After considering what has thus far transpired in the Book of Exodus, this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, involves one of the most memorable scenes outside of the deliverance from Egypt. It is in this reading where the Lord visits Mount Sinai and delivers the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1-20:17). The Ancient Israelites were deathly afraid of what was taking place, and so Moses has to explain what the intention of this awesome scene is intended to mean for them:
“Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin’” (Exodus 20:20).
Here at the bottom of Mount Sinai, the people of Israel actually hear the voice of the Lord. One would think that this would be a blessed event, but from the reaction recorded, we read that the people were absolutely terrified by the Voice:
“All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance…So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, “You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven”’” (Exodus 20:18, 21-22).
Prior to this time since the Exodus from Egypt, the Lord had chosen to communicate to Israel through His intermediary Moses. For the most part, the Israelites were quite content with this means of communication. After all, a considerable amount of the information that came to them from Moses was very encouraging. Consider some of earlier statements from Moses just prior to the Divine declaration of the Ten Commandments:
“‘“Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.’ So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lordhad commanded him. All the people answered together and said, ‘All that theLord has spoken we will do!’ And Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord” (Exodus 19:5-8).
Here, the Lord communicates a fairly simple if/then formula for Israel to become a holy nation of priests. It conveys the mission of what they are to do as intermediaries between the Creator and the rest of the Earth. It should have been something very hopeful to those who really were ready to enter into God’s purpose and no longer be slaves at the behest of Egypt.
The Israelites had just witnessed a great deliverance from the Egyptians and had only been in the desert several months. The Lord was fighting their battles. Their basic daily nourishment was provided for by the morning arrival of manna. They were probably feeling pretty confident about their relationship with Him. Without much hesitation, upon hearing what God was calling them to do, they responded to the proposal with these affirming words:
“All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’ And Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord” (Exodus 19:8).
Remarkably, the Scriptures record that all of the people agreed to do all that the Lord had spoken. This was apparently a sincere response. But little did the Ancient Israelites understand the magnitude of their commitment. At this point in the narrative, we see their response to the Lord, but not a huge amount of instruction on what it means to specifically follow and obey Him is given. As you can imagine, the Lord is already putting in motion a monumental event that will test the hearts of the Israelites, and ascertain whether they can really honor this pledge of obedience:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also believe in you forever.’ Then Moses told the words of the people to the Lord” (Exodus 19:9).
The Lord is going to accomplish two objectives by letting His people hear His voice. First, He will let them understand more about His holiness, and how they must consecrate themselves in order to even hear His voice. Secondly, He is going to solidify Moses’ position as their intermediary before Him. Moses comes back to the people and gives them instructions on how to consecrate themselves, before the Holy One will speak to them (Exodus 19:10-17). A period of separation commences, as physical actions start preparing Israel for hearing the voice of the Lord:
“The Lord also said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, “Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death”…So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments. He said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman’” (Exodus 19:10-12, 14-15).
The people begin to prepare for hearing the voice of God. Looming in the distance was a dark cloud over Mount Sinai. The people could see, and possibly even feel, the presence of the Lord. They began to cleanse themselves and did not have sexual relations for several days. Limits were set around the base of the mountain. People were told not to touch it for fear of death. Each of these actions was preparing Israel for a profound event. By performing these required things, the hearts of the Ancient Israelites were being focused on the opportunity to hear the actual voice of the Creator.
On the morning of the third day, there was thunder, lightning, a thick cloud, and the blast of a piercing shofar. The moment for God to speak was approaching:
“Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder” (Exodus 19:18-19).
It is difficult to imagine how frightening this must have been for the Ancient Israelites. The noise of the shofar was increasing in intensity. The top of Mount Sinai was engulfed in fire and smoke. As they stood there, the whole mountain shook violently. The people thought they were going to die. After all, it had been much easier to listen to the requirements of the Lord when Moses came back and reported his conversations with Him. At this juncture, Israel was fully engaged in hearing the actual voice of God—and then the Lord declares the Ten Words. Can you imagine how petrified the people were when these commands came forth? The intensity of the fear is recorded after the commands are declared.
With fear and trepidation the people immediately wanted to go back to the former way of communing with the Most High (Exodus 19:20). Apparently, the voice of God was so powerful that the people believed they were going to die. Even after they were consecrated before Him, the Israelites were convinced that they would rather have Moses as their mediator. The fear was that intense!
Interestingly, Moses immediately tells the Israelites that the Lord is using this event to test them: “God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray” (Exodus19:20, NJPS). A holy fear should be instilled in them so that they would not sin and rebel against Him. God is very serious about His people not sinning—something that even until today has not changed!
How about today? Is there something we should be learning from the experiences of the Ancient Israelites? How should we be approaching the Lord?
The author of Hebrews refers to the events we have been considering in the past few Torah readings, imploring how Believers in Yeshua are to take seriously the Divine work of God. His admonition is to not let Believers’ hearts be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and remember the examples of the past when God’s people have had to be severely punished for their disloyalty to Him:
“Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know My ways’; as I swore in My wrath, “They shall not enter My rest”’ [Psalm 95:7-11]. Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Messiah, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me’ [Psalm 95:7-8]. For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:7-19).
In this passage, the author of Hebrews reminds his audience that the generation which came out of Egypt hardened their hearts instead of listening to God’s voice. By hardening their hearts, they did not know the ways of the Lord. In fact, because of their disobedience, they were not allowed to enter into the rest of the Promised Land because of their unbelief. Within his argument is the implication that if such severe punishment was enacted upon these people in Israel’s past, how much more severe punishment can be guaranteed those who deny the more recent (for the First Century C.E.) andeven more serious deliverance via the Messiah’s sacrifice?
We need to remember that according to the words of Yeshua Himself, the ability to hear the voice of the Holy One is something fully accessible to His followers. Today, in this post-resurrection era, we have the privilege of hearing the voice of the Most High. Instead of exclusively having to rely on others to listen to Him for us, we should be striving to listen to the voice of the Holy One ourselves. Remember that our Heavenly Father has sent His Son Yeshua to be the Good Shepherd over His people:
“I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd…My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:14-16, 27-28).
We know that in this passage Yeshua called Himself the Good Shepherd, and His flock were the people who would hear His voice. Are you part of His flock?Are you hearing the Lord’s voice and obeying Him? If you are, then you should be comforted by your desire to please Him. But if you are not hearing His voice and obeying Him—conforming your life to the example left by the Messiah—perhaps you need to cry out to the Lord for mercy. As the author of Hebrews reminds us concerning the ancient encounter at Mount Sinai, there is a different mountain that we should now be approaching—one even more awesome and profound—as awesome and profound as Mount Sinai enveloped in smoke surely was:
“For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.’ And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, ‘I am full of fear and trembling’ [Exodus 19:12-13]. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and [congregation] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Yeshua, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned themon earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:18-25).
Here, the warning is to seek Yeshua as the Mediator of the New Covenant. We are reminded that we should not refuse His voice (cf. Hebrews 3:3). If so, the consequences for Believers today are even worse than those from the Exodus generation: You will not enter His eternal rest! So without any hesitation, dear brothers and sisters, remember: hear and obey. Shema Yisrael!