Theophany and Covenant: Exodus 19:1 – 20:21

Introduction and Scope

The purpose of this paper is to offer an interpretation of Exodus 19 – 20:21 based on the relevant historical, sociocultural, and grammatical contexts.  This passage has been selected because it serves as a pivotal passage in the cannon and as the climactic event in the narrative of the people of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Moreover, the themes introduced here echo throughout the canon and provide a foundational leitmotif for biblical theology.

For the sake of simplicity, the textual analysis section is presented in a verse-by-verse commentary style.  Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible.


Numerous theories have been proposed regarding the composition of the Pentateuch, the analysis and finer nuances of which are beyond the scope of this paper.  Suffice it to say, the present author assumes essential Mosaic authorship for the passage at hand while acknowledging the likelihood that later editors/redactors may have had some impact on the text as it progressed toward its final form.

Literary Analysis

This text provides a significant turning point in the narrative of Exodus.  In it God reveals the purpose for His redemptive act of liberating the Israelites from their Egyptian captivity, reveals Himself in a powerful new theophanic form, communicates immediately with the people, discloses their intended vocation, and enters into a covenant relationship with them.

Isbell also notes the repetitive literary theme of “evidence-requirement-response,” which spans both chapters (in fact, he sees thematic repetition in chapters 19-24).  This begins with the evidential citation by Yahweh of what He has done for the people in history, proceeds to the divine requirements incumbent on the people, and culminates in the explicit response of Israel to the requirements set forth (55-58).

The passage contains of variety of literary genres, including narrative prose, poetry, and apodictic law.  Thematically, it also includes strong echoes of the creation motif of Genesis 1 and 2 as well as a foreshadowing of the later cultic practices of Judaism (the latter topic will be explored in the Biblical Theology section of this paper).

Textual Analysis

19:1-3a – Childs sees the opening verse as a superscription to the following chapters.  He also notes בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה (rendered “on that very day” by the NRSV) is indicative of the profound moment of the event, that it is “marked as a special day to be remembered” (366).  The text also indicates that three months after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped before the mountain of God.

While much scholarly debate revolves around the geographical location of this mountain, the best we can conclude at present is that the data for the precise determination of the location is insufficient (Wells 229).  More important than location, however, is theological significance.  The author is not concerned with describing the locale or any distinguishing physical characteristics of the mountain.  On the contrary, the only thing that makes this mountain special is that it is the place where God has chosen to manifest His presence in a unique way.  As Davies puts it, “What is more important than the location of the encounter… is the transcendent relationship so depicted” (40).

19:3b-4 – Childs points out that vv. 3-8 contain an “elevated style of the prose, which approaches poetry in its use of parallelism and selected vocabulary” (366).  Davies has also identified several characteristics which are indicative of poetic style, including parallelismus membrorum, paratactic syntax, and metaphorical imagery (37).

With the declaration, “You have seen…”, God indicates that the Israelites now possess experiential knowledge of Him.  While the people had an intellectual knowledge of Yahweh during their Egyptian captivity, they now know Him in an experiential way through the events of the Exodus.  The Exodus has been accomplished and God has brought the people to Himself for the purpose of establishing His covenant with them.  Davies notes that the phrase, “וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי ” is without parallel in the Hebrew Scriptures.  This highlights the inherent tension in the passage as God not only accompanies the people on their journey, but is also the goal of the journey (41).  Not only has God manifested Himself through powerful deeds in delivering the people from captivity and leading them to Sinai, He now will display His presence in a new way, heightened by His proximity to the people.

19:5-6 – Here we find that creation language continues to influence the narrative.  As Adam was charged to keep (שׁמר) the garden, so the Israelites must keep (שׁמר) God’s covenant.  If they do so, the Israelites will enjoy a special relationship with Yahweh: 1) they will be His special/personal/treasured possession (סְגֻלָּה); 2) they shall be a kingdom of priests (מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים); 3) they shall be a holy nation (וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ).  Theologians have long recognized that Adam’s role in the garden was one of priest/king as he served and tended/worshipped in the garden sanctuary while functioning as God’s vicegerent in the created order (Dumbrell 55-61). Walton also expands this idea to the cosmic level as he sees the creation account as essentially God’s ordering of the cosmos through the assignment of functions/functuaries (38-71). Consequently, the phrase “in the image of God” (בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים) conveys not only the fact that man is made in the moral/ethical image of God, but also implies function.  Hence, Adam’s function in the garden sanctuary (which he of course forfeited in the fall) was to serve as God’s priest/king.

Now that the Israelites have come to the mountain of God, man is once again in the immediate presence of God and is charged with the same function that Adam surrendered through sin: they will be a kingdom of priests.  Moreover, as Adam was holy before the fall, so the Israelites will be a holy people before their God if they live within His covenant.  By living within the circumscription of the covenant, the people will avoid “eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  Finally, that they are to serve as God’s priests indicates their role as mediators between God and the other nations (Carpenter 762).

Isbell makes the interesting case (also grammatically supported by BDB 225) that תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י  (היה followed by preposition ל) has the force of “become” and therefore, since it is conditional, speaks of Israel’s potential to become God’s special treasure and kingdom of priests if she indeed obeys God’s voice and keeps His covenant.  Accordingly he writes, “So what is described here is not privilege but responsibility, and specifically the requirement that Israel serve as the priestly example of holiness among all nations of the world” (57).  Following this line of reasoning, what appears, at least prima facie, to be a quid pro quo proposition is instead a conditional definition (Davies 42).

19:7-8 – Moses returned to the people, specifically to the elders, to report his conversation with Yahweh and it is implied that the elders relayed the information to the people, for “all the people answered together.”  The response of the people is profound: they agree to the covenant before its stipulations had been revealed.  At first glance, this may appear to have been a rash decision, after all, they couldn’t have known what it was they were agreeing to.  On the other hand, the reaction is in response to what God has done for them in history and is indicative of faith.  In other words, they don’t need to read the “fine print” because they have had a unique encounter with the Almighty and find themselves (at least for the moment) in a place of trust and belief.

19:9a – “that the people may hear”  – the people have not only witnessed God’s mighty deeds in history, they will now hear His voice as He speaks with His servant Moses, the purpose being to foster trust in Moses as the prophet of God, and as will become evident later, to test the people (cf. 20:20).

19:9b-15 – It is somewhat enigmatic that Moses would report the words of the people to an omniscient God, nonetheless, he returns to Yahweh to explain the people’s response.  Israel is not yet holy, therefore they must prepare for their encounter with a holy God.  Accordingly, God directs Moses to consecrate the people over the course of the next two days.  The process of consecration involves the washing of their garments and abstinence from sexual relations.

It is interesting to note that no sacrifice of atonement is involved in the consecration process.  Moses had told Pharaoh that the Israelites must journey into the wilderness that they may offer sacrifices to the Lord (Ex 10:24-26), moreover, Exodus 29 explains that the offering of sacrifice is an integral component to the rite of consecration for priests.  Since Israel is to be a kingdom of priests, one would expect some sort of sacrifice to be part and parcel of the consecration of the people for this most holy event.  However, the offering of sacrifice would not occur until the ratification of the covenant in chapter 24.

The mountain is holy space and may not be desecrated lest God’s holy presence consume those who are unauthorized to be in His presence.  If anyone should disregard this injunction, they were to be killed from a distance (stoned or shot with an arrow) lest the offender spread his contamination to the rest of the community (Carpenter 770).  However, when the people hear a long blast of the trumpet they are permitted to draw near to the mountain.

19:16-25 – The theophany now takes place.  This is a most momentous occasion in the history of Israel; as Carpenter explains, “This theophany influenced Israel’s theology and history nearly as much as the exodus event throughout her history” (775).  Accompanying the theophany is a variety of meteorological, aural, and seismic phenomena.  The experience was at once awesome and terrifying to the people.  Upon hearing the sound of the שֹׁפָ֖ר the people drew near to the mountain.  This of course raises the question of who was blowing the שֹׁפָ֖ר?  Since the sound appears to be emanating from the mountain and people were prohibited from that locale, it would seem logical to assume that angelic beings were responsible for the sound, but the text itself gives no explicit indication.

Because “the Lord had descended on it in fire,” the mountain was encased in smoke and was trembling.  In reference to this event (and in an attempt to harmonize Ex 19:20 with 20:19), Targum Pseudo-Jonathan suggests that the reason for the trembling of the mountain is that God had in fact “made the heavens incline down to it,” in effect creating a literal, physical meeting point between heaven and earth, thereby triggering the seismic phenomenon (Houtman 195).  This exegetical gloss indicates the extent to which this event was indelibly etched upon the minds of the Hebrew people.

19:21-25 – Here we have an interesting disturbance in the flow of the narrative as God repeats the instruction to Moses to warn the people not to come up to the mountain “lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish.”  Clearly, the people were not yet familiar with the implications of the holiness of God and the danger of being in His immediate presence.  This, of course, foreshadows what has yet to be revealed, that man cannot gaze upon the Lord and live (Ex 33:20).  Moreover, it indicates that God is not a God of disorder (cf. 1Co 14:33) and He will be approached only on His own terms and only in the manner which he prescribes.

Moses, however, objects on the grounds that the people have already been warned and the motif of “Moses’ resistance to God” (which begins in chapter 3) is developed (Childs 370).  While Moses likely viewed the warning as redundant, this is yet another example of God’s grace and loving care for His people.  Accordingly, God insists that Moses follow His instructions but also tells him that Aaron should accompany him on his return.

Also of interest here is that God instructs Moses that the priests should be consecrated as well.  How this consecration differed from the general consecration of the people is not disclosed, but it is directed specifically to the “priests who come near to the Lord” (v. 22).  Since the formal priesthood had not yet been established it also raises questions about exactly who these men were and how they were serving in the priestly office.  Nonetheless, Moses returned to the people as instructed and conveyed God’s directives to them.  The people having been thus prepared are ready to receive the content of the covenant.

20:1-17 – The Decalogue is spoken by God directly to the people, not delivered through a human mediator (although as Carpenter points out, the sentence lacks an indirect object because the words are ultimately meant not just for Israel but for all humankind [789]).  As Adam heard the voice of God in the garden, now the Israelites hear His voice at Sinai.   While Moses is cast as the mediator of the covenant, this would not come until later, and then at the people’s request.  It is interesting to note that the commandments are spoken by God before they are written by Him on the tablets.  Although the laws are given in a covenantal context, as Carpenter points out, they are essentially transcultural and timeless; indeed they are laws given to humankind (787).  The commandments are apodictic in nature, the first four demonstrating how to love God, the balance demonstrating how to love people who are made in His image.

Although there are similarities between the Decalogue and other ANE law codes, there are no exact parallels (Wells 227).  Carpenter makes the astute point that this is simultaneously a legal text and a wisdom text, and if the Israelites were to live in accordance with these dictates it would demonstrate wisdom and understanding before the other nations of the earth (781; cf. Dt 4:5-8).   Moreover, it explicates the will of God which the people have already accepted and sets forth a moral/ethical profile of the “holy nation” (Childs 371).

20:1-2 – The statement of the Decalogue begins with a reminder of what God has done for the people in history by delivering them from Egypt and liberating them from the oppression of slavery.  At this point there appears to be a strong quid pro quo implication: I have done this thing for you, now you will do these things.  Consequently, God’s acts in human history deliver absolute moral/ethical implications for human beings; here they are explicated.  Isbell sees the repetition of the “evidence-requirements-response” motif spanning vv. 1-21 (58).

20:3 – “no other gods”­ – while Wells suggests this could be an assertion of henotheism (230), there is no reason to see in this statement an implication of the ontological reality of other gods.  Later biblical texts are quite dogmatically monotheistic (e.g., Is 44-45).  Although grammatical arguments are well taken, given the fact that the speaker is God, it would be logical to conclude that this statement is monotheistic in essence.  In fact, in light of Deuteronomy 32:17, the Israelites were already aware of the fact that to practice idol worship was to sacrifice to demons that were not gods.

20:4-6 – The prohibition against the manufacture of idols is the logical outworking of the first commandment.  According to Childs, Obbink suggested that this proscription was not in reference to images of Yahweh, but only to images of foreign deities.  However, the events of Exodus 32 would seem to clearly contradict this thesis.  Aaron fashioned the golden calf and attributed it explicitly to Yahweh (32:4-6).  When Moses returned to camp, his first order of business was to destroy the idol.  Thus, the idea expressed in this commandment is thoroughly aniconic (Wells 231).

It is also important to consider that Yahweh is the Creator God.  In other ANE cosmogonies, the gods did battle with preexisting matter in order to form the cosmos.  This is not so with Yahweh; He is the source of material origins and is consequently transcendent of the created order.  Nothing in creation has the potential to represent Him iconically.  Moreover, the only thing in the created order that does have the potential to represent Him is humankind, which He made in His image.  In other words, human beings are incapable of fashioning an image of God because God Himself has already fashioned man to serve that purpose.

Childs also observes that, “The prohibition of images is grounded in the self-introductory formula, ‘I am Yahweh’, which summarizes God’s own testimony to Himself” (409).  Hence , any image thought to represent Yahweh would essentially be a false witness to His character and attributes (ibid.).  Moreover, in its ANE context, this proscription harkens back to God’s revelation of His covenant name to Moses.  God will not be defined or controlled by names or images; God will be what He will be.

20:7 – Wells explains that this command is essentially legal and is given in regard to oath-taking (232), however, Carpenter and Childs explain that it is not so simple.  The crux of the issue is that linguistically, this commandment cannot be clearly identified with “swearing falsely” (Childs 411).  While it may carry these undertones, the meaning is not exhausted by false oath taking.  Childs concludes that the prohibition against misusing Yahweh’s name was meant to protect the divine name, “which of course was identified with God’s being itself” (ibid.).  This stands to reason and illustrates how this commandment is formally connected to the preceding one.  God has revealed Himself to the Israelites through His actions on their behalf, His words, and His name.  Just as He cannot be represented by an image, His name (which is a symbol of His character) must also not be abused.

Carpenter also explains that תִשָּׂא here carries the force of “bear” rather than “take” and thus means more than “not speak.”  In fact, it “includes a broad range of behavioral possibilities.”  Bearing his name before the other people groups in the ANE in any scandalous way “dishonored him before the nations” and had the ultimate effect of misrepresenting God (798).  This of course would have been a clear contravention of the priestly vocation God had called Israel to.  Essentially, properly bearing the name of God is one of the ways that human beings properly image Him.

This understanding is quite different from the interpretation of this command common in the church today.  Moreover, it is strikingly different from the application common in contemporary Judaism where we find a refusal to speak or write the divine name in any way.  This has even extended to the more generic name “God” which is typically written “G-d.”  Not only is this practice out of step with the meaning of the commandment, it also smacks of superstition.

20:8-11 – The gift of Sabbath is bestowed in the covenant framework.  The pattern of six periods of work followed by a period of rest is established in the rhythm of the creative work of Yahweh in the creation poem of Genesis 1.  Wells explains that this is totally unique in the context of the ANE (232-33).  The rest that was denied to the Israelites in Egypt is now gifted to them by their new Suzerain as an act of grace.

While most of the commands follow a negative formulation, the implementation of the Sabbath is formulated positively.  The primary concern is the positive act of keeping the Sabbath holy.  Childs notes that, “the major thrust of the command falls on the verb ‘to hallow’” indicating that honoring the holiness of the day is the incentive for desisting from labor (415).  Nonetheless, it would seem the real overarching principle behind this command is the emulation of God Himself as the people are called to image His behavior (Carpenter 801).

The Israelites have congregated at the foot of the mountain, which has been demarcated as holy space.  Now we see that holy time intersects with holy space.  Carpenter explains that “The ultimate rest for God’s people is realized when his presence dwells among them.”  This will happen in history as God’s presence comes to rest upon the tabernacle, and later in the temple, but preeminently in the eschaton (801).

20:12 – The directive to honor one’s father and mother is the second command to follow the positive formulation.  Honoring one’s father and mother likely should be understood as caring for one’s aging parents.  This commandment also has the promise of blessing for those who would keep it.  While Wells sees this as primarily a natural sociological outworking (233), the immediate context rather seems to indicate supernatural blessing.  This seems to be Paul’s understanding in the haustafeln in Ephesians (Eph 6:2-3).

Childs also observes that this command is frequently interpreted to mean that parents function as “visible representatives of God” in the household (419).  There is biblical warrant for this understanding based on the etymology of the Hebrew verb “honor” (כַּבֵּ֥ד).  This word has a significant semantic range, which includes concepts such as “make heavy” and “glorify,” and it is frequently used in Scripture with God as the object.  Consequently, children are to honor and reverence their parents as they honor and reverence God.

Carpenter also explains that the command to honor one’s parents after they have ceased to be productive from a socio-economic perspective makes “an important social and ethical assertion” by establishing the fact that one’s value in God’s society is not relative to one’s productivity (804).  Since the family unit is the fabric of society, establishing such principles creates a social structure that is healthy and stable.  Moreover, one’s attitudes toward God are exemplified in the way one treats those who are made in His image, especially the weaker or disadvantaged members of society.

20:13 – Murder was prohibited in virtually all human societies.  In Genesis we find that the prohibition against murder is preeminently based on the fact that human beings are made in God’s image (Ge 9:6).  This command deals specifically with voluntary homicide and does not include other types of killing (e.g., acts of self-defense, acts of war, capital punishment, etc.).  While other law codes in the ANE exhibit a stratification of justice based on the social standing of the parties involved, this is not so in biblical law.  All people are of equal standing and value before God because all are made in His image.

20:14 – Contrary to the contemporary understanding of adultery, adultery in this context refers to the act of a man having sexual relations with a woman who was the wife of another.  Stamm and Andrew explain that, according to the Hebrew idiom, “the man can only commit adultery against a marriage other than his own, the woman only against her own” (qtd. in Childs 422).

Deuteronomy would later expand the legal corpus related to the act of adultery, and Ancient Near Eastern law commonly addressed the issue.  A case in point is law #4 of the Laws of Ur-Nammu, “If the wife of a man, by employing her charms, followed after another man and he slept with her, they [i.e., the authorities] shall slay that woman, but the male [i.e., the other man] shall be set free” (Pritchard 524).  Deuteronomy, however places equal culpability on both adulterer and adulteress, prescribing capital punishment for both parties (Dt 22:22), a far more just and equitable solution, especially given the social standing of women in the male dominated, patriarchal societies of the ancient Near East.

Adultery was essentially a crime against the family that, like failure to honor one’s parents, had the potential of disrupting the stability of the society.  As Wells points out, one’s sons were the heirs of one’s estate.  Consequently, the ability to determine one’s legitimate offspring was critical (235).

20:15 – As with murder, theft is universally prohibited in virtually all human societies.  The verb in question (גנב) connotes an element of stealth but also can mean to “rob” or “deceive” (Holladay and Köhler 63) and likely included misappropriation, embezzlement, and the unfaithful disposal of a bailment (Wells 235).  Carpenter explains that this prohibition, is essentially grounded in God’s character and in the nature of His creation (808).

20:16 – To give false testimony is essentially a forensic issue which would result in wrongful prosecution (Wells 236).  Interestingly, here we find more threads linking back to creation as we find the serpent giving false testimony about God.  Of course, this was not yet a forensic scenario, however, the serpent deceived Eve by giving false testimony about the character of God.  The scene would quickly turn to a judicial setting, however, as God began to interrogate Adam and pronounced His judgment upon the man, the woman and the serpent regarding the sin that had been committed.  Adam would also attempt to mitigate his culpability in the situation by blame-casting (Ge 3).

Again we find the motivation behind this command being the reflection of God’s character.  God is the source of truth and it is impossible for Him to lie (Heb 6:18).  A society that reflects the image and character of God must be marked by honest speech and faithful testimony.

20:17 – The prior commands have chiefly dealt with physical manifestations of sin, but with the tenth commandment God moves from specific external manifestations of sin to the inward attitudes of the heart that supply sinful motive.  It is interesting to note that many of the prohibitions against improper human relations (e.g., adultery, theft, murder) would be avoided by guarding the heart against covetousness.  Additionally, coveting God’s position was at the root of the sin in the Garden.  In fact, the precursor to idolatry could be found in the coveting of a religious experience that is new or different from what Yahweh supplies.

While most of the items explicitly listed in the command against coveting are either persons (wife, servants) or animals (which may also be viewed as means of economic production), the one item that on the surface would appear to be a possession, your neighbor’s house, may in fact be a reference to his household/family (Carpenter 811).  While the prohibition of coveting extends to “anything that is your neighbor’s,” from the itemization it would appear that there may have been an emphasis on the coveting of relationships.

20:18-19 – The theophany was indeed an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold.  While the seismic and meteorological phenomena were frightening in themselves, it was the voice of God that was most fearful.  The people were terror-stricken by this encounter with God and requested that such an experience not be repeated.  Instead, they would have Moses serve as their mediator.  Hence, one of God’s purposes in the theophany was brought to fruition: that the people would believe Moses forever (Ex 19:9).

20:20 – Moses explains that the fear of God is a healthy thing designed to keep the people from sinning against Him.  There seems to be a play on words here as Moses tells the people, “Do not fear,” but then immediately proceeds to tell the people that God has come for the express purpose of testing them, “that the fear of him may be before” them.  While this may seem paradoxical in common English usage, it would appear that the author is using two different nuances for the Hebrew word ירא.  The first use relates to the subjective emotion of terror while the second relates to reverence.  It is this second usage that the wisdom literature calls its readers to, as the fear (ירא) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10).  Childs explains that, “The fear of God is not a subjective emotion of terror, but the obedience of God’s Law.  The glory and holiness of God calls forth man’s fear (cf. Isa. 6), but the end is not the emotion, rather the deed” (373).

20:21 – That God, who is typically associated with light in Scripture, would be present in the “thick darkness” presents another apparent paradox.  The darkness would remind the people of the 9th plague in Egypt (Carpenter 827), but would also harken back to creation once again where darkness was over the face of the deep, but God’s Spirit was present there, hovering over the face of the waters (Ge 1:2).  Moses alone draws near, and it is from within this darkness that he would receive the balance of the stipulations that would be referred to as the book of the covenant (Ex 20:22-23:33).

Echoes in the New Testament

The New Testament is replete with examples of allusion to the sequence of events in Exodus 19 and 20, but due to space we will focus on three such occurrences: 1Peter, Hebrews, and Galatians.  First of all, Peter brings Exodus 19:5-6 crashing into the New Testament in a completely new light as he applies it to the new Israel: the church.  As ancient Israel was to serve as a kingdom of priests and a people marked by holiness, so the church must do so today, endeavoring not to neglect the role of mediator to the nations.  What makes Peter’s appropriation of this text even more profound is that the epistle is likely addressed to a primarily Gentile audience.  While Peter’s Jewish contemporaries would have viewed God’s election and the events at Sinai in an ethnocentric way, Peter applies the entire event to the New Testament church, which was ethnically diverse.

The book of Hebrews is filled with explicit reference as well as allusion to the events at Sinai.  Here we will focus our attention on two occurring in the eighth and twelfth chapters.  In the eighth chapter, the author explains that the covenant made at Sinai has been replaced by a new and better covenant, with a new and better mediator: Jesus.  The covenant that supersedes Sinai is the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34, which the author explicitly cites.  The new covenant would deliver what the old was powerless to do, it would be written on the hearts of God’s people, hearts that were liberated from bondage to sin, hearts that not only knew the will of God but also had the power to do it (Bruce 190).

The twelfth chapter (vv. 18 ff.) also contains an explicit reference to Sinai and specifically to the terrifying events of the theophany.  The historical events of the Exodus are used in the apostolic era as models or parables of the Christian experience, both individually and corporately (Bruce 355).  Here the author invokes the graphic imagery of the Sinai theophany in his paraenesis to an audience of Christians who stand on the brink of apostasy, the main point being that to reject the gospel is to incur judgment from God that is more swift and terrible than disobedience to the Sinaitic covenant.  The author proceeds to cite Haggai 2:6 as he makes a connection with the shaking/trembling of the mountain at Sinai and interprets the prophecy in eschatological terms with a final warning that we approach God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (12:28).

Finally, we will consider Paul’s use of the Sinai experience in the fourth chapter of Galatians where fascinatingly, Paul interprets the Exodus text allegorically.  Sinai he relates to Hagar, which corresponds to the Jews who reject Christ and consequently continue in slavery under the old covenant.  Sarah, on the other hand, he relates to the heavenly Jerusalem which corresponds to the church and freedom from the Law (Gal 4:21-31).  This interpretation, of course, would have been incomprehensible for an unbelieving Jew, but it served Paul’s purpose very well as he was writing polemically against Judaizers to a Gentile audience.

Biblical Theology

It has long been observed that before the fall, the Garden of Eden served as a sanctuary (Dumbrell 57-61), and that creation itself functions as a cosmic temple (Walton 78-86).  What seems to be less obvious, or at least has garnered less scholarly attention, is that the Sinai experience of Exodus 19 – 20:21 has numerous tabernacle/temple parallels and may be seen as a foreshadowing of the later cultic practices of Judaism.

Several of these parallels can be easily identified: 1) The mountain is sealed off and protected as holy space and the presence of God resides there in a special and unique way, which is analogous to the later tabernacle/temple;  2) Moses alone goes up to the mountain and enters the thick cloud (functioning as the sanctum sanctorum), which is analogous to the entry of the holy of holies by high priest;  3) People are required to be consecrated before approaching God at the mountain which is analogous to the later consecration of priests as well as the consecration of implements used in the cultic practice; 4) The cloud rests on the mountain at Sinai, indicating the presence of Yahweh, as it would later come to rest on the tabernacle signifying the presence and glory of God (Ex 40:34 ff.); 5) The theophany in Exodus 19 is accompanied by the blowing of the trumpet, which is analogous to the later establishment of the feast of trumpets (Lev 23:23-25).  Other parallels no doubt exist, but this should be sufficient to establish at least a prima facie case that there is a strong likelihood that the events of Sinai served as a foreshadowing (or perhaps a model) of the development of later cultic practices.

Gowan, who clearly continues to be influenced by Wellhausen, suggests that, “Sinai may have been from the beginning… less a part of history and more a part of worship than the other traditional materials used in the Pentateuch” (174).  He arrives at this position because he believes the composition of the passage is based on a later redactor’s piecing together of liturgical fragments to create the account.  While Gowan seems to pick up on the cultic themes, his explanation is anachronistic at best and is more rooted in an attempt to defend the documentary hypothesis than to develop sound biblical theology.

It is also quite obvious that the creation account of Genesis 1-3 continues to echo throughout the book of Exodus.  In fact, creation (and subsequent re-creation) seems to be a foundational leitmotif not just of the book of Exodus, but indeed of the entire canon.  Part and parcel of this overarching creation theme is the complimentary theme of the restoration of the imago Dei.  God created a world and a people that was good, however, through the sin of Adam and Eve, humanity and the entire created order became infected and debased.  In the passage we have considered in this study, God is in the process of setting things right; redeeming a fallen people, taking them to Himself as a special possession, giving them the moral and ethical instructions that reestablish what it means to be made in the image of God, and assigning them a priestly vocation to live their lives before the nations in a manner that will bring glory and honor to Yahweh.

As fascinating as this theology is from a historical perspective, it is even more profound when we realize that the opportunity to encounter God and receive His law is not something that was simply fixed in a certain point of history, but is indeed available to each of us today.  In fact, the events of the Exodus provide a powerful matrix through which we see the progression of heilsgeschichte in the church age.   In other words, God is still in the redemption business, setting His people free from the oppression of sin, calling them into a new covenant relationship, and conforming them into the image of His Son, who is the perfect restoration of the imago Dei.


If Exodus is the highpoint of Old Testament theology, the theophany and covenant of Sinai is surely its apex.  No other event, not even the events surrounding the exile, has etched such an indelible impression upon Jewish theology and identity.  While God established various covenants with His people throughout history, the Sinaitic covenant is certainly viewed as the covenant.  That God would bind Himself into a covenant relationship with fallen human beings is a profound testimony to His love, grace, and faithfulness, and stands in stark contrast with the multifarious conceptions of “gods,” not only in the Ancient Near East, but also throughout the contemporary modern world.

What was begun at Sinai, was reiterated in the establishment of the New Covenant through Jesus Christ, and awaits its final culmination in the eschaton.  In the mean time, we live in the tension between the “already” and the “not-yet” aspects of the kingdom, and Moses’ words ring just as true today as the day he spoke them to his original audience, “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?  And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deut 4:7-8).

It remains for Christians today to function as God’s kingdom of priests and as a holy nation; not in some ill-conceived geopolitical manifestation, but as a people within a people, being called out to live their lives before the world in a way that displays knowledge of God and brings Him honor and glory, for as Hafemann put it, “the purpose of theology is doxology” (21).

Works Cited

Brown, Francis, and S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and     English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Peabody:     Hendrickson, 1906.

Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

Carpenter, Eugene. Exodus: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Ms.

Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus. Louisville: Westminster Press, 1974.

Davies, John A. A Royal Priesthood: Literary and Intertextual Perspectives on an Image of

Israel in Exodus 19.6. New York: T&T Clark International, 2004.

Dumbrell, Scott. “Genesis 2:1-17:A Foreshadowing of the New Creation.” Biblical Theology:

Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Scott J. Hafemann. Downers Grove: InterVarsity

Press, 2002, 53-65.

Gowan, Donald E. Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary.

Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994.

Hafemann, Scott J. “The Covenant Relationship.” Central Themes in Biblical Theology:

Mapping Unity in Diversity. Eds. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House.Grand Rapids:

InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Holladay, William Lee, and Ludwig Köhler, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic

Lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill, 1971.

Houtman, Alberdina. “A Shocking Event: Targumic reference to the theophany on Mount

Sinai.”  The Interpretation of Exodus: Studies in Honor of Cornelius Houtman. Leuven:

Peeters, 2006.

Isbell, Charles David. The Function of Exodus Motifs in Biblical Narratives: Theological

Didactic Drama. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.

Longman, Tremper III. How to Read Exodus. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Pritchard, James B., ed.  The Ancient Near East Vol I: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures.          Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Walton, John H. ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary. Vol. 1. Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

2 thoughts on “Theophany and Covenant: Exodus 19:1 – 20:21

  1. Sir,

    This is a fantastic study! Thank you very much for blessing us & others with your effort. Bless you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.