“Tremble, O Earth, at the presence of the Lord.” Why would the earth shudder at the presence of God on Mount Sinai? Though we usually focus on the Ten Commandments themselves, the lead-up to the Revelation is also very telling:
“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. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mountain and Moses went up…” (Exodus 19:16-20).
What are we to make of this description?
There is the possibility that the text tells us exactly what happened. When the infinite interfaces with the finite — and, in particular, in human verbal terms for that group at that point in its history, there is bound to be a significant amount of transforming. It is like a major power line being transformed and reduced to the kind of current we can use in our homes. There’s going to be a lot of energy and heat and, often, sparks. In Mount Sinai’s case, the transformation resulted in earth-shaking and lightning and mysterious horns.
The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig believed that the description is inevitably inadequate —a human attempt to put words on an ineffable experience. To Rosenzweig, the only actual narrative part of the story is, “The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai.” After that, it is human interpretation of something which no words can possibly express. Thus does the ancient author choose mythological language and dramatic imagery to speak to the momentous import of the encounter. By the way, Rosenzweig would also put the Ten Commandments themselves into this category: human attempts drafted in response to an indescribable experience with the divine.
Whether this mythological and dramatic language was written by people or by God, the goal of the narrative seems clear: the event was of superlative importance, and the dramatic language and imagery is designed to make this point to the listener/reader. When you run out of words like “important”, “significant”, etc., metaphorical drama can help the communicative process.
Here are some other examples. In Psalm 114, bodies of water run around, and hills jump up and down. In Psalms 19 and 96, the earth and the heavens join in a chorus of praise. In Deuteronomy 30, both heaven and earth are called to be witnesses of God’s covenant with Israel.
By and large, life is not usually writ large with this kind of drama, but every once in a while, something of great importance happens. Great importance! To those impressed with the moment, communicating its value requires special language and out-of-the-ordinary imagery. The ancient narrator — whether human or divine — uses this kind of rhetoric to get our attention and command it. This event and the commandments which follow are important, significant, compelling and earthshaking. They are worthy of our close and abiding consideration:
I. I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods beside me.
II. Do not make idols and worship them.
III. Do not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.
IV. Keep and observe the Sabbath day; make it holy.
V. Honor your father and your mother.
VI. Do not murder.
VII. Do not commit adultery.
VIII. Do not steal.
IX. Do not bear false witness.
X. Do not covet your neighbor’s house or wife or anything that is your neighbor’s.
God wants a relationship with us — a proper respectful relationship.
God wants us to treat each other with justice and fairness and kindness.
These things are very important. Pay attention.
Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.