Seeing the Voices: Some Thoughts on the Nature of Revelation


“And all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw they fell back and stood at a distance.  “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us lest we die.” (Exodus 20:15-16) (I am indebted to three important discussions of revelation which have informed my understanding of the topic:  Benjamin D. Sommer, “Revelation at Sinai in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish Theology”, Journal of Religion 79 (1999):422-451; Yohanan Silman, Qol Gadol Velo Yasaf, Jerusalem, 1999; Moshe Halbertal,People of the Book, Cambridge, 1997).

The people’s immediate reaction to the Sinai revelation is both predictable and surprising.  On the one hand they show a proper sense of fear of the lethal power of the divine, but their reluctance to hear the divine voice raises a number of questions about what precisely the people experienced at Sinai.  The first sentence as translated above is a paraphrase; more literally the Hebrew reads: “And all the people saw the voices”.   What voices (Heb. qolot) are being referred to?  And what does it mean to say they saw these voices?  And an even more difficult question:  When precisely during the Sinai experience did this reaction occur, and what are the implications for understanding the significance of the Sinai revelation?

Regarding the first question about the nature of the voice at Sinai, one obvious reading is that the people are referring to the Divine voice which has just pronounced the Ten Commandments in Exod. 20:1ff.  This understanding of the text is reflected in Deuteronomy, where, after hearing God speak the Ten Commandments, the people say “If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer we shall die” (Deut. 5:22).  But qolot is a plural noun in Hebrew, and God’s voice is generally referred to as a singular qol.   Perhaps then qolot refers to the cosmic buildup to the recitation of the Ten Commandments, a reference to thunder and lightning.  Such dramatic elements are frequently found in connection with the appearance of God elsewhere (E.g. I Sam. 7:12; Ps. 29). In Exod. 19:16 we hear of qolot uv’raqim – “thunder and lightning” – which precede God’s descent onto the mountain.  Even more interesting is verse 19 – “Moses spoke and God answered him in baqol” which could mean either thunder or an articulate divine voice – or both (Exod. 19:19 could be the actualization of God’s promise in 19:9 that He will speak to him in the hearing of the people).  So exactly what the people witnessed/saw/heard remains unclear.

At this point, the second question comes into play:  Even more perplexing is the curious combination of a verb for seeing with an audial object – what does it mean to “see” voices? Perhaps the unusual phrase refers to the full range of the people’s perceptions – sound, light, and articulate voice – the entire set of effects of Sinai together with the divine voice articulating the Commandments.  Such unusual synesthesia  – a blending together of various senses – may well be characteristic of vivid experience, and the mixing of sensory metaphors to describe such intensity is not unusual in the Bible –God accuses Cain with the words “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).  The psalmist describes his experience of the divine with the words “O taste and see how good the Lord is” (Ps. 34:9).   Or perhaps the phrase reflects Deuteronomy’s warning that at Sinai “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but you perceived no shape – nothing but a voice” (Deut. 4:12) (Cf. G.W. Savran, Encountering the Divine (N.Y., 2005), pp. 108-116).  Saying that the people saw a voice would be a way of emphasizing the inability of the people to actually see God.  However we understand it, this singular phrase points to an exceptional experience, and an appropriate description for the unique event of the Sinai revelation.

This lack of clarity as to what the people actually experienced leads us to our third question.  The English translation obscures the problem of the verb used here.  Instead of the regular narrative past tense vayar’ kol ha’am” –“And all the people saw” – which would clearly indicate that this experience followed directly upon God speaking the Ten Commandments, subject and verb are inverted and a participial form of the verb is employed – v’kol ha’am ro’im – which complicates the entire question of when, precisely, this seeing took place and what they actually heard.

Most translations use the simple past tense in order to indicate that this reaction followed immediately upon the conclusion of the Ten Commandments, as in the interpretation in the passage from Deuteronomy quoted above.  The narrative in Deut. 5 simply continues the account of the revelation at Sinai with a description of the people’s fear of hearing God “any further” – having survived hearing the divine voice once, they fear any further exposure.  In this reading of the text the people have full experience of God’s voice; they hear God speak the Commandments from beginning to end.  Revelation includes not just the preparation for the theophany but the articulated voice of the divine as well.

But the participial form of the verb together with the reversed word order is used not infrequently in the Bible to indicate a point further in the past, what English grammar terms the pluperfect:  “And all the people had seen the voices…”  According to this reading the description of “seeing the voices” and the people’s expression of fear had occurred sometime earlier during the theophany, even though it is mentioned only now.  Here a few options present themselves:  The people might have heard the beginning of the Ten Commandments (but not all of them), became frightened and pleaded with Moses to exempt them from any further exposure to the Divine voice.  Not wanting to break the recitation of the Ten Commandments in the middle, the narrator placed the people’s reaction only after all ten had been recited.  In the understanding of revelation reflected in this reading the people hear God speak only some, but not all of the Commandments.  This idea was picked up in the Midrash, which explains that the people heard only the first two commandments spoken directly by God, while the last eight were communicated to them later by Moses (Cf. Song of Songs Rabbah 1:2).  In this reading revelation is a partial event – it includes the voice of God and certain demands but not the full set of commandments.

But perhaps the people expressed their fear in anticipation of the divine voice, prior to Exod. 20:1, before God spoke any of the Commandments.  This position, explicated by Nahmanides in his commentary on the Torah, sees the people’s complaint preceding the emergence of the divine voice.  Insofar as our text in Exodus does not specifically say that the people heard the divine voice, Nahmanides concludes that the people were fearful of hearing the divine voice at all.  In this reading the revelation at Sinai consists entirely of the experience of the presence of the divine – what we call theophany.  What stands at the center of the experience is the encounter with the divine rather than a set of commandments.

We are left, then, with three possible understandings of the text:

The people heard all the Commandments spoken by God.
The people heard some, but not all, of the Commandments spoken by God
The people heard no Commandments spoken by God, but received them later through the intermediary of Moses.
I would like to suggest that these three positions represent three distinct ideas of what constitutes revelation.

The first interpretation reflects a model of revelation which is all-inclusive.  Revelation is understood as Torah in the fullest sense – not just the written Torah but the Oral Torah as well.  This idea of revelation comprises the fullest range of teachings in Judaism about how to live one’s life –Written Torah, Oral Torah, even subsequent discussions of Torah as well (Cf. Exodus Rabbah 47:1 – “Even the question a pupil asks his teacher God told Moses at that time.”[/note]  All this material is to be considered revealed and authoritative.  We might term this approach the “roadmap” – a detailed guide about how one is to conduct one’s life, taking into account future eventualities as well.

The second interpretation, the idea that only some of the Commandments are heard, reflects a model in which the outlines of how one should conduct one’s life are sketched out at Sinai, but it is left to the individual or the community to work out the details.  The Commandments revealed at Sinai are no more than a set of principles for proper living, and the details of what one will actually do develop and change with time (Cf. Exodus Rabbah 41:6 – “Could Moses have learned the entire Torah in forty days?  It was only the principles thereof which God taught Moses”).  There is no complete guide as in the first option, but only the rough draft of a map.  The authority of the text lies in its essence as a set of organizing principles, a constitution of sorts, which will be fleshed out in different ways by different communities.

The third option reflects an experiential model, in which no articulated voicing of law or commandments is made explicit, but the experience of the divine stands at the center.  Human society is both inspired and constrained by this encounter, and orders itself around the need and desire to recapture that experience.  Moreover, Sinai as an experience of the divine is not a onetime event but a continuing process which will repeat itself over time (Cf. Genesis Rabbah 49:2 – “Not a day passes in which the Holy One, blessed be He, does not teach a new law in the heavenly court”). Authority lies in the primacy of experience rather than in a single authoritative singular text.  “Seeing the voices” must be understood as experiencing the essence of God; even the Ten Commandments themselves are no more than an interpretation of the divine will.

These three readings represent different prototypes for understanding the meaning and significance of the Sinaitic moment.  Revelation at Sinai is not contained within a single model, but includes a range of positions about the tensions between individual autonomy and societal demands, between primary experience and received tradition, between explicit demands and implicit reasoning.

Each of the three positions described above is a valid reflection of the essence of revelation.  At times it is the experience itself which is primary, with little or no attention to the content (e.g. Exodus 24:9-11).  At other times the general principles stand at the center of the experience:  the Ten Commandments themselves are not a body of case law to be applied in judicial situations but a broadly conceived charter for human behavior.  And at still other times it is the massed account of all the particular laws with their precise details which constitute the body of revelation.  One can find each of these three models at different points in the Torah, each making a claim for its own validity exclusive of the others.  Each represents a viable understanding of what the Bible means by revelation.  We should appreciate the breadth of experience which is included in “seeing the voices”:  Revelation should not be seen as a narrowly defined historical moment, or heard as a one dimensional voice.  It is a process to be explored time and time again in different ways as we attempt to find our place within it.


George Savran is a senior lecturer in Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.