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.
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.