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(Ex 18:1 - 20:23)

Shemot/Exodus 19:16   And, on the third day, when the morning came, there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of the shofar was very strong

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Our text this week comes just moments before the Decalogue is spoken at Mt. Sinai. It describes what happened when The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem's presence was seen by all the people and is known technically as a 'theophany'. This term comes from the Greek word theophaneia, which means the "appearance of [a] god", referring not to what a god looks like - what clothes she was wearing or the length of her hair - but the revelation or manifest presence of a god. Some have asked, "What was all this performance about anyway, at the top of the mountain? He wouldn't have had to do all that if He had just turned up at ground level like everyone else." The answer to that, as to so many questions, comes in two parts: the first is that He is G-d, He isn't just like everyone else! The second part is quite practical: if He had appeared in conversation, talking with Moshe at the foot of the mountain, hardly anyone would have heard or seen Him. To be simultaneously seen and heard by over two and a half million people, HaShem needed both height and volume.

Our initial point of entry is the words , "on the third day". These words appeared just a few verses earlier when HaShem told Moshe to have the people get ready, for " on the third day the L-RD will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai" (Shemot 19:11, NJPS). Following the general rule that He tells His people what He is going to do - "new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them" (Isaiah 42:9) - HaShem gave notice of His appearance to the people so that they could all be ready and would be expecting this to happen. Then, exactly on schedule, precisely as He had said, HaShem turned up - first thing in the morning - so that all the people could see. No argument, no debate; no-one could say later, "Are you sure He turned up, I wasn't looking," or "I must have missed that, I was in the bathroom." That is why Yeshua is very clear: "the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father" (Matthew 16:27, ESV), echoed by John, "He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him" (Revelation 1:7, ESV). There will be no mistaking Him when He comes!

What happened on the mountain? The text tells us that there were , literally 'voices' and , 'lightnings'. Umberto Cassuto explains that "the 'voices' in this verse are not 'the voice of the L-rd' according to the customary expression in poetry. Here, accompanied by lightnings, 'voices' are simply thunder-claps, which are mentioned as a natural occurrence, as one of the mighty phenomena of nature that presage the approach of the L-rd of the universe."1 Similarly, lightning, here plural, is a natural effect, quite prevalent in the mountainous regions of the desert where the heat and dust build up huge charges of static electricity. Then there is another voice, , "the voice of the shofar" which "grew louder and louder" until Moshe spoke and "G-d answered him in thunder" (Shemot 19:19, NJPS), clearly not a natural phenomenon. Don Who Is ...

Abravanel: Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508 CE), Statesman and biblical commentator; born in Lisbon, died in Venice; wrote commentaries on the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures
Abravanel points out that while "all of these phenomena - involving the four basic elements of air, earth, fire and water - were natural ones; their miraculous nature lay in their being created for the occasion rather than caused in the ordinary way." The text will later tell us that "Now the Presence of the L-RD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain" (24:17, NJPS).

Is there any particular significance in three days - could it just have well have been two, four or five days? Again two answers; the first is anthropological: two days is only tomorrow, it is too soon, the interval is too short and it will be seen as a run-on event from today. Conversely, four or more days is too long: the connection will be lost, attention spans will have drifted and people will forget what they have to do or what it is all about. Theologically, Nahum Sarna explains that, "in biblical consciousness, three days constitute a significant segment of time. The people's immediate assent to G-d's declaration may otherwise have been given impulsively, without proper consideration. The three days of preparation and restraint allow time for sober reflection, so that acceptance of the covenant can be considered an undoubted act of free will." The acceptance of the Torah, expressed in the people's words - "All that the L-RD has spoken we will do!" (19:8, NJPS) - before the theophany, needed time to settle and be a reasoned and measured response. In modern terms, we would call this a cooling-off period. Three days later, Moshe could remind the people of what HaShem had said and receive the response, "All the things that the L-RD has commanded we will do!"" (24:3, NJPS) and then more emphatically during the covenant making ceremony itself, "All that the L-RD has spoken we will faithfully do!" (v. 7, NJPS). The people legally bound themselves to hear and obey all HaShem's words.

We must not misunderstand theophany. While not an every-day occurrence, it is not an infrequent event. Gideon saw an angel who touched bread and meat with the tip of his staff "and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. And the angel of the L-RD vanished from his sight" (Judges 6:21, NJPS); The Psalmist reminds G-d about it, "The crash of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; Your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook" (Psalm 77:17, ESV); the prophets cried out for it, "Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence -- as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil -- to make Your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at Your presence! When You did awesome things that we did not look for, You came down, the mountains quaked at Your presence" (Isaiah 64:1-3, ESV); and the apostolic writers tell us to expect it, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens" (Hebrews 12:26). Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch sets this in context: "the people saw the whole of nature trembling at the approach of the Glory of G-d, they alone, Man alone, was to remain upright, and remained upright, expectantly awaiting his G-d, the G-d of the universe."

We await the return of Yeshua, as He promised, but we are not to be afraid of theophany. Elijah experienced a theophany at Mt. Horeb and was told to come out on the mountain and stand before HaShem: "And lo, the L-RD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the L-RD; but the L-RD was not in the wind. After the wind -- an earthquake; but the L-RD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake -- fire; but the L-RD was not in the fire. And after the fire -- a soft murmuring sound" (1 Kings 19:11-12, NJPS). It was only in the stillness and quietness of the "still small voice" that Elijah experienced HaShem; as Cassuto points out, "the wind, earthquake and fire were only phenomena announcing the theophany." Do you see the difference between HaShem, the Holy One of Israel and the pagan deities of the nations? Sarna explains: "Whereas the gods in the pagan religions inevitably inhere in nature, for they are actually personifications of natural phenomena, in Israelite monotheism, by contrast, G-d the Creator is wholly independent of His creation and is sovereign over it."

But here is a thought for today. Would we recognise a theophany if we saw one? And, if we did recognise it, would we want to acknowledge it and respond to it? Walter Brueggemann:

In a society 'explained' by the commonalities of the social sciences and received in the assurances of the 'therapeutic', theophany is so raw and ragged that we scarcely have access to it. Theophany is by definition disruptive. The pivot points of the Bible (Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel), the life of Yeshua (his birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion and resurrection), are all moments of theophany. Our reading of the Bible is often poverty-stricken, either because we exclude these texts as beyond our 'realism', or because we trivialise their discourse with our banal exposition. These texts propose that our lives should also be structured by these pre-rational, dangerous comings of G-d, which lie beyond our capacity for explanation and control.2

Yeshua's expectations of His followers are that we should engage with Him and mediate His love - by our actions and our words - to the world around us. We must be present at the transfiguration and see "His face shining like the sun and His garments as white as light" (Matthew 17:2); with Peter,James and John we must hear the voice from the cloud saying, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him" (v. 5, ESV); we must witness His baptism and the dove descending upon Him; we must hear His cry from the cross, "It is finished!" (John 19:30, ESV); and like the women at the tomb who, seeing men in dazzling clothes, "were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground" (Luke 24:5, ESV). We must be intimately familiar with these past theophanies so that we may be aware of and receive today's theophanies. We must be ready to face the disruptive - because He breaks into our lives and changes everything - power and sheer gritty force of G-d's love and holiness as He both urges and invites us to participate with Him in tikkun olam, fixing up the world ready for His return. There is still so much to do and so little time until He comes!

1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 231.

2. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus", in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 404.

Further Study: Isaiah 6:1-8; Ezekiel 1:22-28; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Application: Have you experienced a theophany, a revelation of G-d's power, might and glory, recently? Has He turned your life upside down and touched your lips, empowering and calling you to turn this world upside down for Him? Like Moshe, ask the Master today, "L-rd show me Your glory!" and be ready for fireworks.

Comment - 07:26 SP: Very moving commentary today.

Comment - 11:27 Joshua VanTine: Thunderous drash! It is indeed time to engage in reality of Messiah Yeshua, Ben HaShem. I want the full revelation of HaShem and the reality of emunah for those who trust in Him and His Messiah! Tikkun Olam on the Creator's wavelength.

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© Jonathan Allen, 2022

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