Moses and the Mountain

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.’”

Exodus 19:9



Almost as dramatic as the giving of the Ten Commandments is the haunting preparation for them that takes place at the foot of an intimidating mountain. Scholars have long studied Exodus 19 to understand its role in the biblical canon. The days leading up to Sinai are, arguably, almost as significant as the giving of the law itself. Nahum Sarna, in his JPS commentary on Exodus, describes the chapter this way…


“The mood has now been set for the solemn, formal enactment of the covenant between God and Israel. Preparations are begun at once. They comprise the following elements: authentication of the role of Moses; purification, which involves sexual abstinence and, most likely, bathing, and laundering of clothes; and repeated warnings against encroachment upon the holy domain of the mountain.” Establishing Moses in this new role as lawgiver from his previous role as advocate, chief rabble-rouser, community organizer and spokesman in the shuttle diplomacy between God and Pharaoh, requires a dramatic paradigm shift, one that was ably delivered at Sinai.


All of this was predicted in Exodus 3:12, “And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain,” indicating to Moses early on that his role would shift after stage one of the transformation of the Israelites. First they needed release from bondage and only then an education in the laws that would prove foundational to establishing themselves as a holy and relatively autonomous community. Sarna points out that Exodus 19 demonstrates that “the climatic Sinai experience would be the ultimate validation of Moses’ leadership” and the “public nature of the forthcoming revelation would further verify his authenticity.”


Most classical exegetes make little of Moses’ elevation in status here, focusing instead on the perplexities of a thick cloud that emits a divine voice. It is not hard to be distracted by this detail and neglect the fact that something transformative was to happen to Moses in this moment of shifting leadership. Only Rashi, citing the midrashic collection the Mekhilta, notes that the word “so” in the verse, which is “gam” in Hebrew, should be rendered as “also,” implying that from this point onward, not only Moses would be recognized as lawgiver and divine mediator. The prophets who followed him and reinforced and embellished these resonating Sinaitic words would also have a similar status.


The change in Moses’ leadership may not have been fully noted by medieval commentators but was keenly observed by a comic book writer. It is in Jenna Weissman Joselit’s excellent and timely new book, Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments that I learned of Dell Comics’ release of Moses and the Ten Commandments. While we’d like to give credit to the original Good Book for the plot developments, it seems that Cecil B. DeMille’s movie release in 1956 and the outsized popular response to it may have had more to do with getting word out about this ancient narrative. Joselit describes Moses, the comic book figure, as quick-witted, quick-fisted and handsome: “Shown to advantage in a loincloth, of all things, his body is finely chiseled and muscular; his eyes are blue and piercing and his hair full and inky black.” Good looks don’t seem to be a prerequisite for biblical heroism, but, let’s face it, they help.


The genre of the comic book allows for attention to be paid to the making of the hero, what Joselit presents as the process of becoming. Moses, she observes, is in “a continuous state of movement: from boy to man, from Egyptian to Israelite, from prince to a representative of God Almighty. In each instance, Moses’s life is defined as an exercise in maturation: in how to become a grown-up and assume responsibility.”


Perhaps this evolution made Moses, the action figure, a great toy. Who knew? I also learned about this irresistible plastic figure from Set in Stone. Moses comes with both the Ten Commandments and a staff, and at five and one-quarter inches, he can move his joints in at least 16 different directions. Better yet, I learned that I could purchase my own action figure on eBay, which, of course, I did. I thought it would be an excellent prop for Shavuot and last longer than a cheesecake. I almost went for the Moses that was “used, but in good condition” – representing my feeling about the Bible in general – but got a better deal on shipping with a new one.


These modern, very American, “applications” of the Sinai story remind us of the eternality of this moment in time. Not only a people change at the foot of this mountain. Their leader also does, in an astounding bid for transcendence. The text signals to us today that Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah in its most expansive sense; an ongoing deliverance of meaning that will accelerate the process of becoming.


Happy Shavuot.