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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

Francis Frith

Mount Horeb, Sinai, 1858, Albumen silver print, 379 x 484 mm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XM.633.15, Digital image courtesy of the Getty Open Content Program

Paul Landacre

Death of a Forest, 1938, Wood engraving on black on wove paper, 269.9 x 282.6 mm (sheet), National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Gift of Bob Stana and Tom Judy, 2015.115.29, © 2020 Estate of Paul Landacre / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington

Sinai Still Thunders

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

The theophany at Sinai is the linchpin of the book of Exodus, serving as both the culmination of the Hebrews’ liberation from the tyranny of Egypt and the preamble to YHWH's pronouncement of the terms of their collective relationship. The divine word could have come to Moses in a whisper, as it later does when the prophet Elijah meets YHWH at Sinai (1 Kings 19:12–13), but it does not. Instead, it comes with fire, smoke, and a thunder that shakes mountains.

The legitimacy of this divine word is the raison d’être of the theophany. With the descent of YHWH at Sinai, the relationship between YHWH and Israel pivots from one of redemption to one of responsibility in light of that redemption.

The connection between divine salvation and the way we live is an essential theme of the Bible from beginning to end but is perhaps no more explicit than here. YHWH's ‘now therefore’ (v.5)—establishing and perpetuating the idea that YHWH liberates the Hebrews from something unto something else—reverberates like a resounding gong in this passage. The pivot from the tyranny of Egypt to life with YHWH in their midst is no small event in Israel’s history.

The spectacle accompanying YHWH's descent occurs solely that the people may hear YHWH speak to Moses and thus believe Moses forever (v.9). In impressing the memory of theophany upon the reader, the author makes an argument not only for YHWH but for Moses as mediator of the divine word and thus for the divine word itself. How does one access that divine word? Through engaging with the book of Exodus. The revelation at Sinai is both a one-time event and an event that occurs in perpetuity, every time someone picks up the book and reads. This pairs well with the tradition that all past, present, and future Jewish souls were present at the moment of revelation at Sinai (Midrash Tanhuma Nitzavim 3; Babylonian Talmud Shevu’ot 39a).

The idea of Sinai as both past and perpetual is the foundation of the Jewish Passover (Pesach), a seven-day celebration that memorializes both the exodus out of Egypt and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Passover is also closely linked to the Christian story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as Jesus’s Last Supper takes place on the evening when Passover begins (Matthew 26:17–19; Mark 14:12–16; Luke 22:1–16) and his death occurs on the first full day (John 18:28–40). In this way, both Judaism and Christianity connect their adherents’ lives to Sinai’s call to live in light of one’s salvation.

The spirit of Mount Sinai finds itself expounded by Turner, Frith, and Landacre. Each artist’s work helps to highlight a different facet of the spiritual life of this geological feature. Turner’s figural representation conveys the drama of the moment, fiery and awesome, invoking a wide array of responses from those in attendance. Frith draws our attention to the historical importance of Sinai as a place of religious pilgrimage for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Landacre’s engraving—while not depicting Sinai directly—can open our imagination to another side of Sinai, prompting us to think about the experience of nature and the implications of that experience for rethinking our relationship to the earth.

Together, Turner’s, Frith’s, and Landacre’s works illustrate that time and the mountain move on.

Although it looks like any other mountain in the region, Sinai has never been—nor will it ever be—the same as them. As long as the Bible or any one of the Abrahamic traditions endures, it will be remembered as the place where YHWH manifested himself in the sight of all Israel. The thundering of the deity’s voice rises for one reason and one reason alone: that the people might hear his word, find it trustworthy, obey, and become his treasured possession (19:4–5, 9)—in each new generation.

Why? ‘For all the earth is mine’, says YHWH (v.5). Because it is his, Sinai calls us to live with reverence and with the memory that the mountain trembled along with us and the beasts stood by our side in witness to the terror of that which we could not touch either literally or figuratively. As long as the mountains endure, Sinai stands as the reminder that all of creation trembles in the presence of the divine, yet what we do matters. It always has and it always will.