One of Twenty Vignettes, Sinai's Thunder (Illustration to 'The Pleasures of Hope') by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner

One of Twenty Vignettes, Sinai's Thunder (Illustration to 'The Pleasures of Hope'), c.1835, Watercolour over pencil on paper, 125 x 95 mm, National Galleries of Scotland; Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Gallery of Scotland, 1988, D 5156, Courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland

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Sinai Past

Commentary by

The drama of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Sinai’s Thunder is, arguably, outdone only by the biblical text itself. Immediately, our eyes are drawn to the deity enshrouded in the storm from which angular bolts of lightning direct us towards the earth below. There, the Israelites prostrate themselves upon hearing the divine word shared by Moses.

The Israelites form a line that winds organically from the foreground into the far distance and directs our attention back to the foot of the mountain—the front row of the theophany—which then points us upward to where we began.

The deity’s upraised arm and head interrupt the spectacle of cloud, thunder, lightning, and fire, evoking the idea found in other biblical theophanies that Yahweh is simultaneously wholly other and a bit like us, the paradox of a cosmic force desiring proper relationship with a chosen community (cf. Exodus 33:12–34:9; 1 Kings 19:9–18). The position of Moses’s left arm mirrors that of the deity, suggesting their solidarity in word and purpose.

On the first day, Yahweh opens this conversation saying, ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’ (Exodus 19:4). The metaphor of eagles’ wings, echoed visually by the split in Turner’s clouds, also evokes the deity’s parental instinct toward the people of Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 32:10–11, where Yahweh hovers over ‘Jacob’ like an eagle over its young). In light of this eagle-like nature, Yahweh issues a call to responsibility, ‘Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples’ (19:5). The people accept the challenge with solidarity (v.8). On the third day, the spectacle begins (vv.9, 16).

But why is the theophany necessary if the deity has already obtained Israel’s agreement? Yahweh explains to Moses that it is, ‘in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after’ (v.9). It is not so that the people will believe in Yahweh; it is so that they will believe Moses.

The sights and sounds of that day establish the divine origin of the words that Moses would speak to the people over the next forty years, that would eventually be written down, and that the world would come to respect if not follow. Through the divine word, Sinai thunders for all time.