What Really Happened at Mount Sinai?
The Torah’s Lawgiving Narrative
Booming- thunder and bolts of lightning accompany Moses as he descends the cloud-covered Mount Sinai, bearing aloft two heavy tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Most people know this cinematic version—à la Cecil B. de Mille—of the giving of the law on Sinai. The biblical version, however, is much less familiar, even to many devoted readers of the Hebrew Bible—perhaps because it is much more difficult to follow.
The Bible presents the lawgiving not as a single dramatic event but as a lengthy process that begins on Sinai but does not end until 40 years later. Moses descends Sinai not once but eight times, and more and more laws keep coming all the time. Moses commits them to writing twice; God inscribes two sets of tablets. Moses conveys laws to the Israelites time and time again.
The complete story covers three and a half of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, a full 60 percent of the 187 chapters. It abounds in difficulties—at times appearing so disrupted and inconsistent, so contradictory and repetitive, that it is difficult to read as a continuous whole.
The full story—what I call the canonical account—of the giving of the law begins with the Israelites’ arrival at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). Whereas the preceding 68 chapters, from Genesis 1 to Exodus 18, have covered thousands of years, here the pace suddenly slows. Throughout the next 119 chapters (to Deuteronomy 34), only 40 years will elapse.
The Sinai Theophany
The Israelites have been led from Egypt to Mount Sinai by God himself, who appeared by day as a cloud and by night as a fire (Exodus 13:21). At God’s summons, Moses ascends the mountain, where he is instructed to offer a covenant to the Israelite people. In light of all he has done for them, God invites the Israelites to be his treasured people forevermore, as long as they agree to obey his commands. The Israelites immediately accept the offer, though they have not yet heard the terms (Exodus 19:1–8).
Before presenting these, however, God informs Moses that he plans to hold a special audience with Moses, during which the people will be asked to “listen in” to ensure their belief in Moses’ prophecy. After some preparation, a sound-and-light presentation takes place. From the cloud-covered mountain, amidst thunder and lightning, the people overhear the voice of God saying the “Ten Words,” or Decalogue, to Moses. The Ten Words are not the laws themselves, but rather a sampling of divine pronouncements, offered so that the people may hear the divine voice speak to a prophet (Exodus 19:9–20:14).
Stricken with terror, the people beg Moses to excuse them from listening any further to God’s voice and pledge to obey whatever Moses relays to them in God’s name. Moses agrees, assuring them that this is what he and God had in mind all along. Moses reenters the thick cloud covering the mountaintop while the people remain at a distance (Exodus 20:15–18), and the long-awaited giving of the law begins. One after another, the laws are conveyed to Moses in a long speech (Exodus 20:19–23:19), ending with words of promise and exhortation (Exodus 23:20–33). Nothing indicates how long this takes; presumably, if the Decalogue was pronounced in the morning, this private audience occupies the remainder of the day.
Moses descends and relays the laws to the people, again orally, and the people reaffirm their willingness to comply—this time knowing full well what they are agreeing to. That night Moses, at his own initiative, sets down the laws in writing. The next morning the covenant is ratified through sacrificial rituals and the public reading of the covenant document (Exodus 24:1–8).
Moses’ Second Ascent
Moses is then told to ascend the mountain once more, this time to receive the monumental evidence of the encounter at Sinai, namely, the two stone tablets written by God (Exodus 24:12). But when he arrives, he learns that he will first receive lengthy instructions for the construction and dedication of the divine abode (the Tabernacle) and for the consecration of the priests and their vestments (Exodus 25:1–31:17). He remains on the mountain for 40 days. One of the first things he is told is that the Tabernacle will serve as a place where God will meet him to impart his laws, so that he can transmit them to the Israelites (Exodus 25:22).
Golden Calf and the First and Second Tablets
Meanwhile, the people have made the golden calf (Exodus 32:1–6). Thus, when the meeting ends and Moses receives the tablets and is ready to descend, God must first give him the bad news that the Israelites have strayed from the path of faithfulness and that he has resolved to destroy them. Moses delays his descent long enough to beseech God to forbear, then descends, breaks the tablets, destroys the calf and takes other measures to deal with the crisis (Exodus 32:7–33:23). Apparently he has abandoned the Tabernacle project for the time being. Instead, at God’s command, he makes a new set of tablets and climbs the mountain once more to have them inscribed (Exodus 34:1–4). Again, more awaits Moses on the mountaintop than he had expected. This time, before God inscribes the tablets, he gives Moses a passing glimpse of his presence and another small body of laws (Exodus 34:5–26).
Moses remains on the mountain another 40 days, and God eventually writes the new set of tablets (Exodus 34:27– 28). When Moses comes back to the camp (Exodus 34:29–35), the Israelites greet him with fear because his face reflects the awesome radiance of God. Returning to the camp, Moses convenes the people and conveys to them the instructions for building the Tabernacle and fashioning the sacred articles and vestments (Exodus 35:1–20). The remainder of the year is spent on this project (Exodus 35:21–40:16), and the Tabernacle is erected as the second year of their journey begins (Exodus 40:17–33). God’s fiery majesty enters the Tabernacle, and Moses is summoned to begin to receive the laws, which God conveys to him there (Exodus 40:34-Leviticus 1:1).
This new method of lawgiving, in which Moses receives the laws in a series of audiences with God in the Tabernacle and conveys them orally to the people, goes on for several weeks until the Israelites leave Sinai on the 20th of the next month (Leviticus 1:2–Numbers 10:11). After the decree of 40 years’ wandering in the wilderness is announced (Numbers 14:26–35), the process continues intermittently for the duration of the wandering. Only when the Exodus generation has died off and the second generation of Israelites arrives at the edge of Canaan does the Torah inform us that the lawgiving has ended (Numbers 36:13).
40 Years Later, a Second Covenant
Yet this is not the end of the process at all. Two months before the end of the 40th year, Moses convenes the Israelites to deliver a series of orations (Deuteronomy 1:1–5), which consists primarily of a new set of laws (Deuteronomy 12–26). He informs them that these laws were communicated to him by God at Mount Sinai after the Ten Words were pronounced (Deuteronomy 5:25–6:3 etc.). The delivery of these laws is also called a covenant, said to be in addition to the one made at the mountain (Deuteronomy 28:69).
Only then does the lawgiving truly conclude: Moses presides over a third and final covenant with Israel, calling on the people to swear allegiance to the laws he has just given them. He then commits to writing the whole text of his oration, referred to as “this torah,” or this teaching. He charges the Levites with the safekeeping of this document and its public reading every seven years. Then, his life’s mission accomplished, Moses dies (Deuteronomy 29–31, 34).
Difficulties in the Narrative
For all its detail, this lengthy narrative abounds in incongruities and other difficulties. Here are some of the main problems:
- In the first half of Exodus 19:9, God announces to Moses that the Sinai theophany will soon take place. The second half of the verse says that Moses next conveyed the people’s response to God. Response to what? Their positive response to the covenant proposal has already been conveyed (Exodus 19:8); no response to anything else has been solicited.
- Several verses (Exodus 19:12–13, 21–25) indicate that the Israelites are eager to burst forward and gaze directly on the theophany at Sinai. Extensive measures are necessary to prevent them from storming the mountain, since this would have fatal consequences. Other verses, though, give the opposite impression. The people are said to be taken by dread, and Moses has to bring them to the foot of the mountain and make them listen (Exodus 19:16–17). After God has spoken but ten sentences, they are so stricken by terror that they refuse to listen any further (Exodus 20:15– 17). Were the Israelites attracted irresistibly or repulsed with fear?
- The narrative emphasizes that the Sinai experience of the divine was only auditory. The cloud covered the mountaintop, so nothing was seen but thunderbolts. The entire purpose of the event was for the people to overhear God speaking with Moses. Deuteronomy reaffirms this: Fire and cloud were indeed present, but nothing divine was seen; only sound was experienced (Deuteronomy 4:9–12). So what is the reader to make of the story’s insistence that YHWH himself descended in full sight of the entire people (Exodus 19:11, 21)?
- After the Decalogue has been heard, Moses alone, at the people’s request, remains on the mountain for God to tell him the actual laws. When these have been delivered (Exodus 23:33), Moses is still on the mountaintop with God. Why, then, does God instruct Moses to “come up to the Lord” (Exodus 24:1)? Isn’t Moses already on the mountaintop with him? Indeed he is, which is why he does precisely the opposite: “Moses came down and told the people” (Exodus 24:3).
- Moses ascends the mountain (Exodus 24:18) to obtain the tablets that God has written (Exodus 24:12). When he arrives, however, he finds he has been summoned for an entirely different reason: to receive the Tabernacle instructions, about which he had not previously been notified. Moses is informed that he will receive something as a parting gesture—not the tablets, however, but something called an ’edut, or as usually translated, a “testimony” (Exodus 25:16).
- God informs Moses that the tabernacle is to serve as the place from which he will convey “all that I have to command you for the Israelites” (Exodus 25:22). But haven’t all the commands been given and the covenant made and ratified? And when Moses ascends to have the second set of tables inscribed, why is he given yet another covenant and another small collection of laws (Exodus 34:10–26), almost all of which duplicate the laws given earlier?
- When Moses returns with the new tablets (Exodus 34:29–33), the Israelites are dismayed by his fearsome radiance. Yet this is Moses’ eighth descent from the mountain, following his eighth meeting with God. Why was the radiance not noticed earlier?
- At the end of his career (Deuteronomy 19–28), Moses reminds the Israelites that after the Decalogue was pronounced, he stayed alone with God on the mountaintop to receive the remaining laws. But the way Moses describes the event does not correspond to what appears in Exodus: He fails to mention that he then descended and proclaimed the laws to the people, wrote them down and ratified them. The widespread impression that the Deuteronomic law is a “repetition” of the law (as denoted by the name Deuteronomy, or “second law”) is nowhere implied in the text, and in fact is not the case.
- What is the relationship between the version of the laws Moses writes down at Sinai and the “book of the Torah” that he writes at the end of his career (Deuteronomy 31:9)? Is the reader to assume that by the time Moses died there were two written law books?
Why is the story so inconsistent and discontinuous? Why were the laws given in stages? Why not convey them all to the people at one time, either on the mountaintop or in the Tabernacle? Why do the laws given at these separate stages duplicate and contradict each other in hundreds of particulars? These and similar questions have plagued readers for thousands of years, and traditional commentators have done their best to suggest harmonizing answers to them.
Explaining the Difficulties Using Source Criticism
The source-critical theory of the composition of the Torah, also known as the documentary hypothesis, is a modern attempt to answer these questions. It begins by acknowledging that (1) the laws given on the mountaintop and conveyed immediately to the people as part of a covenant (Exodus 20:19–23:33), (2) the laws given to Moses as part of another covenant when he returns to have the new tablets inscribed (Exodus 34:11–26), (3) the laws conveyed to Moses in the Tabernacle over a 40-year period (Leviticus 1:1- Numbers 36:13), and (4) the laws given on the mountaintop but conveyed to the people only 40 years later (Deuteronomy 6:1–28:69) are four separate law codes.
Each of these law codes is presented as the law code. In each case the narrative gives no intimation that some laws have preceded and more are to follow. Moreover, the law codes themselves are, for the most part, internally consistent, but they often duplicate and contradict each other.
Four Documents That Became One
Source criticism concludes from the existence of these four separate law codes, and four separate accounts of the lawgiving, that the canonical Torah, here as elsewhere, is made up of four independent documents that have been combined. Each account originally included one, and only one, story of how the laws were given to Moses, how they were transmitted to the people and how (and if) they were written down. And each included one, and only one, law code, the four codes differing not only in length and scope but also in the substance of the provisions.
The combination of the four documents resulted in the story described above, with all its difficulties. But the difficulties are a blessing in disguise, for they enable us, with painstaking labor, to separate the four strands from each other. The sudden shifts, doublets, contradictions and internal tensions act as signposts, alerting the reader that he may have left one document behind and shifted to another. And when some of the pieces begin to fit together with others that appear further on, we realize that the documents have not disappeared or been edited away but rather remain almost intact.
The process of reconstituting the original narratives is remarkably easy: Follow each story line according to its narrative flow, and when it is disrupted, search for where it seems to resume; learn to recognize its presuppositions, its stylistic features and vocabulary; pay attention to each story’s uniqueness, and avoid imposing on one story the events told in another; assume, unless the evidence is clearly otherwise, that the four stories have been preserved virtually in their entirety.
When this is done, the same picture emerges in the story of the lawgiving as has emerged elsewhere in the Torah. In the material preceding Deuteronomy, three narrative strands can be detected (known as J, E and P); in Deuteronomy we hear a fourth (D), similar to one of the three preceding but not identical. 
Let us see if we can divide the text into these sources. Three distinct stories (J, E and P) seem to have been intertwined in Exodus. One of these (P) continues into Leviticus and Numbers. When read separately (see sidebar to this article), this is what emerges:
E – The Elohist Narrative
The E, or Elohistic, narrative of the giving of the law might be titled “The Making, Breaking and Remaking of the Covenant.” It begins with God proposing a covenant and privileged status for the Israelites in return for loyalty and obedience (Exodus 19:3–6). The people’s initial willingness to accept blindly is followed by a confirmation of their enthusiasm after the terms of the covenant have been heard (Exodus 24:3). The laws and statutes, orally presented to them, are written down by Moses in a document called the “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:4, 7). All this seems to occur in one day.
The next morning, Moses obtains the covenant monument, the two stone tablets prepared by God. The essence of the covenant, as expressed in the opening of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:3), as well as at the beginning and end of the covenant speech (Exodus 20:20, 23:32), is the prohibition of other gods—in other words, the demand for absolute fidelity to the covenantal liege. The making of the calf is thus the archetypal act of covenantal disloyalty (Exodus 32:4). Moses’ reaction, the destruction of the covenant document (Exodus 32:19), indicates its nullification, creating the need either to reestablish it or abandon it for good. The new tablets, upon which God rewrites the Ten Words, provide the resolution (Exodus 34:1, 4, 28). With their presentation to Moses, the story ends (Exodus 34:28).
Several stylistic elements allow us to connect this version with other identifiably Elohistic passages in the Torah. For example, E never refers to Mount Sinai as such, but speaks of “the mountain” or “the mountain of God.” E’s version is characterized, as E is elsewhere, by distinctly prophetic features. Believability is a major concern for prophets. Why should anyone who is not present when the deity speaks to the prophet believe that he did? E’s solution: When the prophetic office is first established, God forces the people to hear God speak to the prophet. Further, when the covenant is jeopardized by the people’s infidelity, Moses reacts in classical prophetic manner, interceding on the people’s behalf to save them from God’s wrath (Exodus 32:11–13).
In E’s view, the encounter with God on the mountain consists only of sound, as the mountain was covered in a thick cloud, and the reaction of the people was one of unmitigated terror. In E, Moses climbs up the mountain six times:
(1) to hear the covenant proposal,
(2) to convey the people’s acceptance and receive instructions for the verbal revelation,
(3) after the Decalogue, to receive the laws,
(4) to receive the first tablets, at which time he remains 40 days and 40 nights,
(5) to intercede on the people’s behalf, and
(6) to have the new tablets inscribed, again remaining 40 days and 40 nights. Of course, he also comes down six times.
J – The Yahwist Narrative
The J, or Yahwistic, narrative could well be called “The Appearances of YHWH on Mount Sinai.” Here the Sinai events are essentially visual, primarily concerned with the question of who may behold the countenance of YHWH (“the Lord”) and under what conditions. Here the mountain is called Sinai.
The story is fragmentary. Its opening lines seem not to have been preserved. We enter at the point when preparations are ordered for a theophany on Mount Sinai. These preparations are entirely restrictive: The people must remain pure, launder their clothing and wait in anticipation for three days (Exodus 19:10–11). Above all, when the Lord arrives they must remain at a safe distance; violators will be executed (Exodus 19:12–13). The danger that the deity may surge forth and destroy those who come too close is so great that the Lord refuses to make his appearance until he is absolutely certain that his warnings have been received and heeded (Exodus 19:20–25).
The theophany as described in J takes place all at once on the third day. The Lord comes down in the sight of all the people, but the different groups of participants, arranged in tiers, experience it in varying ways. The people are charged to stand back and watch; they witness fire, smoke and the trembling of the mountain, but they are not to attempt to gaze at YHWH. They may not even approach until the signal is given that it is safe to do so (Exodus 19:18, 20–21). Aaron, his sons (the priests) and the elders, collectively referred to as “the leaders” (Exodus 24:11), accompany Moses up the mountain, but only a certain distance, after which they stop and bow low from afar. From this vantage point they are vouchsafed a view of the God of Israel and are graciously spared death, which would normally result from such a vision. Only Moses continues on alone and comes near the Lord (Exodus 24:1–2, 9–11).
Here the fragmentary nature of J is apparent. In what remains of J, the story tells next of Moses’ lonely climb to the cleft of the rock, where God gives him a brief rear glimpse of himself, proclaims his name and attributes (Exodus 33:12–23, 34:2–3, 5–9), and makes a covenant, charging Moses with the religious laws contained in Exodus 34:10– 26. Did this actually occur at this point in the story? Perhaps—but it seems more likely that the story of Moses’ lone ascent to Sinai is part of another episode in J, one in which some terrible sin has been committed and the pressing need for atonement and forgiveness is the central theme (Exodus 32:25–29, 33:1–6). If this is true, then the Yahwist’s narrative actually tells of the theophany at Sinai and the giving of the law as two separate events. The Sinai theophany was probably an experience in its own right, in which the people as a whole participated, though in varying degrees.
The covenant at Sinai, in which the laws were given, was made later, as a mark of reconciliation in the wake of some crisis, the complete story of which has been lost.
In what has been preserved of the first part of this story, Moses climbs the mountain four times:
(1) to report the people’s words (whatever they may have been) to the Lord,
(2) to warn the people to prepare for the theophany,
(3) to receive (on the day of the theophany) God’s instruction to warn the people again, and
(4) to view the Lord, along with Aaron, the priests and the elders. He also descends four times, each time carrying out the task assigned.
Despite the laconic nature of J’s story, enough is clear to connect it with other Yahwistic passages in the Torah. The tetragrammaton, YHWH, features prominently and is proclaimed by the Lord himself when the covenant is made. Like other J narratives in the Torah, the J passages here are characterized by bold anthropomorphism, with YHWH’s descent on the mountain (Exodus 19:20), the great danger of his bursting forth (Exodus 19:22), the explicit prohibition of gazing on him (Exodus 19:21), and the open references to his face, posterior and feet (Exodus 24:10, 33:23). As seems to be the case with other J stories, this narrative appears not to have survived in its entirety.
P – The Priestly Narrative
The P, or Priestly, narrative I would call “The Laws Given by God in His Earthly Abode.”
In P the Israelites arrive at Sinai in the third month after the Exodus (Exodus 19:1). The fire cloud encasing the majesty of God takes up residence atop the mountain. Moses enters the cloud, and God gives him, at great length, the instructions for building and furnishing the Tabernacle, preparing the vestments and performing the investiture of the priesthood, and consecrating the altar (Exodus 24:18, 25:8–31:17). Though some of these matters involve permanent legislation, Moses is told that the actual lawgiving will commence only after the Tabernacle instructions are carried out (Exodus 25:22).
Then, as promised, God concludes the session by presenting Moses with a testimony, to be deposited in the Tabernacle ark, and dismisses him. As Moses descends with the testimony (Exodus 34:29), the residual radiation of the divine reflection shines from his face, causing the people to flee. He explains the source of his fearsome radiance to Aaron and the tribal chiefs, who coax the people to return and face Moses. Moses transmits to them the words of God—with the understanding that thereafter he will cover his radiant face (Exodus 34:29–35).
Moses assembles the people and reports to them, ordering them to supply the needed materials and build the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:1–19). Ten months after arriving at Sinai, the Israelites complete the portable abode for the deity, and Moses dutifully deposits the testimony in the magnificent ark (Exodus 40:20). At the beginning of the second year, as the fire cloud descends from Sinai, God takes up residence in the Tabernacle, filling the tent and finally shrinking into the divine throne room (Exodus 40:34–35). This visual arrival of God is thereafter repeated each time camp is struck and reversed each time the journey is to continue (Exodus 40:36–38; Numbers 9:15–23). God calls to Moses from within the tent (Leviticus 1:1), and the lawgiving process begins.
The first laws to be imparted pertain to the methods of offering sacrifices (Leviticus 1–7), as the consecration of the priesthood and dedication of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 8–9) cannot take place until these laws have been elucidated. Then the rest of the law code is unfolded a section at a time by the voice speaking to Moses from within the tent. Most of the laws are given before the departure from Sinai (Leviticus 11–27), and the rest are conveyed periodically for the remainder of the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness—the better part of 40 years (most of Numbers 1–36, intermittently).
In P’s account the giving of the law depends on the prior establishment of the Tabernacle cult. Strictly speaking, Mount Sinai is not the place of lawgiving. The laws are given in the Tabernacle: Sinai is merely where the majesty of God rested before the lawgiving commenced and where the Tabernacle was first erected; it is not the holy mountain of God. God does not dwell on the mountain; the fire cloud comes from heaven, settles temporarily on the mountain and finally descends to earth.
There is no prophetic Moses as in E. Here Moses merely receives divine commands and conveys them to the people. He is not attributed with initiative, intercession or impulsiveness. P nowhere refers to these events or any part of them as a covenant; in P the covenant is the promise to the patriarchs (Genesis 17:4–8), not the giving of the law. No Decalogue or other such sample of divine law is proclaimed. The divine fire cloud and divine fire are part of a prolonged public theophany. The subsequent meetings between God and Moses also have their theophanic aspect, in the residual radiance of the divine presence beheld by the people each time Moses reports to them. Thus the private stage of the lawgiving ultimately involves the repeated, vicarious participation of the people.
P envisions not only intermittent meetings with God for receiving the laws but also regular assemblies of the entire Israelite people, at which Moses conveys laws to them. Furthermore, in P Moses is said to have received the laws and to have conveyed them orally to the people, but nowhere is he charged with writing them down, and nowhere is it related that he did so. P knows of no written Torah! In this account, Moses ascends Mount Sinai only once, to receive the Tabernacle instructions, and descends once, to carry them out. When the Tabernacle is ready, all further revelation takes place there.
The unique Priestly view of the connection between the giving of the law and the presence of God in the Tabernacle reflects the Priestly conception of the relationship between Israel and its God. Observance of the law is, after all, what will ensure the enduring presence of God among the Israelites, upon which their national existence depends.
D – The Deuteronomic Narrative
What of D, the Deuteronomic version? There the account of these events (as everything else in Israel’s history) is contained in Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites.
Deuteronomy seems to follow E in several respects: Like the Elohistic narrative, D emphasizes that the events at the mountain (D calls it Horeb) consist only of speech; no visual experience of the divine takes place (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15). Though E records thunderbolts and cloud cover (Exodus 19:16), and D recalls mostly fire (Deuteronomy 4:11, 5:4–5), both describe natural forces concealing the mountain, filling the people’s hearts with terror. The basic chain of events in D, then, is the same as in E, including the making of the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9:16), Moses’ prayer of intercession (Deuteronomy 9:26–29) and the receipt, smashing and replacement of the tablets (Deuteronomy 9:11, 17, 10:3–4).
D also contains the prophetic motif, relating that after the Decalogue is proclaimed directly by God, the people beg Moses to receive the laws on their behalf so that they are not consumed by the terrible fire, and the Lord and Moses agree (Deuteronomy 5:19–28). Only two major points are changed. First, in D the laws communicated to Moses after the theophany are not given to the people until 40 years later, on the eve of entry to the land of Canaan. The covenant at Horeb included the Decalogue only; the only covenant made over a larger corpus of laws is made in the steppes of Moab, just before Moses dies (Deuteronomy 28:68). Second (and a result of the first), according to D, Moses writes down the Torah not at Horeb but rather just before he dies, depositing it with the Levites for posterity (Deuteronomy 31:24–26).
Redacting the Four Documents
It should be evident that these four accounts were not composed to complement or supplement each other. In fact, each account ignores the existence of the others. Even D, which is clearly parallel to E, does not pick up where E leaves off. Rather, it is a similar but competing account, contradicting E not only in its view of how Israel received the laws but also, and primarily, in the laws themselves, which differ in scope, in underlying viewpoint and in substance from the laws given in E. The same is true of the other accounts.
Source criticism theorizes that the separate documents were combined by redactors, scribes whose task was to create a single, continuous Torah from the ones already in existence.  To imagine how the redactors worked, we should start by recognizing that they assumed all their sources to be “true.” As far as they were concerned, all the events took place, and all the laws were given by God. They treated the several existing documents as sacred literature, and they strove to combine them maximally, not selectively. Merging the several stories of the giving of the law into one was a major component of this endeavor. We do not know precisely how this took place, but we can at least describe it to some degree.
P Is the Foundation, J and E the Insertion, and D the Conclusion
The Priestly version seems to have served as the framework. The lengthy Tabernacle narrative of P is by far the longest story, and P contains the most extensive corpus of laws. It also provides precise dates (Exodus 19:1, 40:17; Numbers 1:1, 9:1, 10:11). Assuming that the other stories must somehow fit into and around P, the redactors proceeded to draw a series of logical conclusions.
First, they reasoned, since both E and J tell of an awesome theophany at a mountain, they must be referring to the same event. Thus, they merged the E and J stories into one, combining the visual (J) with the auditory (E)—the descent of YHWH on the mountain (J) with the voice heard from the heavens (E).
Second, this event must have taken place as soon as the Israelites arrived at Sinai. This is only logical, since the Israelites got to work building the Tabernacle immediately after Moses informed them that God had ordered them to do so and since the Israelites left Sinai very soon after the Tabernacle was built. Thus, J’s story of the theophany, E’s story of the covenant and E’s law code, all merged into one, were inserted right at the beginning of the P framework, before P’s account of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the Tabernacle instructions.
Third, since both P and E speak of Moses receiving some object from God on the mountain, it stood to reason that the two refer to the same object. Thus P’s testimony and E’s tablets must be one and the same.
Fourth, since the testimony received according to P was placed in the ark and kept there for good, while the tablets in E were destroyed and replaced, the testimony of P must have been given twice. Thus, the Tabernacle story was made to straddle the account of the golden calf—the instructions and the first testimony being given before the calf was made, and the second testimony, followed by the prompt execution of the task, after forgiveness was granted. The result of this, of course, was that in the combined account, Moses first receives the Tabernacle instructions when he climbs the mountain to get the first set of tablets, but he only conveys them to the people when he returns with the second set.
It must have seemed obvious that the J account of Moses’ lone ascent to Sinai to receive a covenant of reconciliation corresponded to E’s account of his ascent to receive the second set of tablets. Thus the story of J’s covenant, as well as J’s brief law code, became part of the calf cycle; henceforth, J’s covenant took on the appearance of a “covenant renewal”—though it is never referred to that way.
Once the Tabernacle was built, the enormous body of P’s legislation, communicated to Moses in the Tabernacle over 40 years’ time, fit in perfectly. Of course, it now appeared to be supplementary to the legislation given at Sinai.
Finally, since D explicitly states that the Deuteronomic Torah was delivered by Moses at the end of his lifetime, the only possible place to position it was following the conclusion of the Priestly law code. Thus the impression was created that it amounted to a repetition of the law, though this too is never stated in the text. It further emerges that Moses wrote down a second law book in addition to the one he had written at Sinai.
When Did the Redaction Happen?
We may never know when this extremely sophisticated literary process took place. Scholars differ on the origin and interrelationship of the separate documents. Many scholars suggest that they were combined into one around the time of the return from the Babylonian Exile (fifth century B.C.E.), when the imperial Persian authorities granted legal and religious autonomy to the Jews in Judea, allowing them—actually ordering them (Ezra 7:1–26)—to govern themselves according to their written teachings, perhaps requiring them to produce a single, authoritative version of their sacred law.
Whatever the precise circumstances may be, the composition of the Torah represents the crowning achievement in the process of collating, canonizing and codifying the aggregate of tradition, religious and legal practice, and historical memory that the First Temple period produced. What traditional interpretation saw as a single Mosaic text, critical analysis views as a mosaic of texts. It is no less significant for this. In fact, some would argue, a collection consisting of four impressionistic paintings and one collage is actually a better record of an encounter with the ineffable than a single, one-dimensional photograph.
Untangling Three Accounts of the Giving of the Law
Key: P-maroon red E-green J-dark blue
(1) On the third new moon after the Israelites had left the land of Egypt, on that very day they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai. (2) Having journeyed from Refidim, they arrived at the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, (3) and Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: (4) ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, that I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. (5) Now then, if you will obey Me and keep my covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, (6) but I shall have you as My kingdom of priests and holy nation.’ These are the words you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (7) Moses came down and summoned the elders of the people, and put before them all the words that the LORD had commanded him. (8) All the people answered as one, saying, “Whatever the LORD says, we will do!” Moses brought back the people’s words to the LORD. (9) And the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a thick cloud, in order for the people to overhear Me speaking with you and so believe in you ever after.” Moses reported the people’s words to the LORD. (10) The LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and have them remain pure today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothes. (11) Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai. (12) Set up bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or even touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. (13) No hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot. Beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up the mountain.” (14) Moses came down from the mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure, and they washed their clothes. (15) He said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not have contact with a woman.” (16) On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people in the camp trembled. (17) Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they positioned themselves at the foot of the mountain. (18) Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD was coming down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (19) The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. Moses would speak, God responding to him with. (20) The LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up. (21) The LORD said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the LORD to gaze, lest many of them perish. (22) The priests also, who are going to approach the LORD, must purify themselves, lest the LORD break out against them.” (23) But Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, since You Yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it.’” (24) So the LORD said to him, “Go down, and come back up together with Aaron and the priests, but let not the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break out against them.” (25) And Moses went down to the people and told them.
(1) God spoke all these words, saying, “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods besides Me….[until Exod 20:14]” (15) When the people saw the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking, they fell back and stood at a distance. (16) They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (17) Moses answered the people, “Do not worry, for God has only come in order to give you an experience, so that the fear of Him may be ever with you, in order that you go not astray.” (18) So the people remained at a distance, while Moses entered the thick cloud where God was. (19) Then the LORD said to Moses: “Thus shall you say to the Israelites: ‘You yourselves have seen that I spoke to you from the heavens. (20) You shall make no other gods with Me….. [Exodus 21] (1) And these are the statues you shall set before them…. [until 23:33]”
(1) But to Moses He had said, “Come up to the LORD, with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar. (2) But only Moses shall come near the LORD; the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him at all.” (3) Moses came down and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the statutes, and the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the LORD has said we will do!” (4) Next Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD, arose early the next morning, and set up an altar at the foot of the mountain and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. (5) He delegated some young men of the Israelites and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls to the LORD as sacrifices of well-being. (6) Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and the other half he dashed against the altar. (7) Then he took the written covenant and read it aloud to the people. They said, “Everything that the LORD has said we will do and obey!” (8) Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has hereby made with you over all these words.” (9) So Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended, (10) and they saw the God of Israel. Under His feet there was a likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for splendor. (11) Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they gazed upon God, and they ate and drank. (12) The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teaching and commandments which I have written to instruct them.” (13) So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God. (14) To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who as a legal matter approach them.” (15) Moses ascended the mountain; the cloud covered the mountain. (16) The Majesty of the LORD abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. (17) The Majesty of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. (18) Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain, and Moses remained on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
(1) The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, (2) “Speak to the Israelites and have them bring Me gifts… (8) let them make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them… (10) they shall make an ark of acacia wood… (17) make a cover of pure gold… (18) make two cherubim of gold… (21) place the cover on top of the ark and deposit inside the ark the testimony which I will give you. (22) There I will meet with you, and I will tell you, from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the ark of the testimony, all that I have to command you for the Israelites.”…. [until 31:17]
Exodus 32 – E only
(1) Meanwhile, when the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him…..”
Exodus 31 – P only
(18) When He finished speaking with Him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, [Exodus 32] (15) Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand. [Exodus 34] (29) As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant from speaking with Him. (30) But Aaron and the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant, so they were afraid to come near him. (31) So Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them. (32) Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and Moses commanded them everything that the LORD had told him on Mount Sinai. (33) When he finished telling them, he put a veil over his face. (34) (Thenceforth, whenever Moses would go in to the presence of the LORD to speak with Him, he would leave the veil off until he came out; when he had come out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, (35) the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moses’ face was. Moses would then put the veil back over his face until the next time he went in to speak with Him). [Exodus 35] (1) Moses convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them, “These are the things that the LORD has commanded… (4) take from among you gifts… and make all that the LORD has commanded: the tabernacle, its tent….” [until 40:33] [Exodus 40] (34) …the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Majesty of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (35) Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Majesty of the LORD had filled the tabernacle. (36) (Thenceforth, whenever the cloud would lift from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on their various journeys; (37) but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. (38) For a cloud of the LORD rested over the tabernacle by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.) [Leviticus 1] (1) So He called to Moses. The LORD spoke to him from within the Tent of Meeting, saying: (2) “Speak to the Israelites and say to them, ‘When any you presents an offering….’” [until end of Leviticus, and intermittently in Numbers; see the narrator’s superscriptions in Lev 7:35-38; 26:46; 27:34; Num 36:13]
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May 13, 2013
October 31, 2023
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Prof. Baruch J. Schwartz holds the J. L Magnes Chair in Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his Ph.D. He writes and lectures on the J, E, P and D documents, the uniqueness of each, and how they were compiled to create the five-book Torah. Schwartz is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.
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