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. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.” So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.” (Exodus 20: 15-18)
In this column, I want to engage in what Reynolds Price once referred to as “a serious way of wondering” about Exodus 20: 15-18—i.e., the moment at which the Israelites experience the divine self-revelation at the foot of Mount Sinai. Normally, this passage is understood as a theophanic event. To the extent that it involves the constitution of a nation or polity, it has usually been seen as giving rise to a theocracy. Its intellectual expression (insofar as it addresses the issue of covenantal authority grounded in divine self-revelation) would therefore take the form of a political theology. To the extent that we read the above passage in this way, we have already rendered a decision—the essential significance of the passage would lie in the divine self-revelation. The fear which the Israelites experienced would amount simply and solely to a fear of God. Conversely, an acceptance of the commandments would amount to an acceptance of the political theology underlying the theocracy.
We cannot know what went through the minds of the Israelites as they stood trembling before the natural manifestations of a supernatural communication. We may not be able to know anything at all about millennia-old events the accounts which lack the ‘scientific’ status we tend to either desire or assume for them. But if the medieval “principle of accommodation” holds—according to which the Hebrew Bible speaks the language of humans (differently, we might add, in different ages)—then our approach changes; no longer is it simply a matter of knowing the experience of the Israelites themselves; rather, we want to know what this account can teach us. As luck would have it, our changed approach exhibits a similarity to the Israelites who, when directly confronted by the event, chose the mediate path of communication with Moses. In addition to our formal similarity, the use of classical commentators will aid our wondering. In this changed context, I wish to raise the following thesis: Exodus 20:15-18 does not illustrate a theophanic political theology as much as it addresses the theological-political problem concerning the legitimation of (as well as our ambivalences towards) law.
We begin at the beginning of the passage. The Israelites witnessed thunder, lightning, the horn, and the mountain smoking. Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) raises the provocative question as to why God “speaks” in the form of natural phenomena rather than through his own voice? Despite the anthropomorphic language of the Hebrew Bible, the medieval rationalist tradition of commentary extends the Biblical ban on graven images to all representations of divinity. Thus, we might answer Abarbanel as follows: we can know nothing about the essence of God–save, perhaps, his absolute unity and transcendence–thus, the question is ill formed ( it is not so ill formed, however, to prevent Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), given his identification of God and nature, from discussing our passage in purely this-worldly terms). Rashi (1040-1105), in keeping with the Midrashic Rabbis, notes simply that the witnessing of the event implies that the Israelites were not blind. Maimonides (1135-1204) qualifies Rashi’s statement (while changing the sense employed by the Israelites): by virtue of the aforementioned iconoclastic reading of the Hebrew Bible, Maimonides holds that Israelites heard the derivative “created voice” from which the divine self-revelation could be understood; such understanding differed according to the capacity of the hearer; ultimately then, for Maimonides, the passage shows that the Israelites were a full rank below Moses concerning intellectual apprehension of divinity. But the question of ‘sense’ remains for those commentators who assume that our passage ultimately refers solely to the reality of God: how could the Israelites ‘see’ thunder and the blare of the horn? In a manner bespeaking more his Kantian underpinnings than the tradition to which he sought to belong, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) holds that only sight and hearing together can fix the exact point (or place) from which the call of revelation emanates. The mystical text Zohar paradoxically exhibits an affinity with the rationalist Maimonides in holding that (by virtue of the synesthetic intertwining of sight and hearing) the Israelites saw what later figures (even Ezekiel!) did not. From this, we can glean that there is widespread disagreement about how to understand the theophanic moment of divine self-revelation other than that (from the point of view of human cognition) it is shrouded in obscurity both concerning the event and the Israelites access to it.
That this obscurity would lead to a reaction of fear is easy enough to understand—the Israelites “fell back” and remained “at a distance”. The commentators even disagree about how to understand these phrases. For Rashi, the falling back of the Israelites means that they “trembled” in the moment of divine disclosure. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) flatly disagrees, arguing that such a reading cannot be reconciled with the distancing movement of the Israelite audience. Rashi counters by holding that the fear in the face of God produced, in the Israelites, both trembling and a startled retreat backwards (12 miles for each commandment given). As a result, the Israelites implored Moses to act as a mediator between themselves and God “lest we die”. Abarbanel’s question as to the natural form of the revelation becomes pertinent here. It is surely normal to become afraid of thunder and lightning—let alone a volcanic eruption. Nachmanides (1195-1270) seems to be in line with this view when he holds that the fear of death was due to the physical pain resulting from the revelation. Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), in good Talmudic fashion, presents the point as a kal va’homer (an a fortiori argument): if the Israelites were afraid of nature, how much more afraid were they of the divine! In a sense, cloaking the revelation in natural form might both (1) allow easier access to the event and (2) stave off as much fright as possible. Moses’ answer to the Israelites adopts the character of explanation: Worry not! God is simply testing you so that you do not stray from the right path. Given the above disagreements, it will come as no surprise that our commentators vary on the phrase “to test” the Israelites: For Rashi, it means to uplift them and to give them a great reputation in the eyes of the other nations. Nahmanides and Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550) disagree: “to test” means to make accustomed to having faith in the divinity. Samuel ben Meir (1085-1174) provides the most pessimistic (if least-unexpected) explanation: “to test” means simply to see whether the Israelites will remain true to their word and obey God’s commands.
With Spinoza, we make a new beginning; it is through the lens of his thought that we glimpse the worldly, political aspect of this event. What interests Spinoza is the fact that the Israelites (as a result of their fear of the divine self-revelation/natural catastrophe) transfered their equal right of representation before God to Moses. In so doing, they transformed a democratic form of government (recall that while God issues commands, humans are still in charge of applying them) to a kingship (of Moses) that eventually develops into theocracy (with the priestly class being the Levites). The fear of the Israelites was so overwhelming, so all-encompassing, that it led them to willingly adopt a subordinate position to Moses. We are compelled to wonder why this is so. Why, given their exposure to Egyptian religion as well as their impatient desire for divine intervention that led to the building of the Golden Calf, did the Israelites all of a sudden express fear in the face of the God of the Hebrew Bible? At the very moment when the Israelites gained freedom from their Egyptian captors, they compromised it out of fear in the face of the One who set them free?
Unclarity surrounds the divine self-revelation—Is it God? Is it Nature? Are the Israelites hearing the event? Are they seeing it? We might put the point thus: the origin of the constitution of the Israelites as a people is shrouded in obscurity—this to the extent that the finest commentators in the Jewish tradition cannot agree on basic points of the narrative. If we recall, however, that Exodus 20: 15-18 is buttressed between two discussions of law (first, God’s articulation of the Decalogue; second, God’s re-articulation of the ban on idolatry as well as a discussion of sacrifices), we begin to wonder whether the Israelites’ ‘object’ of fear was not God (who, in any case, would be beyond human comprehension) but rather, the Law. What is it about ‘law’ that provokes fear and anxiety? In a sense, ‘law’ is even more ephemeral than (our depictions of) God; aside from single-mindedly literalist approaches, when humans attempt to pictorialize or discourse about God there is always some understanding that the task is impossible. Hence, the images and accounts we give of God always (for better or worse) contain something of an ironic ‘wink’. Not so with ‘law’. Laws are simply and solely general or universal ideas, having no existence in the material world of particulars until the moment of application. Once applied, they threaten to become as concrete and as horrific as any of Kafka’s nightmare scenarios. It is one thing to dwell with the idea that God punishes as a result of transgression. It is another thing altogether to have that transgressed law punitively tattooed on one’s back (as Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” depicts). With God, we learn the sublimity of the cosmos; law is learned by means of the fragility of our bodies.
I do not mean to suggest that law, in fact, ushers in such doomsday scenarios. We also realize that law is necessary (and even productive) when it comes to providing structure for societies and the individuals who live therein. But even here we face anxiety: in representative democracies, we desire the power to make laws, but not the responsibility that comes with it. This flight from responsibility is what sustains the need for congressional or parliamentary representatives. Moses was, in this respect, one of the first elected officials. Perhaps we worry about this responsibility because we realize that human laws are fallible. Perhaps we would rather have someone else’s fallibility come to light than our own. Then again, we might be utterly sure that our laws are correct—but upon being confronted by the question as to what legitimates these laws, we are soberly returned to their obscure origins. God speaks (but does God speak?) these laws in the form of thunder, lightning, horns, and volcanic eruptions. This is divine legitimation? Paradoxes abound.
Exodus 20: 15-18 provides an optic for readers to glance at the theological-political problem of law and perhaps to better understand the fear and anxiety that accompanies it. This problem can be summarized in the following way. If applied laws are ultimately as corporeal as humans, we would rather offer up another person’s corpse in the service of legal creation and application. If laws can only be absolutely legitimate when referred back to an absolute source, we must find a way to wrest that source out of its original obscurity. We as yet see no alternative other than to imagine this absolute ground of legal legitimation in the form of a divine being (or even persona). It is ultimately easier to pictorialize law as God than to pictorialize God as law. If the Hebrew Bible ultimately attempts the former, it contains a political theology of the highest order. If it attempts the latter, it gives voice to one simple concern: Let not the Law speak to us, lest we die. It is a concern that we continuously strive to endure.
Jeffrey A. Bernstein is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. He works in the areas of Spinoza, German philosophy, and Jewish thought.