“The LORD Spoke to Moses”– Does God Speak?
The Laws Spoken in the Tabernacle
With the opening of the book of Leviticus, the Torah continues precisely where the book of Exodus ended. There (Exodus 40:34–35) we read that God’s kābôd, the visible, earthly manifestation of His presence, descended from the top of Mount Sinai, where it had been hovering since the Israelites arrived there about a year earlier (Exodus 19:1-2a + 24:16-18a). It immediately took up residence in the miškān, the Tabernacle, the portable divine abode that the Israelites, meticulously following the detailed instructions given by God to Moses many months before, had constructed at the foot of the mountain.
Once the kābôd has settled in the inner sanctum of the miškān, God begins to convey to Moses, in a series of encounters, his commandments. He begins with the instructions for sacrifice (Leviticus 1–7), continues with instructions for the priests (10:8–11), laws of animals whose flesh may and may not be eaten (Leviticus 11), instructions for eliminating bodily impurities (Leviticus 12–15), laws pertaining to the annual day of kippurîm or cleansing of the sanctuary (Leviticus 16), and so forth––legislation covering all areas of life and incumbent upon the people of Israel for all time.
These encounters take place over a period of about seven weeks, until the Israelites leave Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11), a few more take place during the wilderness wandering (Numbers 15 and 18–19), and they resume a generation later, while the Israelites are encamped at the threshold of the Land of Canaan (Numbers 27–36) .
The Voice From Between the Cherubs
There I will meet with you, and I will speak to you—from above the kapporet, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony—all that I will command you to [convey to] the Israelite people. (Exodus 25:22) This process of lawgiving takes place in fulfillment of what God had informed Moses from the very outset: that one of the central purposes of the miškān was for Him to meet there with Moses in order to impart His commandments, through him, to the Israelites.
Indeed, it is the word וְנוֹעַדְתִּי – “I will meet” – that has given the miškān one of its names: אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, or “Tent of Meeting,” that is, the place where Moses is to meet with God in order to receive the commandments, after which he is to convey them to the Israelite people.
In this, the Priestly version (P) of how God’s commandments were communicated to the Israelites, the process took place, for the most part, after the miškān was completed and the divine Presence had come to abide there, with Moses listening as God enumerated His commandments to him. 
Elsewhere in P (Exodus 34:34–35), we learn that on these occasions Moses would remove the protective covering from his face so as to absorb something of the “glow” emanating from the divine Presence, and that he would leave his face uncovered until he had conveyed what he was commanded to the people – presumably so that they would recognize that his words did in fact originate with God. And while commentators and critics are divided on the question of precisely where Moses stood during these encounters with God, all agree that it was inside the miškān, since the text consistently uses the verb בוא “enter” (Exodus 34:34-35; 40:35; Numbers 7:89). Further, all agree that at this first meeting described in our parasha, Moses was – initially at least – located at some distance, making it necessary to call to him, as indicated by the word וַיִּקְרָא “it [the kābôd] called” at the beginning of Leviticus 1:1.
The Biblical Tradition of God’s Speech
In the other versions of the story too, on which see Professor Benjamin D. Sommer’s devar torah for Mishpatim (The Centrality of Law), the commandments were imparted by God to Moses by means of speech. God is said to have spoken them to Moses in a private audience on Mount Sinai (in J) or Mount Horeb (in E and D). Again and again throughout the Torah and elsewhere, the commandments are referred to as God’s words; indeed we affirm this daily in the Shema prayer when we refer to “these words that I command you this day” (Deut. 6:6; see also 11:3 and 18).
Furthermore, at least according to one of the sources (E), so crucial is the claim that the commandments were spoken that it was deemed necessary first to demonstrate that God does indeed speak to His delegated spokesperson, Moses, before entrusting him with the privately conveyed divine words. This, according to the text, is the reason that God first spoke ten utterances – עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים – within the hearing of the entire people: “…in order that the people may overhear Me speaking with you and so trust you ever after” (Exodus 19:9; see Maimonides, Hilchot Yesodei Torah, 8:1).
The Priestly source’s description of precisely how God communicated His commandments to Moses during their meetings in the miškān is uniquely graphic. P speaks of the divine voice emanating from between the two cherubs, where the kābôd is said to have been located, audible to Moses in what can only have been actual speech:
Whenever Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice speaking to him from above the kapporet that was on top of the Ark of the Testimony, between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him (Numbers 7:89).
It would appear that the biblical tradition is unanimously committed to the belief that God’s commandments, the mitzvot, were actually uttered by God Himself, in audible, intelligible Hebrew words, the full text of which is contained in the Torah. Whether they depict a disembodied voice booming down from a mountaintop and heard by all, or a voice heard in private by Moses only, the authors of the sources that comprise the Torah, as well as numerous other biblical writers, accept without question the idea of a speaking God, a deity who makes His will known to Israel in the form of language. As the Torah states clearly:
Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he gazes upon the likeness of the LORD(Numbers 12:7–8).
Divine Speech as the Foundation of the Mitzvot?
It often seems that a literal understanding and acceptance of this unambiguous biblical claim is an indispensable element of Jewish belief. One hears the assertion that the authority of the mitzvot derives from their having been dictated, in verbal form, to Moses. Many religious Jews thus adhere to a literal view of the divine origin of the Torah – or at least of the mitzvot–as words spoken by God, because they cannot imagine why they should observe them if they are not the factual record of divine speech.
Even Jews who categorically deny that God has form, is composed of matter, is visible or is subject to the constraints of time and place, cannot seem to relinquish the notion that God speaks precisely as described in the Bible. They fail to notice that they are taking literally the words “With him I speak mouth to mouth” in the verse quoted above while at the same rejecting the literal reading of the remainder of the same verse “he gazes upon the likeness of the LORD.” Many who agree that there is much in the Bible that should not be taken literally, and who have made peace with the idea that belief in God does not depend on accepting as factual the Bible’s reports of supernatural events, still assume that Judaism requires them to accept literally the biblical idea of a talking God. They seem not to recognize the curious inconsistency that this entails.
And yet, Jewish tradition is far from unanimous on this point. As early as the vocalization of the Hebrew text of the Bible, it was recognized that the “speaking” of God that emanated from between the two cherubs is not normal, human-like speech. The word translated as “speaking” in Numbers 7:89 (above) is vocalized not in the normal fashion מְדַבֵּר (a piel verb) but rather in the reflexive (hitpael) form: מִדַּבֵּר – “speaking to itself,” which probably means engaging in some internal divine deliberation from which Moses was able to perceive what was being communicated. (See the commentaries of Rashi and Seforno on this word.)
Maimonides: “Speech” as a Figure of Speech
Far more definitive are the words of Maimonides, who unequivocally rejects any attempt to take the biblical portrayal of a talking God at face value, repeatedly insisting that all passages referring to divine “speech,” whether to lesser prophets or to Moses himself, must be interpreted metaphorically.
For instance, in the eighth of his thirteen articles of Jewish belief, he writes:
The Eighth Principle: that the Torah is from heaven. This implies our belief that the entirety of this Torah found in our hands this day is the Torah that was given to Moses, and that it was all spoken by God, which means that the Torah reached Moses from God in a manner which is described in Scripture figuratively by the word “speech.” But no one has ever known how that took place except Moses himself, whom that “speech” reached (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin Chapter 10).
The biblical word “speak” when applied to God is, Maimonides insists, a figure of speech; a manner of expressing something regarding the true nature of which we have absolutely no knowledge–except for the fact that it was not speech.
Furthermore, towards the end of the section of the Guide of the Perplexed dealing with prophets and prophecy, Maimonides sums up as follows:
Every occurrence must have an immediate cause, and that cause must also have a cause, and so forth until we arrive at the First Cause of all: God and His will. For this reason, the writers of the Bible often omit the intermediate stages and attribute actions carried out by human beings to the Creator, speaking of them as though they had been performed by God Himself…
Now listen carefully to what I am about to explain in this chapter and direct your special attention to it more than to any other chapter in this section… [What I say about] these proximate causes for every occurrence applies equally to things occurring in nature, things that result from human decision and things that occur by chance: the Bible attributes all such occurrences to God’s own action, command or “speech.” (Guide II: 48)
Maimonides takes great pains to say that he does not mean that only statements such as “God gave Israel a great victory,” “God provided rain,” and “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” must be understood to mean that God is the ultimate cause of events that occur in nature, history and in human intellect but is not directly micro-managing them. Maimonides emphasizes that he also means that statements such as “God said,” and even “God commanded” too are the Bible’s figurative way of saying that some aspect of the divine will became known – not that God actually interacted in some linguistic fashion with humans.
Did God Talk to the Prophets? To Moses?
Concerning prophecy, Maimonides insists:
Prophecy is… an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain (Guide II: 48).
Individuals whose intellect has developed to such heights that they are able to tune in, as it were, to the divine broadcast – these are prophets; not, as biblical tradition saw it, ordinary humans who have received audible, verbal communications from God.
Maimonides defines the highest form of prophecy attainable by anyone other than Moses as occurring when the prophet “sees an angel that speaks to him in the vision.” Yet he goes on emphatically to state that the word “angel” simply means a medium, and the medium in this case is “the imaginative faculty that hears God speaking in a prophetic dream.” God does not actually speak; much less send an inferior divine being to do so on His behalf. Rather, the true prophet’s highly developed intellect is capable of correctly imagining divine speech, and only in dreams.
This brings us back to our parasha. Affirming the biblical distinction between Moses and all subsequent prophets, Maimonides goes on to say that the above is true of all prophets–
except Moses our Teacher, about whom Scripture says, “With him I speak mouth to mouth” (Numbers 12:8)… He would speak with Moses “from above the kapporet, from between the two cherubim” (Exod. 25: 22), that is, without the medium of the imaginative faculty. (Guide II: 45)
Has Maimonides reversed himself, and reverted to the biblical idea that Moses did indeed hear actual speech after all? Not at all. Thirty-nine chapters earlier, in his discussions of angels and other such beings mentioned in the Bible, he wrote:
The intelligent reader will understand that the word “angel” (מַלְאָךְ) also refers to man’s imaginative faculty and that the word “cherub” denotes the pure intellect. How beautiful must this appear to those who understand it; how repugnant to the ignorant! (Guide II:6)
Maimonides thus contends that even the greatest of all prophets, Moses, through whose agency Israel received the Torah and the mitzvot, did not really hear a voice speaking to him in the inner sanctum of the miškān. The Torah is not to be taken literally when it speaks of a divine voice emanating from between two cherubs on the ark cover. The notion of a talking God is – for the enlightened – as preposterous as the idea of a God possessing form or composed of matter.
Maimonides, along with many other thinkers throughout the ages, saw no contradiction between this philosophical truth and his absolute, unswerving certainty that the Torah’s mitzvot and the numerous halachot pertaining to each and every one of them are indeed the will of God. His uncompromising loyalty to the divine authority for the mitzvot and the halachah did not prevent him from employing his autonomous rational abilities when contemplating precisely how the mitzvot actually came into existence and became known. Again and again, he cautioned against taking the words “The LORD spoke to Moses” literally, and yet in his love of God and his commitment to the mitzvot he was unequalled by anyone before or since.
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March 6, 2014
January 17, 2020
Dr. Baruch J. Schwartz is the Avraham Mordechai Shlansky Senior Lecturer in Biblical History at Hebrew University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. (1988) from Hebrew University. Schwartz writes and lectures on the Priestly tradition and literature in the Torah and on the biblical accounts of the revelation at Sinai. He is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.
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