In the third month, after Israelites left Egypt, they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, in which they received the law of God, including the Decalogue through Moses. Mount Sinai is the place where Moses communicated with God.
I assume that most readers understand the plot of the story quite simply. For example, Moses climbed Mount Sinai as God commanded, and he fasted for forty days and night to receive the law of God and the stone tablets of the Decalogue. But when Moses went down the mountain, he threw the tablets and broke them because he was outraged as he witnessed Isralietes committing idolatry while he was absent. So he had to go up the mountain again to receive new tablets of the Decalogue.
Honestly, this is how I understood the story in the past, but the actual story is far from it. If you don’t read the text as if you are analyzing it, it is almost impossible to follow the storyline, especially Moses’s move precisely.
Conclusion in advance
From my close reading, it seems that Moses had climbed the mountain at least seven times. But God gave laws of God to Moses only twice out of all his climbs.
Exodus 19 — 1st ~ 3rd climb
1st climbing up and coming down: Ex 19:3-8
19:3. Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountainNRSV
- Command: YHWH commanded Moses to tell the Israelites the following: you [Israel] shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
- Moses action: Moses went down immediately and told the Israelites what he heard. The people answered to agree with God
- Odd things: When the people answered to Moses, Moses, as a mediator, delivered the message to God right away. What is strange here is that Moses had to climb the mountain to talk to God, but the text does not explicitly state that he climbed the mountain the second time. Nonetheless, we should assume he went up the mountain because, according to v. 10, he went down from the mountain to deliver God’s message again.
2nd climbing up and coming down: Ex 19:9-19
As mentioned, the text does not indicate Moses’s second climb, but he was told to “go down” in v. 10, and he went down in v. 14.
10 the LORD said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow…… 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people……NRSV
- Command: Moses was told to consecrate the Israelites to be prepared to meet God. YHWH gave no purity laws of Leviticus yet, but only simple rules. They had to wash their clothes and wait for three days. They also should not go up the mountain to see the Lord’s theophany.
- Moses action: Moses consecrated the people as God commanded.
- Odd things: God did not say that the people should not have sex, but Moses forbid it for three days.
- Consequence: On the third day, YHWH went down on the top of the mountain. Then God didn’t say anything; YHWH only told Moses to come up the mountain again. If this scene is followed by the proclamation of the Decalogue, which appears in the next chapter, that might have been much smoother.
3rd climbing up and coming down: Ex 19:20-25
Moses’s third climb is ended a bit pointlessly. In v. 20, YHWH called Moses to the mountain, and Moses obeyed God. But YHWH once again sent him back to the people to tell them not to go up the mountain to see God.
Odd things: YHWH already gave the people this warning in Moses’s second climb. And this time, YHWH also told Moses to come back with Aaron, which YHWH could have/should have told Moses in his second climb. Moreover, Moses never comes back with Aaron to see God.
20 …… and Moses went up. 21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people…… 23 Moses said to the LORD, “The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned u…… 24 The LORD said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you…… 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.NRSV
Exodus 20:1-17 — The Proclamation of the Decalogue
Odd things: God just told Moses to come back with Aaron. So Ex 20 should start with a story of Moses’s 4th climb with Aaron, but the text begins with the proclamation of the Decalogue instead. In fact, the Decalogue section is out of place and is better suited in the earlier passage, where the people are consecrated, and YHWH appeared to the people, on the top of the mountain with the thick cloud, the loud sound of trumpet, lightning, and thunder.
Exodus 20:21 – 24:11 — 4th and 5th climbs
4th Climb: Ex 20:21-23:33 (coming down: Ex 24:1-3)
After the Decalogue event, the people trembled and asked Moses to mediate God’s messages (Ex 20:18-20). Then Moses alone went up the mountain again in v. 21. What is special about the verse is that the passage indicates that Moses “drew near to the thick darkness” instead of “he climbed the mountain.”
The passage of Moses’s 4th climb does not state his coming down. But, in Ex 24:3, he was talking to the people, who were obviously on the foot of the mountain. Thus, the reader should assume that Moses came down back.
- Main content: Covenant Code(20:22-23:19)
- The main contents of the Covenant Code: the laws concerning the alter, slaves, violence, property, and restitution; social and religious laws; sabbatical year and sabbath; annual festivals.
- Odd things: YHWH commanded Moses to come back with Aaron before, but he came to God alone.
- Focal points:
- Moses proclaimed the laws to the people and recorded them. He didn’t write down the laws in the mountain.
- Moses built an altar and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord as a means of vow to keep the covenant with God. This is why we call the laws in Ex 20:22-23:19 the Covenant Code.
5th climbing up and coming down: Ex 24:9-11(no specific record of coming down)
The 5th climb anticipated in the 4th was that Moses climbed the mountain with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders. But they were not allowed to go up to the top but stop somewhere in the middle of the mountain. Only Moses was allowed to go up to the top.
- Odd things: Unlike what they are told, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders went up to the top and saw God. They even ate and drank before God.
24:9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.NRSV
Exodus 24:12 through Ex 40 — 6th climb, Golden calf, 7th climb, getting ready to leave Sinai, building the tabernacle
6th climb: Ex 24:12-31:18
This is another lengthy passage that contains lots of laws after the Covenant Code section. In Ex 24:11, Moses was on the top of the mountain, but in Ex 24:12, God commands him to climb the mountain again. So, there is no mention of Moses’s coming down from the 5th climb, but again, the reader should assume that he came back to the people between verses 11 and 12. This time, he brought Joshua, though God did not tell him to do so.
- Main content: additional laws and stone tablets (chs. 15-31); remaining in the mountain for forty days.
24:12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”…… 31:18 When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.NRSV
- Odd things: In this passage, the text mentions the tablets of stone at the beginning and the end, but what’s written there is not certain. The first verse (24:12) implies that God would write all the laws on the tablets, but the last verse (31:18) indicates that there are only two pieces of tablets (the tablets of the covenant), which is often understood as the Decalogue. However, the ten commandments are not mentioned in this passage. As we know, the Decalogue was already proclaimed in ch. 20.
- Contents of the laws: the sizes of the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, the table for the bread of the presence, the lampstand, etc.
The Golden Calf — Ch. 32
This event is also confusing, but I will talk about it later in another post. Anyway, Moses broke the tablets as he threw them when he observed that the people went idolatry.
Command to leave Sinai — Ch 33
Now Moses has to receive the tablets again. But God strangely tells Moses to leave the wilderness of Sinai, and this is confusing because the Israelites do not leave the site until Num 10.
7th climb — Ch 34.
The story, disconnected by ch. 33, continues in ch. 34. Moses, who broke the tablets in ch. 32, made two stone tablets and went up the mountain.
- Focal points: the Ritual Decalogue (Ex 34:11-26)
- The Ten Commandments appears here again, but the component laws are different as this one is constituted mainly with ritual laws. So the Decalogue in ch 20 is usually called the Ethical Decalogue while the second Decalogue is called the Ritual Decalogue.
- After coming down (chs 35-40): When Moses finally came down, he preached the words that God commanded. The main theme of the speech was to make the people offer what is needed for the construction of the tabernacle. The people voluntarily offered what they had, and the tabernacle was constructed. The last chapter of Exodus, ch. 40, is complete with the story of dedication. Now the Israelites received the laws, and the tabernacle, in which they perform and observe many laws, were built. So they can leave Sinai. Perhaps it is more natural to read ch. 33 after ch. 40.
I personally think that analyzing the details of Moses’s move in the wilderness of Sinai is not very helpful to understand the text’s meanings. If the text is a composite work composed of a few sources, the final form of Exodus cannot avoid contradictions and unnatural flow of the story. So the reader does not have to understand the structure of the text, and rather it is better to decompose and connect what seems connected originally. Nevertheless, I felt it was necessary to analyze Moses’s move in detail to show how odd it is to read the text as it stands and invite my readers to scholarly discourse, in which scholars struggle with how to understand the text.
So this is it. Thank you for reading this long post, which doesn’t even have a single picture. 🙂