After three months of travelling, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and set up camp. Once there, Moses climbs the mountain to talk to God, who makes the Israelites a deal. “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all people; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6).

Now, the language of possession, essentially reducing the Israelites to things (albeit treasured), is rather creepy from a modern perspective. Sorta reinforces that view of God as the kid with the ant farm, doesn’t it?

The Israelites don’t seem to think so. When Moses relays the message, “all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’ ” (Exod. 19: 8). Much as it disturbs me to see a whole culture willingly subjecting themselves to being possessions, this is certainly a welcome break from hearing them whine.

Then, God institutes a rule about Mount Sinai: No one, be they human or beast, is to approach the mountain lest they “be put to death” (Exod. 19:12-13). This emphasises the mysterium tremendum of the sacred location.

Next, God tells Moses that in three days time he will appear to the Israelites personally. In the meantime, Moses should busy himself consecrating every individual and they should make sure that they was their clothes (probably a good idea after three months in the wilderness).

And for the feminists among my readers, please note that on the third day, God’s rule for all Israelites is: “Do not go near a woman” (Exod. 19:15). Just in case you were wondering who the Old Testament considers worthy of personhood, there’s your answer. When God addresses “the Israelites,” that’s only the ones with penises. The rest don’t count.

God’s appearance

The Ten Commandments by Isabella Colette

The Ten Commandments by Isabella Colette

“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightenings” and “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in a fire” (Exod. 19:16-18). If we subscribe to the theory that there’s a kernel of truth to the Exodus stories, and that they can be traced back to misunderstood naturalistic phenomena, this one’s pretty obvious. There’s a big storm, which the Israelites think is God talking to them.

We seem to get confirmation of this in the next verse, where we’re told that Moses speaks and “God answered him in thunder” (Exod. 19:19). This suggests that God isn’t speaking in a way that the Israelites can understand him, but rather that Moses is interpreting the thunder.

And when we were told in Exodus 19:12-13 that there’s a bound set around the mountain so that only Moses can approach, is this because Moses is just pretending to talk to God? Is he actually just reading the latest Harlequin novel for a bit before going down and telling the people whether God thinks lamb is best served with mint jelly or not?

In other words, does the emphasis on secrecy (or “sacredness,” if that’s the term you prefer) suggest that Moses is a conman rather than just a naif who is misinterpreting natural phenomena?

God forgets his rule

God tells Moses to bring up the priests to meet him, but Moses reminds him of the prohibition against letting anyone go near the mountain. That’s right, God issued a rule and, within three days, had already forgotten it. No matter, God asks Moses to bring up Aaron instead. Then he reminds Moses not to “let the priests and th epeople break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them” (Exod. 19:24).

Points for talking about himself in the third person. But also, this really makes it look like Aaron is an accomplice, and Moses needed a story to tell the Israelites that would let him bring his brother up without all the priests and elders wanting to see God too.