Paul Landacre’s engraving tells of a theophany of a different kind from what Joseph Mallord William Turner and Francis Frith (both also featured in this exhibition) envision. While it does not represent Sinai, the fire and smoke of Death of a Forest evoke the biblical author’s description of the mountain as ‘wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln’ (Exodus 19:18). The same divine presence that serves as a positive force for the good of humankind seems a destructive force in its effects on the mountain. We may imagine the fire of YHWH like a wildfire—burning vegetation and wildlife without warning. It causes such upheaval as to elicit a violent response from the mountain’s very core: ‘the whole mountain shook violently’ (v.18).
In Exodus 19, Nature is just as involved in the theophany as YHWH or Israel. The episode begins on a new moon (v.1), is located in the desert wilderness (vv.2, 3), and requires the people to wash their bodies and clothing with precious water (vv.10, 14), while YHWH manifests using dense cloud (vv.9, 16), thunder (vv.16, 19), lightning (v.16), fire (v.18), and smoke (v.18)—some of nature’s most ominous phenomena. Thunder is the very voice of God (v.19). The mountain itself, mentioned fourteen times in 19:11–23, bears witness to the terror of theophany, trembling with a holy charge so great that any human or beast who touches it becomes a danger to the entire community (vv.12–13, 21–24).
The inclusion of animals in the prohibition against touching the mountain underscores how all species are equally beholden to the power of YHWH. Today, as species vanish and mountains burn with the fire of humanity’s presence, Sinai calls homo sapiens to remember that the natural world both bears and bears witness to the divine presence on earth. Its degradation at the hands of humankind stands in contrast to our humble position alongside the animals at Sinai. Nature, too, is part of the divine story and it serves us all well when we remember that.
19 On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone forth out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2And when they set out from Rephʹidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mountain. 3And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, 6and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. 8And all the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. 9And the Lord said to Moses. “Lo, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you for ever.”
Then Moses told the words of the people to the Lord. 10And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments, 11and be ready by the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12And you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Take heed that you do not go up into the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death; 13no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” 14So Moses went down from the mountain to the people, and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. 15And he said to the people, “Be ready by the third day; do not go near a woman.”
16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. 19And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to gaze and many of them perish. 22And also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out upon them.” 23And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai; for thou thyself didst charge us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain, and consecrate it.’ ” 24And the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.” 25So Moses went down to the people and told them.