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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Exodus 19

 

 

Verse 1

II. JEHOVAH REVEALED AS KING OF ISRAEL.

The Divine Glory, and the Giving of the Law at Sinai. Chaps.

Exodus 19:1 to Exodus 24:18.

THE ENCAMPMENT AT MOUNT SINAI, 1, 2.

We now approach the most sublime and impressive narrative of Old Testament history. After the struggle and victory of the exodus, and after two months’ experience of desert journeys and exposures, the Israelites came and pitched their tents at the holy mountain where Moses beheld the burning bush. Comp. Exodus 3:12. Here they were to await further revelations of Jehovah.

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The particular mountain at which the law was given has naturally been the subject of earnest research. Three different summits have their claims to this distinction — Serbal, Jebel Musa, and Ras es-Sufsafeh — all of them notable among the prominent mountains of the Sinaitic peninsula. Having identified Rephidim with the Wady Feiran at the northern base of Serbal, (see on Exodus 17:1,) we need not linger here to consider its claims, which indeed seem very futile. Jebel Musa has in its favour the local traditions of at least fifteen centuries, and occupies the centre of the Sinaitic group of mountains. Its summit consists of an area of huge rocks, about eighty feet in diameter, partly covered with ruins, but the view is confined, and far less extensive and imposing than that from other summits in the group. There is no spot to be seen around it suitable for a large encampment, and the bottoms of the adjacent valleys are invisible. (Robinson, Biblical Researches, vol. i, pp. 104, 105.) Far more imposing and every way in harmony with the scriptural narrative is the height known as Ras es-Sufsa-feh, at the north-western end of the same ridge, overlooking the plain of er-Rahah. See note on Exodus 19:12. Robinson describes the view from this summit as follows: “The whole plain er-Rahah lay spread out beneath our feet, with the adjacent wadies and mountains; while Wady esh-Sheikh on the right, and the recess on the left, both connected with and opening broadly from er-Rahah, presented an area which serves nearly to double that of the plain. Our conviction was strengthened that here, or on some of the adjacent cliffs, was the spot where the Lord descended in fire and proclaimed the law. Here lay the plain where the whole congregation might be assembled; here was the mount that could be approached and touched, if not forbidden; and here the mountain-brow where alone the lightnings and the thick cloud would be visible, and the thunders and the voice of the trump be heard, when the Lord ‘came down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai.’ We gave ourselves up to the awful scene; and read, with a feeling that shall never be forgotten, the sublime account of the transaction of the commandments there promulgated, in the original words as recorded by the great Hebrew legislator.” — Biblical Researches, vol. i, p. 107. For further discussion of the subject, see Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, pp. 74-76; Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, chapter vi, and the biblical cyclopaedias under the word Sinai.

1. In the third month,… the same day — This is certainly a singular form of statement, and begets the suspicion of some corruption in the Masoretic text. The day of the month is not given, and the rendering, in the third new moon, adopted by many exegetes, and explained as equivalent to the first day of the third month, has no parallel in Hebrew usage. Had that been the author’s meaning why would he not have employed the form of expression which appears in Exodus 40:1; Exodus 40:17? Comp. also the usage as seen in Genesis 8:5; Genesis 8:13; Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 1:1. In Numbers 9:1; Numbers 20:1, the name of the month only is given, and, were it not for the words, the same day, in our verse, we would naturally suppose that the writer did not intend to specify the day of the month when Israel arrived at Mount Sinai. But those words seem best explained by the supposition that the day of the month was originally written in the earlier part of the verse, but before the date of the ancient versions it by some oversight was dropped out. To explain the words, the same day, in connexion with the mention of the third month, as here, in the general sense of time, (“at that time,”) is very unsatisfactory. According to Bush, who explains the text as it now stands as meaning the first day of the month, “this was just forty-five days after the departure from Egypt; for, adding sixteen days of the first month to twenty-nine of the second, the result is forty-five. To these we must add the day on which Moses went up to God, (Exodus 19:3,) the next day after, when he returned their answer to God, (Exodus 19:7-8,) and the three days more mentioned in Exodus 19:10-11, which form altogether just fifty days from the passover to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Hence the feast which was kept in after-times to celebrate this event was called Pentecost, or the fiftieth day.” — Notes on Exodus, in loco. But this idea, which appears nowhere in Josephus, or Philo, or any of the older Jewish writers, seems to be a late rabbinic tradition, and without valid warrant in Scripture.

The wilderness of Sinai — This expression denotes the open plain “before the mount,” (Exodus 19:2,) where the Israelites encamped and remained during the giving of the law, and the construction of the tabernacle. Comp. Leviticus 8:38; Numbers 1:1; Numbers 1:19; Numbers 3:14; Numbers 9:1; Numbers 10:12, etc. The magnificent plain er-Rahah, which lies at the base of Ras es-Sufsafeh, most remarkably meets the conditions of the biblical narrative, and is the only place yet discovered in the Sinaitic mountains large enough to accommodate a congregation of two million people, and overhung by a mountain which may be literally touched from the plain below.


Verse 2

2. For they were departed from Rephidim — Rather, And they departed from Rephidim. This verse is but a fuller statement of what was said in the preceding verse, omitting, however, the mention of time and date. The emphasis is on the fact that there, in the solemn and sublime amphitheatre among the mountains, and before the mount which was to be forever consecrated in the history of the chosen people, Israel camped. The word here rendered pitched and camped is one and the same in Hebrew, ( חנה.) In front of the sacred mountain the people now settled down to receive revelations from Him who had declared himself from the burning bush, I AM THAT I AM. Exodus 3:14. We need not suppose that the entire body of people who came out of Egypt with Moses actually encamped and remained for a year in this one place. Probably only the heads of the nation, “the elders of the people,” (Exodus 19:7,) and the leading families remained permanently in this place of encampment. The rest would naturally be distributed through the various adjacent valleys and plains, wherever the best pasturage for their numerous flocks could be found. According to Exodus 34:3, the flocks and herds were not permitted to feed before the mount. It is a carping and unworthy criticism that makes difficulties in the Scripture narrative by assuming as recorded fact things on which the sacred writers are silent. But for incidental allusions, like those of Exodus 3:1, and Genesis 37:17, no one would have supposed that either Moses or the sons of Jacob went off scores of miles from home to pasture their flocks. We need to keep in mind that such terms as “all Israel,” “all the land,” “all the world,” and even “all the high hills that were under the whole heaven,” (Genesis 7:19, where see note, and also on page 123,) need not to be taken in their extreme literal import.


Verse 3

3. Moses went up unto God — Notice the peculiar statement that Moses went up unto ELOHIM, and JEHOVAH called unto him out of the mountain. He seems to have gone up prompted by a holy impulse, and perhaps went to the spot where he had seen the burning bush, expecting to receive a divine communication. While thus seeking and expecting, JEHOVAH, the God of the Memorial Name, (Exodus 3:14-15,) called to him from the mountain. We need not suppose that Moses was at the time upon the summit, or that this call of Jehovah summoned him thither. He had gone up, apart from the people, into the mountain, and while thus alone the voice of the invisible Jehovah addressed him. As yet there was no visible display of the divine glory.

House of Jacob — “This expression does not occur elsewhere in the Pentateuch. It has a peculiar fitness here, referring doubtless to the special promises made to the patriarch.” — Speaker’s Com. The entire address, Exodus 19:3-6, is highly poetic, and may be rendered as follows: —

Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob,

And tell to the sons of Israel:

Ye have seen what I did to the Egyptians,

And I bore you upon the wings of eagles,

And brought you unto me.

And now, if ye will diligently hear my voice,

And keep my covenant,

Ye shall be to me a precious possession above all the peoples,

For all the earth is mine.

And ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.


Verses 3-15

PREPARATIONS FOR THE SINAITIC THEOPHANY, Exodus 19:3-15.

Before the divine glory is revealed upon the mount, the people must be admonished and purified. To effect this Moses first goes up into the mountain and receives for Israel the gracious words of Exodus 19:3-6. To these the people cheerfully respond with promise of obedience, and Moses, like a true mediator, returns their answer to Jehovah. Exodus 19:7-8. Again Jehovah speaks to Moses, and gives order for careful preparations and purifying against the third day, when he will reveal himself in the sight of all the people, (9-13,) which order Moses is careful to enforce, (14, 15.) Thus begins the more direct religious discipline of the chosen people in the sacred school at Sinai.


Verse 4

4. I bare you on eagles’ wings — This figure is finely elaborated in Deuteronomy 32:11 : “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings,” etc. The strength and the tenderness of God are thus set forth in this metaphor. Comp. Revelation 12:14.

Unto myself — Out of the bondage of Egypt and into the immediate protection and oversight of Jehovah at Sinai. The sacred place in front of the hallowed mount was as the presence-chamber of the Most High.


Verse 5

5. Obey my voice… keep my covenant — These two expressions denote the twofold idea of giving obedient attention to each new word that Jehovah speaks, and at the same time guard sacredly the terms of the covenant as already established, or about to be established in fuller form.

A peculiar treasure unto me — The Hebrew word סגלה is happily rendered by peculiar treasure, for it denotes more than the mere word property or possessions. In Malachi 3:17, it is translated jewels, and in 1 Chronicles 29:3, it means a special private quantity of gold and silver which Solomon amassed for himself, and so, also, probably, in Ecclesiastes 2:8, where mention is made of “the peculiar treasure of kings.” In all other places (Deuteronomy 7:6; Deuteronomy 14:2; Deuteronomy 26:18; Psalms 135:4) the word represents Israel as a peculiarly precious possession of Jehovah. Comp. Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9.

Above all people — Or, from all the peoples, as being chosen out from all the peoples of the earth. Being thus selected out of the nations, Israel would be esteemed above the other peoples, who, nevertheless, were all possessions of God, for it is added, as if to offset the idea that Israel’s God was merely a national deity, all the earth is mine, for Jehovah God is its creator and ruler.


Verse 6

6. A kingdom of priests — The Septuagint renders, a royal priesthood, and the Vulgate, a sacerdotal kingdom, and both these ideas seem to inhere in the phrase. Jehovah proposes to make his chosen people a royal and priestly race. They will be royal, or regal, in character, because sons of the living God, and conceived as reigning with him; they will be priestly, because, like a dynasty of priests, they will be the representatives and teachers of religion. To fulfil this lofty destiny it was necessary that they also be a holy nation, pure and clean in character and life; not merely set apart, or consecrated to God, but also cleansed from all moral pollution.


Verse 7

7. Called for the elders of the people — Observe that this was no public address to an assembled nation, but a relatively private communication to their chiefs, who acted as their representatives. Hence an address delivered to them might be properly spoken of as addressed to all the people. See next verse.


Verse 8

8. All the people answered together — From the language employed in the preceding verse, and from the nature of the case, we most naturally infer that this answer of the people was obtained, not in one open assembly of all the nation, but through the mediation of the elders. These elders, representing each a different portion of the people, would have ready means of communicating with the different tribes, and obtaining at short notice their sentiments on any important matter. The word together, accordingly, means here the oneness or unanimity of the people’s response. The answer returned was as that of one man. These two verses (7th and 8th) illustrate what any reader of sense ought to take for granted in such a history as this. We are not to suppose that every detail of communication is given. A great many small gatherings of the people may often have been held in different parts of the plain, and in the adjacent valleys, to hear the words of Jehovah; sometimes communications may have been delivered by numerous messengers without any public assembly. Any reasonable hypothesis of this kind is legitimate in interpretation.


Verse 9

9. Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud — Or, Behold, I am coming; that is, I am about to come thus. He refers to the sublime theophany to be manifested on the third day thereafter, (Exodus 19:11,) and often subsequently, when Jehovah would impress the people with an awful sense of his power and majesty. “As God knew the weakness of the sinful nation, and could not, as the Holy One, come into direct intercourse with it on account of its un-holiness, but was about to conclude the covenant with it through the mediation of Moses, it was necessary, in order to accomplish the design of God, that the chosen mediator should receive special credentials; and these were to consist in the fact that Jehovah spoke to Moses in the sight and hearing of the people, that is to say, that he solemnly proclaimed the fundamental law of the covenant in the presence of the whole nation, (Exodus 19:16 to Exodus 20:18,) and showed by this fact that Moses was the recipient and mediator of the revelation of God, in order that the people might believe him for ever, as the law was to possess everlasting validity. Matthew 5:18.” — Keil.

And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord — The repetition of these words from Exodus 19:8 looks like the blunder of some ancient copyist. They add nothing to the passage, and have no natural connexion with what precedes or follows. To suppose, with Dillmann, that it is a sentence copied from another documentary source is no more satisfactory than to assume that the writer carelessly repeated himself. But the ancient versions contain the words, and the two sentences differ, in that Exodus 19:8 employs the word returned ( שׁוב) and this verse has told, ( נגד.) If the words are retained it is better to connect them with what follows, thus: “When Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord, then the Lord said unto Moses,” etc.


Verse 10

10. Sanctify them — By observing all manner of bodily purifyings, washing their clothes, (comp. Exodus 35:2,) and abstaining from all sexual intercourse, Exodus 19:15.


Verse 11

11. Be ready against the third day — Ceremonial purifications, made with expectations of some sublime theophany about to take place, prepared the hearts of the people to receive the deepest possible impressions from the scene. While the messages given through Moses to Israel were generally received alone in the mountain, this grand revelation was to be in the sight of all the people. Object-teaching was especially necessary at that stage of Israel’s history.


Verse 12

12. Set bounds — The allusions made here to the mount, and the possible approaches to it, and touching the border of it, afford means for identifying the true Sinai. There must have been a great plain at the base of the mount capable of accommodating an immense assembly, a sublime head or top (Exodus 19:20) overlooking this plain, and such an immediate contact of plain and mountain that people might approach from below and touch the mount. All these conditions are strikingly fulfilled in the plain er-Rahah and the peak known as Ras Sasafeh, or Ras es-Sufsafeh. See note at beginning of this chapter. Stanley says: “No one who has approached the Ras Sasafeh through that noble plain, or who has looked down upon the plain from that majestic height, will willingly part with the belief that these are the two essential features of the view of the Israelitish camp. That such a plain should exist at all in front of such a cliff is so remarkable a coincidence with the sacred narrative as to furnish a strong internal argument, not merely of its identity with the scene, but of the scene itself having been described by an eye-witness. The awful and lengthened approach, as to some natural sanctuary, would have been the fittest preparation for the coming scene. The low line of alluvial mounds at the foot of the cliff exactly answers to the bounds which were to keep the people off from touching the mount. The plain itself is not broken and uneven and narrowly shut in, like almost all others in the range, but presents a long, retiring sweep against which the people could ‘remove and stand afar off.’ The cliff, rising like a huge altar in front of the whole congregation, and visible against the sky in lonely grandeur from end to end of the whole plain, is the very image of ‘the mount that might be touched,’ and from which the voice of God might be heard far and wide over the stillness of the plain below, widened at that point to its utmost extent by the confluence of all the contiguous valleys. Here, beyond all other parts of the peninsula, is the adytum, withdrawn, as if in the ‘end of the world,’ from all the stir and confusion of earthly things.” — Sinai and Palestine, pp. 42, 43.


Verse 13

13. Not a hand touch it — So sacred and so awful was that mount to be esteemed that no one unsanctified and unbidden might touch it, on the peril of life. Not even a beast would be permitted to touch it, and live. This rigorous requirement was adapted to inculcate reverence for the law.

When the trumpet soundeth long — Hebrews, in the drawing out of the yobel. The word יובל, here translated trumpet, appears to have been some kind of a wind instrument. In Joshua 6:4-5; Joshua 6:8, we find the word employed to qualify קרן, horn, or cornet, and in Leviticus 25:10, it denotes the fiftieth year — year of liberty and joy — commonly known as “the year of jubilee.” The Targum and the rabbins understand a wind instrument made of a ram’s horn. The exact meaning is doubtful. Gesenius regards it as an onomatopoetic word, signifying a joyful shout, and, perhaps, is best understood here as the sound of some instrument, rather than the instrument itself. The drawing out of the yobel would thus mean the prolonged tones of a signal call, without specifying the particular instrument employed. See further on Exodus 19:16, where the trumpet is mentioned.

They shall come up to the mount — Who? Certainly not the people generally, who were forbidden to touch it, (comp. Exodus 19:23-24,) but chosen representatives and elders of the people, (see Exodus 24:1-2,) whom the writer does not here stop to specify. We see from Exodus 19:20 that only Moses went up at first; subsequently Aaron was permitted to accompany him, (Exodus 19:24,) but the priests and the people were forbidden.


Verse 16

THE SINAITIC THEOPHANY, Exodus 19:16-20.

16. The third day in the morning — The Scripture furnishes no certain data from which to determine the day of the week, or of the month, on which this theophany took place. Rabbinical and other speculations and conjectures on the subject are of no value. But there are some noticeable analogies between these three days and those intervening between the death and resurrection of our Lord, especially the preparations and ardent expectations among the more believing disciples, and the earthquake and lightning-like appearance of the angel that rolled away the stone from the door of the sepulchre. The one third day heralded the sublimest proclamation of law ever known to man, the other the grandest monumental fact of Christianity — the revelation and pledge of immortality.

Thunders — Hebrews, voices. The thunders and lightnings and thick (heavy) cloud upon the mount, the smoke and the fire and the quaking of the mountain, (Exodus 19:18,) were adapted to impress upon the thousands of Israel profoundest convictions of the majesty and might of Jehovah. A sublimer picture than that here given is not to be found among all the writings of men. Whether the voice (or sound) of the trumpet exceeding loud was produced by natural or supernatural agency is difficult to determine, and yet the mention of it in connexion with the other supernatural occurrences here and in Exodus 19:19, and in Exodus 20:18, rather implies that it also was produced by supernatural means. In all these passages it is noticeable that the word trumpet (Hebrews, shophar) occurs, not yobel, as in Exodus 19:13 above. To the imagery furnished by this sublime theophany the apostle alludes in 1 Thessalonians 4:6.

The reader should compare the corresponding description in Deuteronomy 4, especially Deuteronomy 4:11-12; Deuteronomy 4:15; Deuteronomy 4:33; Deuteronomy 4:36. Kalisch observes: “The whole description of the fiery appearance of God in lightning and thunder and clouds, and the smoke of Sinai, and the terrible sound of the trumpet, is so majestically sublime and grand that it could only issue from a mind which, overwhelmed by the omnipotence and grandeur and majesty of God, exhausts the whole scanty store of human language to utter but a faint expression of the agitated sentiments of his soul.”


Verse 20

20. The Lord came down — In the midst of the sublime exhibitions of his power and splendour mentioned above; though not so that the Israelites saw any likeness or similitude of Jehovah. See Deuteronomy 4:12; Deuteronomy 4:15.


Verse 21

REPEATED CHARGE TO THE PEOPLE, Exodus 19:21-25.

21. Go down, charge the people — We here observe how Israel had to be admonished and taught by repeated commands. Once charging them solemnly is not enough, though even Moses (Exodus 19:23) thought that the charge already given, and the bounds set about the mount, were all-sufficient. Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little and there a little, (Isaiah 28:10,) was God’s order in giving the knowledge of his laws, and this fact will account for the repetitions of sundry laws noticeable in the Pentateuch.


Verse 22

22. The priests also — Here we trace the existence of priests before the institution of the Levitical priesthood. This is no more strange than that there were ceremonial ablutions and purifications (compare Exodus 19:10) before those which were instituted at Sinai. Probably the firstborn of each family held this honour. Comp. Exodus 13:2. There was danger that those honoured members of families who were wont to act as priests might presume to pass the bounds set about the mount, and go up to the Lord in the mountain. Exodus 19:24. And so every precaution was taken to impress upon all classes a deep sense of the unapproachable sanctity of Jehovah.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 19:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/exodus-19.html. 1874-1909.

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