Arrival at Sinai. 1a In the third month after the Israelites’ departure from the land of Egypt, on the first day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai. 2After they made the journey from Rephidim and entered the wilderness of Sinai, they then pitched camp in the wilderness.*
While Israel was encamped there in front of the mountain, 3Moses went up to the mountain of God. Then the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying: This is what you will say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: 4You have seen how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.b 5Now, if you obey me completely and keep my covenant,* you will be my treasured possession among all peoples,c though all the earth is mine. 6You will be to me a kingdom of priests,* a holy nation.d That is what you must tell the Israelites. 7So Moses went and summoned the elders of the people. When he set before them all that the LORD had ordered him to tell them, 8all the people answered together, “Everything the LORD has said, we will do.” Then Moses brought back to the LORD the response of the people.
9The LORD said to Moses: I am coming to you now in a dense cloud,e so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they will also remain faithful to you.
When Moses, then, had reported the response of the people to the LORD, 10the LORD said to Moses: Go to the people and have them sanctify themselves today and tomorrow. Have them wash their garments 11and 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. 12Set limits for the people all around,f saying: Take care not to go up the mountain, or even to touch its edge. All who touch the mountain must be put to death. 13No hand shall touch them, but they must be stoned to death or killed with arrows. Whether human being or beast, they must not be allowed to live. Only when the ram’s horn sounds may they go up on the mountain.* 14Then Moses came down from the mountain to the people and had them sanctify themselves, and they washed their garments. 15He said to the people, “Be ready for the third day. Do not approach a woman.”
The Great Theophany. 16g On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar,* so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain. 18Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because the LORD had come down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19The blast of the shofar grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God was answering him with thunder.
20* When the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21Then the LORD told Moses: Go down and warn the people not to break through to the LORD in order to see him; otherwise many of them will be struck down. 22For their part, the priests, who approach the LORD must sanctify themselves; else the LORD will break out in anger against them. 23But Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot go up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying: Set limits around the mountain to make it sacred.” 24So the LORD said to him: Go down and come up along with Aaron. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD; else he will break out against them.” 25So Moses went down to the people and spoke to them.
* [19:2] Apparently from a different source (P) than v. 1, which notes the date, v. 2 from the J source includes a second notice of the arrival in the wilderness of Sinai. The Israelites now will be camped at Sinai from this point on all the way to Nm 10:10. This is a striking indication of the centrality and importance of the Sinai narrative in the overall composition of the Pentateuch.
* [19:5] Covenant: while covenants between individuals and between nations are ubiquitous in the ancient Near East, the adaptation of this concept to express the relationship that will henceforth characterize God’s relationship to Israel represents an important innovation of biblical faith. Other gods might “choose” nations to fulfill a special destiny or role in the world; but only Israel’s God is bound to a people by covenant. Thereby Israel’s identity as a people is put upon a foundation that does not depend upon the vicissitudes of Israelite statehood or the normal trappings of national existence. Israel will be a covenant people.
* [19:6] Kingdom of priests: inasmuch as this phrase is parallel to “holy nation,” it most likely means that the whole Israelite nation is set apart from other nations and so consecrated to God, or holy, in the way priests are among the people (cf. Is 61:6; 1 Pt 2:5, 9).
* [19:13] May they go up on the mountain: in vv. 12–13a, a later Priestly reshaping of an earlier version of the instructions governing how the people are to prepare for the encounter with God (vv. 10–11, 13b), the people are to be restrained from ascending the mountain, which is suffused with the holiness of God and too dangerous for their approach. In the earlier version, as v. 13b suggests, the sanctified people must come near, in order to hear God speaking with Moses (v. 9) and in this way receive confirmation of his special relationship with God.
* [19:16] Shofar: a ram’s horn used like a trumpet for signaling both for liturgical and military purposes.
* [19:20–25] At this point the Priestly additions of vv. 12–13a are elaborated with further Priestly instructions, which include the priests’ sanctifying themselves apart from the people (v. 22) and Aaron accompanying Moses to the top of the mountain (v. 24).