The Mt. Sinai Timetable

I blame Cecil B. DeMille.

His 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, isn’t even that good a movie.[1]

And he gets it wrong.

The problem is, one bad movie outweighs the actual text to the point where it permeates popular culture.  What most of us “know” about the Ten Commandments is mostly wrong.

Turn back now! It's gonna be a loooooog one!

Here’s what most people “remember” when asked about how God gave us the Ten Commandments.[2]

After the Plagues of Egypt and the Parting of the Red Sea, Moses led the 12 tribes of Israel into the desert to Mt. Sinai.  Telling them to wait at the foot of the mountain, Moses climbs up to commune with God.  He leaves his brother Aaron in charge.

He’s gone a long, long time (40 days).  The Israelites get restless; they fear something has happened to him or worse, he’s abandoned them.  So they pressure Aaron to make an idol for them, a golden calf they worship with orgiastic delight.

God, meanwhile, has handed Moses the Ten Commandments on two supernaturally carved tablets of stone.  Moses comes down the mountain, meets Joshua (his aide-de-camp), learns the Israelites are having a revival-meeting-cum-swingers-party, smashes the holy tablets in a fit of pique, and calls down the wrath of God.

God obliges with an earthquake, killing the ringleaders (but not Aaron) by swallowing them up.  In fear and shame, the surviving Israelites beg Moses to intercede for them with God.  Moses obliges, God obliges, and they proceed to wander in the desert for 40 years until God finally lets them into the holy land.

Close, but no cigar.

DeMille’s objective was to make an entertaining movie, not deliver a detailed exegesis and / or apologetics of the Torah.  He telescoped / glossed over a lot of details.

As a result, he spends a lot of time embroidering the set up (where all the action is) and blitzes right through 99% of the post-Red Sea exodus (which is where all the spiritual / moral / theological meat of the story is located).  He has, in effect, gotten his proportions exactly backwards:

Everything from the basket in the Nile to the Red Sea should’ve been crammed into 10 minutes, the next three and a half hours looking at exactly what God wanted of Israel and how & why they responded as they did.

Let’s run through the beats of the story as found in the Bible:

About 60-90 days after the Parting of the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites reach Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:1).

Day 1 -- Moses climbs up the mountain to talk to God (Exodus 19:3).

God tells Moses He wants to offer a covenant to the Israelites & for Moses to tell them of this offer (Exodus 19:3-6).

Moses climbs down the mountain to the people and delivers the news that God is going to make an offer -- he does not deliver the offer himself! (Exodus 19:7)  The Israelites agree to listen to the offered covenant.

Moses climbs up the mountain to bring the Israelites' reply to God[3] (Exodus 19:8).

God tells Moses to get the Israelites ready for the covenant offer on the 3rd day and sets boundaries for how close they can approach the mountain (Exodus 19:10-13).

Moses goes back down the mountain and tells the Israelites they have 2 days to get ready for the offer (“to day and to morrow”).  (Exodus 19:10, 14)

On his own initiative, Moses prohibits sex until after God’s offer (Exodus 19:15).

Day 3 -- Thunder and lightning and a loud ram’s horn are seen and heard from the top of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:16).

Moses brings the Israelites from their camp to the foot of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:17).

Moses speaks, and God calls him up to the top of the mountain (Exodus 19:19-20).

Moses climbs up the mountain; God tells him to go back down to establish boundaries for the Israelites re Mt Sinai (Exodus 19:21).[4]

Moses assures God he has already done this (Exodus 19:23). [5]

Nonetheless, God sends Moses down the mountain to get Aaron but not the priests (Exodus 19:24-25).

Down at the base of the mountain, before Moses can return with Aaron, God speaks directly to the Israelites (“And God spake all these words, saying…”; Exodus 20:1)

The Israelites see and hear all of the above; when God speaks to them directly they freak out and beg Moses to talk to God for fear they would die at the sound of His voice (Exodus 20:18-19).[6]

Moses climbs back up the mountain to God (Exodus 20:21).

God speaks to Moses regarding worship customs and laws for the Israelites (Exodus 20:22-26Exodus 21Exodus 22Exodus 23).

God then tells Moses to bring Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders part way up Mt. Sinai to “worship ye from afar off”; only Moses will be allowed to climb higher (Exodus 24:1-2).

Moses climbs down Mt. Sinai and tells this to the Israelites (Exodus 24:3).

Moses spends the night of Day 3 writing down everything God said to him out of earshot of the Israelites (Exodus 24:4).  Unlike God’s offer of the covenant, there are no 3rd party witnesses to what transpired, just Moses’ version of events.

Day 4 -- Moses gets up early, builds an altar (Exodus 24:4).

Moses reads to the Israelites what he wrote down during the night (Exodus 24:7).

Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders climb part of the way up Mt. Sinai; they get to see God’s feet[7] (Exodus 24:9-10).  Joshua and Hur (Aaron’s assistant) accompany them.

God doesn’t kill them for looking at His feet but lets them eat and drink to refresh themselves after the climb (Exodus 24:11).[8]

God calls Moses even further up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone (Exodus 24:12).

Moses tells the others to wait, leaves Aaron and Hur in charge while he’s gone (Exodus 24:14).

Moses climbs further up the mountain with Joshua (Exodus 24:13).[9]

Despite his having climbed the mountain, God does not appear to Moses for six days (Exodus 24:16).

Day 11 -- God finally talks to Moses again (Exodus 24:16).

Moses enters into the cloud that has been perched atop Mt Sinai; he spends 40 days and 40 nights in the cloud with God (Exodus 24:18).

God gives super-detailed explicit instructions to Moses re the construction & operation of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25 to Exodus 31:17).

At the end of the 40 days, God gives Moses stone tablets that He has engraved with his own finger; these tablets contain the key points of the covenant between God and Israel (Exodus 32:18).[10]

Day 51 -- Meanwhile, back in the camp, the Israelites (or at least a large number of them) abandon God (Exodus 32:1-7).[11]

Up on the mountain, God tells Moses to go down to the Israelites (Exodus 32:7-8), that they are getting down with the golden calf.[12]

God tests Moses the same way he tested Abraham, saying “step aside, lemme kill ‘em, then I’ll start afresh with your descendents” [paraphrased] (Exodus 32:9-10).

Moses passes the test[13] (Exodus 32:11-14).[14]

Moses carries the two stone tablets -- y’know, the Extra Special Engraved With God’s Own Finger HOLY Stone Tablets -- down the mountain (Exodus 32:15-16) to where Joshua has apparently been waiting for him (Exodus 32:17).  Joshua wonders what the hubbub is all about; is an enemy attacking?  Moses tells him it’s not warfare but singing.[15]

Moses enters the Israelite camp, smashes the Extra Special Engraved With God’s Own Finger HOLY Stone Tablets[16], destroys the golden calf, and burns it[17] and forces the Israelites to drink it[18] (Exodus 32:19-20).

Moses is like all “WTF, bro?” to Aaron [paraphrased] (Exodus 32:21).

Aaron dishes out the ol’ “I didn’t wanna do it / they made me do it” shuck & jive (Exodus 32:22-24).

After all of the preceding, Moses finally notices that the Israelites are naked (Exodus 32:25).[19]

Moses gathers the tribe of Levi (whose ancestor had experience in this sorta work) and wades into the revelers, killing about three thousand partiers (Exodus 32:26-28).

Day 52 -- Moses spends much of the day carving the Israelites a brand new one[20] (Exodus 32:30).

Moses climbs up Mt. Sinai to talk to God (Exodus 32:31).

God basically tells Moses, fine, whatever, take ‘em anywhere you wanna go but I’m not coming with you (Exodus 33:1-3).

When the surviving Israelites hear this[21] they mourn (Exodus 33:4-6).

Moses cashes in his friendship chips with God, saying in essence “If I have pleased you, then please do me this one little favor” (Exodus 33:12-17).[22]

Moses presses his luck (Exodus 33:18).

God indulges him, though He realizes that despite all the paradigm shifting Moses has done to date, he’s still a superstitious Israelite.  He grants Moses’ request to see Him in a manner that will bolster, not undermine, Moses’ faith in and love of Him (Exodus 33:19-23).

Day ?? -- Here we lose track of the days. Does the following happen within a day or two days after Day 52?  Did it take even longer?  Did God let the Israelites stew in their own juices for a while before discussing the matter with Moses?[23]

God tells Moses to carve two stone tablets and climb back up Mt. Sinai with them (Exodus 34:1-4).[24]

God then gives Moses a very brief reiteration of His points in Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23(Exodus 34:5-26).[25]

Moses then carves with his own hands the second set of tablets (Exodus 34:27-28).

Moses then comes down the mountain one last time, carrying the new set of tablets.  His face was described as so radiant he had to wear a veil (Exodus 34:29-35).

Moses then re-reads what he wrote down earlier regarding the Tabernacle and the way to conduct worship services (Exodus 35-40).  The book of Exodus ends with a reaffirmation that God traveled with the Israelites after that.

There's more to discuss on this, but we'll leave those posts for another time...




[1]  I recommend his 1923 silent version as the superior film.

[2]  And there’s the first mistake; they’re really not “commandments” in the sense of an order issued that must be obeyed.  Rather, they are statements of principle.  But we’ll save that for another post…

[3]  Why?  God is not merely omnipotent, He’s transcendental.  He knew what Israel’s reply would be before Abraham was conceived.  Moses’ schlept up the mountain with the reply from the Israelites seems to be a bit of theater for their benefit, not God’s.  It seems to be part of the process of getting them mentally & spiritually ready for the covenant that’s about to be offered.

[4]  Essentially reminding them “don’t rush the stage”.

[5]  Why doesn’t God know Moses already told the Israelites this?  Or trust Moses enough to obey Him?

[6]  Apparently not an uncommon superstition in that era in that part of the world.  The Egyptians put a great deal of awe and mystery into their temple worship, so the idea that common people seeing or talking to God face-to-face was taboo appears to have been culturally deep rooted even though it was based on no decree or commandment from God (oh, that word again…).  It also suggests that the stories of Genesis, where Adam and Eve and Abel and Cain speak directly to God without fear, may not have been universal among the Israelites at that time but part of the cultural construction Moses was trying to achieve…but more on that later, too.

[7]  The Israelites considered the feet to be the lowest (literally & figuratively), least clean, and most unworthy parts of the body.  (The common Old Testament euphemism for having a bowel movement was “covering one’s feet”.)  To see God’s “feet” meant to Aaron and the others that they had seen only the least important aspect of God. That’s a key symbol to keep in mind when we envision God in our imaginations:  What we are coming up with is, at best, only the least important aspects of Him.

[8]  I don’t know about you, but to me the image of them having a picnic at the feet of God is a charming one.

[9]  This appears to be out of sequence; logically it should occur after verse 14.

[10]  Why two stone tablets and not one?  I’ve got a hypothesis on that but it, too, will be saved for another post…

[11]  My question has always been “Why?”  Hadn’t they just seen ten miraculous plagues lay waste to Egypt?  Didn’t they walk through the parted Red Sea?  Or maybe it wasn’t God they were abandoning but Moses.  Moses, after all, was an interloper; a snooty rich kid who grew up on the right side of the pyramids and who came barging back into their lives after being gone for 40 years.  Yeah, life as a slave in Egypt was tough, but hey, at least there was some certainty to it, and if you kept your head down and did your work you could squeeze by.  Now he’s got Pharaoh all pissed off at you and he’s dragged you into the middle of some God-forsaken desert wilderness and then he disappears for over a month.  Meanwhile, his nice older brother Aaron (whom everybody knows & trusts ‘cuz he actually stayed in the Israelite part of town while Moses was off cavorting with Pharaoh’s court) has remained with you and he hasn’t got any of these crazy monotheistic ideas (not that there’s anything wrong with worshiping Jehovah, oh, no, not at all; but why limit yourself to just one god?) and he can whip up an old fashion Egyptian style orgy revival and bring back that old time religion in the form of a golden calf just like the one mama used to worship so, hey, why not…?

[12]  Unlike Exodus 19:23, this time God knows exactly what’s going on down at the foot of the mountain.

[13]  Not a test for God’s benefit, because God already knew what the outcome would be, but for Moses’ benefit, to force Moses to a realization that he was indeed an Israelite, not an Egyptian, and that the bozologists fornicating away at the base of the mountain were his people, like ‘em or not, and he would have to stand with them and defend them, like ‘em or not.

[14]  We’re told God "repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people" and spared Israel…or did He?  Maybe He just changed the purpose and meaning of what was to come, not the actual events themselves?  (And how could He possibly do anything "evil" as we understand the term today?)  He certainly didn’t let anybody in the camp live to see, much less enjoy the promised land (Joshua and Caleb excepted).

[15]  I can’t help but wonder if the Israelites, having been told by Moses to abstain from sex for 48 hours prior to God’s offer of the covenant, hadn’t gone overboard and had continued to avoid having sexual relations for an additional 40 days afterwards for fear of angering God.  If that’s the case, the golden calf incident might be attributable to sexual frustration.  There’s nothing in the text to support this, but then again, there’s nothing in the text to refute it.

[16]  “See, this is why we can’t have nice things.”

[17]  Or part of it; apparently it wasn’t solid gold if it could be consumed by flames.  Then again, maybe Moses just ground the metal into gold dust.

[18]  All the Israelites?  That’s quite a large number.  Or just key representatives of each tribe, or perhaps just the ringleaders of the coup?

[19]  We’re gonna attribute this to literal blind rage.

[20]  No, we do not mean an idol…

[21]  Or hear of it; the Bible doesn’t say Moses went down the mountain to tell them, but then again verses 7-11 seem to be an aside, a flashback as it where to explain what the Tent of Meeting was (a precursor to the Tabernacle) and how it was used earlier in the Exodus.  So perhaps the Israelites heard God directly or, more likely since God would not make a false utterance (which is not the same thing as an utterance with a hidden meaning), heard Moses’ report on his meeting with God.

[22]  Let it be understood that this is A Very Big Deal.  Moses, in his own fumbling, faulty, wholly human way is trying to find that perfect balance, that perfect symmetry between the divine and the mundane that reconciles God and humanity.  He identifies too closely with the Israelites to ever let them loose (though he may yet slaughter a few of them when they cross the line); likewise, he worships God too closely to not follow Him.  So here he stands, torn between two deeply, equally compelling loves:  His love of God, and his love of his fellow Israelites.  In these verses, without even realizing it, Moses is prefiguring the words of Rabbi Hillel whom Christ later quoted when citing the two greatest commandments:  Love God, love your neighbor.  God has engineered this moment not because God needs proof (God being omniscient / omnipotent / transcendent knows Moses’ own heart far better than Moses himself ever will) but to create a mental matrix that Moses will use, however imperfectly, to set the Israelite culture on the path that will eventually produce the Messiah who will in turn save the whole world.

[23]  I’ve often wondered why the Israelites, after seeing the Plagues and the Parting of the Red Sea, ever harbored any doubts of lack of faith in God.  The Torah and the histories show that they were extremely fickle, apt to go wandering off and worship false / local gods.  Why was that?  What in their cultural gestalt made them so susceptible to apostasy?  Part of the mystery may lay in the fact we have no idea exactly how long it took to unleash the plagues on Egypt.  We presume short, rapid fire work, and there are those who support that conclusion.  But it’s also possible it took weeks, months, perhaps even years for the events to work themselves out.  If that’s the case, then it’s easy to imagine the Israelites failing to connect the dots between one plague and another; to them it seemed more like a disjointed series of events rather than one single campaign.

[24]  Now, I’m gonna veer off here wholly into the realm of pure speculation; whether I’m guessing right or wrong makes no difference to the meaning of the story.  But it’s interesting that the first two tablets are described in Exodus 31:18 as “written with the finger of God” while in Exodus 20:25 God cautions Moses against using any tool to cut the stones for the altar because to do so would profane the altar.  I wonder of the original two tablets were small sheets of rock that through erosion had naturally formed the letters or symbols of the Decalogue a.k.a. Ten Commandments.  Cecile B. DeMille depicted the Ten Commandments as being inscribed with fire and pyrotechnics and crappy animation, God’s voice over provided by none other than C.B. hizzownsef.  But nothing in the Bible indicates that is what happened!  If one accepts the argument that the Ten Plagues of Egypt and the Parting of the Red Sea were natural phenomena, made miraculous only by God’s impeccable timing, then it makes sense that God would use perfectly natural means to create the two tablets.  If this is the case, the tablets could have been sitting there for who knows how long, gradually eroding bit by bit to form the Decalogue.  They may very well have been ready for pick-up for centuries before Moses and the Israelites arrived; nobody saw them because few people had much motive to go traipsing up and down arid rocky mountains in the middle of a desert.  Following this line of thought through to its logical conclusion, God sent Moses and the Israelites to Mt. Sinai because the tablets were there; He did not create the tablets for them after they arrived.

[25]  God ends this reiteration with the very odd pronouncement:  “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”  Nobody knows exactly what this means, though many have tried explaining it as a holiness or dietary commandment.  Personally, I think the answer is much simpler (though ultimately unsatisfying to us).  God appears fond of puns, proverbs, parables, poetry (especially in acrostic form), and other varieties of word play; “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” may be nothing more than a common proverb of the era, but one that has been lost to us over the course of time.  From its position at the very tail end of the reiteration, and its jarring incongruity with previous verses, one can’t help but wonder if it was a coda that carried a far different metaphorical meaning to the Israelites of that era -- or perhaps even an Egyptian saying that Moses had gleaned in Pharaoh’s court.  Bottom line:  We’ll never know.







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