OT Bible Study #15: The First Meeting of God at Sinai

OT Bible Study #15
The First Meeting with God at Mt. Sinai

Make the pure light of Your divine knowledge shine in our hearts, Loving Master, and open the eyes of our minds that we may understand the message of Your Gospel. Instill also in us reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that overcoming all worldly desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, both thinking and doing all things pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the Light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give the glory, together with Your Father, without beginning, and Your All Holy, Good, and Life- Creating Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.  (2 Corinthians 6:6; Ephesians 1:18; 2 Peter 2:11)

Review. Jethro schooled his son-in-law on leadership and delegation (Exodus 18).

More on Leadership. Moses’ guidance to his leaders (from the Deuteronomy account of Exodus 18);

And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien that is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of man, for the judgment is God’s; and the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it. (Deuteronomy 1:16-17).

This guidance is part of our own Christian Canon Law;  Do not desire any schism, but make peace among those who fight. Judge justly, and do not show favor to anyone in correcting offenses. Do not waver whether a thing shall or shall not be. (Didache; Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. 4.3–4).

On the Fifty Days after the Passover (Pentecost!)

Pentecost is the Greek name of the festival which occurred fifty days after the Passover feast (Leviticus 23:16; Tobit 2:1; 2 Maccabees 12:32). In the Old Testament it is also called the “Feast of the Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), the “Feast of Weeks” Deuteronomy 16:10; 2 Chronicles 8:13), and the “Day of First Fruits” (Numbers 28:26). This makes it easy to get confused with other similarly named feasts such as the seventh day of Passover and the end of the fruit harvest (see Leviticus. 23:36, Numbers 29:35, Deuteronomy 16:8). It remained a popular festival (e.g. Acts 2:5). It celebrated the end of the wheat harvest and, most especially, the giving of the Law at Mt.Sinai.

St. Augustine: The fifty-day period is also praised in Scripture, not only in the Gospel, because the Holy Spirit came on the fiftieth day, but even in the Old Testament. Therein fifty days are numbered from the celebration of the pasch by the killing of a lamb to the day on which the law was given on Mt. Sinai to the servant of God, Moses.

Read Exodus 19:1-25. Some observations:

  • Exodus 19:1. How is it that 50 days ends up being “in the third month”? (St. Augustine; end of one month, full month, third day of third month; this really is the way counting was done… the resurrection on the third day is not a math trick!)

  • Exodus 19:5-6. Now read 1 Peter 2:9. St. Bede; The apostle Peter now rightly gives to the Gentiles this attestation of praise which formerly was given by Moses to the ancient people of God, because they believed in Christ, who like a cornerstone brought the Gentiles into that salvation which Israel had had for itself. He calls them “a chosen race” on account of their faith, that he may distinguish them from those who by rejecting the living stone have themselves become rejected. They are “a royal priesthood,”however, because they have been joined to his body who is their real king and true priest, who as king grants to his own a kingdom and as their high priest cleanses them of their sins by the sacrificial victim of his own blood. He names them “a royal priesthood” that they may remember both to hope for an eternal kingdom and always to offer to God the sacrifices of a stainless way of life.
    How is this royal priesthood and holy nation different from that described in Exodus?

  • Exodus 19:10-13. Notice the contrast between God and the people and how they are to prepare to be (almost!) in His presence. Here is how St. Gregory Nanzanius applies this to us;
    But if any is an evil and savage beast and altogether incapable of taking in the subject matter of contemplation and theology, let him not hurtfully and malignantly lurk in his den among the woods, to catch hold of some dogma or saying by a sudden spring and to tear sound doctrine to pieces by his misrepresentations. But let him stand yet afar off and withdraw from the mount, or he shall be stoned and crushed and shall perish miserably in his wickedness.

  • Exodus 19:20. Why are so few allowed onto the mountain? St Bede allows each to perceive according to his abilities (and preparation); Moses alone ascended to its very top, where the divine majesty shone forth in fire and a dark cloud. Only the more perfect know how to grasp and observe the deeper and most secret mysteries of the law; the carnal-minded people, content with the external aspects of the letter, and gathered apart, as it were, and below, stood to hear the words from heaven.

From St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses.

Since Moses was alone, by having been stripped as it were of the people’s fear, he boldly approached the very darkness itself and entered the invisible things where he was no longer seen by those watching. After he entered the inner sanctuary of the divine mystical doctrine, there, while not being seen, he was in company with the Invisible. He teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and (lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible) believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach. (B1:46).

The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb—the majority of people scarcely reach its base. If one were a Moses, he would ascend higher and hear the sound of trumpets which, as the text of the history says, becomes louder as one advances. For the preaching of the divine nature is truly a trumpet blast, which strikes the hearing, being already loud at the beginning but becoming yet louder at the end. (B2:158).

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the Divine was beheld in light but now he is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. Scripture teaches by this that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light. Therefore what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness, and the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in light. But as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly what of the divine nature is uncontemplated. (B2:162)

163. For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. (B2:163) [MYSTERY!]


Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Gregory of Nyssa. (1978). Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses. (R. J. Payne, Ed., A. J. Malherbe & E. Ferguson, Trans.). New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

NEXT WEEK: The Ten Commandments.

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