There is no extra-biblical historical or archaeological evidence for this Israeli origin myth but that's another matter. Leaving that aside, let's look at what the Bible has to say and see what sense can be made of it, if any.
Firstly, there are strong clues about the beliefs of the person or people who were writing this stuff, and they go some way to explain some of the 'Commandments'. Before we get to the tale proper, we have this interesting little snippet:
And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said, Blessed be the Lord, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.
This is said by Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, 'the priest of Midian' (Exodus 18:1) who was presumably wise in these matters, so we can be fairly sure that the Hebrews were polytheistic and just saw Yahweh as maybe the greatest god, but certainly not the only one on offer. It's rather touching that Moses has to be reassured by his father-in-law that he has chosen his god wisely.
Jethro had happened along to offer Moses some advice, which Moses took. Basically, Jethro told Moses he was doing too much and was going to wear himself out if he didn't take things a bit easier. What he needed was a set of rules, and people to enforce these rules then he wouldn't have to make all the decisions, so why not ask Yahweh for some ideas.
And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.
Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God: And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.
If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace. So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.
Moses had a direct line to Yahweh and talked to him on almost a daily basis, yet turned to his father-in-law for advice... Hmmm...
Moving swiftly on...
All this supposedly took place in the three months since the Israelites had escaped from Egypt during which all of them had lived through the plagues, seen the 'destruction of the first-born' at Passover and been saved by a streak of lamb's blood over their door. Then they has seen Moses open up the Red Sea to allow them all to walk across on dry land, and the destruction of the Egyptian army when they tried to follow. Then they had been fed by miraculous food and watered by springs which welled up from nowhere on demand. And the reason they had been 'different' to the Egyptians in the first place was because they were devoted followers of Yahweh.
Anyway, after three months they were camped near Mount Sinai so Moses decided to go visit Yahweh atop this mountain, as you do. First of all, Yahweh tells Moses to go back down the mountain and tell the Israelites that they've seen what he can do when he puts his mind to it, so they'd better watch out, yeah?!
And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
"It's mine I tell you! All mine! You lot need to remember who's in charge around here and which side your bread is buttered!"
So Moses went back down the mountain and told the Israelites that Yahweh had promised them the earth if they obeyed him and kept his rules. (I wonder if that's where right-wing politicians got their usual campaign tactic from.)
So, all the people agreed and Moses went back up the mountain again to tell Yahweh that the deal was on. "Okay!", said Yahweh, "Give me three days and I'll pop back down and tell them the rules, but they'll have to wash their cloths, right!". Even in a desert Yahweh can't be expected to look at dirty cloths. (Exodus 19:10)
Now it begins to get very strange.
Yahweh tell Moses that he has to set bounds around the mountain to prevent people creeping up for a quick peek and says anyone who looks at him will die. Also, anyone who crosses the 'border' of the mountain or lays a hand on it must be stoned to death and 'shot through', even animals. Luckily there probably weren't many wild animals in the desert or it would have been the devil's own job enforcing that one!
And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai. And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death: There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.
But why the secrecy? Yahweh is going to stage a spectacular appearance to tell the people the new rules, but they mustn't look at him even though he's going to 'come down in the sight of all the people' and they have to keep well clear of the mountain he's standing on!
Can anyone else see the problem here? Where exactly is the border of a mountain? Where does the surrounding land end and the mountain start? Had these people ever actually seen a mountain? Something is beginning to smell a bit ratty here. Must be that desert heat and all those unwashed clothes.
But, a deal is a deal, and Moses tells the people to wash their cloths (no mention of where the water is to come from). "Oh! And no sex either! That'll keep your minds clear!"
And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes. And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.
|Okay! Nobody look at the god!|
And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.
Yahweh tells him to go back down the mountain and remind the people that they mustn't look at him, and he tells Moses to bring all the priest back with him and has to be reminded that he had said they're to be stoned and shot through if they come too close.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish. And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them. And Moses said unto the Lord, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.
Oops! That was a close one. Good thing Moses was on the ball or that would have been the priesthood done for! But who is this Lord who might 'break forth upon them' anyway? Is it another god or is Yahweh warning Moses that he can't control himself?
Then Yahweh announces his rules by which the people are supposed now to try to build a nation, but, for some reason, the first few are all concerned with Yahweh and his insecurities and the rest just deal with having a day off work every week and list a few social rules which are more or less common to all societies and so would have been observed already.
But one stands out as rather odd:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
And this follows right on Yahweh telling the Hebrews that they are to have no other gods (plural) but him! Not that there aren't any other gods, mind you; just that the Israelites could only have Yahweh.
Someone is very twitchy about other gods, aren't they. In fact, it is that problem which gets the most attention, with the stuff about the Sabbath being strictly observed because it's Yahweh's special day also being at the top of the list.
Someone here is feeling the competition, not from other gods, but from other priests - the priests of the other gods. In the struggle for power in a polytheist society, the struggle isn't with other gods, it's with the priesthoods of other gods. This was a polytheistic culture where tribes had their own special god.
What we are seeing here is history written by the winners. The fact that they grafted it on to another origin myth is neither here nor there. In fact, the volcano similarity (Mount Sinai isn't volcanic) probably shows this myth originated at some time around the Sodom and Gomorrah period when Yahweh used to destroy places with 'fire and brimstone' and he was very much a capricious, and far from omniscient little god, about as angry and unpredictable as any other volcano and which people could only hope to mollify with spells, incantations and sacrifices.
Mount Sinai's rocks were formed in the late stage of the Arabian-Nubian Shield's (ANS) evolution. Mount Sinai displays a ring complex that consists of alkaline granites intruded into diverse rock types, including volcanics. The granites range in composition from syenogranite to alkali feldspar granite. The volcanic rocks are alkaline to peralkaline and they are represented by subaerial flows and eruptions and subvolcanic porphyry. Generally, the nature of the exposed rocks in Mount Sinai indicates that they originated from different depths.
Of course no one was allowed to see Yahweh. The last thing a high priest wants is for people to see the god he represents - can you work out why?
Of course, Moses had to explain away why he couldn't take the other priests to meet god - yep! same reason.
And of course all the real rules, other than those which normal people obey anyway because they are normal human beings, were about Yahweh! That was the power base of the priesthood which won the struggle.
And that explains also the peculiar little tale told later on when Moses is away for a while, chatting to Yahweh again. When he gets back he discovers that, despite all the things the Israelites are supposed to have witnessed, even hearing the voice of Yahweh himself, some upstart priest has made a golden calf for the people to worship and Moses is losing his grip.
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.
And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the Lord. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.
So now we see the obsession with not making graven images. A rival priesthood did it. How wicked were they?
Incidentally, did anyone else notice how the 'Ten Commandments' were not cast on tablets of stone, they were announced to the people from a mountain top? We aren't told at this point what was on the tablets of stone - which were produced later, only that there were two of them written on both sides.
And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.
And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.
We have to wait till later for that, then we find they were different ones!
The Old Testament is not a book about God. It's a book about a priesthood and their struggle to retain their power against their deadly rivals - the priesthoods of other gods. It's a thinly disguised re-write of history by the eventual winners. As such it formed a useful platform for the emerging Christian sects to graft their re-write of history onto as they struggled for power against the priesthoods of other gods and other sects.