The Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Sinai on the “third new moon” after their departure from Egypt. According to Numbers 33:3, the entire nation left Rameses on the fifteenth day of the first month (Abib or Nisan [mid-March to mid-April]). If the month of Abib is considered to be the month of the first new moon, then Iyyar or Ziv (mid-April to mid-May) began with the second new moon and Sivan (the third month) began with the third new moon. Based on this reckoning, the arrival of the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai occurred in the month of Sivan. There is a measure of ambiguity about the reference to the “day” of their arrival. The Hebrew text says “that day” and could be understood to apply to the first day of the third month Sivan or the fifteenth day (the anniversary date of the departure from Egypt or, more specifically, from the location of Rameses), or the third day of Sivan (the number of the day corresponding to the number of the month). (19:1)
In the wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites encamped “before the mountain” (Mount Sinai) after having set out from the site of Rephidim. Earlier, before Moses returned to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of that land, YHWH made known that Moses and the liberated people would serve him at this mountain. (3:12) Seemingly, in view of the promise, Moses ascended the mountain to receive instructions. The angel of God had accompanied the Israelites on their journey from Egypt and his presence is associated with the pillar or column of cloud. (14:19) Therefore, it is likely that the pillar of cloud was seen at the top of Mount Sinai, and it was from the cloud that YHWH, through his representative angel, called out to Moses, telling him what he was to say to the “house of Jacob” or the “sons [or people] of Israel.” He was to remind the Israelites of what they had seen YHWH do to the Egyptians and how he had cared for them, carrying them as if on the “wings of eagles” and bringing them to himself at the previously designated location (Mount Sinai). Instances have been reported in more recent years where a parent eagle swooped below a struggling fledgling and supported it on its wings and back. This appears to be the basis for the expression used to indicate what YHWH did for his people while in circumstances comparable to that of young eagles just learning to fly. (19:2-4; see the Notes section about Mount Sinai.)
The Israelites should have responded with gratitude for what YHWH had done for them. For them truly to be his people and to continue to enjoy his blessing and aid, they had to meet certain requirements. Therefore, Moses was to relate YHWH’s words regarding this. “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” If obedient, the Israelites would have a unique position as the only people on earth having a direct relationship with YHWH. He, however, was not their God in a limited sense but continued to be the Supreme Sovereign over all nations and peoples, for the earth belonged to him and, therefore, all its inhabitants were subject to what he willed respecting them. The Israelites would be a “kingdom” or a royal realm, with YHWH as their Sovereign. In that royal realm, they would individually be “priests,” enjoying a direct approach to him through prayer and having him respond to their individual needs. As a nation, Israel would be “holy” or in a sanctified condition before their God as a people acceptable to him. (19:5, 6)
Moses summoned the elders of the people and related to them the words of YHWH. As representatives of the entire nation, they answered for themselves and all the rest of the Israelites, “All that YHWH has spoken we will do.” Thereafter Moses reported their words of agreement to YHWH. (19:7, 8, 9b)
YHWH is quoted as telling Moses that he would be coming to him in a thick cloud. Subsequent to that coming, the words of YHWH to Moses would be heard by all the people. The reason for this was so that the people would thereafter fully trust Moses, apparently recognizing him as YHWH’s chosen instrument to communicate his messages to them. In view of the fact that the pillar or column of cloud was linked to the angel of God, this coming of YHWH in a thick cloud must have been something different. (19:9)
Based on other biblical passages, including those recorded many centuries later (Acts 7:38, 53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2), Moses did not speak directly with YHWH, but all his communication was with the representative angel. At least two angels appear to have been involved — the one who led the Israelites out of Egypt and accompanied them in the wilderness (Exodus 23:23; 32:34; 33:2; Numbers 20:16) and who was linked to the pillar or column of cloud, and the angel who was manifested in the fear-inspiring developments at Mount Sinai.
To prepare for the manifestation of YHWH (through the angel who appears to have been in the closest relationship to him and who, in the most direct way, could speak representatively as YHWH), Moses was directed to sanctify the people. This required that, on the first and second day, they be set apart as clean, pure, or acceptable before his manifestation on the third day from then. To be found in a sanctified state, the Israelites needed to wash their clothes and abstain from sexual relations. Bounds were to be established around the mountain, and the people were commanded not to ascend it. No person and no animal that touched the mountain would remain alive. Only after the sounding of the trumpet would the people be permitted to go up on the mountain. (19:10-13, 15; see the Notes section.)
As he had been commanded, Moses informed the people about what they needed to do to get ready for the third day. On the morning of that day, a thick cloud descended upon the mountain, thunders and lightnings occurred, and a loud trumpet (shofar) blast resounded. All the encamped people began to tremble in fear. Thereafter Moses led the people out of the camp “to meet God.” They stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain. Meanwhile, smoke, like the smoke from a kiln, rose from the mountain (Mount Sinai), and the entire mountain shook violently. The sound of the trumpet became louder and louder. “Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.” Summoned to ascend the mountain, Moses did so and then was sent back down to warn the people not to “break through to YHWH” or to ascend Mount Sinai, for doing this would lead to their death. Before leaving, Moses replied that the people had already been commanded not to do so and that bounds had been set around the mountain. After being told that Aaron (likely because of his future appointment to serve the Israelites as their high priest) should come with him after he returned from having gone down to the people, Moses departed from the mountaintop. He then made known to them the word of YHWH. This included telling the people that the “priests” should sanctify or purify themselves and that these priests and the rest of the people should not ascend the mountain. (19:14-25; see the Notes section.)
There is uncertainty about the location of Mount Sinai. Josephus (Antiquities, III, v, 1) described the mountain as the highest in those regions. In the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, Mount Katrina is the loftiest mountain, but it has not been traditionally identified as Mount Sinai. The traditional site is Jebel (Gebel, Jabal, Gabal, Djebel, or Djabal) Musa (Moses, Mousa, or Moussa) that is significantly lower. Weighing against the site of Jebel Musa is the absence of a large plain where the Israelites could have encamped. In front of the nearby peak known as Ras Safsafa, however, there is a sizable plain that measures a little over half a mile in width (c. 1 kilometer) and about two miles in length (c. 3 kilometers).
According to the Septuagint rendering of verse 13, the people could ascend Mount Sinai after the cloud vanished and the “sounds” (thunders) and trumpet blasts ended.
In verse 18, the Septuagint does not refer to the trembling or shaking of the mountain but says that “all the people” trembled or were terrified.
The reference in verses 22 and 24 to “priests” could not apply to the Levitical priesthood, for men from that tribe had not as yet been appointed as priests. These “priests” would have been the adult firstborn sons or the heads of families who functioned as priests for their respective households.