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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 12

The Descent on Sinai.

The last notes of the song of thanksgiving had died away along the shore of the Arabian Sea, the shout of triumph over the conquered Amalekites was hushed: and Israel lay encamped in the wilderness of Sinai. The whole neighborhood of Mount Horeb is described by late travellers as strikingly sublime, and the mount itself, though not quite so elevated, as some others in the neighborhood, as having, nevertheless, a wonderful effect by its several and distinct summits, one more elevated than the other. At the foot of this mountain, our ancestors encamped, at the commencement of the third month; they had therefore arrived at that spot, where it had been foretold to Moses, (see above, chap. ix) the Israelites should worship God, after their leaving Egypt.

It was therefore, here, that Moses was called for the first time before the whole congregation, to receive the annunciation of God's will. He was commanded (Exodus, chap.xix, v.3-6): "Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: you have seen what I have done to Egypt, and that I have borne you on eagle's wings, and brought you to Me. And now, if you will obey My words and observe My covenant, then you shall be to Me a people more dearly beloved than any other nation, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." Let us understand this message well, for then we shall easily discover upon what terms the Almighty promised to befriend us, and under what circumstances we were to be the dearly beloved people. — Previously to this moment the Israelites had been told, that their redemption from slavery was to take place, not on account of any thing they themselves had done; but solely, because of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the promises made to them. — The Israelites, being now free, were told: first, that it was God, and not Moses, by whose power they had been redeemed; further, that the Almighty had subsequently — like the eagle that protects its offspring from danger — protected them, and delivered them from flood, from famine, from thirst, and from the sword; and lastly, that if they would now agree to the conditions, which He would propose, then should they be entitled to the continuance of His protection and fostering care. Although God could, after His goodness to them, have, according to human notions of gratitude, demanded their obedience; yet did He lay before them His intentions, for their acceptance or refusal. Thus teaching us, that we should never presume to dictate to a person, indebted to us, any thing which might by chance be disagreeable to him, but that we ever ought to gain his compliance by gentle persuasion. — Well then — God proposed to the children of Israel, that they should receive His peculiar protection and love, in case they would obey His commandments and observe the terms of the covenant, to be proposed to them. — He also justified this preference of them by saying: "All the world is Mine," meaning, since you choose voluntarily to observe My statutes, no nation has a right to complain of My favoring you more than others, for all nations are equally Mine, and all shall ultimately be deserving to be called by My name; but since I must make a beginning with one, to promulgate My law in the first instance to them, it is but just and fair that I, who am the maker and master of all, should be left to choose that people, which I, in My superior wisdom, think better fitted and more deserving than any other, to be the depository of My statutes, till the rest of mankind be also fitted to adopt My will as their guide, and My law as their code.

Can any philosopher step forward and assert, that the Israelites were not better fitted, than any other people, then or even now existing, for this great purpose of God? They were already unconnected with any other nation, they had no home, but that one they expected to acquire by the assistance of their God; they had therefore to make no great personal sacrifices by secluding themselves from the rest of the world; when, on the contrary, it would have been a most difficult thing to reform a people, whose manners were once settled, and this difficulty would have been not a little magnified, when this very change of manners must have set them up as a mark of hatred to all the surrounding nations, whose manners had been formerly similar to theirs, and with whom they had lived in friendship. — Independently of this reason, the Israelites were already better acquainted with revelation than any other people, and their manners were probably not so corrupt. — Moreover, the Israelites were prepared to receive the law of God from feelings of gratitude towards Him for the signal favors they had received, which was, as had been shown, another powerful reason to entrust the law to them.

To return to the subject under consideration, — the Israelites were promised happiness and salvation, — for God said, they should be a holy people, — if they would on their part abide by the conditions proposed, and observe the duties required of them. Let it be well observed, that God here plainly says, that the righteousness of a man is sufficient to ensure his salvation, for he does not even hint in the slightest manner at a savior, or to speak more clearly, at a mediator between God and man. According to this definition, which can hardly be controverted, we may safely rest our hope of salvation upon our obeying the will of God and upon our observing His precepts, and we are not to expect to be saved through any being, save the Eternal, for He alone is our Supporter, our Savior and our Redeemer.

No sooner had Moses delivered the message of God, than all the people unanimously (not together) answered. "All that the Eternal has spoken we will do." When Moses had carried back this reply to God, he was further notified, that He would come to him in a thick cloud, that the people might hear, when He spoke to him; and God at the same time, promised Moses, "that in Him they should believe for ever." Thirty centuries have already elapsed, since our great and good leader was taken from us, (at a time when his strength was yet unimpaired); and his mission is yet believed divine, and its truth defended by the Jews. Does not my writing this imperfect defense of our law in part verify this prediction? Can any denier of the truth of prophecy assert, that this prophecy has not been fulfilled to the letter? What right has he, then, to deny the authenticity of at least this one prediction?

When the people had declared their willingness, nay their eager desire, to see their King, as the Rabbins figuratively call the desire of hearing the word of God proclaimed without any mediator, not even Moses, the latter was ordered, to prepare his brethren for three days previous to that glorious day. Perfectly clean, perfectly free from all earthly desires and pollution, should they meet their God, and receive His holy and pure law, in holiness and purity. The mount Sinai was to be the place, whence the law was to be proclaimed, and on that account Moses was commanded to fence it round, so that no one should approach the sanctuary of the Lord, and death would have been the punishment for the violation of this interdiction.

At dawn of the appointed day there rested a dense cloud on the mount, and the terrible thunder rolled, and the bright lightning flashed, at the coming of the Most High in his glory. The trumpet — a trumpet not blown by mortals, but sounding by the will of the Almighty — called forth with its loud blast the people of Israel. And they trembled, whilst Moses led them out of the camp and placed them at the foot of Sinai; for the mount emitted flames fiercer than the destructive volcano, and shook to its very base. — It could not have been an ordinary earthquake, not a common eruption of a burning mountain; for then, in the ordinary course of nature, the approach to the base of the mount would have produced instant death. But, no! It was the glory of God, in whose presence there is safety, which produced this effect, and therefore did the Israelites, led by Moses, advance with a trusty mind and a firm step, though with a quaking heart, for who fears not when God speaks? — After Moses had placed his brethren in proper order, he ascended the mount; but he was ordered to go down and give warning a second time, that no one should pass beyond the barrier which Moses had drawn round the mount. And here we have another moral lesson, "that it is not enough, that a father tell his children, and a superior those under his charge, only once of their duty; but that they ought to repeat their instructions so often, that they cannot be forgotten, or else the father and guardian have neglected their trust, and they are answerable to God for sins committed by their charges through ignorance.—

When the Israelites were at length fully prepared, the all-powerful God spoke as follows:


  1. "I am the ETERNAL thy GOD, who have conducted thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.
  2. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt make thyself no image, nor any likeness of aught in heaven above, or on earth below, or in the waters beneath the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them; for I the Eternal thy God, am a watchful God, who am visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, on the third generation and fourth generation, of those who hate me; but am doing mercy unto the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
  3. Thou shalt not bear the name of the Eternal thy God in vain, (not use it without necessity, not at an untruth,) for the Eternal will not suffer him to remain unpunished, who beareth His Name in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy. Six days thou mayest labor and do all thy work; but the seventh is a day of rest in honor of the Eternal thy God; then thou shalt not do any manner of work, neither thyself, nor thy son, thy daughter, thy man and thy maid-servant, not even thy cattle, and the stranger who is within thy gates. For in six days did the Eternal make heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and refrained from work on the seventh day; therefore did the Eternal bless the Sabbath-day, and declare it holy.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land, which the Eternal thy God giveth thee.
  6. Thou shalt not commit murder.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not answer as a false witness against thy neighbor.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, not any thing which belongs to thy neighbor."

The foregoing precepts are technically called: the ten commandments or the Decalogue, and are the foundation of our whole civil, moral and religious code.

When the Israelites heard these precepts announced from on high, they were filled with fear and apprehension. For the voice of the Eternal had not been heard by any other people before them, and they had therefore beheld and heard that, which no mortals ever before had seen or heard. The Israelites had desired to be convinced with their own eyes of the truth of Moses's mission, and they had wished to hear the word proclaimed by God Himself. They had been gratified, they had seen the glory of God, as He proceeded from Sinai, and shone unto them from Sayir, and sent His beaming light forth from Paran, and came with myriads of saints; and they had received from His right hand the law as pure as fire, as they lay prostrate before Him. (Deut. 33.) — Being therefore now convinced of the truth of Moses's mission, they begged of him, to receive, by himself alone, the commandments, which God might ordain for their government, and that he should teach them afterwards, what he had learned; for they themselves were in fear of losing their lives, should they witness again the great fire, which was yet burning, while they were speaking to Moses. — But he wished to induce them to persevere in receiving themselves the other commandments, and he therefore answered: "Fear not, for only to prove you did God come, and that His fear might be upon your faces, that you may not sin. When Moses however heard from God, that the request of the Israelites was pleasing to Him, he then, but not till then, consented to be the instructor of the people and to tell them all, which he should hear announced by God.

In this manner became Moses the messenger of God to the people of Israel, and their messenger to and interceder with God. Can it be believed, that a man thus honored should promulgate laws of his own, should teach aught but the word of God? The man chosen by God and confided in by the Israelites could not have acted so; whatever he taught was the word of God, and all his thoughts were for the safety of the Israelites, and when they sinned and deserved utter annihilation, he offered himself to die, that they might escape. Much had he to encounter, many difficulties had he to overcome; but he at length succeeded, and the descendants of Jacob confided in him when alive, and wept for him when he was dead. Shall any man in the present age dare to slander such a good, such a pious man, call his words untruths, and his miracles deceptions? Can it be possible, that his contemporaries, who saw him act, who heard him speak, should have confided in him, if he had been a deceiver? And that they did believe him, is evident, from our existence as a distinct nation. For it cannot be denied by any human being that we exist now; nor, that we did exist in the days of Tacitus; nor, that we existed in the days of Ezra, nor previous thereto; if we then proceed to trace our origin backwards, we must, and so must even the most obdurate doubter, arrive at the days of our blessed legislator, as the time of our first becoming a nation, with peculiar manners and distinct laws. If this is true, (and there exists not the man, who can disprove it,) then it is also true, that it would argue the grossest ignorance of human nature, to believe, that one man unaided should have been able to impose upon two successive generations, and that he was unaided, cannot be denied. — Let us therefore rather believe, that Moses was sent by God, (the ability of the Creator to do it cannot be doubted,) to work those miracles, and that it was the word of the living God which Moses taught!

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