Thursday of week 16 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Exod 19:1-2, 9-11, 16-20

We begin today the story of the great encounter with Yahweh at Mount Sinai – a mountain whose exact location is in doubt. Its importance was in its holiness and not in its geographical location.

Tradition locates it in the southern region of the Sinai peninsula at Jebel Musa (2,500 m.) the northern rock-face of which dominates a barren plain surrounded by mountains: the locality admirably satisfies the data of the text. It was at Sinai, also called Horeb or ‘Mount of God’, that Moses received his vocation and had his second meeting with his father-in-law Jethro. At Sinai the Law was given and the Covenant concluded. At Sinai God placed himself at the head of his people for the journey to the Promised Land; it was to Sinai that Elijah the prophet returned as to the pure spring of divine revelation. Sinai also stands for the Old Covenant that was eventually superseded, Gal 4:24ff. (Jerusalem Bible, edited)

It was three months after leaving Egypt that the Israelites arrived in the desert of Sinai and set up camp there.

In a paragraph omitted from our reading, God speaks to Moses with a message for the people. He reminds them of all that he has done for them: “You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle’s wings and brought you here to myself.” Though the whole earth belongs to God, if the Hebrews listen to his voice and observe the covenant he has made with them, they shall be his special possession, dearer to him than all other people. “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” ‘Holy’ here means ‘set apart’.

When Moses passed on the message to the people, they responded together: “Everything the Lord has said, we will do.” A promise they will continually make – and break.

We now go back to our reading. The Lord tells Moses that he is going to come to him in a thick cloud. When the people, who have grumbled so much against Moses, will hear God speaking to him [but not able to see anything], they will have their faith in him restored. 

At the same time the people are told to prepare themselves on that day and the next. They are to wash their clothes and to be ready for the third day. Nor are they to have any sexual intercourse during these days. For, on the third day, the Lord would come down on Mount Sinai before the eyes of all the people.

On the third day, the great theophany takes place. God is not seen face to face but his presence is evident through all the symbolic signs of thunder and lightning, a heavy cloud and trumpet blasts.

Not surprisingly, the people are filled with fear and trembling. The thunderstorm is the chosen scene of God’s self-manifestation; the gale is his herald’s trumpet, the thunder his voice, the cloud and the fire the signs of his presence. Compare the encounter of Elijah with God in 1 Kgs 19:11-12. 

The purpose of this theophany is not only to show God’s mastery of nature but also his majesty, his sublimity and the religious awe that he inspires. 

Moses then led the people to the foot of the mountain. God had earlier indicated the limits of their approach. Anyone who even touched the holy mountain itself was himself not even to be touched but to be killed remotely by stoning or by being shot with an arrow. This also applied to animals. 

Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord came down on it in fire. The smoke rose as if from a furnace and the whole mountain trembled violently, as if there was an earthquake. The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder, while Moses spoke with God and God replied with peals of thunder. ‘Thunder’ here may mean the voice of God, which sounded like thunder.

Finally, when God came down on the mountain he invited Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up to meet him. We are preparing for what is perhaps the most awesome moment in the whole of the Hebrew Testament. The stage is now set for God to communicate his Law to the people, the Law which will seal the covenant between the two sides (see note below). We see here the paradoxical remoteness of our transcendent God and, at the same time, his closeness in speaking intimately with Moses.

Obviously, the images here are not to be taken literally. They are intended to convey the awesomeness, the unapproachability and unknowability of God, his simultaneous transcendence and immanence.

Strangely, those who are most aware of this are those who have been closest to him, the great mystics like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola. The nearer they come to God, the deeper their awareness of his total transcendence. Thomas Aquinas will also say that every statement made about God must be at once denied: God is Truth but not the truth that we can reach; God is Love but love far beyond our most intense experience of it. At the same time, God is closer to us than breathing and penetrates the deepest recesses of our being.

Where God is concerned, familiarity breeds awe – but not fear. It also generates an indescribable love.

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