SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 45 Exodus 19+20

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Exodus 19+20. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 49 & 50 (this includes links to all previous Genesis threads)
Exodus 1
Exodus 2
Exodus 3
Exodus 4
Exodus 5&6
Exodus 7-10
Exodus 11-12
Exodus 13
Exodus 14 + 15
Exodus 16-18

Exodus 19 New International Version (NIV)

At Mount Sinai
19 On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. 2 After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.

3 Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

7 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. 8 The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.

10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”

14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”

16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”

23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’”

24 The Lord replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.”

25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

Exodus 20 New International Version (NIV)

The Ten Commandments
20 And God spoke all these words:

2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

Idols and Altars
22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

24 “‘Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. 26 And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.’

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I’m getting tired of just me ecturing, with little discussion. So, I’m just going to raise a few over-view generalizations and mention a few subtleties and otherwise I’ll respond to questions/discussion.

This chapter begins a new phase; the exodus is ended, and the meeting (theophany) between God and Israel at Sinai begins. The covenant is seen metaphorically as a marriage:
Chapter 19 is the arrival at Sinai and the preparation for wedding
Ch 20 is the wedding
Ch 21 – 23:29 are the details of the covenant (marriage contract – remember that, in those days, marriages were legal, contractual arrangements)
Ch 23:30 - end of the book: where to go on a honeymoon.

Some subtleties:

Verse 9: the dense cloud is the visible sign of the presence of an invisible God.

Verses 10 – 15 are preparations for the encounter: washing, abstaining from sex, and setting bounds around the mountain, because humans cannot exist where God is. The border is between the sacred and the profane, the eternal and the mortal. And the bounds serve two functions: to keep the people safe from getting too close to God, and to restrain God so that He does not burst out in love to the people (verse 22)

Verse 16: “The third day” is frequently used in the bible to mean “a significant time.” God comes down to the mountain (anthropomorphically, of course) and the environment of revelation is thunder, fire, darkness, and the blast of the trumpet (the shofar, the ram’s horn.) The imagery recalls the covenant with Abraham in Gen 15:17, the smoke like from a furnace. Biblical poetry often describes upheavals of nature when God comes close.


We have here the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, Christians and Jews count the ten differently, the primary diff is whether verse 2 is a separate commandment or simply an introduction. There are even differences within Christianity (Wikipedia covers this pretty well.) These are the principles required to establish a just, sacred society, which is the whole point of God’s intervention to free Israel from Egypt. The next (many!) chapters contain other laws and commandments that follow from this statement of basic principles.

The first five commandments are concerned with relationship between God and individuals, with the phrase “the Lord your God” appearing in each. The second five do not mention God at all, and are about relationships among human beings. The first five are specific for Israel, and not required of other nations; the second five are universal. The section opens with “The Lord your God” and ends with “your neighbor.”

Some specifics:

Verse 8 (Sabbath): The idea of a weekly day of rest is yet another contribution of ancient Israelite religion to our modern society. The idea of workers having time-off was revolutionary; there is nothing similar in any other Middle Eastern culture of the time.

Note that there are seven categories of beings who benefit from rest on Sabbath, including servants, and “foreigners” (literally: strangers – with the implied reminder that you were mistreated as strangers in Egypt.) In most of the ancient world, strangers rarely had any rights or protections under the laws.

Verse 13: KJV used “Thou shalt not kill” but there are many different Hebrew verbs for “kill”, and the much better translation is “murder.” The verb רצח is never used for legal executions or for killing in war, those types of killing are NOT forbidden. The verb also is never used when God or an angel kills someone.

Verse 18: The people see and tremble in fear (awe.) The critical verb in the Exodus story was “to know,” the critical verb in this section of the story is “to see.” To see is to witness. The NIV adds the word “heard” which is not in the Hebrew text. In the Hebrew text, the people “see” the thunder and the trumpet blast. I love that phrasing, which implies an encounter beyond normal human experience.

In verse 22: the altar is not to be built using weapons of death as tools.

I am quite surprised at how different Genesis and Exodus are from each other. Genesis seems like it was a long introduction about the basics, which are lost in some ways, and now we get to the point of the story, or at least one of them.

I’m taken off guard by this difference because Genesis did seem to make god more powerful and ethereal and now Exodus reads a bit more like Greek or Roman mythology. Certainly there are differences, as was pointed out by Dex, in terms of having a day of rest, treating strangers well and having strangers observe the laws if within the borders. But I’m not as impressed, not sure if that is the right word, by the god in Exodus as compared to Genesis. I’m not sure why.

Did they really save the manna (sp and if it was here or the previous verses) in jars for generations? It’s too bad we don’t have that recipe! And some of the other lost foods.

Thanks for the great analysis and sorry I don’t participate more but I do read it and enjoy it all.

The problem with “murder” is that the current English definition makes it a bit of a tautology. We tend to say “murder” means “an illegal killing of a human being.” So you have a law apparently saying “Don’t kill illegally.” Of course it’s against the law–you’ve already said it’s illegal.

Now, if what our statutes defined as murder were the same as what was רצח back then, that would be okay, but there are some definite differences, like having the families of even accidental killing victims being allowed to chase and kill. “Murder” may be the best we can do, but it’s definitely not sufficient.

“Don’t kill, except in certain circumstances I’ll explain later,” just isn’t as good.

I did notice that God seems less infallible in this text. The text at 19:23 reads as if he forgot that he had told Moses to keep anyone from climbing the mountain back in. Sure, I can see verses 21-22 as God just reminding the people of what he already said, but Moses’s response seems to be that he thought God forgot, and apparently does not go do what God commanded.

I do wonder though if the Israelites actually see God as bigger here because it directly affects them. We have the better appreciation for what God did in Genesis because we realize how bit it is. But, for them, it might just be backstory. Heck, I would not be surprised if Exodus (at least this part) was compiled first.

Well, your definition of murder is equallly circular. Murder is illegal and means the illegal killing of a human being, n’est-ce pas? I do agree that translations are difficult. My point was supposed to be that the KJV of “Thou shalt not kill” is a much worse translation.

On the nature of God in Genesis vs Exodus: yes, the God in Genesis mostly just talks to people, He doesn’t do many “miracles” (destruction of Sodom, Noah’s Flood.) The God of Exodus changes sticks to snakes and water to blood, etc. The main diff (to me) is that the God of Genesis is a family god. He only talks to the specific individuals (and mostly Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.) Sodom gets no warnings as does Pharaoh. Remember that “household gods” were quite common among the pagan nations. The God of Abraham seems to be more powerful, but still basically a family god.

The God of Exodus is the God of a people, and (by extension) of all peoples. He starts out as being “just more powerful” than the Egyptian gods – remember that the Egyptian magicians could mimic some of the early miracles/plagues, but they give up. By the end of the plagues, we know better – that God is the Master of Creation.

So, what’s happening in the story is that there is a growing understand of who/what God is.

I think it’s arguable that, by the time of Christianity, the nature of God has re-evolved into a personal god.

Some observations/questions occur to me.

• In 19:4, ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself."

Would Moses’s audience agree with this statement? It seems like they griped constantly about food, water, and more. I could see them agreeing that g-d liberated them, but “carried you on wings of eagles” seems like it would be received as a stretch.

• To vislor’s point, having g-d on a mountain seems very Olympian.

• “Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death.”

This seems odd to me. The thought here isn’t that g-d is so majestic that anyone who comes close will be overcome (like the proximity discussion we had at the burning bush for example) but rather that they will be punished. Maybe this is just about teaching people how to follow rules (since we’re about to get 10 important ones of those), but g-d ordering the shooting or stoning of His people seems pretty harsh and strange.

• “…punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Literary language, to be sure, but what do the literalists have to say about this? Certainly the Venn diagrams are going to overlap occasionally over the course of a thousand generations. Plus there’s the obvious qualms about how just this notion is.

• 7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name."

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the actual pronunciation of His name has been lost. You can’t violate this commandment if you can’t say His name.

• "God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

Does it make Moses seem naive when statements like this prove to be false?

• “22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.”

Odd that g-d emphasizes one of the commandments that he just gave and no others. You and I know that this is foreshadowing, but still. There’s an implication that he really, really means this one.

• “…make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.”

So does this suggest that many modern altars are defiled during their construction?

• “26 And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.”

This seems like a Puritanical thought. Adam and Eve covered themselves out of shame, and we’ve had some condemnation regarding questionable sexual activity, but why would g-d himself be offended by seeing up the skirt of His creation?

• The “murder” clarification is interesting. I had no idea the Hebrew word was so specific, and that it allowed “just” or “necessary” killing.

Yes, this is clearly not magical/divine punishment, but death by human agency. Verse 13 makes it clear that no one should go after the person (since the pursuer would, of necessity, also be violating the prohibition) but the violator would be captured and executed later.

I can’t speak to literalist interpretation, but the clause “of those who hate me” mean that, if your parents hated God and your grandparents hated God, and you ditto, then you’re getting wholloped for the accumulation. If your parents hated God but you don’t, then you’re into the “those who love me” category.

I’m not sure what you mean here? The fear (better: awe) of God helps keep many from sinning, but not all.

Yes, indeed, but by linking this to the “I have spoken to you from heaven,” it’s clear that God is “removed from the natural confines of the material world” (Sarna.) This is a definite break from the pagan cultures, whose gods are visible and live in the material world (the Greek gods come down from the mountain to have sex with mortals, etc.)

Heh. Just heh. If/when we get to the New Testament, I’d also link this to wondering what Jesus would think of the gaudy, richly decorated churches dedicated to him that have starving and poverty-stricken people living next door.

First, this is in contrast to many pagan religions where the officiants were nude (symbolizing death and rebirth and so forth.) Second, it’s not God who’d be offended, it’s the congregation. Excavated Israelite altars have huge stairways, so the priest would be high up, and looking up the skirt would be … well.

Thank you very much for your thoughts and explanations.

You asked what I meant about the (possible) naivety of Moses saying, “…the [awe] of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” I was looking ahead to the golden calf episode as an imminent example of the people’s failure to keep from sinning, despite having experienced such a recent and powerful instance of His presence and power.

Ah, thnx. I’ll postpone response until we get to that incident :wink:


I think the metaphor was meant as relating to spiritual elevation rather than their physical journey, as per the ending of the verse “brought you to myself”.

Or perhaps Olympus seems very much like the Bible? If the Bible was a contemporary account, then it pre-dates by about 500 years our earliest written accounts of any Greek mythology. Even those who do not believe in single authorship in the claimed contemporary period cannot definitively state that the pieces that became today’s Bible did not pre-date what’s known of Greek myth.

I’m not sure that this is a correct interpretation, or translation. The phrase translated here as “shot with arrows” is translated/interpreted as “thrown to the ground”. It seems to me that when a mountain “trembles violently” the danger of being thrown down or stones by falling rocks is a consequence to be warned of.

Look at it from another perspective - the commandment also includes animals, which in Judaic theology are not believed to have the capacity for free will, and therefore, sin. Why would a punishment for something like this apply to animals? (There are places in the Torah where an animal is to be put to death due to some human action involving it, but the reason behind those doesn’t really apply here.)

We literalists see this as an indication of G-d’s goodness - he rewards much more (500x) than he punishes. As for the justness of it, this is explained as referring to children following in their parents’ footsteps - if a child follows in the evil ways of an evil parent, he is punished for his own sins as well as the parent’s sins, and if a child follows in the good ways of a good parent, he is rewarded for his parent’s virtue as well as his own (as, in both cases, one was a conscious continuation of, and therefore “adoption” of, the other).

Not really. It may not have accomplished its purpose (with some of the subjects), but the attempt was made for the stated reason. And most of the Israelites were not sinners in any big way (e.g., Golden Calf).

It’s not just that. In this next round of speech to Moses, G-d commands the construction of the Tabernacle, which contains plenty of silver and gold, and includes such figures as the Cherubs on the ark. The emphasis here makes the point of stating that the objects therein are not supposed to be thought of as worship objects.

What do you mean by “modern altars”? Jews today do not sacrifice animals, but when they did (and when they will when the Messiah comes), the stones used will be of the un-defiled sort.

Actually, the privates were never exposed from below during Temple worship - the priests wore knickers (Exodus 28:42-43). It’s simply about promoting the attitude of modesty and respect with which one should serve G-d - they should not walk up to the altar in a way that would (if exposed) maximize exposure of the privates.

It is very specific - the Torah later clarifies that to be “murder”, the killing must have been with an object that could be expected to cause death, and either pre-meditated, or there must have been some indication of personal malice between murderer and victim beforehand. (Numbers 34:16-25)

Exodus 21-23