19-20 describe the arrival at Sinai and the forging of a covenantal relationship
between God and His people. In four specific verses (19:16-19), God's manifestation
is described in the context of violent upheavals of nature
thunder, lightning, a dense cloud upon the trembling mountain
conveying in terms familiar to us something of the awe-inspiring impact of the
Most striking in these
four verses is the repetitive use of the world kol. Literally voice
or sound, kolot (plural of kol) is first used to describe
the thunder, and then as the blast of the shofar.
"On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder (kolot),
and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud
blast (kol) of the shofar, and all the people who were in
the camp trembled; "
In the second verse, a horn,
or shofar is sounded, "a celestial flourish heralding the arrival
of the king."
The verse recalls the book of Zechariah, in which God Himself poetically "sounds
the ram's horn" and advances in a stormy tempest as He manifests His presence.
Here God similarly answers "b'kol"
in the same sound of the shofar and in thunder. The
blare [kol] of the shofar grew louder and louder." As Moses
spoke, God answered him in thunder [b'kol]" (Exodus 19:20).
these verses in Exodus, the loud blast of the shofar, the blasts
of the thunder, and God's voice tied together
by the word kol merge into one potent
The reaction of the
nation of Israel, having heard the Decalogue and experienced God's majesty
and self-manifestation, is described as follows:
"And all the people witnessed
[literally, saw] the thunder [kolot] and lightning, the blare [kol]
of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they
fell back and stood at a distance" (Exodus 20:15). The people paradoxically
"see" the sound; the experience is so intense and mysterious that it
cannot be described by the ordinary language of the senses. And in awe and terror,
the people step back.
modern Hebrew, the expression kolot u'vrakim thunder
and lightning is used to connote a great tumultuous voice, heartful
shouts unto the heavens.
biblical word ra'am, pl. re'amim" is
more commonly used today for thunder.
Nahum Sarna, in his commentary to verse 19:16-19, writes "The Gods
in the pagan religions inevitably inherent in nature, for they are actually
personifications of natural phenomena. The upheavals and disturbances
are taken literally as aspects of the lives of the gods. In Israelite
monotheism, by contrast, God the Creator is wholly independent of His
creation and is sovereign over it
. (JPS Commentary: Exodus). Back
Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society of America, on Exodus 19:19. Back
Zechariah 9:14: "And the Lord will manifest Himself to them, And
His arrows shall flash like lightning; My Lord God shall sound the ramís
horn And advance in a stormy tempest." Back
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