Kol: Thunder, Shofar and the Voice of God

Exodus chapters 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 event.[1]

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...
"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; " (Exodus 19:16)

In the second verse, a horn, or shofar is sounded, "a celestial flourish heralding the arrival of the king."[2] 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.[3] 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).

fire on the mountainIn 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 emotional experience.

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.

In modern Hebrew, the expression kolot u'vrakim — thunder and lightning — is used to connote a great tumultuous voice, heartful shouts unto the heavens.
Another biblical word — ra'am, pl. re'amim" — is more commonly used today for thunder.



[1] 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

[2] Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, on Exodus 19:19. Back

[3] 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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