Podcast Episode

Testing at Mount Sinai

Mount Sinai is the famous spot where Yahweh gives Moses the Ten Commandments, and it is the location where most of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first 10 chapters of Numbers take place. When Israel first arrives at Sinai, they fail yet another test and try to get Moses to pass it for them. In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they explore Yahweh’s fiery presence, the test at Sinai, and the question of Israel's national identity: Will they be the kingdom of priests Yahweh intends?

Episode 6
1hr 3m
Apr 18, 2022
Play Episode
Show Notes


The moment God showed up, it was freaky. Passing the test was going to require a great surrender and walking into what looked like death, walking into the flames. But the people don’t want to do it. So what the people say to their representative is, “You go into the fire of God on our behalf.” It’s sort of like, “Moses, you pass the test on our behalf.” The people stay away, and so instead of becoming a kingdom of priests, they become a kingdom with priests, and a kingdom really just having one mediator on behalf of the whole.


  • At Sinai, Yahweh reminds Israel of where they’ve been and how he delivered them from Egypt. Then he envisions their future as his people, meant to be an entire kingdom of priests. This future hinges upon Israel’s ability to do what Yahweh has asked of them in each of the previous wilderness tests: listen to his word and trust him.
  • When Yahweh showed up on Mount Sinai, all the Israelites could see of him was the mountain on fire. To come up into his presence would have required a great surrender, a willingness to walk straight into the flames. The people are scared, so they send Moses in their place.
  • Because the people fail the test at Sinai, instead of becoming a kingdom of priests, they become a kingdom with priests. In this narrative in particular, they have just one mediator, Moses, who is highlighted as a righteous intercessor.

A Year at Sinai

In part one (00:00-11:30), Tim and Jon dive into Israel’s arrival at Mount Sinai—the narrative location for the rest of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first ten chapters of Numbers (all of which transpires in one calendar year).

They’ve been traveling through the wilderness since the night of Passover, and three months in, they arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai, which is the very mountain where Moses met Yahweh within the burning bush years before. The exciting, jam-packed action story that began with the exodus grinds to a halt as Moses receives Israel’s covenant laws from Yahweh.

Israel’s arrival at Mount Sinai is part of the second movement of Exodus, where we’re tracing the theme of the test. While it might not look like one at first, the narrator calls this moment a test too.

The Literary Structure of Exodus 19-24

In part two (11:30-21:30), Tim and Jon provide an overview of Exodus 19-24. Yahweh gives Israel the famous ten commandments, followed by 42 more laws. These are far from exhaustive—in total, Yahweh gives Israel 613 laws—but they represent the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh.

Exodus 19-24 is packed with narrative flashbacks and foreshadowing that can be hard to understand. Making sense of the meaning of this section hinges on its literary structure. It’s helpful to know the basic order of events.

  • Israel arrives at Mount Sinai, where God invites the people to make a covenant with him and become a kingdom of priests. Israel agrees, and Yahweh comes down to the mountain in cloud and fire (Exod. 19).
  • Yahweh makes a long speech in which he presents the ten commandments (Exod. 20). In the middle of this section, there’s a flashback to the moment Yahweh showed up in Exodus 19 (Exod. 20:18-21). This flashback gives us crucial background information: the people are so afraid of Yahweh they refuse to go near him, and Moses urges them to reconsider because this is a test. But Moses ends up going alone to meet with Yahweh.
  • This flashback is followed by 42 more commands.
  • Then, Yahweh makes a covenant with Israel, and Moses offers sacrifices. The people ratify their covenant with Yahweh and agree to obey all his commands. Moses and the elders then go back up the mountain, and Moses enters into the cloud of Yahweh’s presence.

Throughout this section, Moses goes up and down the mountain seven times. The narrative is out of linear sequence, inviting us as readers to read and reread it and meditate on its deeper meaning.

Called up on the Mountain

In part three (21:30-43:00), Tim and Jon take a closer look at Exodus 19. At the opening of this section, Moses ascends Mount Sinai, and Yahweh gives him a message for Israel.

Exodus 19:4-6 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Yahweh reminds Israel of where they’ve been and how he delivered them from Egypt. Then he envisions their future as his people, meant to be an entire kingdom of priests. This future hinges upon Israel’s ability to do what Yahweh has asked of them in each of the previous wilderness tests (which we explored at length in our last episode): listen to his word and trust him.

The tests aren’t ultimately about whether Israel will simply trust Yahweh for bread and water, but whether they will trust his word, period. Trusting Yahweh’s word is foundational to bearing his image and being his representatives—the purpose Yahweh intended for all of humanity! When humanity failed, Yahweh chose Abraham’s family. Now, in the wake of the family’s failure, Moses represents Yahweh to the nation.

Yahweh instructs Moses to consecrate the people and get them ready to make a covenant in three days.

Exodus 19:13 When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast [on the third day], they shall come up to [or ascend onto] the mountain.

Here’s where things get tricky. Some translations of this section indicate Yahweh invites the people to the foot of the mountain and no further, while others (including Tim’s translation) indicate he wanted them to come up and join him on the mountain. Likely, the former of those translations is harmonizing a Hebrew preposition with what ends up happening—Israel fails to ascend the mountain.

This is another failed test narrative, and the key to this passage is the flashback in Exodus 20:18-21. Yahweh comes to the mountain in cloud and fire, and the ram’s horn sounds and keeps on sounding. But the people don’t ascend the mountain because they’re afraid. Eventually, Yahweh calls Moses up and says the people missed their chance (Exod. 19:18-25).

Meant To Be a Kingdom of Priests

In part four (43:00-1:02:37), Tim and Jon discuss the nature of the test Moses mentions in Exodus 20:20.

If Yahweh never wanted Israel to come up the mountain, then they passed the test. However, if Yahweh did want them to come up on the mountain, then Israel failed the test. The test in this case is part of the design pattern that started all the way back with Adam and Eve: are people willing to surrender their version of life and trust God’s command, even if it looks like something terrifying that could result in death? In fact, Israel’s experience with Yahweh at Mount Sinai is packed with literary hyperlinks from Genesis 3 and Genesis 22. The author of Exodus is comparing Israel’s failure to ascend the mountain (Exod. 19:16-25 and 20:18-21) with humanity’s failure in the garden test (Gen. 3), as well as contrasting both of these failures to Abraham’s success in passing the test on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22).

When Yahweh showed up on Mount Sinai, it was freaky. All the Israelites could see of God was the mountain on fire. To come up into his presence would have required a great surrender, a willingness to walk straight into the flames. The people are scared, so they send Moses in their place. It’s sort of like they’re saying, “Moses, you pass the test on our behalf.”

Because the people fail the test here, instead of becoming a kingdom of priests, they become a kingdom with priests. In this narrative in particular, they have just one mediator, Moses, who is highlighted as a righteous intercessor. Yahweh still meets his people halfway, willing to accept one righteous mediator even if the whole congregation stands at a distance.

Referenced Resources

  • The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary, John H. Sailhamer
  • Interested in more? Check out Tim’s library here.
  • You can experience the literary themes and movements we’re tracing on the podcast in the BibleProject app, available for Android and iOS.

Show Music

  • “Defender (Instrumental)” by TENTS
  • “Intermission” by Sam Stewart
  • “That Happy Scene in Stranger Things” by Sam Stewart
  • “Unidentified Lights” by Sam Stewart

Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Frank Garza. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Annotations by Ashlyn Heise.

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Scripture References
Genesis 1
Exodus 3
Exodus 19:16-19
Exodus 19
Genesis 2:15-17
Exodus 19:5-6
Exodus 17
Exodus 20
Exodus 16
Exodus 24
Genesis 22
Exodus 19:1-2
Exodus 24:12-18
Genesis 1-11
Exodus 19-24
Genesis 1:6-8
Matthew 16:24-26
Exodus 17:8-16
Exodus 18
Exodus 18:13-27
Exodus 20:18-21
Exodus 20:22-26
Exodus 21-23
Exodus 19:3-5
Exodus 19:7-9
Exodus 19:10-16
Exodus 19:12-13
Exodus 19:20-25
Exodus 20:20

Testing at Mount Sinai

Series: Exodus Scroll E6

Podcast Date: April 18, 2022, 62:37

Speakers in the audio file: Jon Collins, Tim Mackie


Jon: We've been reading through the scroll of Exodus. In the scroll is the story of ancient Israel being rescued from the oppression of the Egyptians by God. And now they're traveling through the wilderness towards their freedom. Now, this is all leading up to a marriage ceremony of sorts, a covenant that God is going to enact with Israel out here in the wilderness. And along the way, God is already teaching them the basics of this covenant.

Tim: The covenant relationship at this moment is just "Listen to what I say. What I asked you to do, if you just do it, you will become a really unique people among the nations that represents the character of God."

Jon: Today we arrive at one of the most iconic places in the Bible, a mountain in the wilderness, Mount Sinai, the place (00:01:00) Moses originally met Yahweh in the flames, and the place where Israel is going to bind themselves together with God in a covenant.

Tim: We're going to stay parked at this mountain for the rest of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first 10 chapters of Numbers. And all of that material is going to transpire in what takes up one calendar year. 

Jon: Now we're going to start with the story of Israel approaching Mount Sinai. And in the story is a puzzle: did God want Israel to go up the mountain or not? When you read the story, you're gonna get the strong impression that Israel was never meant to go up the mountain. But in this episode, Tim walks us through how that interpretation hides a key Hebrew word where God tells them to go up the mountain and how it misses that this whole story is continuing an exploration of the biblical theme of the test. 

Tim: We're back to this design pattern that started all the way back with Adam and Eve, of whether people (00:02:00) are willing to surrender their version of life and trust God's command, even if it looks like something terrifying or death.

Jon: I'm Jon Collins. This is BibleProject podcast. Today, Tim Mackie and I read the story of Israel trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. Thanks for joining us. Here we go. 

Hey Tim. 

Tim: Jon, hello.

Jon: Hello. Hello.

Tim: Hello. 

Jon: We are in the scroll of Exodus. And we're like halfway through it?

Tim: Mm-hmm, yeah, yeah. 

Jon: A little more than halfway?

Tim: Yeah, yeah. We're gonna dive into chapter 19. And it has 40 chapters, so nearly halfway. 

Jon: Yeah. Going by chapter length.

Tim: If one considers chapters a meaningful thing.

Jon: Speaking of which, as we go through these scrolls—we're going through the whole Torah this year—as we go through them, we are ignoring chapters and verses except as reference points.

Tim: Yeah, they're helpful to find stuff. (00:03:00) 

Jon: But we are trying to read within a more native structure of how these stories are composed together. And we're calling those movements. So if you've been listening along, you're very familiar with that. So the Exodus scroll has three movements. We are in the second movement of the Exodus scroll. We're in the last part of the second movement.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. The first movement has the most well-known story from Exodus, which is the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the raising up of Moses, confrontation with Pharaoh, ten plagues, Passover. And that's where the first movement ends is the night of Passover, which brings both God's justice, severe justice on Egypt's evil, but also life and liberation for the oppressed and the slaves.

So the second movement begins with the Israelite (00:04:00) slaves leaving Egypt and going into the wilderness on their way to the place where we're gonna get in the story we talked about today, which is Mount Sinai.

Jon: This second movement, we've been tracing the pattern of the test. 

Tim: Yes, yeah. 

Jon: So the first conversation we had was how when Israel was pinned in by Pharaoh's army against the Reed Sea, that was a test of sorts. And God was there to protect them. You have the pillar of fire and opening the sea. I just remember talking about how intense that would be if the ocean opened up a pathway and I was supposed to walk through it. How gnarly would that be?

Tim: Yeah. It's called a sign and a wonder in the flow of the book. Remember the biblical word "sign" is the Hebrew word "ot." It means something tangible and real but that is a pointer to something even more (00:05:00) ultimate than that. So a wonder like God exercising power over the sea in the deliverance of the Israelites points back to the first narrative in the Bible, which is about God's mastery over the chaos waters to separate them so the dry land can emerge for humans to live as his partners. 

So in the same way, this little parting of a smaller body of water is a sign that points back to God's ultimate parting of the chaos waters. And it's all the same language used in the Exodus story as the creation story. It's cool.

Jon: Deliverance through the waters. But it's also a test for them. Will they walk through the chaos waters?

Tim: Yeah, that’s right. And trust. Oh, so epic. We spent a long time on that. So we don't have to linger there again. 

Jon: And then the Israelites are in the wilderness and there's a series of tests that are really explicitly called tests. 

Tim: That's right. Three stories where the word "testing" is used in each one. (00:06:00) 

Jon: Yeah. Water and bread and then water again.

Tim: Yes. 

Jon: Great. So now we are going to turn the page and Israel is going to make it to Mount Sinai. 

Tim: That's right. Also first, though—

Jon: Oh, yeah, Jethro.

Tim: Yeah. After the testing stories, God delivers them again from another enemy in the desert—their ancient relatives of Amalek who descend from Jacob's rival brother, Esau. So it's kind of a Jacob and Esau 2.0 battle. And God delivers them from the Amalek just as he delivered Israel from Egypt back at the waters. So those are kind of bookends around that section.

And then in the middle of movement two is Moses meets up with his father-in-law, who is the ancient priest of another relative people, the Midianites who come from Abraham's third wife, they're the seed of Abraham. They meet together, and Jethro, this priest of another people group, hears about everything that God has done, (00:07:00) and he says, "Now I know that Yahweh is the Elohim among all elohim."

Jon: That's marking back to the first pattern we traced which is the name.

Tim: That's right. 

Jon: Know the name.

Tim: That's right. So actually that motif, the theme of knowing the name of Yahweh, doesn't actually stop with Passover. It keeps going into the wilderness narratives. And it culminates with Jethro coming to recognize the name of the Lord. The nations come to know the name of Yahweh when they hear the story of how he has saved his people. And then there's the pivot. Jethro starts getting fatherly with Moses and puts a test in front of Moses. Jethro says, "Hey, you know, you're really tired. I can tell you're tired all the time and you're trying to run solo here—"

Jon: He does some business coaching.

Tim: Yes, that's exactly what this is. "You're running solo. You're trying to make decisions for all these people out here. You need help, bro." So Jethro starts teaching his son-in-law (00:08:00) instruction and wisdom. And he says he teaches them how to organize a team, and then delegate leadership to that team. 

And then he boldly says, "You should listen to my voice. And by the way, through my voice, God is commanding you to do what I'm saying. You should build a team." And Moses listens to his father-in-law and things go well. And it's this precursor to the narrative we're about to step into here, which is both the wisdom of the nations and God's command end up pointing in the same direction.

Jon: You're saying that Jethro represents the wisdom of the nations.

Tim: Yeah.

Jon: And Jethro says, "What I'm giving you is actually God's command."

Tim: Yeah. He says, "Moses, you alone approach God on behalf of all the people and then appoint a team of elders who will actually run the nation." Jethro says his counsel and wisdom is God's command. And then lo and behold, in the next story that we're going to look at now, God appoints Moses as a mediator (00:09:00) for the people to do exactly the thing that Jethro told them to do in the pre-story.

So I think there's something important going on here that the fear of the Lord and the wisdom of Jethro are one and the same, which is kind of cool. So we'll explore these things more. But the Jethro story is an important pivot in between the wilderness narratives and their arrival at Mount Sinai. 

So in Exodus 19 we arrive at Mount Sinai. This is iconic stuff too. From the book of Exodus, there's probably two iconic moments that even somebody who doesn't know the Bible very well probably knows. These stories are somewhere in the first few books.

Jon: These stories get jumbled though in my mind.

Tim: Do they?

Jon: Because Moses goes up the mountain, and he comes back down the mountain, he gets some laws.

Tim: Oh, I see. I'm just talking about the Exodus story, Moses and Pharaoh, that's pretty iconic. And then Moses and the ten commandments and the tablets, that's a pretty iconic—

Jon: Right.

Tim: Those are kind of the two images of Moses probably most people have if they know about Moses. 

Jon: Yeah. 

Tim: Yeah. So here we are. We're at the— (00:10:00) 

Jon: We're at the place where he's gonna get those ten commandments. 

Tim: That's right. But what you're saying is the story feels kind of like a jumble to you. 

Jon: Yeah.

Tim: You are not the first person to feel that. This narrative block has actually a really unique design, but it has all the marks, as we've been seeing, of meditation literature, which means it reads kind of funky when you just read it in a four-word sequence. But when you reflect on its overall shape and its literary design, you see that it has a really remarkable mirror or symmetrical shape to it. 

So what do you say? The sequence of the story as you read forward doesn't necessarily correspond to the actual timing of the narrative. There's flashforwards and flashbacks here.

Jon: Oh, okay.

Tim: Actually, I think the meaning of the story, which is called the test, the center of it, is Israel's test at Mount Sinai, the meaning of it is actually bound up with seeing its literary design. At least that has been my experience (00:11:00) of trying to figure out the story. 

Section break (00:11:02)

Tim: So let's do a quick overview of this block here. So this is Exodus 19 through 24. It begins with the words "and in the third month after the sons of Israel left Egypt ..." So it's been three months, in the third month. So they've been traveling through the wilderness since the night of Passover, (00:12:00) which was the first month. The liberation from Egypt and Passover—

Jon: Marks a new year.

Tim: Yeah, it's as if the calendar got restarted with Passover. It's a re-creation. Even time gets re-created for Israel. So we're now three months in and they arrive at the foot of a mountain, Mount Sinai, which is the very mountain Moses met God at at the burning bush many years ago. So that's how the section starts. 

The exciting, jam-packed action story that began with Exodus just grinds to a halt right here. We're gonna stay parked at this mountain for the rest of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first 10 chapters of Numbers. And all of that material is going to transpire in what takes up one calendar year. So it's the center of the Torah that spans three scrolls, and it's just dedicated to one year.

So I think the book of Genesis (00:13:00) kicks off in the first 11 chapters by sequencing forward like hundreds and thousands of years in 11 chapters. And now we're going to spend a lot of material on—

Jon: This is an important year. 

Tim: That's right, yeah. So that's how the section begins. In 19 to 24, here's how the section works. There's a story where God shows up on Mount Sinai and invites the people to make a covenant. He invites Israel to become his kingdom of priests, and the people say, "Yes, sign us up, we want to do it." God comes down in cloud and fire. That's chapter 19. God starts speaking. And here the narrative stops, and it's a long speech of God. And lo and behold, we have the ten commandments. And these are the first—

Jon: The ten words.

Tim: The ten words that represent the first block of covenant … They're the terms of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. So they're not just random moral commands dropped out of the sky. They're covenant terms for the Israelites.

Jon: But they're the first of what's going to be many.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, 613. In this section, (00:14:00) there's going to be 42 more after this. So you get the ten words that summarize the essence, as it were, of the covenant, starting with "don't make any idols." Then in a short paragraph at the center of this whole section, you get a four-verse paragraph, chapter 20, verse 18 to 21. And you get a flashback to the moment that God showed up in the cloud back in chapter 19.

And there's a unique kind of form of Hebrew verbs that's used to set it aside as not progressing the narrative further but actually giving you background information on the narrative that you read earlier. So this is like a flashback. And it flashes back to the moment that God showed up at the mountain in a cloud and fire. And it tells you what the people said to Moses in that moment. 

And what they said to Moses in that moment is, "Whoa, this God is way too intense. We don't want to go near him. So Moses, you go and we'll stand back." They stay far away. (00:15:00) They don't want to come near; they want to go far. And there's that little story right there. And Moses says, "No, you guys, God is testing you so that you'll learn to fear him and so that you won't sin and break the covenant."

Jon: The test is whether they will go up the mountain even though it's intense.

Tim: Yeah. Or at least come nearer than they already are. So you get that little story. It just begins and ends right there. Then the story stops, and you get another block of commandments. This time it's the 42 laws that are written upon what's called the scroll of the covenant. And they're called “these are the commands.” Starts in chapter 20 verse 22, and it goes through all the rest of chapter 23. This is the first block of real laws. 

Jon: If you're doing your read through the Bible, this is the first like, "Whoa, I'm in the law roadblock here."

Tim: You start questioning your life decisions, as they say. (00:16:00) You're just like, "42 ancient Near Eastern laws? Are you kidding me?"

Jon: "I'm supposed to meditate on these?"

Tim: So we will meditate on some because they're fascinating. And incidentally, speaking of wisdom of the nations with Jethro, about a dozen of the laws here in the section are nearly verbatim to laws found in the ancient law code of the Babylonian king, Hammurabi.

Jon: How many? 

Tim: Oh, about a dozen.

Jon: A dozen.

Tim: And then a few more are very close. But some are almost verbatim. So we're tapping into this theme of portraying Yahweh as the way that wise kings and leaders were portrayed in the ancient world, which as giving the wisdom of the gods to rule with justice and established order. So there's the covenant laws.

And then after those covenant laws, second block, you get another narrative, which is of God's fire cloud on the mountain. And Moses comes down and he makes a covenant (00:17:00) with the people. They offer sacrifices, sprinkles blood, blood rituals. And all the people say exactly what they said back in chapter 19, "Everything Yahweh has said, we're gonna do it. We're gonna listen." And they … what do you say? Ratify? Solidify the covenant?

Jon: Ratify. That's a fancy word.

Tim: They sign on the dotted line, as it were. So Moses goes back up to the mountain with the elders … and with the priests and elders, they go up halfway up the mountain, and they have a great feast. So God and his people, and they see God. They see through the heavenly dome above and they see like a throne and pavement up above, and they see God. Then Moses alone goes up to the top of the mountain into the cloud and fire on the seventh day. And that's how the session ends. 

Jon: Okay. 

Tim: So just listening to all that, probably you can't see the symmetry, but it goes, the narrative of God showing up, the ten commandments, (00:18:00) the little narrative that gives you a flashback to what happened when God showed up, and you get the next block of laws, then you get another narrative, which is about the making of the covenant. 

Jon: If you're just listening to that, it's hard to visualize.

Tim: Yeah, yeah, totally.

Jon: Maybe let me try. So this section here has a symmetry, which is a chiasm, that goes A, B, C, B, A. So the two most outer parts of this section mirror each other. And then there's an inner part that mirrors each other, and then there's a central part the stands alone. The most outer part, the bun … 

Tim: Yeah, that's right. 

Jon: … is two narratives about Moses going up the mountain and Israel saying, "We're in for the covenant." Those are the outer layers.

Tim: Correct.

Jon: Then inside, you've got like two patties.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. 

Jon: This is a—

Tim: It's one of those (00:19:00) Wendy’s double burgers. 

Jon: There's two patties. And those patties are the laws. 

Tim: Blocks of laws, yeah. 

Jon: So the first one was the ten commandments and the second one is the 42 laws. And in the middle of the two patties is a little slice of cheese. 

Tim: Okay. Ooh, except this is like stinky cheese because it's kind of the disappointing moment. It's like—

Jon: It's Swiss cheese. I love Swiss cheese.

Tim: I was gonna go for like Roquefort or something. Something really smelly. 

Jon: Oh, that smelly cheese. Is it Roquefort a burger? 

Tim: Because it's where the people say "We don't want to go near our God. So Moses, you go up for us." And Moses says, "No, you guys, this is your test. Draw near to the fire. It might look like it's going to kill you but actually it's going to purify you as God's covenant partners." But the people won't go near. That's at the center. So there you go. That's the overview of (00:20:00) the section. Moses goes up and down the mountain throughout this whole block seven times.

Jon: That's right. You've mentioned that.

Tim: He goes up seven times.

Jon: And that probably is why it's a bit jumbled in order to get him to do it seven times.

Tim: He's constantly going up there—

Jon: It's a lot of hiking, and it's hard to keep track.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. But that hamburger analogy I gotta give it to you, Jon. That was very helpful for me. And I'm looking at a chart, so I hope it was helpful for everybody listening. This is the Sinai hamburger served up at your neighborhood burger joint.

Again, just to kind of close this conversation about the overview of Exodus 19 to 24, what's cool about it is it's designed in a way to invite the reader to reread these chapters multiple times. The narrative is out of linear sequence in terms of time, but also is an alternating block of story with a block of laws, story (00:21:00) with a block of laws, and then a concluding story. So it's just a really great example of meditation literature, which is part of this bigger paradigm. So we're trying to learn how to read these texts according to their design. And this is a really good example. 

Section break (00:21:13)

Tim: All right, well, let's dive into the story. There's some really cool things going on in the story. Let's just start. Let's just read the Bible together, Jon. 

Jon: Yes.

Tim: All right. Exodus 19:1. "In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came to the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim, and they came to the wilderness of Sinai and they camped in the wilderness, and Israel camped there in front of the mountain." That probably sounds really—

Jon: It's really redundant.

Tim: It's really repetitious. It's a beautiful example of what in biblical studies that work on the literary design in biblical poetry, it's called a stair-step design. So you began from where Israel left. They went out of Egypt, and they came to the wilderness of Sinai. That's a first pass at the big picture. They left Egypt; they came to Sinai.

Then the next set of lines comes in, and within that, from Egypt to Sinai, fills in more detail by retelling it again but with more detail. So now they set out not from Egypt, but it's from Rephidim. They came to the wilderness of Sinai. And then it zeros in about once they came to the wilderness, they camped there in front of the mountain in the wilderness. So it could have been written in a very straightforward, (00:23:00) less complicated way. But poetically, it actually kind of takes you through the journey two times, filling in more detail on the second time. Anyway, that's kind of cool. 

Verse 3, "And Moses ascended up to Elohim, and Yahweh called to him from the mountain, saying, 'This is what you will say to the house of Jacob and tell to the sons of Israel …'" These are well-known lines. We've talked about them a lot over the years. "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and I bore you on the wings of eagles and I brought you to myself." What a beautiful summary of the Exodus story! Just a few lines.

Jon: That they were led through the wilderness by fire and cloud—

Tim: The ten plagues is just summarized in "what I did to Egypt."

Jon: Oh, “what I did to Egypt.”

Tim: And then "I carried you on eagle's wings."

Jon: Is that about their mode of transportation out of Egypt? (00:24:00) 

Tim: Yeah. It's just cool to think about. The wind, the fire, and the cloud led them out of Egypt through the wilderness, and then the fire in the cloud was behind them while they went through the waters. The wind of Yahweh swept apart the waters. "And I brought you to myself." It's just a cool, poetic way to think about the journey. 

So that's focused on the past. Now there's a focus on the present. "And now if you will listen listen to my voice—"

Jon: Shema shema?

Tim: Shema shema, yeah, yeah. This Hebrew word is repeated twice. Most English translations paraphrase by saying “If you—"

Jon: Really listen?

Tim: Yeah.

Jon: Listen up well. 

Tim: Yeah, yeah, totally. Let's see. NIV has "If you obey me fully." ESV has "if you will indeed obey."

Jon: Because "listen" and "obey" are the same word?

Tim: That's right. There's no separate word for "obey" in Hebrew. The word for "obey” ... Excuse me, the meaning “obey” is communicated by (00:25:00) the word "listen" and in Hebrew "shema." "So if you will listen listen to my voice and if you will keep my covenant, then ..." shift into the future, "y'all will be my own special possession among all the peoples because all of the land is mine, but you all shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So notice the shift from here's what I did for you in the past— brought you out of Egypt—and now here's what I'm calling you to in the present. Listen to my voice, keep my covenant. And if you do that, then here's the future of this relationship: you'll be my special possession and then be my priestly representatives to all of the other nations. So it's this cool past, present, future flow here.

So recall back. We've been in the wilderness narratives, you know, for a few episodes and focusing on the test. But this request that they listen to my voice, this is what God asked the people to do back when they ran out of water. (00:26:00) He said, "Guys, just trust me, just listen to my voice, and I'll give you what you need." And that was the first test. 

Jon: And the story of the mana, when … I don't know if explicitly in the Exodus telling does it talk about listening to the voice. But isn't it when Moses retells it in Deuteronomy, he makes a point of saying, "Hey, this wasn't so much about trusting God for bread; it was about whether you trust God's word.”

Tim: That's right. That's exactly right. So essentially this sets up … The covenant relationship at this moment is just "listen to what I say. What I asked you to do, if you just do it, you will become a really unique people among the nations that represents the character of God." 

Jon: And this was essentially the command given to Adam and Eve.

Tim: Correct. Yeah, that's right. This is another way of talking about the image of God. But now here's one family taken out from among the many nations, just like Abraham was, (00:27:00) and now the whole nation is given this opportunity to image God to the nations. And what they need to do is listen to the voice. Listening to God's voice, that is what it means to keep the covenant. 

So that's God's opening speech. He says to Moses, "This is what you're to say to Israel." Verse 7, Moses went … he went down. So he was up the first time. This was his first up—

Jon: This is trip one.

Tim: Trip one. Then he goes down and he calls the elders, and he sets all of these words before the people that Yahweh commanded him. And all the people answer together and say, "Everything Yahweh has said, we're going to do it." So Moses ran back up the mountain and he brought the words of the people back to God. So notice Moses is in this mediator role. He brings the words to the people. He brings the words of the people back up to God.

Jon: Which is what a priest does? Or a prophet does?

Tim: Yeah, both. 

Jon: Both.

Tim: Yeah, mediator.

Jon: The mediator.

Tim: Mediator. 

Jon: And what he's mediating is the relationship that God (00:28:00) wants to have, which is all of Israel will be a mediator. 

Tim: That's right. Exactly. Right now, Moses is singled out as the image of what God wants with all the people, which is—

Jon: It's so interesting. So all humanity is meant to be the image of God. Failed. God calls Abraham's family, Israel, to be the image for humanity to then realize what it means to be the image. And here Israel is being called to be that image. And Moses is imaging what Israel is supposed to image, what humanity is supposed to image.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. Images within images. That's right. Yeah, that's right. It's a whole domino of comparisons. Yeah, it's good. So Moses runs back up, tells Yahweh, "Hey, the people said yes. They said yes." It's like an engagement. So Yahweh said to Moses, "Okay, look, I'm going to come to you in a cloud of a cloud (00:29:00) so that the people will listen when I speak with you, and so that they will believe in you, Moses, forever." So he's going to come and he's going to have a conversation with Moses in front of all the people, and it'll be Yahweh speaking to the mediator with the people all right there in the cloud. It's gonna be a—

Jon: A cloud of the cloud. 

Tim: Yes. Just two Hebrew words together. Cloud of the cloud. 

Jon: A really cloudy cloud.

Tim: A cloudy cloud. Yeah, totally. So Moses ran back down—this is his second descent—and he tells the words … Oh, excuse me, then Moses … It's a summary. Moses told the words of the people to Yahweh.

Jon: So he had to go back down to do that.

Tim: That's right. 

Jon: So that's the first bun?

Tim: Yeah, that's the first. That's the first section. And you get the idea Yahweh is coming in a cloud. So the people just said, "Yeah, we want to marry Yahweh." And Yahweh said, "I want to be your spouse.” (00:30:00) Let's ... What do you call it? Tie the knot, as it were.

Jon: "Let's tie the knot."

Tim: So here is an outline of what's to be the marriage ceremony. God tells Moses, "All right, go down to the people and tell them to make themselves holy, set themselves apart as holy because they're going to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Tells them to wash their clothes, to go through the waters, as it were, symbolically, ritually, and to wash their garments, and then have them get ready for the third day.” 

Now, you know from Genesis through multiple iterations of the third day that the third day is often a climactic moment of decision where somebody is gonna … This happens with Abraham and Isaac, it happens in the Jacob story a couple times, and it happens with story of Joseph and his brothers too. The third day.

Jon: The third day is the moment of will you pass the test or not? That's when the decision is made.

Tim: Yeah. So get them ready for a third day. You need to make a choice on the third day. (00:31:00) "Now, in the meantime, between now and then," God says, "set boundaries for the people all around the mountain. Be careful that they don't go up onto the mountain or touch even the edge." So during these three days, the mountain is going to be set apart as holy ground, kind of like the interior of the tabernacle or the interior of the temple.

Jon: Okay. Wait, these boundaries are just for this three-day period?

Tim: Well, yes, I think that's what the narrative is making clear … 

Jon: Oh, interesting.

Tim: … based on what God is about to say. 

Jon: Okay.

Tim: So set boundaries for the people all around. Be careful that they don't go up onto the mountain or touch even its edge. But on the third day, when the horn is drawn out … They're going to hear this huge horn trumpet sound. "On the third day, when they hear the horn, they will ascend onto the mountain." So that's the image here. Don't go up the mountain for three days. Let it be holy. When Yahweh comes down (00:32:00) then they're going to go up. So Moses went down to all the people, he set them apart as holy, they wash their garments, and he said, "Get ready for the third day." That's the story so far. 

"And it came about on the third day, there was the voice." Do you remember— this is years ago when we talked about Psalm 29 in our How to Read Biblical Poetry series—there's a word for “thunder” in Hebrew, but the most common actual word for "thunder" is just the word "voice" or "sound."

Jon: Yeah, you talked about this. We were in a Psalm.

Tim: Yeah, Psalm 29. It's the Hebrew word "qol." Whenever there's a storm context, thunder is often just described as a noise or a sound. In the garden of Eden story, it is the sound or the voice of Yahweh that showed up at the wind of the day and the people were afraid, Adam and Eve were afraid. So that's a design pattern theme that's being brought up here. Here Israel is being (00:33:00) brought back to the boundary of the holy place ready to go into holy space on the third day.

Jon: It's intense.

Tim: But when it shows up, it's the voice of Yahweh.

Jon: Okay, can I stop for a second? 

Tim: Yeah. 

Jon: In NIV, it says—

Tim: In verse 12 and 13, it reads differently than my translation.

Jon: Yeah. Yeah. "Set boundaries around the mountain. Don't go up on the mountain, don't touch the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death." So that's all the same as what you said. "When the ram's horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain." That's what NIV says. And you have it written, "They will ascend the mountain."

Tim: They will ascend onto the mountain.

Jon: Onto the mountain. So in NIV, it's easy to read this and be like, "Oh, God didn't actually want them to go up the mountain at all … 

Tim: Correct. 

Jon: … just kind of get to the edges.

Tim: That's right. The same when you read the ESV. It says, "They will come up (00:34:00) to the mountain." New American Standard, "They will come up to the mountain." King James, "They shall come up to the mountain." The problem with that translation is that's actually not what it says in Hebrew.

Jon: Okay. 

Tim: The NRSV gets it right here. "When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain." Ya·'a·lu va·har. And that "va" is the Hebrew preposition for "on" or "onto."

Jon: Okay.

Tim: I think what's happening is what those other translations are doing is harmonizing God's command with what actually happens in the narrative to follow. Because what happens in the narrative to follow is they don't go up onto the mountain and God says, "Hey, opportunity is over, the people can't come up the mountain." We just got to read forward. But let's just notice that's a challenge. So the NRSV gets it right. I think the other translations are harmonizing with what happens later in the story. So let's keep reading. (00:35:00) In Hebrew it literally says, "they can go up onto the mountain." 

"So on the third day, there was thunder, there was lightning, there was heavy cloud on the mountain and the sound of the trumpet, very strong." You're like, okay—

Jon: This is intense.

Tim: Yeah.

Jon: This is go time.

Tim: But the sound of the trumpet, you're like, "This is it? Here we go." And the people in the camp, they trembled. And Moses brought the people to meet God. They stood there at the under part of the mountain, like at the foot of the mountain. And then the story pauses and says, "Now, Mount Sinai, it was all smoke because Yahweh had come down upon it in fire. It's smoke was like the smoke of a furnace. The whole mountain was trembling and there was the sound of the trumpet getting stronger, stronger, really, really strong. Moses would speak, God would respond with thunder and voice." And you're like, "Okay, it's really ..." Notice how it's focusing on the moment. The narrative is really slowing down. (00:36:00) 

Jon: Yeah.

Tim: We actually just retold the same event two times.

Jon: And the trumpet is blasting saying like it's go time. This is it. Do it.

Tim: What God said is, "When the trumpet blasts on the third day, that's when y'all come up." So the narrative retells God showing up two times. And it retells two times about the trumpet growing stronger, and then continuing on longer and longer. Verse 20—

Jon: And the people trembled and the mountain trembled.

Tim: Exactly. Verse 20. "So Yahweh descended on Mount Sinai, onto the top of the mountain." You're like, Yeah, that's like the third time I've been told that. So this is beginning the third paragraph.

Jon: Okay. 

Tim: “He called Moses who went up. And Yahweh said to Moses, hey, go back down and warn the people so that they don't break through and see Yahweh and many of them fall. And also the priests who draw near to Yahweh, let them make themselves holy so that (00:37:00) Yahweh doesn't break out against them. And Moses said, ‘Well, the people are not able to go up to Mount Sinai because you warned us saying, “Set boundaries on the mountain and set it apart as holy.”’

And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Go back down, then you will come back up, but just you and Aaron with you and the priests. But do not let the people break through to go up the mountain so that Yahweh doesn't break out against them.’ And Moses went down to the people and spoke to them."

Jon: So you read this and it sounds like they never were supposed to go up the mountain. 

Tim: Yeah, that's right. 

Jon: So perhaps NIV got it right, which is like, "Hey, maybe this whole translation of you can ascend the mountain, while more literal, wasn't the meaning."

Tim: That's right. Exactly. That is what the NIV, ESV, and New American Standard have done. 

Jon: All the biggies.

Tim: And the King James. Because of what God (00:38:00) says here in this third paragraph, "Just don't let the people come up the mountain," they go back to verse 13 and translate God's command as "come up to the mountain" even though that's not what the Hebrew preposition means.

Jon: Is it gray? 

Tim: What's that? 

Jon: Is it a fuzzy preposition?

Tim: Ah, no. To say, "Come up to the mountain" in verse … let's see. In verse 18, “they stand at the bottom part of the mountain.” And that uses a preposition "tachtit." It's really specific. They come up to the foot of it. So the narrative already used language "to come up to the foot." And you could use other Hebrew prepositions. El, to come up onto; al, to come up upon or next to. But bahar means “onto.” So the whole point is this narrative has a puzzle. And it's intentional. This is a riddle.

Jon: I see. 

Tim: It's a narrative riddle that you have to wait till you get to the center of the literary unit to find the solution to the riddle. (00:39:00) 

Jon: Got it. 

Tim: But this narrative just puts a puzzle in front of you. 

Jon: But the puzzle—

Tim: And the puzzle is—

Jon: Oh, yeah, you say the puzzle.

Tim: The puzzle is paragraph one. God says to Moses what's going to happen. "Okay, don't go near the mountain for three days. On the third day, I'm going to come down when the ram's horn blasts, everybody come up onto the mountain." That's what God says. You get a long next paragraph of Yahweh coming down on the mountain and the ram's horn sounding going on, going on, going on. Two times it goes through. And you're told that the people stand in the camp trembling. And you're like, "Okay, well, I would too." But why is it drawing attention to the ram's horn just keeping on keeping on? That's interesting.

Jon: Because according to the previous section, that's go time. That's when they go up onto the mountain. 

Tim: So I think what you're supposed to notice there is the ram's horn grows strong. And then it says, "It kept going on strongly, kept going on." Inviting the reader to say, (00:40:00) "Okay, why am I not hearing about the people going up? This is when they're supposed to go up." Then Yahweh calls Moses up and says, "Hey, the people can't come up."

Jon: And the puzzle is, why is he saying that when before he wanted them to come up?

Tim: Exactly right.

Jon: Is this a change of mind or did we misunderstand his command the first time?

Tim: That's right. So this three-paragraph part of the story is intentionally introducing what feels like a contradiction in the story. And that contradiction in the story has been interpreted by some scholars as saying two separate accounts of this narrative have been fused together and it left a narrative glitch, a contradictory glitch.

Jon: So these poor Hebrew scribes didn't know how to smooth it out. 

Tim: So that's one possibility. Another possibility is that it's a puzzle and you're supposed to meditate on it and keep reading until you get to (00:41:00) what follows. So what follows is the ten commandments. Because we were told in verse 19—

Jon: This is the patty. This is the first law patty. 

Tim: This is the first law patty. That's right. Moses would speak and God would respond. What did God say? Well, the ten commandments. So we'll talk about that I think in our next conversation. We'll go through the commandments. But the narrative picks back up in chapter 20 verse 18.

Jon: This is the stinky cheese?

Tim: This is the stinky cheese in the middle. And this is the key to the puzzle. Right? So in verse 18, it says, "Now, when the people were seeing the sounds and the fire torches and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain of smoke—"

Jon: Yeah, I remember that. We spent some time there.

Tim: Totally. So in other words, chapter 20 verse 18 doesn't continue a new part of the story.

Jon: It's flashing back.

Tim: It's a flashback to that moment of the ram's horn. We're going back in time. And what we're going to be told is now a third time through that moment, and we're going to find out why God said what he said, (00:42:00) at least, I think. 

So we're back to that moment. The people see the sounds, the fire, they hear the trumpet, the mountain smoke. And when the people saw it, they shook. And you're like, "Oh, yeah, I remember that. We were told that they trembled." And they stood at a distance. They stayed away. 

“And they said to Moses, ‘You speak with us, and we will listen. Do not let God speak to us so that we don't die.’ And Moses said to the people, ‘No, you guys don't be afraid. This is all for the purpose of testing you. That's why God has come. And for the purpose, that his fear would be before you so that you don't sin.’ But the people, they stood at a distance, and Moses drew near to the dark cloud where God was." 

Section break (00:42:53)

Tim: You tell me how you fit this in?

Jon: Okay. Well, I feel like I could try to make this make sense through both narrative interpretations.

Tim: Okay. Sure. 

Jon: So the one that feels like a plain reading, especially when you're reading NIV or ESV and it says, "Don't go up— (00:44:00) or just go to the boundary of the mountain," then you get to this section and they're afraid, they're at a distance. That's great. They're supposed to be. They say, "Moses, you go." Great. That's the role of Moses apparently.

Tim: That's right.

Jon: Moses tells him not to be afraid. I guess just like pep talk, like, "Guys, I'll go up. Everything's gonna be cool." And then this key line, “it's for the purpose of testing.” So is the test, will you stay here at the boundary line and not come farther? Is that the test?

Tim: Yeah, sure. 

Jon: And by staying here at the boundary line, you get to see God's power but at a distance, the fear of God will come into you and this whole covenant agreement will be a lot more meaningful to you.

Tim: Yeah, that's right. 

Jon: So that's one interpretation I suppose. And then they stay at a distance and you're like, "Cool, awesome. That's great." And then Moses went up and (00:45:00) you're like, "Yeah, that's Moses' role."

Tim: And that is a very common interpretation. It's the interpretation embedded in many modern English translations. And you can read, I would say, even most Exodus commentaries that I've been able to find go that route. It's a coherent reading of the story, but it doesn't make sense of the Hebrew text of God's first command, which is—

Jon: Yeah. You kind of have to just go, "Oh, that was kind of a miss with the preposition on that sense." 

Tim: So let's just notice. This is a big interpretive difference that hangs on a Hebrew preposition that consists of one letter. 

Jon: Wait, the preposition is just one letter?

Tim: The preposition is one letter that gets attached to the word that's in front. But this is it. Man, this is Hebrew biblical studies, Hebrew Bible studies. You get into the weeds. It's awesome.

Jon: So the other interpretation is saying, "Let's take that preposition seriously, and let's say (00:46:00) God wanted them to come up the mountain, and they didn't come up. And that was them failing the test.” Then tell me what does this mean then when he says … What was the purpose of that test of whether they'll come up or not?

Tim: We're back to this design pattern that started all the way back with Adam and Eve, of whether people are willing to surrender their version of life and trust God's command even if it looks like something terrifying or death. So for Adam and Eve, it was actually choosing life instead of the tree that leads to death. But with the imagery of them being afraid when God shows up with a sound in the wind, because they already broke the command and they hide from God, that scene right there is being echoed right in this narrative in Exodus.

Jon: Right.

Tim: They hide from God; they don't want to go near because they're afraid because they (00:47:00) failed the test. That's one thing.

Jon: To piggyback on that, a more clear example is like Abraham. 

Tim: Oh, that's where I was about to go. 

Jon: Okay.

Tim: No, that's right. Genesis 22, with Abraham and Isaac, picks up that Adam and Eve story. So in Genesis 22, Abraham has failed to trust God's word many times in the story. God tests him by saying, "Come up to a mountain called the mountain of appearance,” referring to God's appearance, “and surrender the life of your future family over to me on the third day." And Abraham goes up and he does so. He actually does that. 

Jon: He passes the test.

Tim: He passes the test. And God says, "Now I know that you fear the Lord because you listened to my voice." It's all the same language.

Jon: Even though it was intense, and you felt like you were marching up into destroying your family and everything going away, you listened to my voice. You walked into the flames. 

Tim: You walked into the flames. That's exactly right. (00:48:00) So I have here a picture—

Jon: "Now I know that you fear me." And that's what God is telling Moses here. Like, "I wanted them to walk up so that I can know that they fear me, because they listen to my voice even though it just was too intense for them."

Tim: That's right. God's invitation to Israel, when they arrive at Mount Sinai is "if you just listen to my voice." And my voice said, "When the ram's horn sounds on the third day, come up onto the mountain." And now we're given in this little back flash the moment God showed up, it was freaky. It was going to require a great surrender and walking into what looks like death, walking into the flames. But the people don't want to do it. 

So what the people say to their representative is, "You go into the fire of God on our behalf." It's sort of like, Moses, you pass the test on our behalf. We don't want to have to pass the test." So they stay at a distance … Ooh, that word "from a distance" (00:49:00) also echoes Genesis 22. Because Abraham approached the mountain on the third day, and he saw it from a distance. And then he goes up the mountain.

Jon: But he goes up.

Tim: Here, the people, they come, and they stay away at a distance while Moses alone goes up. Here's the point is that the narrative is designed out of sequence, is designed with a puzzle that only is illuminated once you read the very chiastic center of the story that gives you back illumination onto the main story. So that's already a pretty high demand on the reader. Also, it's through this repetition of narrative patterns of echoing the Eden story and echoing the story of Genesis 22. And I have a big chart here—

Jon: That shows all the—

Tim: All the verbal hyperlinks. It's crazy. 

Jon: I see.

Tim: This narrative is riddled with the language of the Eden story in Genesis 22.

Jon: Got it.

Tim: This is what finally compelled me. (00:50:00) I should say the first person that I came across, a scholar with this interpretation, was John Sailhamer in his excellent commentary called The Pentateuch as Narrative. He puts this view out there but not in a lot of detail, so I've really wrestled with it over the years. But I always felt like there's something here. So as time has gone on, I've become more compelled because of the literary design in the hyperlink patterns.

Jon: We'll put this chart that you're referring to of all the hyperlinks in the show notes. We'll make sure to do that so you can see that. 

Tim: So essentially what happens here is the people stay away. So instead of becoming a kingdom of priests, they become a kingdom not just with priests, but a kingdom really just having one mediator on behalf of the whole. And that ends up saving them. Moses is gonna save them. We'll talk about that in the next movement. But you do walk away feeling disappointed because the people chose (00:51:00) to stay away from the fire. 

Jon: Yeah. It also makes sense of why God called them to be a kingdom of priests, and instead they become a kingdom with priests.

Tim: That's right. So when we come back to the bigger picture, after that little narrative bit there, you get the 42 laws of what's called the covenant code. These are more ancient nation laws. We'll talk about them more in the next episode. And then you get Exodus 24, which concludes the second movement of the Exodus scroll. And this is so rad, man.

So Moses goes up Mount Sinai with Aaron who's going to be the high priest, with his sons who are going to be the other priests, and the elders of Israel. And they go up halfway up the mountain. Just they do. And it says that they sat right below the cloud, and they looked up and they could see the sky dome. It says they saw the rakia, the sky dome from Genesis 1 with the waters above. And they see through it.

Jon: It's like glass. 

Tim: Yeah, it's like glass. And they can look through it. It says (00:52:00) they saw Elohim, and they ate, and they drank. And you're like, "Yeah." You know, the people didn't go up and that's disappointing, but God still meets his people. He calls their leaders up and he allows them—

Jon: He meets them halfway.

Tim: And he meets them halfway, and they feast. It's a feast of God and humans on the sacred mountain together. Then you're told Moses writes up all of the laws on this thing called the scroll of the covenant. And he reads it to the people, and the people say exactly what they said in chapter 19. "Everything Yahweh has said, we're going to do it." And then they have one little comment. "We will listen."

Jon: What's funny, though, you know, taking the interpretation that you just walked us through, when they first said, "Yeah, everything he says we'll do—"

Tim: Oh, yeah. And then they don't.

Jon: But then they don't do it.

Tim: Yeah, totally. 

Jon: So then Moses is like, "Okay, here's the laws.” They're like, "Yeah, we'll do it."

Tim: "We'll do it." 

Jon: He's like, "Mm, we've been here before."

Tim: Yeah, that's right. (00:53:00) And then here's the last paragraph. So after the meal with God and humans on the mountain, Yahweh said to Moses, "Come up to me to the mountain." And this is going to be the seventh time.

Jon: Okay.

Tim: "Come up to me on the mountain and stay there. I'm going to give you stone tablets with the law and the commandment that I've written for their Torah, their instruction ..."

Jon: So he's already gotten them. Now he's gonna get them a special edition?

Tim: No, not the stone tablets. He's written his own version of the … 

Jon: But he was already given the ten commandments and scroll of the covenant. 

Tim: He heard the ten commandments. 

Jon: He heard it. Okay. But now he's getting a hard copy. 

Tim: Exactly, he got the hard copy. What it says is Moses gets up from that meal with Joshua his servant, “but Moses went up for the seventh time to the mountain of Elohim. And he said to the elders, 'Hey, you all wait here until we return to you.’” This is, by the way, almost copy and paste of what Abraham said. 

Jon: Abraham says to his servant—

Tim: And look, Aaron and Hur (00:54:00) are with you. Aaron is from the tribe of Levi, Hur is from the tribe of Judah. So you've got the royal and the priestly tribes. “They're going to run the show while we're gone. If anybody has anything important to talk about, just go talk to them.”

Jon: They're in charge.

Tim: You're like, dun, dun, dun. 

Jon: The babysitters are in charge.

Tim: “So Moses went up the mountain. The cloud covered the mountain, the glory of Yahweh rested upon Mount Sinai, for the cloud covered it for six days. And on the seventh day, he called to Moses from the middle of the cloud. Now, down below to the eyes of the sons of Israel, the appearance of the glory of Yahweh was like a fire eating on the mountaintop.” 

Jon: Wow.

Tim: And Moses went into the cloud. He got eaten by the fire as he went up the mountain. And he was up there 40 days and 40 nights.

Jon: That's a long time. 

Tim: Yeah. 

Jon: And 40 is (00:55:00) symbolic of what? Temptation? Wilderness? Testing?

Tim: I think it functions in a similar way to the third day. It's a period of waiting and a period of where you have to make a decision of what you will do and whether or not you will trust. I think it's synonymous with the third day. But I think the key here is they went halfway up the mountain, they have the meal, but then Moses alone, but then you're also told Joshua is going to tag along. 

Moses goes up the mountain, but then he waits right at the cloud line for six days. And on the seventh day Moses goes up into the fire and into the cloud. So it's as if he's returning to Eden. The appointed representative is going back into the heavenly fire of Yahweh on the seventh day as it rests. So the top of the mountain becomes a place where Heaven and Earth are one. There's a boundary of fire just like there was for Eden, where (00:56:00) God stationed the cherubim and stationed the fire at the door of Eden. So here's Moses going through the door, going to Heaven on the seventh ascent and on the seventh day. So you finish this movement, and you're like, okay, the people got married to Yahweh—

Jon: Good thing they've got Moses.

Tim: Good thing they've got Moses. No, I guess that's actually the takeaway. The narrative tells you about that the people don't want to come near, they want to stay away, but really it's highlighting Moses. Yeah, that's a good point, Jon. Thank you. It foregrounds their failure to trust. But really, it's highlighting good thing we've got Moses, which is true in more ways than one because in the golden calf story, once again, good thing they've got Moses.

Jon: Which is the next movement. 

Tim: But for the moment, even though Israel didn't come close to Yahweh, for a moment the narrative pauses here at the second movement of Exodus. It ends with the seventh day. And it's a little Eden (00:57:00) beat in the story where you can just pause on rest and say, man, good thing we have … Man, when there is a righteous, courageous mediator who will surrender what looks like death, go into what looks like death on behalf of the people and enter into Eden on their behalf, you get covenant, you get peace with God and humans, you get … This is the good stuff. It doesn't last very long just like in Eden, but for the moment the story gives you a nice little Eden rest for a bit.

Jon: Well, that's interesting you feel an Eden rest. I mean, he's up there being consumed by clouds and fire. 

Tim: Well, that's true.

Jon: And so—

Tim: But he survives. He's alive up there. 

Jon: He survives. But it's like going through a furnace. I mean, it doesn't tell us how Moses experienced it. Like whether he was in some like Nirvana state.

Tim: That's a good point.

Jon: Being like, (00:58:00) "Oh, darn, the 40 days are up. I gotta go back down." Or if it was intense. But you kind of get the sense it was intense. 

Tim: Yes. The narrative goes back to the Israelites. And what they see is Moses walking into a wall of flame. 

Jon: But at the same time, the narrative image is Moses back in the garden. He got through the fire, he's in the garden. So you could also imagine going through the fire. You think it's gonna be intense, and there he is. He's sitting there at the tree of life just consuming of God's life. 

Tim: That's right. 

Jon: I suppose that's a compelling way to think about this too. Because he is going to come down shining.

Tim: Yeah, yeah, the fire makes him glossy. We're working the themes of desire that the narrative creates all the way back to the Eden story about getting humans back to Eden where they can become God's true partners (00:59:00) and spread the life of Eden out into the rest of the land. 

Jon: It requires that they listen to the word, that they overcome their fear of safety or self-preservation, and instead, they fear God's commands and reenter Eden. 

Tim: That's right. Even if God's commands invite you to do something that looks like you could die. We're so in the territory of the Gospel narratives and the teachings of Jesus here. "Let anyone who follow me take up the cross."

Jon: Yeah, he gets real explicit about that, doesn't he?

Tim: Yeah, yeah. And he wants—

Jon: If want to follow God's commands as I see them, get ready to die.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that is a powerful summary of Jesus of what's going on in story after story after story of the Hebrew Scriptures that he grew up on. Of course, this is how he knows how the story works because it's the human condition. (01:00:00) It's the story of Adam and Eve, human life, and every set of characters after that. Yeah, it's the test. It's the great test that was before Adam and Eve, before Israel, and before every one of us.

Jon: Thanks for listening to this episode of BibleProject podcast. Next week we continue with this narrative, and we get to the famous ten commandments, the first set of ancient laws that Israel gets as they make this covenant relationship with God. 

Tim: You can read these commands and just be like, "This is God's standard of moral perfection. Don't violate it." That's one way you could proceed with this. But deep in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, there's a conviction that God's commands are given for our good. Not just because God thinks this is good, but it's actually for our good. So that's what I'm trying to play out here is that the logic underneath (01:01:00) these commands is actually about honoring the dignity and vocation that God has given to humans. Don't offer false witness.

Jon: Today's episode was produced by Cooper Peltz, edited by Frank Garza and Dan Gummel, our lead editor. Lindsey Ponder did the show notes, and Ashlyn Heise annotated the podcast for the app.

BibleProject is a nonprofit. We exist to experience the Bible as a unified story that leads us to Jesus. Everything that we make is free because of the generous support of thousands of people just like you. So thank you so much for being a part of this with us.

12 Episodes

Episode 12
Did God Try To Kill Moses?
Why did God say he was going to kill Moses? What exactly was God’s test for Abraham on Mount Moriah and Israel on Mount Sinai? What’s the connection between the ten plagues and the Ten Commandments? In this episode, Tim and Jon respond to your questions about the Exodus scroll. Thanks to our audience for your incredible questions!
1hr 13m • Jun 22, 2022
Episode 11
Two Takes on the Test at Mount Sinai
Did Israel pass or fail God’s test at Mount Sinai? And what did Yahweh mean when he made Israel a “nation of priests”? In this episode, Tim and Jon talk with long-time friend and Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Carmen Imes. Tim and Carmen share differing interpretive perspectives of the Exodus story, reminding us that the Bible is meant to be meditated upon and studied within a community.
1hr 2m • May 23, 2022
Episode 10
Why Moses Couldn’t Enter the Tabernacle
In the second movement of Exodus, Moses walks straight into God’s fiery presence on Mount Sinai without fear. But by the end of the scroll, he can’t enter God’s presence. What changed? In this episode, join Jon and Tim as they explore the final portion of the third movement of Exodus.
52m • May 16, 2022
Episode 9
Why Does the Tabernacle Furniture Even Matter?
Why does God seem to care so much about the furniture within the tabernacle? The instructions for the tabernacle furniture are about far more than aesthetics. They were means of dealing with Israel’s moral brokenness, they served as reminders of Eden, and they were designed to form Israel into a people of perpetual surrender. In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they continue to trace the theme of the temple in the third movement of Exodus.
1hr 1m • May 9, 2022
Episode 8
What’s So Special About the Tabernacle?
You may have heard that God’s holiness keeps him from getting close to sinful humanity, but in the Bible we see God regularly doing the opposite, drawing near to dwell with human beings. We encounter this reality again and again, including in a surprising place—the tabernacle blueprints. In this episode, join Jon and Tim as they walk through the opening act of the third movement of Exodus and explore the relationship between the tabernacle, the garden of Eden, unconditional love, and eternal life.
1hr 17m • May 2, 2022
Episode 7
What Are the Ten Commandments All About?
We often think of the Ten Commandments as a list of dos and don’ts—the things you need to do to make God happy. But is that what they’re really about? In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they take a deep dive into the Ten Commandments and find out why they’re more about preserving proper worship of Yahweh and the shared dignity of humans.
1hr 10m • Apr 25, 2022
Episode 6
Testing at Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai is the famous spot where Yahweh gives Moses the Ten Commandments, and it is the location where most of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first 10 chapters of Numbers take place. When Israel first arrives at Sinai, they fail yet another test and try to get Moses to pass it for them. In this episode, join Tim and Jon as they explore Yahweh’s fiery presence, the test at Sinai, and the question of Israel's national identity: Will they be the kingdom of priests Yahweh intends?
1hr 3m • Apr 18, 2022
Episode 5
Israel Tests Yahweh
The nation of Israel seems to go from one life-threatening situation to another in the Exodus scroll. From slavery in Egypt to being cornered between a hostile army and a vast body of water, Israel’s God has delivered them from everything so far. Now in the wilderness, they face a series of three tests. Will they trust Yahweh to deliver them again? In this episode, Tim and Jon explore Israel’s testing in the wilderness.
1hr 12m • Apr 11, 2022
Episode 4
God Tests His Chosen Ones
Nobody likes tests. But the test is a recurring pattern in the biblical story for how God relates to his chosen ones. So are humans just lab rats in a divine experiment, or is there something else going on? Join Tim and Jon as they talk about the theme of the test and the famous account of Israel crossing the Sea of Reeds, as we dive into the second movement of the Exodus scroll.
1hr 3m • Apr 4, 2022
Episode 3
Why Are There 10 Plagues?
The ten plagues—they’re fascinating, they’re famous, and they sometimes seem overly harsh. Where do they fit in the story of the Bible and the process of God revealing his own name and character? In this episode, Tim and Jon talk about the ten plagues, or ten acts of de-creation, in which Yahweh uses his power over creation to undo his own creation in judgment. Listen in as we explore how God’s response to evil reveals another layer of his character.
1hr 1m • Mar 28, 2022
Episode 2
Yahweh and the Exodus
The story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is famous for good reason—a burning bush, a transforming staff, 10 plagues, and the Passover. The exodus is also the story that defines God’s personal name, Yahweh. What does this narrative show us about Yahweh? And why does God care so much that people know his name? In this episode, Tim and Jon talk about God’s character revealed through his acts of deliverance and judgment.
1hr 6m • Mar 21, 2022
Episode 1
“God” Is Not a Name
God is not a name—it’s a title. In fact, the God of the Bible introduces himself by a specific name in one of the most famous stories in the Bible, the exodus event, when he works through Moses and Aaron to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt. In this episode, Tim and Jon dive into the first movement of the Exodus scroll and explore the theme of God’s name.
1hr 6m • Mar 14, 2022
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