From Egypt to Sinai Exodus 16–20 and 24

This chapter focuses on events beginning immediately after the Israelites crossed the sea through the early stages of their settlement in Sinai. The narrative begins with a summary of their journey, the so-called itineraries, and a discussion of miraculous occurrences that took place during the journey, including the appearance of manna and of water from the rock at Rephidim. Most importantly, the Israelites arrive at Sinai three months after the Exodus began. The lengthy stopover at Sinai is critical since it is here that God makes a revelation to Israel.

            After the Israelites arrive in Sinai, the narrative describes many instances where Moses climbs to the top of God’s mountain to be in the presence of God. The number of trips up the mountain is probably greatly increased because different sources that discuss this important series of events were combined and preserved by the editors. Also, much of Exodus 19–24 includes the presentation of God’s laws to Israel. Most notable among these are the Ten Commandments, delivered in Exodus 20, and a series of other legal directives, in chapters 21–23.


Covenants are extremely important in the Bible. The P source especially stresses the importance of covenant, as its narratives center around the covenants between God and Noah, God and Abraham, and, finally, God and Israel. The word “covenant” (Hebrew berît) itself is a legal term that generally means contract or mutual agreement. In the Bible the term berît is used for marriage contracts, slavery, solemn friendships, and treaties. This final example is especially important since the treaty form is well attested in Near Eastern cultures. Moreover, such parallel texts are particularly illuminating for the study of covenant language and covenant forms in the Bible.

            Specifically, the suzerainty treaty, which is an agreement between a superior power and a lesser one, is most instructive. Many survive from throughout the ancient Near East, and the Hittite treaty form is especially useful. These suzerainty treaties follow a basic pattern that usually includes (1) the identity of the suzerain, (2) the history of the relationship between the parties, (3) the obligations placed on the vassal, (4) the deposit of copies of the treaty into the temples of the gods, (5) the divine witnesses to the treaty, and (6) a series of blessings if the treaty is fulfilled and curses if it is not.

            This breakdown of the suzerainty treaty form is important to biblical studies because many of these same themes appear in biblical passages that discuss covenant. While no single passage in the Bible incorporates all of these elements, the overall evidence shows that the writers of the Bible used treaty language as a means of characterizing the relationship between God and Israel. What is innovative is that Israel was the only Near Eastern culture to describe its relationship with the divine in this manner.

            The treaty provides not only an important “form” for the origins of covenant passages in the Bible but also insights into the vocabulary used. Specifically, the relationship between a suzerain and a vassal is often described in father-son language, which is often used to describe the relationship between God and Israel. In addition, in treaties the parties are often expected to “love” and “know” one another. This phrasing is also used in marriage contracts, in which the couple is expected to follow these same directives. In biblical covenant language, God is often referred to as the husband and Israel as the wife. Therefore, the covenant between Israel and God functions on several levels. God is not only the other party in the covenant but is also the suzerain, the father, and the husband. Furthermore, as with any contract, a covenant requires that both parties fulfill their obligations. Since Yahweh delivered the Israelites from Egypt and he chose to know them among all other nations, Israel was in a unique position, which required it to both love and know God in return.

The Ten Commandments

After God appears on the mountain, he speaks to the Israelites and reveals the Ten Commandments to them. This important set of laws appears for the first time in Exodus 20.2–17 but is repeated in Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5. While the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 versions are quite similar, there are a few differences in Deuteronomy, including the motivation for the sabbath and the separation of the coveting of the neighbor’s wife and property into two commandments instead of one. Yet another version of the Decalogue is found in Exodus 34 as a part of the golden calf episode. This inclusion of three versions of the Ten Commandments is another example of the preservation of variant traditions by the editors of the Pentateuch.

            Although the Decalogue had several variants and was edited by P in its final form, evidence from the Old Testament indicates that the traditions for the Ten Commandments are quite old. In particular, references to it are made in the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, which date to the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, respectively. In addition, the Decalogue text itself seems to imply antiquity, since it presumes an agrarian society that is apparently not yet organized under a monarchy.

            As we have seen previously in this chapter, the suzerainty treaty form influenced covenant phraseology in the Bible. Likewise, the form of the Ten Commandments parallels that of a treaty as well. These include the identification of God as the suzerain and the list of commandments that may be understood as stipulations to the treaty. While there are no divine witnesses or blessings or curses, there may be some echo of this latter component in the second commandment, in which God explains the conditions that will prompt divine punishment or steadfast love.

            The specific meaning and audience for the Ten Commandments are rather limited in their original context. They were addressed to the Israelite men gathered at the base of Mount Sinai. In essence the Decalogue codifies the patriarchal standards of the culture that produced it. Women were considered the property of the men, and slavery was an accepted institution.

            The Ten Commandments themselves can be broken into two parts: the first four commandments center on rules of worship, while the last six have to do with property and “intracommunity relationships.” The first commandment stipulates that only Yahweh is to be worshiped by Israel. This does not presuppose monotheism but monolatry, or the worship of one god while not denying the existence of others. Commandments 2–4 require that no images of God be made, that the divine name is used properly, and that the sabbath day is kept. The last six commandments discuss how Israelite men were expected to relate to one another. These discuss the protection of personal rights, including the individual’s life, his wife, and his property. In sum, the exclusive worship of Yahweh and ethical community relations are at the core of the Decalogue. These form the essence of the contract or covenant that unified the Israelites.

Ratification of the Covenant

This chapter ends with a discussion of Exodus 24, which preserves a composite account of the ratification of the covenant. Although there is disagreement about the identification of the sources that underlie this account, it appears that one source (Ex 24.1–2, 9–11) is sandwiched around another source’s narrative (Ex 24.3–8). This rather unusual event describes a scene where Moses and several Israelite leaders ascend the mountain and share a meal with God. Embedded in the narrative is the sacrifice of animals, which was required to conclude the covenant between God and Israel. After this scene, the narrative resumes its account (Ex. 24.15–18) describing yet another trip up the mountain by Moses. In this instance, Moses is on the mountain for six days; on the seventh day, he is enveloped by God in the cloud for forty days and forty nights.

Implications for Our Study

This episode marks the beginning of the Israelite stay in Sinai. Sinai will continue to be the backdrop for the remainder of Exodus through to chapter 10 of Numbers. This is the important setting for the revelation of God’s law to Israel, which begins with the Decalogue and continues with other blocks of legislation inserted throughout the narrative of later chapters and books. In the following chapters we will see both how these laws are laid out and how these rules were important to religious worship and ritual.

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