Exodus - Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments

7: What if… Mount Sinai was a volcano?
Exodus 19:16-25. The mountain does have lots of the characteristics of a volcano and we know God has control over nature.
1. fire (Deuteronomy 4:11, Exodus 19:18)
2. explosions, thunder (Exodus 19:16)
3. trumpets (a real but lesser known sound effect due to expanding gasses) (Exodus 19:19)
4. lightening (Exodus 19:16)
5. earthquakes (Exodus 19:18)
6. smoke and clouds over the summit (Exodus 19:16,18)
7. lava (Judges 5:5 mentions even Sinai melting before the Lord).
Deuteronomy 1:2 gives more information about the location and Colin Humphreys’ book explains many reasons why Mount Sinai might in fact be Mount Bedr, in Arabia. A large pasture at its base would provide good camping and the river would allow the Israelites to wash their clothes (Exodus 19:10). A tradition that no one should touch the mountain is preserved by the Bedouin to this day (19:11).

What if… Moses went up the mountain several times?
It’s not clear how far up the mountain Moses initially went. In Exodus 19:3 he may have just gone to the place where he first spoke with God, when he saw the burning bush. He goes back down to the people and climbs the mountain again several more times during the story.

What if… the mountain got more scary?
Moses goes back down the mountain to talk to the elders and the people, and warns them that the mountain is going to become more spectacular and dangerous. In Exodus 19:12 he forbids the people to even touch the mountain—presumably they are currently staying on the table-land where it’s safe.

By Exodus 19:18-22 the description of the mountain has become far more exciting, but for some reason the people still want to force their way up to God. Perhaps they think He’ll protect them even if they disobey, but God protects them by sending Moses back down to remind them to follow his rules. God’s rules provide for our safety.

Moses seems to assume God will stop the people from following him (Exodus 19:23) but God makes it his job. How often does God tell us what to do only to have us respond that we know better?

What if… the Ten commandments weren’t written on stone tablets?
Moses receives the commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 but there’s no mention of stone tablets at this point. He and Aaron return to the people in 20:18-21, then Moses approaches the “thick darkness” alone to hear more from God. Perhaps the mountain is growing smokier now.

What if… the Laws and Promises were part of achieving God’s purpose?
After laying out laws to govern the social and religious life of his people, God promises to send his “angel”(Exodus 23:20-33) to lead them to the Promised Land. The land’s current occupants will be driven out or destroyed over a period of time—long enough so the land won’t be left desolate while waiting for the Israelites to fill it, and long enough also for many inhabitants to be assimilated into God’s people. (1 Chronicles 4:18 mentions Pharaoh’s daughter living with the Israelites so it’s clearly okay for unbelievers to convert into believers and live among them.)

In Exodus 33:12-14 God’s presence travels with his people. Perhaps the angel is another word for God’s presence, maybe a personification of His physical protection, which will keep the land healthy by delaying full occupation, while His spiritual protection will be ensured by separation from unbelievers.

What if… Moses wrote things down before God did?
By Exodus 24:1-11 Moses has written down everything God has told him in the “Book of the Covenant” and read it to the people. The people promise to obey God. Then Moses and the seventy elders (seven times ten—symbolic with 7 representing God’s plan and 10 representing man) climb the mountain and “see” the Lord. Tablets of stone are not mentioned until verse 12.

What if… the people were justifiably scared?
In Exodus 24:12-18 Moses goes back up the mountain, this time with Joshua. (Joshua will later be the new leader of God’s people. Some commentators suggest his presence on the mountain is a later addition made to show he didn’t take part in sacrificing to the golden calf.)

On the 7th day (7 for God’s plan), God speaks to Moses. The mountain looks particularly scary at this point, and Moses disappears for 40 days and 40 nights (another symbolic number—same as the length of the flood—which might just mean a long time). It’s not too surprising that the people become afraid that he won’t return. If there has been any doubt about whose mountain this really is, they might imagine that Sin has defeated their God and taken Moses away.

Moses meanwhile is listening while God gives very detailed and lengthy directions for building the ark and the tabernacle, making priests’ vestments, etc. Perhaps it was these rules rather than the 10 commandments that were written on stone tablets.

What if… worshipping the Golden Calf felt like the right thing to do?
Moses comes back down the mountain in Exodus 32:1-35 to find the people worshipping a golden calf. He breaks the stone tablets and grinds the calf to dust, making the people drink it in their water.
Why do the Israelites turn against God? They had only just promised (40 days ago) to obey God. But maybe they became afraid that the original god of the mountain had won when Moses didn’t return.
Why did they worship a calf? The calf was one of the symbols of the moon god Sin. Maybe they thought he had defeated their God and they wanted to placate him. Alternatively, the calf may just have been a god-statue that they brought with them from Egypt.
Was the calf really gold? If the calf was an Egyptian statue, it was probably wood plated with gold. If Aaron made it, it may have been solid gold, made from melted jewelry. It’s possible that when Aaron says he threw the jewelry in the fire and “out came this calf” (verse 24) he imagined the calf-shape of the lump to be a sign from God. Sometimes we look for signs in all the wrong places.
Was God really going to destroy the people? If God knows that Moses will argue for the people, perhaps He’s just encouraging Moses to think through all the issues. Note, Joshua is not described as arguing with God. He seems to be further down the mountain at this point and doesn’t know what all the noise is about.
Why do the Levites kill their neighbors? If there were 20,000 Israelites, the Levites can’t have killed all their neighbors. Probably they just killed the instigators of the rebellion. God’s preparation of His people includes the removal of those who choose to mix other gods into their worship.
Where does the plague come from? Maybe they suffered heavy metal poisoning from water mixed with the powdered calf. In Exodus 32:34 God says he will deal out punishment, not man.


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