Parashat Yitro – Ex. 18:1 – 20:23
“You speak with us and we will hear, but let G-d not speak with us lest we die.” – Shemot/Exodus 20:16(19)
These are the words of the people to Moshe, right after HaShem has spoken the Ten Words. “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance” (Shemot 20:15, JPS). Then they say these words to ask Moshe to be their intermediary. The early rabbis ask, “How many of the Ten Words did Israel hear directly from the Divine Majesty? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: two. But the Rabbis said: Israel heard all Ten Words directly from the Divine Majesty, inasmuch as all Ten Words were uttered” (Pesikta Rabbati 22.3). Quoting from Moshe’s recapitulation of the Sinai event to the next generation of Israelites forty years later on the plains of Moab, Mekhilta adds, “This tells us that they did not have the strength to receive more than the Ten Words, as it is said, ‘if we hear the voice of the L-RD our G-d any longer, we shall die’ (D’varim 5:22, JPS). But because they said: ‘You go closer and hear all that the L-RD our G-d says, and then you tell us everything that the L-RD our G-d tells you’ (v. 24, JPS), from that time on the Israelites merited that prophets should be raised among them, as it was said: ‘I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people'” (D’varim 18:18, JPS).
This is both a seminal and critical moment in the journey of the people Israel. They have experienced a theophany – G-d speaking to the whole nation – but what will they do with that experience? How will they process it and make it a part of themselves, both as individuals and as a people, as the journey goes on? The mixture of sound and vision – the JPS translation of verse 15 above has coyly translated the word rohim, “seeing”, as “witnessed” to cover the multi-sensory nature of the revelation – has pushed the people into sensory overload. Their response to Moshe shows the way they have reacted. They simply cannot take the force and concentration of G-d’s presence and word when it comes directly to them. Some kind of filter, baffle or perhaps ear-defenders is necessary. Notice, however, that they do not refuse to hear G-d’s word at all; they will hear – and the Hebrew word word can often mean “to obey” or “to understand” as Targum Onkelos suggests by changing the Hebrew nishma’a, “we will hear” to Aramaic nekabel, “we will accept” – they want to keep the channel open, but need to turn the volume down.
Hirsch takes the discussion to another level when he observes that “Here they state that G-d spoke to them as man speaks to man. That they should experience this fact themselves, was the essential object of this event which G-d had arranged for them. This firmly established the fact of G-d’s speaking to Man, by the personal experience of the whole nation, and thereby the ‘revelation’ which stands at the head of every part of the Torah was firmly ensured against every twist by which people try to change the revelation to man, to a revelation out of man, the revelation to Moshe, to a revelation by or out of Moshe; i.e. the revelation to a non-revelation.” We really need to grasp this and hang on to it, because it is part of our testimony as believers: HaShem spoke to the entire nation at Sinai. This is recorded in Jewish social memory – we remember it as a people, not just as individuals. No-one made it up or tried to slip it into our history on the side; if they had, it would have been promptly rejected by all the people who knew perfectly well they hadn’t been there and done that! As it is, every Jewish person has the t-shirt; we know we were there and received not just words, not just the world’s first “Son et Lumiére” presentation, but a personal, corporate and direct revelation from the heavens: from HaShem Himself!
Richard Elliott Friedman also makes an important contribution. He points out that the phenomenon of prophecy – as we and the biblical text generally understand it – is absent from B’resheet, because “prophecy by its very essence relates to a community; and B’resheet, as we have already observed, is primarily about individuals, not communities.” Then he explains that “the birth of prophecy in Exodus is related to the birth of the Israelite community in this book. In Exodus, HaShem initially sends Moshe with His words to the Israelites and to the Egyptians. That is already a straightforward depiction of prophecy, but, more crucially, the book proceeds to formalise the prophetic role. When the Israelites come to Sinai, HaShem personally speaks directly to the entire nation, pronouncing the Ten Commandments aloud from the sky. The Israelites’ response here is to tell Moshe: ‘You speak with us so we may listen, but let G-d not speak with us or else we’ll die.’ From this moment on, all revelation to Israel is mediated by a prophet. G-d never speaks directly to the people again in any book of the Tanakh.” Now while we may choose to quibble over the identity of the Angel or Messenger of the L-rd who makes a number of appearances in the Hebrew Bible, Friedman’s last sentence is essentially correct: HaShem always uses an intermediary, through the medium of prophecy, to speak to the people as a whole throughout the rest of the Tanakh.
The next theophany in the Hebrew Scriptures is where Moshe sees HaShem pass by him while he is in a cleft of the rock: “The L-RD came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name L-RD. The L-RD passed before him and proclaimed: ‘The L-RD! the L-RD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations'” (Shemot 34:5-7, JPS). Elijah met with HaShem on Mt. Horeb: “And lo, the L-RD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the L-RD; but the L-RD was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but the L-RD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the L-RD was not in the fire. And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound” (1 Kings 19:11-12, JPS). Both of these were individual revelations, from which flowed prophecy and other acts of ministry to the Israelites. But although Moshe and Elijah were great prophets, they were not the prophet.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us about the last step in the plan, first summing up: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Hebrew 1:1, ESV). We know this; this is what we have been talking about so far – G-d speaking through the prophets. But then something changed; the writer goes on: “but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world” (v. 2, ESV). Who is this Son and would we recognise Him? The text answers, “He is the radiance of the glory of G-d and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power” (v. 3, ESV). This is the one whose disciples said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living G-d” (Matthew 16:16, ESV) and who replied: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (v. 17, ESV). This is the one who upheld the Torah, teaching, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (5:17, ESV). Yeshua is the prophet who correctly and most clearly brings and explains G-d’s word and commands, as He said, “I do nothing on My own authority, but speak just as the Father taught Me” (John 8:28, ESV).
John’s gospel records the conversation between Yeshua and the disciples when He made it clear that He was going to leave them: “Philip said to Him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Yeshua said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know Me, Philip? Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me?'” (John 14:8-10, ESV). The disciples still struggled with this, but Yeshua told them, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (v. 26, ESV). This was the promised Spirit, of whom Joel spoke: “I will pour out My spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel 3:1, JPS). As believers, we have all become prophets because the Ruach dwells in us, reveals Yeshua to us and speaks through us to the people if we are willing to let Him.
This, then is our social memory, our identity as the people of G-d. Not just Sinai, but Yeshua, the Son of the Living G-d. In his excitement and enthusiasm, John wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you” (1 John 1:1-3, ESV). This is no dream or imagination; John has seen and known Yeshua and can’t stop talking about it. We know Him too and that should be our witness!
Further Study: Jeremiah 23:28-29; John 19:35-37; Acts 4:13-20
Application: Is your witness so direct and powerful that people have to ask you to turn down the volume, or are you dry and scratchy because you are working second-hand from someone else’s script? Get plugged in to the source for yourself today and let the living water flow!
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Jonathan and his wife, Belinda, lead Messianic Education Trust, which is an educational ministry based in England. It is a part of the Tikkun family of ministries, serving the Messianic Jewish community in Israel, Cyprus and the USA , as well as former republics of the Soviet block.