People ask whether or not the narrative of Sinai and the Revelation of Torah is to be read literally – this is the wrong question! The real question to ask is whether we should read it linearly or laterally!
It might be reasonable to presume that the text occurs in a linear chronology, but this raises some necessary questions. Let’s go through section by section and see where some of the questions arise:
Exodus 19:1-15 – The Prelude
It’s the 1st of Sivan, the people left Mitzrayim about six weeks prior. Moshe is back at the place he encountered the burning bush, and he goes up the mountain to God and tells Moshe to explain to the Jewish people that they are a “kingdom of priests and a distinct nation,” (Ex. 19:6) so long as they follow God’s rules. Moshe comes back and the people agree. God then explains to Moshe how the Revelation will work – cloud on the mountain, God speaking, and Moshe explains it to the people (19:9). God tells the people to get ready on “the third day” – tradition says they’ve been there for three days by now, so the “third day,” is the 6th of Sivan – and to make sure nobody and nothing comes near the mountain until after they hear the ram’s horn. The people get ready for three days.
So, to what are they agreeing? Moshe hasn’t given them any rules to follow! Later, in Exodus 24:4 and 24:7, the idea that the people confirm accepting the rules is repeated, so perhaps the statement in 19:8 of their acceptance of the commandments actually happened after the Revelation.
Exodus 19:16-24 The Big Day
The Torah tells us that there was thunder and lighting and a cloud and a shofar, and Moshe brought them out, and God is on the mountain with fire, and there’s earthquakes, and the shofar is still going, and Moshe is speaking, and God is speaking, and God is coming down on the mountain, and Moshe is getting called up to the mountain, then God tells Moshe to go down from the mountain, and then to come back up with Aharon, and when Moshe goes down he tells them the Ten Commandments…
It’s all very haphazard, so the Revelation itself seems to happen in three verses!
Mount Sinai was entirely smoke because of Hashem having descended upon it with fire; and the smoke went up like the smoke of the furnace, and the entire mountain trembled exceedingly. And the sound of the shofar was going exceedingly strong; Moshe spoke, and God responded to him with sound. Hashem came down on Mount Sinai to the head of the mountain, and Hashem called for Moshe to the head of the mountain and Moshe ascended. (Exodus 19:18-20)
So was God on the mountain when the people got there or when Moshe came up? Did God and Moshe speak before Moshe ascended? After these three verses, God tells Moshe to tell the people not to come toward the mountain, but before God said the people should stay back as long as the shofar is blasting, so did God tell Moshe to tell the people not to come to the mountain a second time, or is this the same instruction as before? And if it’s a second instruction, is this before or after the Revelation? And if it’s after, then hasn’t the shofar stopped so why can’t they come toward the mountain? But if it’s before, then why is it in the text after? And why is Aharon to go up if it was just Moshe who spoke to God on Sinai, so is this in reference to later when Aharon, his sons, and the elders join Moshe and God for a meal? If it’s that time then why did God say not to allow the priests to come up in Exodus 19:22? So is one of these statements, both of which occur after the Revelation in writing, taking place before the Revelation and the other after? But if the Revelation is contained in those three verses, then why can’t the people or the priests come up unless the statement was made before the Revelation? It’s all very confusing, and questions abound!
Exodus 19:25-20:14 – The Ten Statements
The Torah tells us that Moshe came down to tell the people the commandments, but when he came down wasn’t it with the tablets after the 40 days and 40 nights? So were the commandments given before or after the tablets?
Exodus 20:15-18 – Seeing Thunder
After all of this, the Torah tells us that the people saw thunder, the lighting, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking. They saw things not usually seen, and while I would love to address all of that, it is only going to serve here to set up the order of what really happened and when. So the question emerges, is this a different thunder, lightning, shofar, and smoke than before? Or is this the same? If it’s the same, why does it say it after? And if it’s after, then what was the one before?
The Torah also says that the people told Moshe that they couldn’t handle speaking with God after the Ten Commandments are given, does this take place before, during, or after the Ten Commandments? It doesn’t make sense that it would be before, because they hadn’t experienced it yet, but if this is a different seeing of thunder, lightning, shofar, and smoke then wouldn’t it also stand to reason this is in reference to a different speaking with God? Or, if it’s the same seeking of all of these things, then perhaps it’s the same speaking, so then why does it come after?
Ramban takes advantage of the repetition that the people saw the thunder, lightning, shofar, and smoke to provide his understanding of the chronology of all of these events:
“The entire people seeing the thunder-sounds…” It is the opinion of Rashi and Ibn Ezra that this was after the Giving of Torah, and it is as it is said: “Your came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders, and said, ‘we have seen Hashem our God…if we again hear the voice of Hashem any more we will die…” (Deut. 5:20-22). But in my opinion this is incorrect, because in the version in Exodus it says “God can not speak with us,” but it does not say, “anymore.” Moshe says in Exodus, “Do not fear,” but in Deuteronomy it is said, “they spoke well,” (Deut. 5:25) [thereby implying that these are in reference to two distinct experiences]. Furthermore, here it tells us that they were only afraid of the thunder and lightning from the smoking mountain, but there they were afraid of the speech of the Divine Presence…Furthermore, it says here that Moshe approached the cloud, but it does not say he entered inside of it.
Here is what is correct in my eyes regarding this Torah portion and the proper order of events: The people seeing these things and telling Moshe [they cannot speak with God] happened before the Giving of Torah. So first it mentions the order of everything God said, what was commanded to Moshe regarding the boundary of the mountain, warning the people, and the Ten Statements, and now it returns and mentions what the people said to Moshe, and it mentions the moment they saw the thunder and lightning, and how they fell back and stood at a distance beyond the established boundary.
So here is the proper order of events: In the morning there was thunder and lightning, and the strong sound of the shofar (19:16) but the Divine Presence had not yet descended…The people were afraid while in their camp which was beneath [the mountain] (19:16). Moshe strengthened their hearts and brought them to greet God and they stood beneath the mountain (v. 17). Arriving under the mountain they saw Hashem descending on the mountain with fire (v. 18). The smoke went up to the heart of the heavens and there was a dark cloud and fog (Deut. 4:11). The mountain shook itself and moved (Ex. 19:18)…and the sound of the shofar became exceedingly strong (v. 19) and when the people saw it they fell back and stood at a distance beyond the boundary. Then they said to Moshe that they could not speak with God at all because they were afraid of dying…Moshe strengthened them and said not to be afraid (v. 20). They listened to him and the people held their position standing at a distance (v. 21), but they did not want to approach the boundary, and then Moshe approached the fog (v. 21) but he did not go into it, then God gave the Ten Statements.
After the Ten Statements it does not mention in Exodus what the elders said to Moshe because it proceeds to explain the commandments and the laws, but in Deuteronomy it dos mention that Moshe brought the chieftans and elders to him and then they told him they could not listen to the voice of Hashem any more (Deut. 5:20) because their souls left them so they could not handle the speech of Hashem, they worried that God wanted to directly speak all of the commandments to them, so they told Moshe to go near and listen to everything Hashem said, but not to speak to them, and they would listen and do everything (Deut. 5:24). The Holy Blessed One agreed, so Moshe told them their request was good…
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, the Torah is not a record of Divine Revelation, it is a record of the human experience of Divine Revelation. As the midrash teaches, “‘observe’ and ‘remember’ with one word,” in other words, the record of the Giving of Torah in Exodus and Deuteronomy is not even trying to contain the experience of the Giving of Torah. Perhaps the haphazard, confusing style of this narrative is an intentional device to give the reader the sense of human intellect being insufficient to perceive divine revelation. Now, Ramban is just giving his opinion, and there are obviously other opinions as to the proper order of events, however, what he makes clear for us is that Torah is not a document to be read at face value, ever, most especially when it is trying to convey something as other-worldly as revelation itself.