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Deuteronomy says the Israelites heard Yahweh. Exodus implies (I think strongly, in two different ways) that they didn't.

Deut 4:12 ([NASB][8])

Then the Lord spoke to you [the Israelites] from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form — there was only a voice.

But Exodus has Moses relaying Yahweh's words to them, suggesting that they couldn't hear directly:

Ex 24:3 (NASB)

Then Moses came and reported to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!”

and, while Moses is receiving the revelation, the Israelites give him up as lost:

Ex 32:1 (NASB)

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.”

It seems to me that Moses relaying the words of Yahweh to the Israelites strongly implies that the Israelites couldn't hear the words in Yahweh's voice. It also seems to me that the Israelites giving Moses up for lost while the revelation was ongoing again strongly implies that they couldn't hear the words in Yahweh's voice. To illustrate the point, suppose they could hear. Then we might read something like,

Ex 24:3 (changed to illustrate Question)

Then Moses came and reported to the people all the words of the Lord And the people replied, "Why are you telling us what we have already heard?"

Ex 32:1 (changed to illustrate Question)

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt — we do not know what happened to him.” And Aaron said to the people, Can you not hear the LORD speaking to Moses even now? Listen, the voice of the LORD is like the thunder of heaven. And the people replied to Aaron, "Speak louder, for we cannot hear you."

Summary

The apparent inconsistency is that Deuteronomy and Exodus appear to give different accounts of the Sinai revelation.

Deuteronomy says the Israelites "heard the sound of the words but saw no form". Exodus says that some of the Israelites did see a form, and the Israelites as a whole gave up Moses for lost while the revelation was ongoing, suggesting they couldn't hear it.

Origin of this question

At the suggestion of Jesse Steele, I (re-)add some information about Margaret Barker, who prompted this question.

In her book, Introduction to Temple Mysticism (ISBN-13: 978-0281056347; second page of the Introduction chapter in the version I'm looking at), Barker writes,

Deuteronomy denied that the LORD could be seen, and in the Deuteronomists’ account, when the commandments were given to Moses ‘you heard the sound of words, but saw no form’ (Deut. 4.12). The other version of Moses receiving the commandments says that he and others saw the God of Israel (Exod. 24.10), and we can only assume that the writer of Deuteronomy was contradicting this.

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    @Dottard I'm afraid I don't see how that addresses the specific argument.
    – mjc
    Nov 12, 2021 at 23:08
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    Then you should make clearer the inconsistency you are trying to resolve - I cannot see it. Margaret Barker's "problems" are of her own making and are not inherent in the Biblical text.
    – Dottard
    Nov 12, 2021 at 23:28
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    The question needs to be focused. At the moment it is not clear what 'discrepancies you are higllghting. There are two accounts, each viewing the same situation from different aspects and containing different details. Research needs to be done and then needs to be concisely presented in order to invite the input of an informed readership. . . . . . And I cannot read the typeface of the references from biblehub. I suggest using the KJV or YLT instead.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 13, 2021 at 2:22
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    I'm looking into this. Nov 14, 2021 at 4:54
  • 1
    @JesseSteele OK, glad we got there. Thanks for your edits and encouragement.
    – mjc
    Nov 17, 2021 at 1:39

4 Answers 4

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Sequence of Relevant Events:

I. Moses goes down to the people in the last verse before Chapter 20:

Exodus 19:25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

II. God then speaks the Ten Commandments after Moses is down with the people:

Exodus 20:1 And God spoke all these words, saying,

III. The people become afraid and ask Moses to speak and not God.

Exodus 20:18-19 18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”

IV. Moses obliges and then goes up to where God was:

Exodus 20:20-21 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.


Conclusion

Up to this point in Chapter 19 the Bible is very explicit when God is speaking to Moses, but in Chapter 20, when Moses is down with the people, it doesn't say God spoke to Moses but that He spoke. So considering this, and because Moses is down with the people when God speaks the Ten Commandments and only returns to God when the people become frightened after God speaks the Ten Commandments urgently requesting that Moses and not God speak to them, I'm inclined to believe that God spoke directly to the people the Ten Commandments and nothing else but through Moses...

...Since they were all such big scaredy cats.

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    I think this is it. Thanks.
    – mjc
    Nov 18, 2021 at 19:25
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Deuteronomy 4 13 (NASB) reads:

So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone.

Exodus 24 does not describe the return of Moses after hearing the ten commandments. That meeting is in Exodus 20. And in verse 19 the Israelites respond:

Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but do not have God speak to us, or we will die!”

While verse 18 had told us that:

And all the people were watching and hearing the thunder and the lightning flashes, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it all, they trembled and stood at a distance.

Deuteronomy 4 seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable retelling of Exodus 20.

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  • Doesn't this run into the same problem with Dt 4:12, "the Lord spoke to you [the Israelites]"? In Exodus, as you quote, the Israelites are mortally afraid of that, and God obliges their request by delivering his words via Moses. In Deuteronomy, the commandments are delivered directly to the Israelites, in God's own voice; in Exodus, via Moses.
    – mjc
    Nov 17, 2021 at 20:23
  • They make that request after God has given the Ten Commandments; the fact of the request implying that they heard the giving of them. Nov 18, 2021 at 16:34
  • So they hear God give the Ten Commandments in his own voice; then they realise that if they hear the voice of God they die; so they ask Moses to be their intermediary? Shouldn't they all have died at the first step? P.S. if you use @mjc I get notified of comments addressed to me. You get the notification without me doing that with your name because I'm commenting under your answer.
    – mjc
    Nov 18, 2021 at 18:04
  • @mjc The Israelites aren't speaking prophetically, but out of fear. But the text doesn't imply that death would come immediately. It is reasonable to think that If you're hearing from an intermediary that the far greater power is less likely to take umbrage with you and slay you. (Thank you for the hint) Nov 18, 2021 at 18:12
  • I think you and Austin give the same answer, and I think it's the right one. If I could accept both I would, but I can't, so I've chosen Austin's as the 'accepted' answer just because he gave a slightly fuller explanation.
    – mjc
    Nov 18, 2021 at 19:24
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It's an elaboration, not a contradiction

Firstly, this is a good question deserving of an elaborate answer.

Origin of proposed "contradictions"

As the user writes, this argument was inspired by Barker. This is important to consider up front, that the person studying the Bible did not see this contradiction studying alone, but was persuaded to see a contradiction by someone else.

Whenever we feel there is a contradiction in any text, we must pause to reflect on whether we see the contradiction ourselves or whether someone else suggested that there is a contradiction. That is part of keeping healthy hermeneutical habits.

  1. From studying by oneself: If self-study created the notion of contradiction, then one needs to review appropriate hermeneutics, not expecting something from a text, context, and genre that should not be expected.

  2. From third party suggestion: If the notion of contradiction came from a third source, then in addition to the hermeneutics of self-study (1) we must also review our epistemology, knowing how we come to conclusions. That is the case here.

Since we are dealing with scenario 2, our need is to define a "contradiction" and see how it differs from an "elaboration".

tl;dr

Difference without disagreement

Two witnesses in court will never give identical accounts. If they do, then their testimony is likely fraud. People see things differently.

In a two-witness account, the first witness might establish an event, then the second witness establishes more details or describe it in finer words. This is an "elaboration", expanding on what has already been understood, but with more detail. That is anything but a contradiction. Quite the opposite, an elaboration verifies the first witness.

Translation before conclusion

In a private conversation, Dr. Ken Taylor (Living, NLT, Tyndale) told me in defense of my use of the NASB over his own two translations, "I agree with your analysis. If we are going to study the words, we need the words."

King James, successor of Shakespeare's queen, Elizabeth Tudor, gave us a great service in establishing a standard Bible that helped anchor the English language. However, our daily understanding of its words can cause some confusion that we do not want to bring into Bible study. In any deep Bible study, do not rely on only one translation. At least use New King James; I prefer NASB...

Review the story as a story

In Exodus, people heard the words from Moses, not God, and they understood from Moses...

Ex 24:3 (NASB)

Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!”

...Much later, we flashback to more details of that story, learning why the people didn't hear from God directly...

Deut 4:12 (NASB)

Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice.

...They heard noises, but couldn't make out what the raucous was about, which may be part of why they leaped to conclusions and thought Moses was dead and preferred to worship a small statue instead...

Ex 32:1 (NASB)

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us [a]a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

Conclusion

I don't see contradiction; I see elaboration.

And, never miss the hermeneutical value of application. The message of that passage is something along the lines of: Don't doubt just because you don't understand.

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  • That God spoke in a way that sounded like noise to the Israelites may be the only way to resolve the apparent inconsistency. But isn't it awkward to suppose that God "spoke to you" (Deut 4:12, NASV, my emphasis) and "declared to you his covenant which he commanded you to perform" (Deut 4:13, NASV, my emphasis) - all in a way that His addressees couldn't clearly hear or understand? This declaring and commanding don't happen through Moses, because in the very next verse Moses switches to first-person pronouns, "The LORD commanded me [...] to teach you" (Deut 4:14, NASV, my emphasis).
    – mjc
    Nov 16, 2021 at 21:00
  • In Deut 4:10 (NASV), Moses writes that "the LORD said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words". Did the LORD mean, "that I may let them hear a vague rumbling sound, at the sound of which they will forget about me and make graven images"?
    – mjc
    Nov 16, 2021 at 21:17
  • You don't need to put "my emphasis" in a comment, but surely in a Q or A. Re Dt 4:10, it means, "Let them assemble and you tell them what only you can understand me say." Nov 17, 2021 at 0:50
  • @mjc One thing to be careful of is thinking "Ex sees a form; Dt sees no form" unless you can see the Hebrew words making it that clear. Ex and Dt do not read this way. Ex says they saw something but didn't hear, Dt says the same more adamantly. Your deeper curiosity seems to be why God would not spell everything out easily for us—because we are the ones who are learning and growing, and we can only find answers if we seek with all our hearts. That's another Bible passage, which perhaps can help explain why Ex and Dt portray God as so difficult [for us] to understand. Jer 29:13 Nov 17, 2021 at 1:50
  • Re Dt 4:10 meaning “you [Moses] tell them”: it’s not at all clear to me how “the LORD spoke to you [the Israelites] from the midst of the fire; you heard […] a voice” can mean “Moses spoke to you”. I’m afraid this strikes me as fairly strained. Re “Ex sees a form; Dt sees no form” and the Hebrew: I don’t read Hebrew script, so the best I can do is read biblehub.com/interlinear/deuteronomy/4-12.htm, which has “the-sound of-the-words you-heard but-form no saw, only [you-heard]-a-voice”. Is “sees no form” a misreading here?
    – mjc
    Nov 17, 2021 at 2:32
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OP answering own question. At the suggestion of Steve Taylor, I've transferred my commentary in the OP to an answer.


My attempts to present Barker's argument clearly to the commenters on the OP helped me think about her claim. I now think the contradiction assumed by Barker can be explained without invoking contradiction, for reasons I can explain if desired. (In fairness to Barker: for her, this assumption arises within a broader pattern of evidence.) However, while scrutinising the passages, the matter of what the Israelites heard began to appear to me as another possible contradiction, and that became the focus of this post. This may possibly be 'original' to me in the sense of not directly taken from elsewhere, though I would be surprised if it hasn't been noticed by someone, somewhere, before now.

Proposed solutions

[This was written before the accepted solution was posted.]

So far there seems to be one proposed solution, namely that God's voice was not fully audible or comprehensible to the Israelites.

Ray Butterworth commented,

I can hear people talking outside my door, but it's distorted and I can't hear what the individual words are. Could that be a similar situation?

Jesse Steele answered,

They heard noises, but couldn't make out what the raucous was about

and commented

Both the Ex and Dt accounts describe Israel witnessing God talk to Moses, but Moses having to spell it out for them.

This is also the only solution I've been able to think of.

My response

I think Deuteronomy is unambiguous that the Israelites didn't just witness God address Moses, but were themselves addressed by God, in His own voice.

Deut 4:12 (NASB):

Then the Lord spoke to you [the Israelites] from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form — there was only a voice.

Are we to believe that, when God spoke, intending to deliver His Law, it was just incomprehensible noise? This strikes me as a theologically costly solution.

A note on my approach

Jesse Steele commented,

To find a contradiction there, one needs to be looking for a contradiction more than looking to see what can be gained from the story.

I agree that one has a choice about how hard one scrutinises the details of a story, and that sometimes this may be missing the point. As a hermeneutical principle, however, it seems to me that this is an equally good defence of many claims that I wouldn't expect most Christians to accept willingly. For instance, Muslims sometimes claim that the Bible predicts the coming of Mohammed. If Christians object, shall we say that they shouldn't look so hard for contradictions in the Muslim account, and just look at what can be gained from the story?

Problem solved (I think)

I think Austin and Kyle Johansen have given the same, correct answer. Deut 4:12 refers not to Ex 24, but to Ex 20. God does address the Israelites directly, but they are overawed and ask Moses to relay the rest of the Law to them.

To add my own comment on the other part of the puzzle: forty days later, when the Israelites give Moses up as lost, it doesn't seem too hard to believe that they can do this because God's private address to Moses is quieter, or telepathic.

Final thought

Thanks to everyone who helped me wrangle this question into its final form.

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