One of the best known passages in the Bible is the Ten Commandments. In this article I explain Exodus 19:9 and what it teaches us about the purpose of the 10 Commandments.
Exodus 19:9 – Meaning
The giving of the Ten Commandments is recorded in Exodus 20. The previous chapter, Exodus 19, relates the arrival of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. God tells Moses what He is going to do.
Let’s start by looking at verse 19:9 phrase by phrase. Unless stated otherwise, the explanation is based on the Daat Mikra commentary.
9. Thereupon God said to Moses: Behold, I am coming to you in a thickening of the cloud so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and then they will also trust you forever. Moses held out the words of the people toward God.
Thereupon God said to Moses Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai to deliver a message to God (see the end of verse 19:8). However, God spoke to him first. Moses delivers his message at the end of the verse.
Behold This word is said to create anticipation in the one who is being addressed
I am coming to you In this phrase, the Hebrew word for “you” is 2nd person masculine singular. This means God is explicitly speaking about Moses.
God is telling Moses that the event, the giving of the 10 Commandments, will happen very soon.
I am coming to you in a thickening of the cloud The heavy, thick cloud will serve as if it were a mask to keep anyone from actually seeing God. The people will see the cloud and realize that God’s presence is there with them.
so that the people may hear when I speak with you So that the people may hear the sound of My speaking that will come out from the midst of the cloud that they will see with their eyes.
also trust you They will also trust the prophets who come after you [Rashi].
The people will hear that I am speaking with you, and due to this they will certainly believe in you forever. When you tell them about My commandments, they will believe that I commanded you.
Moshe held out the words of the people toward God Moses told God that the people were ready to accept the Torah [Rashi]. This is the message mentioned in Verse 19:8 that Moses wanted to deliver.
Purpose of the 10 Commandments
It seems that the sages of the past have identified 3 main purposes for the Ten Commandments.
1. Validate Moses as a Prophet
Malbim in his commentary on Exodus 19:9 gives 5 reasons for the display of God’s glory at Mount Sinai. Here’s a summary of his 5 points:
- Many people denied prophecy and said it’s not possible that the Creator of the world would have a relationship with a lowly creation.
- The Jewish people knew that prophecy existed. But they thought prophecy only came to a person in a dream or a vision. They did not realize that an awake person could experience prophecy.
- The Jewish people were not positive that Moses was the one to bring them the Torah and all of God’s commandments.
- In the phrase “speak with you” the English word “with” is the translation of the Hebrew “im” (spelled ayin-mem). This structure indicates two “equals” speaking with each other and even, at times, disagreeing. This teaches us that the Torah was given to be understood and that Moses had the ability to argue with God (see Exodus 19:21-23).
- When all the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai, it was clear to them that God had made Moses His messenger. They also understood the true nature of prophecy. Therefore, they would not accept a “prophet” who would change the Torah that was received at Sinai.
Malbim builds up step-by-step to the idea that the way the 10 Commandments were given was meant to certify Moses as God’s special prophet.
2. 10 Commandments and Covenant
The giving of the Ten Commandments is also recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.
13. And He declared to you His covenant, which He commanded you to perform, Ten Commandments; and He wrote them upon two tablets of stone.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes about the 10 Commandments as the basis for the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
4:41 God gathered an entire nation, three million strong, to the foot of Mount Sinai, and proclaimed His message. Every man, woman and child heard God’s voice, proclaiming the Ten Commandments. A permanent bond was thus forged between God and Israel.
5:26 It was through the Ten Commandments that the covenant was sealed. It is thus written, “[God] proclaimed to you His covenant, which He commanded you to keep – Ten Commandments – and He wrote them on tablets of stone” (Deuteronomy 4:13).
Here we see that the 10 Commandments serve as the basis of the permanent covenant between God and the Jewish people.
3. 10 Commandments as the Foundation of the Torah
Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi writes about this idea in The Kuzari:
1:87 The nation then heard God proclaim Ten Commandments in a very lucid voice. These commandments were intended as the pillars and foundation of the entire Torah. …The nation did not receive these Ten Commandments from a group of individuals or even a prophet; they came directly from God.
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah contains 613 commandments. Ten of the 613 commandments were spoken by God and heard by the entire Nation.
Rashi points out in his commentary on Exodus 24:12 that within the 10 Commandments are hints to all 613 commandments. Rav Saadia Gaon wrote a poem revealing how each of the 613 commandments are linked to the Ten Commandments.
Summary by Rabbi Hirsch
I will end this article with a quote from the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch summarizing the purpose of the 10 Commandments:
Let us add that the “Ten Commandments” do not have greater holiness or greater importance than any other of the Torah’s commandments. They are neither the whole Law nor are they holier laws than all the rest. God expressly declared them as being merely an introduction to and preparation for the whole main Lawgiving that would follow after them: “I am coming to you … so that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust in you forever” (above, Exodus 19:9). Thus it is expressly stated that the purpose of the revelation on Sinai was none other than to prepare the people for the acceptance of all the other commandments that would be transmitted to them by Moshe, and to prove to them beyond the shadow of a doubt, by their own experience, that “God did speak to your entire assembly” (Deuteronomy 5:19). Thus, they would receive all the other commandments, too, as the Word of God through Moshe, and would fulfill them – forever – with steadfast faith.
Nevertheless, the Ten Commandments are basic principles and general headings for all the other laws and commandments.
[italics in the original]
Many people consider the 10 Commandments as the most important part of the Torah. After all, they contain fundamental ideas about human responsibility.
However, their real importance, based on Exodus 19:9, is they serve the purpose of validating Moses as a prophet. Once we know and accept Moses as God’s prophet, we are then required to accept the Torah that God gave to us via Moses.
This article is part of a series about the Ten Commandments.