Exodus 19 – The Scene at Sinai

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Today’s PassageExodus 19

You may well know where the Sinai Peninsula is even if you don’t know that you know it. It’s the triangle of land between Israel and northern Egypt. It’s part of the Arabian Peninsula, which connects the African continent to the rest of the Middle East. Oddly enough, the Sinai Peninsula is roughly the same shape as the Arabian Peninsula, only smaller, like a tiny peninsular fractal. Mount Sinai is toward the southern end of the peninsula that bears its name, and here the Israelites arrive and encounter God in today’s yesterday’s Friday’s chapter (oof).

God gives the people three days to prepare for his arrival on Mount Sinai. He has Moses warn them: “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” (12). For a long time this has struck me as an unusually harsh punishment for merely touching a mountain, but the chapter doesn’t record anyone violating the prohibition. Similar passages make major note of it when people physically disobey God’s instructions, so I can only conclude that no one actually died. Frankly, that level of obedience is a miracle in itself.

Moses also instructs the men, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman” (15). Again, it would appear that they obey, but that’s just weird. I can sort of understand it if God wants his space when he descends on the mountain, or if the sheer spectacle of thunder and lightning (16) and fire and smoke and an earthquake (18) would outright kill a person if they approached the mountain. But why keep one’s distance from women?

Commentaries indicate that it’s for the same reason the people clean up themselves and their garments (10, 14). It’s apparently just a matter of being pure: no dirt or sweat or other nasty things on the people or their clothes. I did find one interesting contemporary Jewish commentary that notes that Moses issues the command exclusively to the men, while when God himself directly speaks, he includes the women in his instructions. In any event, the commands for purification don’t seem to be tied directly to the death penalty; they appear to just be a matter of being at your cleanest for when God shows up. And the people follow the instructions.

In closing, I want to point out a verse that jumped up in my face on my first reading of this passage, back on Friday (oof). God tells his people, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself” (4). Sound familiar? If you’re anything like me, it brings to mind that favorite Old Testament verse, one of the few that’s pervasive in American Christian culture, Isaiah 40:31: “Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles.” I’m certain Isaiah was drawing on the imagery God employs here in Exodus, but Isaiah recognizes that the Israelites who escaped from Egypt weren’t the only ones God bore on eagles’ wings. This is a thing God does for all who wait for him. God’s support is not circumscribed; it is widely available.

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