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Shemot/Exodus 20:15(18) And all the people saw the thunder and the flames and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain ...
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We seem to have a sensory paradox here. The verb - a masculine plural participle from the root , most often "to see", sometimes "to look at" or "to perceive" - is applied to two audible objects and two visible objects; a clash of senses. The same noun is used in the plural for voices - - usually translated "thunder" (see, for example, JPS, NASB, NIV) and in the singular for voice - - usually translated "sound", for what are clearly aural events. Yet the flames and the smoking mountain are equally clearly visual events. Nahum Sarna says, "The figurative language indicates the profound awareness among the assembled throng of the overpowering majesty and mystery of G-d's self-manifestation. It is an experience that cannot be adequately described by the ordinary language of the senses."Rashi comments that "they were seeing that which is audible, which is impossible to see elsewhere". The Mekhilta adds, " Rabbi Akiva says: They saw and heard that which was visible. They saw the fiery word coming out from the mouth of the Almighty as it was struck upon the tablets, as it is said, 'The voice of the L-rd hewed out flames of fire' (Psalm 29:7)".
TheBaal HaTurim connects the overwhelming sensory experience with the Jewish habit of movement during prayer and study: "The nation saw and they trembled: The reasoning behind the custom of swaying back and forth while studying Torah is that the Torah was given with 'awe, trembling and quaking.'" The Ramban also suggests sensory overload when he says that "Our Sages understood this as 'trembled', as it means in 'The earth is swaying like a drunkard; it is rocking to and fro like a hut' (Isaiah 24:20, JPS)". The theophany that the people saw caused bodily disturbance because it exceeded the limits that the human system was designed to handle and process; shaking, trembling, fear and awe were the symptoms. The experience was so great that it made a lasting memory in the minds not only of the people that were there at the time, but in the collective memory of our people right down to this day. How do we know that our people are in covenant with G-d and that He gave us His Torah? Because we were all there and saw it with all our senses. This event was seen and heard by over two million people - men, women and children - and the truth of the narrative is confirmed because it has been consistently passed down from generation to generation; no-one stood up and said, "I don't remember that", because everyone did remember that! It was an experience and an encounter that no-one could forget.
Hirsch makes another important point. "The conviction that a word has been spoken by any special person can only be accomplished by the simultaneous realisation of eye and ear. With closed eyes we can fix the general direction from which a sound proceeds but we cannot fix the exact point from which a sound that reaches our ear emanates. So here too, the people saw the sounds addressed to them simultaneously with the flash of lightening." In order to perceive and register the significance of the moment, it was necessary that the people should both see and hear at the same time. This was not just the creation of an overwhelming sensory event, it was the positive and deliberate communication of truth and reality concerning G-d's choice of Israel as His covenant people and the way in which they were to relate to Him and depend on Him. To be more that just a blast of noise, light and fire, to have lasting understanding, the content had to engage with both the primary sight and sound mechanisms so that the people would know what they had seen and why.
John's gospel records another major event: "The Word became a human being and lived with us, and we saw his Sh'khinah, the Sh'khinah of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14, CJB). We know that this was an even greater revelation than the Sinai experience because the writer to the Hebrews tells us, "In days gone by, G-d spoke in many and varied ways to the Fathers through the prophets. But now, in theacharit hayamim, he has spoken to us through his Son, to whom he has given ownership of everything and through whom he created the universe. This Son is the radiance of the Sh'khinah, the very expression of G-d's essence" (Hebrews 1:1-3, CJB). We should therefore expect this revelation to be accompanied by a similar multi-sensory engagement so as to create a lasting memory and understanding among those who saw and experienced it. The Bible records that exactly that did occur; first to those in the immediate vicinity: "In the countryside nearby were some shepherds spending the night in the fields, guarding their flocks, when an angel of ADONAI appeared to them, and the Sh'khinah of ADONAI shone around them. They were terrified; but the angel said to them, 'Don't be afraid ...' Suddenly, along with the angel was a vast army from heaven praising G-d: 'In the highest heaven, glory to G-d! And on earth, peace among people of good will!'" (Luke 2:8-14, CJB). Secondly, there was revelation also to those from afar (both physically and spiritually): "After Yeshua was born in Beit-Lechem in the land of Y'hudah during the time when Herod was king, Magi from the east came to Yerushalayim and asked, 'Where is the newborn King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him'" (Matthew 2:1-2, CJB).
But more was necessary. So that the experience might fully resonate with people, they needed to engage more than just two senses in what was going on. Back to John again: "The Word, which gives life! He existed from the beginning. We have heard Him, we have seen Him with our eyes, we have contemplated Him, we have touched Him with our hands!" (1 John 1:1, CJB); the result of three years of cheek-by-jowl ministry with Yeshua. When Yeshua had ascended and the disciples waited in Jerusalem for the Ruach to be poured out, then followed the last part of the theophany. Closely following the account of Sinai itself, we read: "The festival of Shavu'ot arrived, and the believers all gathered together in one place. Suddenly there came a sound from the sky like the roar of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire, which separated and came to rest on each one of them. They were all filled with the Ruach HaKodesh and began to talk in different languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak" (Acts 2:1-4, CJB). Here we have the sound from heaven and the fire that rested - instead of on the mountain - on each of them. Just as Jewish tradition records that the Torah was given at Sinai in all the seventy languages of the nations (b. Shabbat 88b), so now the disciples speak out the glory of G-d in the languages of the nations so that their hearers too are witnesses to what is going on: "Totally amazed, they asked, 'How is this possible? Aren't all these people who are speaking from the Galil? How is it that we hear them speaking in our native languages? We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Y'hudah, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome; Jews by birth and proselytes; Jews from Crete and from Arabia! How is it that we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things G-d has done?'" (vv. 7-11, CJB)
When G-d wants everyone to sit up and take notice, He manufactures an event that will not only engage with all our senses, but will also create a memory and understanding within us that will last. In three remarkable events, the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the birth of the Messiah and the outpouring of the Ruach, He coordinated sight and sound so that those who witnessed the event should know exactly what they had heard and why, in a way that they could accept and understand, passing a reliable witness on to us in this day. We need to be sure that our relationship with G-d is founded on nothing less - a personal encounter with G-d that has engaged all of our senses so that we know that we know that we know!
Further Study: Acts 4:19-22; Isaiah 66:18-19
Application: Do you know? Do you really know? In these days of uncertainty, now is the time to make sure that you are firm and solid in your relationship with G-d. Study the texts in your Bible and ask G-d to confirm your relationship with Him - not necessarily with a physical manifestation, although He may graciously do that, but inwardly by the witness of the Ruach within you - so that you may stand firm in the rip tides of modern life and give a reliable witness for Him.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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