20.4. Comparing the Two Descriptions of the Giving of the Torah / the Concluding of the Covenant

Thus, the Torah gives two descriptions of the concluding of the Covenant between God and the Jewish people, which have the following characteristics in common:

  • There is a preliminary discussion in which the people promise to follow the Covenant (19:5-8, 24:3)
  • The following day (or three days later), the concluding of the Covenant takes place (19:16, 24:4)
  • After the concluding of the Covenant, Moses ascends the Mountain (20:18, 24:15).

But there are also significant differences between the two descriptions:

 

First description

(weekly portion Yitro)

Second description

(weekly portion Mishaptim)

God Himself speaks, Direct Revelation (20:1) Moses speaks, reading to the people from the Book of the Covenant (24:4-7).
Thunder and lightning, the mountain trembled violently, the sound of the shofar is heard (19:16). There are no special natural phenomena.
The people experience emotional agitation and the terror of being about to die. They are afraid, and they shrink back (20:15-16). The people react responsibly and calmly (24:7).
Universal commandments that apply to all of humanity (Decalogue, 20:1-14). Specific commandments (“When you acquire a Hebrew slave,” etc., 24:1-23:19).
The Jewish people are charged with the universal, human task of being a kingdom of priests and a holy people, i.e., conduits of the Divine light for humanity (19:5-6). The Jewish people are assigned the specific, particularly national task of conquering the Land (23:20-33).
Described in the same portion that tells of Jethro, the sage of the nations of the world, it is applicable to all peoples (18:1-27). Described in the context of Moses’ dialogue with the people, it refers only to Jews (24:1-11).
Moses is the only leader. He cordons off the Mountain, which no one ascends but him, not even the priests. Aaron partially ascends, but does not participate in Revelation (19:21-24). There are many leaders: Moses, Aaron and his sons, Hur, Joshua. Aaron, his sons the priests, and the elders ascend and “behold God”; that is, they participate in Revelation.
The people act as a monolithic unit, with no individual specificity or internal structure. There is an internal structure within the people, as expressed by seventy elders and twelve pillars (24:1, 4).
Separation from natural life: “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman” (19:10-15). Participation in natural life: “They ate and drank” (24:9-11).
The conclusion speaks of the principles of monotheism: “You shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” etc. (20:19-23). The conclusion speaks of the period of waiting for Moses to return from the mountain, and of the details of the transmission of the Tradition to the Jewish people: “I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” (24:12-14).
In summation: This is how it looks from the perspective of humankind as a whole. In summation: This is how it looks from the internal perspective of the Jewish nation.

Thus, the giving of the Torah is presented here in two aspects: as revelation, the principles of which are universal, comprising the Ten Commandments, and as Covenant, consisting of detailed, specific legislation.

It is important in one’s understanding of the Torah to maintain a balance between these two aspects.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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