he will have them donate the gold which they took from Egypt and he will fashion the gold into the image of a calf, in direct violation of the commandment, “You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (20:4).
We know much less about Hur. Along with Aaron, he held Moses’ hands aloft during the battle with the Amalekites (Exodus 17). Now Moses assigns Hur as co-leader with Aaron until such time as Moses returns from the top of the mountain. Later, Yahweh will identify Hur’s grandson, Bezalel, as an artisan in every kind of craft (31:1-5; 35:30-35) who renders faithful service (38:22).
At this moment, on this mountainside, Moses appoints Aaron and Hur to adjudicate any disputes that take place until Moses returns from the top of the mountain.
EXODUS 24:15-18. THE GLORY OF YAHWEH WAS LIKE A DEVOURING FIRE
15Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory (Hebrew: kebod) of Yahweh settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. The seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17The appearance of the glory of Yahweh was like devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. 18Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up on the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
“Moses went up on the mountain” (v. 15a). Once again, this gives the impression that Moses has left Joshua behind as Moses climbs further up the mountain.
“and the cloud covered the mountain” (v. 15b). Clouds are associated with the presence of the Lord in both testaments (Exodus 13:21-22; 16:10; 19:9; Mark 9:7). When Israel left Egypt, Yahweh guided them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (13:21). Later, a cloud will cover the tabernacle, symbolizing the presence of God (40:33; Numbers 9:15; Deuteronomy 31:14).
“The glory (kebod) of Yahweh settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days” (v. 16a). In Hebrew Scripture, clouds are often associated with Yahweh’s glory (14:17-20; 16:10; 24:15; 40:34; Numbers 16:42; 1 Kings 8:10; 2 Chronicles 5:13, etc.).
Yahweh’s glory is the aura associated with Yahweh’s appearance as it reveals Yahweh’s majesty to people. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portrayed it as a “devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17). When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God replied, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20) –– but God continued, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21-23). The point is that God’s glory is so overwhelming that humans aren’t engineered to be capable of experiencing it. An analogy might be coming into contact with a live high-voltage electrical line. It would be too much for us. We can’t deal with it.
Yahweh’s glory will fill the tabernacle (40:34) and the temple (1 Kings 8:11). God promises that the day will come when his glory will fill all the earth (Numbers 14:21).
“The seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (v. 16b). The numbers seven and seventy are important symbolically, appearing in the Bible about six hundred times.
The six days that the cloud covered the mountain (16a) and Yahweh’s appearance to Moses on the seventh day (16b) are reminiscent of the creation account, where Yahweh spent six days in the act of creation and rested on the seventh day (Genesis 1:1 – 2:2).
“The appearance of the glory of Yahweh was like devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel” (v. 17). The phrase, “devouring fire,” appears a number of times in Hebrew Scripture, and is a fearsome image:
- Yahweh is portrayed as “a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24) –– and as a devouring fire whose power will defeat Israel’s enemies (Deuteronomy 9:3).
- David, describing a vision of Yahweh, portrayed him as having smoke going up from his nostrils, and “fire out of his mouth devoured” (2 Samuel 22:9; see also Psalm 18:8).
- In a “woe” oracle, Isaiah sees a vision of the siege of Jerusalem in which he portrays a visitation by Yahweh as a “whirlwind and storm” and “a devouring fire” (Isaiah 29:6).
- Isaiah also portrays an angry God whose “tongue is as a devouring fire…. Yahweh will cause his glorious voice to be heard, and will show the descent of his arm, with the indignation of his anger, and the flame of a devouring fire, with a blast, storm, and hailstones” (Isaiah 30:27, 30).
- Sinners in Zion ask, “Who among us can live with the devouring fire?” (Isaiah 33:14).
In this case, Yahweh is not appearing as a devouring fire to judge Moses, which would be a fearsome thing indeed. In fact, Moses has gone up the mountain at Yahweh’s invitation to receive Yahweh’s commandments. Nevertheless, Yahweh’s glory has the fearsome appearance of a devouring fire which demands Moses’ deep reverence and respect.
Some scholars wonder if the mountain might have been volcanic, but there is no reason to assume that it was. It is Yahweh, not the mountain, who is a devouring fire.
“Moses entered the midst of the cloud, and went up on the mountain” (v. 18a). Note that Joshua is not mentioned here, which suggests that Moses has left him at a lower elevation while ascending higher on the mountain.
As noted in the comments on verse 15b above, the cloud represents Yahweh’s presence, so to enter the cloud would require special dispensation from Yahweh and would be a overwhelming experience for Moses.
“and Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights” (v. 18b). Forty is a number that appears frequently in both Old and New Testaments. The great flood lasted forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:4). Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Exodus 16:35). Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days (Luke 4:2).
While “forty days and forty nights” could mean precisely that in this verse, the Israelites often used the word forty in a figurative sense –– meaning “a great many.” We can’t determine whether the meaning here is exact or figurative –– nor is it important.
Our scripture reading concludes chapter 24. Chapters 25-31 include Yahweh’s commands concerning offerings for the Tabernacle (25:1-9), the Ark of the Covenant (25:10-22), the table for the Bread of the Presence (25:23-30), the Tabernacle and its furnishings (26:1 – 27:21), the priest’s vestments (28:1-43), the ordination of the priests (29:1-37), the daily offerings (29:38-46), the altar of incense (30:1-10), the census and the half-shekel offering (30:11-16), the bronze basin (30:17-21), the anointing oil and incense (30:22-38), the artisans, Bezelel and Oholiab (31:1-11), and the Sabbath law (31:12-17).
Then Yahweh gives Moses two tablets of the covenant, “written with God’s finger” (31:18).
Then there is a break from the giving of the law to tell the story of the Golden Calf (chapters 32-33). When Moses discovers the Golden Calf, he breaks the two tablets in anger (32:19).
Then Moses makes new tablets (34:1-9), the covenant is renewed (34:10-28), and Moses’ face shines so that he must wear a veil to cover his face (34:29-35).
Then the giving of the law resumes with chapter 35 and continues through the end of the book. There is a good deal of redundancy between chapters 35-40 and chapters 25-31.
The book of Exodus concludes with the cloud and Yahweh’s glory filling the tabernacle. “The cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey” (40:38).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bruckner, James K. New International Biblical Commentary: Exodus (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008)
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Rawlinson, George, The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis-Exodus, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date given)
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Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan