“He Spoke Within a Cloud”: A Nebulous Narrative and its Normative Implications

Upon receiving news of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, sets off to meet the nation in the desert.

Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people—that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt. So Moses’ father in law, Jethro, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom, because he [Moses] said, “I was a stranger in a foreign land,” and one who was named Eliezer, because [Moses said,] “The God of my father came to my aid and rescued me from Pharaoh’s sword.” Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, and his [Moses’] sons and his wife came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God. And he said to Moses, “I, Jethro, your father in law, am coming to you, and [so is] your wife and her two sons with her.” So Moses went out toward his father in law, prostrated himself and kissed him, and they greeted one another, and they entered the tent. Moses told his father in law [about] all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on account of Israel, [and about] all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and [that] the Lord had saved them. Jethro was happy about all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians. [Thereupon,] Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued all of you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities, for with the thing that they plotted, [He came] upon them.” Then Moses’ father in law, Jethro, sacrificed burnt offering[s] and [peace] offerings to God, and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to dine with Moses’ father in law before God.[1]

What role do Jethro’s “sacrifice[s], burnt offerings and peace offerings to God” play within the broader context of our scene? At first glance, this fact may strike us as just one more unremarkable detail in the series of details that the Torah provides us regarding Jethro’s visit. But when we consider where we are in this scene (at the foot of Mount Sinai) and think about what is being sacrificed (presumably, members of Jethro’s flock), and then put these pieces together—Mount Sinai, Jethro’s flock, and the motif of “sacrifice”—we cannot help but recall an earlier Biblical scene in which those pieces took center stage:

Moses was pasturing the flocks of Jethro, his father in law, the chief of Midian, and he led the flocks after the free pastureland, and he came to the mountain of God, to Horeb [Mount Sinai]. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed… And the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their slave drivers, for I know their pains… So now come, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” … But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” And He said, “For I will be with you, and this is the sign for you that it was I Who sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”[2]

Moses arrives at the burning bush while tending Jethro’s flock and is told by Hashem that, upon leading the Israelites out of Egypt, “you will worship God on this mountain.” Those who are familiar with the rest of the story, or with Rashi’s commentary, probably assume that the “worship” to which this prophecy refers is the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. What is puzzling about this interpretation, however, is that receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai did not seem to involve any act of worship on the part of the Israelites. The term “worship” )]Heb.: ע.ב.ד] most naturally connotes offering sacrifices—and, indeed, that is how Ibn Ezra understands the burning bush prophecy: as a reference not to Parshat Yitro, in which the Israelites receive the Torah,[3] but to Parshat Mishpatim, in which Moses leads the Israelites in offering a series of sacrifices at the foot of Mount Sinai.[4]

In terms of peshat – that is, Biblical interpretation operating with the plain meaning of the text – Ibn Ezra’s approach seems the most straightforward. Yet Rashi nevertheless adopts an alternative view, and – whatever his motivation for doing so may be – the very fact that he does so is reflective of a critical if often-forgotten characteristic of Biblical prophecy: its ambiguity. With the benefit of hindsight, identifying the event or series of events to which a given prophecy most naturally refers is usually a simple exegetical exercise.  However, for those who lived through these events in real time, it was not always immediately clear how best to fit the prophecies they had received into the reality unfolding about them.[5]

One classic example of this phenomenon is the prophecy that Rebecca receives regarding her two unborn children: “ve-rav ya’avod tza’ir”.[6] As R. Jonathan Sacks has explained:

The words [ve-rav ya’avod tza’ir] seem simple: “the older will serve the younger.” Returning to them in the light of subsequent events, though, we discover that they are anything but clear. They contain multiple ambiguities… The third [such ambiguity]—not part of the text but of later tradition—is the musical notation. The normal way of notating these three words would be mercha-tipcha-sof pasuk. This would support the reading, “the older shall serve the younger.” In fact, however, they are notated tipcha-mercha-sof pasuk—suggesting, “the older, shall the younger serve”; in other words, “the younger shall serve the older.” …The subtlety is such, that we do not notice them at first. Only later, when the narrative does not turn out as expected, are we forced to go back and notice what at first we missed: that the words Rebecca heard may mean “the older will serve the younger” or “the younger will serve the older.”[7]

Taking this example as our paradigm, let us now return to the book of Exodus. Even if we follow Ibn Ezra in claiming that the events of Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 24) constitute the fulfillment of the prophecy delivered to Moses in Parshat Shemot (Exodus 3), a lot of text remains between these two parshiyot. The point here is not to advocate, as Rashi and others in fact do, that some other, interim event, or series of interim events, should be viewed as the “true” fulfillment of the burning bush prophecy. It is simply to take a principle that others have noted—the ambiguity of Biblical prophecy—and to demonstrate how it may apply in yet another instance. What we are trying to do, in other words, is to put ourselves in the headspace of the Israelites and to observe, as Yogi Berra might, that “it ain’t over till it’s over”: until they themselves had reached Parshat Mishpatim, Moses and the Israelites may not have known how the prophetic prediction of Parshat Shemot would play itself out.[8]

Exegetically, the effects of this observation are threefold:

  1. It allows us to appreciate that, in the moment, any number of events may reasonably have been taken by Moses and/or the Israelites to represent the realization of the burning bush prophecy—or, minimally, the first steps towards its realization. The receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is one such example, offered by Rashi and others. The sacrifices offered by Jethro and partaken of by the leaders of the Israelites may constitute a second.[9]
  2. Beyond the counterfactuals, there are a series of concrete details strewn throughout Parshat Yitrowhose significance is perhaps best illuminated against the backdrop of the burning bush prophecy and the expectation, on the part of the nation, of its imminent fulfilment. For instance:
    1. In the lead-up to the revelation, Hashem pledges that the Israelites shall constitute a “kingdom of priests”.[10] This a challenging phrase whose meaning is the subject of much speculation and debate. The Israelites are not all priests. In what way, then, shall they suddenly assume “priestly” capacities, post-Sinai?
    2. Also prior to the revelation, Hashem commands Moses to set boundaries around the mountain so that nobody ascends it, and warns that whoever violates these boundaries—man or beast—shall die.[11] Among other things, the emphasis on animals is odd—why would the Israelites have contemplated bringing their animals onto Mount Sinai?
    3. Though contact with the mountain during the revelation itself is prohibited, Hashem stipulates, “after the extended shofar blast, they may ascend the mountain.”[12] What is the purpose of granting this permission—who would want to ascend the mountain after the revelation, and why?
    4. The prohibition of ascending the mountain is then repeated a few verses later, immediately before Hashem initiates the revelation: “Hashem said to Moses, ‘Descend, warn the people lest they break through to Hashem to see, and a multitude of them will fall. Even the priests who approach Hashem should be prepared, lest Hashem burst forth against them.’”[13] Moses insists that the people have already received this warning, but Hashem responds by repeating it a third time, yet again reminding him that it applies to the priests as much as anybody else.[14] Why the focus on this prohibition, and on the priests specifically?
    5. Finally, the revelation begins, and the “Ten Commandments” which fill its content span the majority of the next chapter. Yet instead of closing on this note of climax, Parshat Yitro concludes with a series of apparently unrelated laws concerning the construction of altars.[15] What role do these halakhot serve here?
      If we enter Parshat Yitro without context, it can be difficult (though certainly not impossible) to find compelling answers to the questions we have raised. If, on the other hand, we remember that hovering in the background of the revelation is a prophecy according to which the Israelites are to offer sacrifices upon Mount Sinai, then we much more readily recognize how the aforementioned details contribute to the dynamic of our scene. The animal is the object of sacrifice; the priest is its officiant; the altar is its locus. Thus, we may reasonably posit that the invocation of these components in a variety of instances throughout Parshat Yitro stems from the fact that the nation is eager to integrate them as per the prophecy reported to them by Moses.
  3. Yet, even as they sense that the time to actualize the prophecy is fast upon them, neither the Israelites nor Moses ultimately know precisely when or how they shall go about doing so. This fact alone supplies us with a framework for analyzing many of the problems posed by the book of Exodus, more broadly. Why does Moses shuttle between the nation and Hashem so many times in the days before the revelation? Why does Hashem twice reiterate the ban against ascending the mountain? Why do the Israelites abort what seemed to have been the original plan—Hashem addressing them directly—and instead urge Moses to act as intermediary? Why is the covenantal ceremony at which the people finally offer their sacrifices (Exod. 24) separated from Parshat Yitroby three whole chapters? In so many ways, the logistics of the Sinai scene(s) leave us disoriented. These, of course, are issues about which our sages have written extensively, and we are not about to resolve them all at once. We can, however, ameliorate them substantially, if we are amenable to the notion that it is the confusion that the Israelites themselves bring to Sinai—confusion produced by the opaque prophecy that their leader had earlier received upon that very mountain—which, in turn, prompts the chaotic mechanics and jumbled literary presentation of the events that surround it.

Of course, the implications of this approach are significant not only exegetically, but also from the standpoint of religious ethics and epistemology. Hashem’s revelation at Mount Sinai stands as our tradition’s quintessential instance of spiritual certitude. Never before or again would humankind find itself capable of discerning the divine will as definitively as when that will was communicated, in plain language, directly from its source. Yet, the upshot of our analysis is that even in that very moment of divine clarity, critical aspects of the divine will remained obscured—for though Hashem had much earlier indicated an apparent desire for sacrifices at Sinai, our ancestors, so far as we can surmise from the text, were never instructed as to when or how or through whom or with what to perform these sacrifices. The matter was left for them to determine through their own discretion and devices. Nor, incidentally, was the manner in which they ultimately did so confirmed as correct by any post ipso facto pronouncement from on high to that effect.

Such are the conditions that we must contend with as adherents to Hashem’s Torah. Hashem may descend upon Sinai, issue clear moral directives, and even supply our leaders with the jurisprudential apparatus they require for promulgating their own such directives, but He does so from “within the thickness of a cloud”,[16] because nature of all normative endeavor is fundamentally nebulous. In the beit midrash, it may be easy to determine the law applicable in prototypical cases, such as when Reuven’s ox gores Shimon’s. But intuiting how Hashem would have us proceed, both halakhically (i.e. in terms of Jewish law) and especially hashkafically (i.e. in terms of religious worldview), in the myriad of complex circumstances that we find ourselves confronted by in “real life,” is not at all easy. Determining the will of God in mundane life is difficult, delicate, and ultimately dubious, as it is very rarely that we can claim to know with surety what it is that Hashem wants of us. All we can do is strive for the standard set by the prophet Micah, and pray that we meet it successfully:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good and what He demands of you: only to act justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Hashem your God.[17]


[1]  Exodus 18:1-12.

[2]  Ibid. 3:1-12.

[3]  Ibid. Ch. 20.

[4]  Ibid. Ch. 24.

[5]  For more on this topic, see R. Shalom Carmy’s English audio shiurYodea Da’at Elyon.

[6]  Genesis 25:23.

[7]  See R. Jonathan Sacks, “Toldot: Between Prophecy and Oracle,” Covenant and Conversations 5773, available online here: http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-toldot-between-prophecy-and-oracle/. R. Sacks argues that the news delivered to Rivkah came in the form of an oracle, which he describes as a familiar form of supernatural communication in the ancient world [that] were normally obscure and cryptic, unlike the normal form of Israelite prophecy. However, R. Carmy’s view (see first footnote)—viz., that even the normal form of Israelite prophecy often contained an element of the obscure and cryptic—seems more compelling.

[8]  For sake of simplicity, let us assume that these chapters are recorded in chronological order, though there are certainly commentators who maintain that they are not.

[9] We might even propose a third, if we are willing to move from the territory of peshat into that of derash. Since the root ע.ב.ד means both “worship” and “work,” and since et can mean “with,” and since E-lohim means both “God” and “judges,” the phrase “ta’avdun et ha-E-lohim ba-har ha-zeh,” which until now we have translated as “you shall worship God on this mountain,” might alternatively be rendered, “you shall work with the judges on this mountain.” Read thus, the prophecy at the burning bush would serve as an oblique (and admittedly ungrammatical) allusion to the judicial reforms Jethro recommends in the latter half of our passage, whose effect is to place Moses in the position of “working with other judges.”

[10]  Exodus 19:6.

[11]  Ibid. 19:13.

[12]   Ibid.

[13]   Ibid. 19:21-22.

[14]   Ibid. 19:24.

[15]   Ibid. 20:20-23.

[16]  Ibid. 19:9.

[17]  Micah 6:8.