The book of Exodus tells us how Moses was sent by God to Egypt to be a deliverer of Israel. Pharaoh, of course, did not heed Moses’ appeal to set the people of Israel free from their slavery, and the stage was then set for the showdown between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt.
After repeated demonstrations of the glory and power of the LORD, God told Moses that He would bring a final and terrible plague that would cause Pharaoh to relent and let the people go. All the firstborn sons in the land would be killed — except for those who observed what God called the Passover.
The LORD commanded that on Nisan 10 the head of each household would select an unblemished young male lamb to be offered as a sacrifice to the LORD. On the afternoon of Nisan 14 (erev Pesach), a family member was to slaughter the lamb (called korban pesach) and smear some of its blood on all three sides of the doorframe, top, right and left. The lamb was then to be roasted and eaten with unleavened bread (i.e., matzah) and maror (bitter herbs). This meal was to be consumed “in haste” since the Israelites would begin their exodus the following morning (Nisan 15). The LORD further required that only matzah was to be eaten for a week after the Passover meal (from Nisan 15-22), perhaps to recall the haste in which they left Egypt.
At midnight on Nisan 15 the LORD killed all the firstborn males of those who did not put the blood of the lamb upon their doorposts (the Jews who trusted in the LORD were “passed over” (pasach) from the angel of death). Pharaoh and most of Egypt arose in the middle of the night, lamented the loss of their children, and begged the Israelites to leave Egypt. The great Exodus from Egypt finally began! After exactly 430 years in Egypt (Ex. 12:40-1, 51, but reckoned from the birth of Isaac) over 600,000 adult males, along with their wives and children, departed with a wealth of gold and silver which the Egyptians had given them.
As soon as the Jews left Egypt, a fiery Pillar of Cloud appeared before them, leading them from Rameses to Succoth and then southward toward the desert (Ex. 13:20-1). But Pharaoh and his army soon realized that the Jews were never coming back and decided to pursue and enslave them once again (Ex. 14:4). Six days later, on Nisan 21, the Israelites were trapped with the Egyptian army behind them and the Sea of Reeds before them. The Pillar of Cloud moved behind the Israelites and stood between them and the Egyptians. Moses then stretched out his staff before the sea and it miraculously parted so that the Jews could walk through. When the Jews had fully crossed over, the Egyptians tried to follow after them, but Moses again stretched out his staff and the waters caved in on them so that the pursuing army was drowned.
Three days later, on Nisan 24, the people came to Marah, where the water was bitter. Moses threw some wood in the waters and they became mayim chayim – sweet water good for drinking (Ex. 15:22-26). A month later, the Jews complained that they were out of food, but God sent manna to feed them (Ex. 16). Interestingly, the amount of manna collected each day was called an omer. Later still, the Jews began to settle at Rephidim, near Mount Sinai, but again there was no water. Moses was commanded to take the elders to a rock at Sinai and strike it with his staff to miraculously bring forth water (Ex. 17:1-7). While the Jews were camped in Rephidim, the Amalekites (descendants of Esau) suddenly attacked them. Israel won the battle, but God commanded them to never forget their adversaries (Ex. 17:9-16).
After 45 days in the desert, on the new moon of Sivan, the Jews reached the desert of Sinai and camped near the very mountain where Moses was first commissioned (Ex. 19:1). During the previous weeks the Jews had become more and more conscious of the LORD and therefore more and more readied to receive instruction (Torah) from Him before entering the Promised Land.
Moses ascended the mountain, and there God commanded him to tell the leaders that if they would obey the LORD and keep His covenant, then they would be the LORD’s “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation.” After delivering this message, the people responded by proclaiming, kol asher diber Adonai na’aseh (“all that the LORD has spoken, we shall do”). Moses then returned to the mountain and was told to command the people to sanctify themselves before the LORD descended upon the mountain in three days. The people were to abstain from worldly comforts and not so much as touch (under penalty of death) the boundaries of the mountain. “Be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”
Rabbinic tradition says that the Torah was actually given on the sixth of Sivan, the Shabbat following the new moon of Sivan that year (which would make the new moon of Sivan a Monday [Shabbat 86b]).
On Shabbat morning of the sixth of Sivan, exactly seven weeks after the Exodus, all the children of Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the LORD descended amidst thunder, lightning, billowing smoke, fire, and the voluminous blast of the shofar. The LORD then declared the foundation of moral conduct required of the people, the Ten Commandments.
The sound of a shofar grew louder and louder until terror gripped the heart of the people. The LORD then uttered, “I am the LORD Thy God who took you out of Egypt.” As the LORD began speaking the second commandment, however, the people began falling back in fear and begged Moses to be their “middleman” or mediator before God. The people then stood far off, while Moses alone drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
As mediator of the covenant, Moses later reported to the Israelites all the words of the LORD and the people responded in unison, kol hadevarim asher diber Adonai na’eseh: “all the words which the LORD has said we will do.” He wrote down the words of the covenant (sefer habrit), built an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai with twelve pillars (one for each tribe of Israel), and ordered sacrifices to the LORD to be made. He took the sacrificial blood from the offerings, threw half upon the altar, and read the covenant to the people. The people ratified the covenant with the words kol asher diber Adonai na’aseh v’nishma (“all that the LORD says we will do and obey”). Upon hearing their ratification, Moses took the other half of the sacrificial blood and threw it on the people saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Next, Moses, Aaron (and his sons Nadav and Avihu), and seventy of the elders of Israel ascended Mount Sinai to eat a “covenant affirmation meal” between klal Yisrael and the LORD. It was there that the elders beheld the awesome glory of Elohei Yisrael (the God of Israel), under whose feet was “a pavement of sapphires, like the very heaven for clearness” (Ex. 24:9-11).
After returning from the mountain with the elders, the LORD commanded Moses to go back up to receive luchot ha’even (the tablets of stone) inscribed with the Ten Commandments (Ex. 24:12). He remained on the mountain for a total of 40 days and 40 nights learning Torah while the Israelites waited for him at the camp down below (Ex. 24:13-18).
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