We sometimes think of the Old Testament as a book in which God makes repeated appearances of many kinds. But when we put a time line next to the account, we quickly realize that God’s manifest presence was far more rare and purposeful than we realized. The last time God made a direct appearance in Genesis he visited Jacob in a dream (46:1-7) and assured him his family would become “a great nation” while in Egypt (v. 3). Over four hundred years would pass before God would make another recorded appearance.
Moses was an energetic eighty-year-old tending sheep in the desert when God showed up at “Horeb, the mountain of God” (Exod 3:1). Most scholars believe that Horeb and Sinai are two names for the same place. God made this his mountain. There God spoke from a burning bush and instructed Moses to retrieve his people from Egypt and bring them back to that very location. Moses wasn’t sure he was up to the task. He had already botched his chance at leading and helping his people by becoming a wanted killer. So he told God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the people of Israel out of Egypt?” (v. 11), to which God answered, “I will be with you. And this will be the proof that I sent you: When you bring the people out of Egypt, all of you will worship God on this mountain” (v. 12).
Moses did return to Mount Sinai followed by the nation of Israel. He climbed up the mountain twice to hear from God (Exod 19-20; 24). Regarding the second ascent, Exodus 24: 16-18 states: “The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered it, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites, the glory of the LORD looked like a raging fire on top of the mountain. Moses entered the cloud as he went up the mountain. He stayed on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights” (Exod 24:16-18). During this time on the mountain, Moses received two tablets on which God inscribed the words of the Ten Commandments.
Mount Sinai symbolizes our link to God. Like a personal moment of deep meaning and life-changing intensity, Sinai may be described as the comic events in which we feel an internal avalanche that shakes the foundations of our being and our view of the world. It also may be a moment of stunning clam and composure in which we feel that we see the world with new clarity. Perhaps this is why Jewish tradition describes the moment of Sinai in such contradictory terms-it is both the storm and the stillness at its center. The Ten Commandments are the Jewish people’s collective afterglow from their Sinai moment. They felt God among them when he revealed himself and his law at Sinai. They carried with them a reminder of that experience, the Ten Commandments, in the ark of the covenant. They vowed to live differently than the people’s around them, and Mount Sinai symbolizes that vow. They promised to change their manner of living, abiding by a new code of morality.