Interestingly, however, God didn’t just show up when and where He said he would. He appeared in a most bizarre manifestation. It was a highly supernatural event that had the Israelites trembling in reverent fear of God. Read the full account, and pay special attention to what is said about thunder and lightning:
And it came to pass on the third day [of their preparing themselves for God’s appearance; i.e., 6 Sivan] in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.
And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. 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.
And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. And the Lord came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16–20)
Here we stumble upon an awkward translation that, sadly, dampens what actually happened that day. The Hebrew words qowl and baraq, represented here as “thunderings” and “lightnings,” mean something different than what the English translation suggests.
Qowl, first and foremost, means “voice,” “sound,” or “noise,” and this is the translation it is given almost every time it appears elsewhere in the Word. As one quick example of hundreds: “Did ever people hear the voice [qowl] of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?” (Deuteronomy 4:33).
Actually, in its 506 appearances in the Bible, only two instances are translated “thunderings,” and both are right at this spot in Exodus. In a few other places, the Word in English assigns to qowl the more generic translation of “thunder,” but it’s likely that the translators met the same challenge they did here in Exodus, choosing a weather term because it’s the closest English terminology they had to pick from.
Here’s the problem: In almost every place where “thunder” (or “thunderings,” “thundered,” etc.) is chosen as the appropriate English swap-out for a Hebrew word that truly means “voice,” the setting involves God displaying extreme vocal power from the heavens in a way that can be seen with the human eyes. For instance, Exodus 20:18 explicitly states that “all the people saw the thunderings [qowl].” It’s linguistically awkward to “see” a “voice,” so the translators, whose job is certainly unenviable at times, chose what they believed was the closest English alternative. Thunder is loud, it comes from the heavens, and it can be terrifying, but because of the rolling clouds and other weather phenomena accompanying it, it can also be seen, which makes it at least a decent place-holder when a narrative literally describes something that is indescribable (such as “seeing” a “voice”). Additionally, there is a historical association between “voice” and “thunder” in literature, though it’s more poetic than literal. For instance, if you were to read the following sample sentence from a novel—“‘That’s it! I’ve had enough! I’m warning you!’ the large, angry man thundered”—you would know that “thundered” was being used to describe the character’s volume and intensity, obviously not to portray any activityrelated to weather. This, too, may have played a part in why the translators chose “thunderings” instead of the more accurate reference to speech, because we know that God’s shout was more than just a gentle speaking engagement.
This qowl was describing a roar so loud, so rushing, and so atmospherically encompassing that there are no one-word trade-outs from Hebrew to English to accomplish accuracy.Imagine screaming at the very top of your lungs, bloody-murder style, and your voice doesn’t even register any sound above the intense reverberation of the atmosphere all around you. Your own loudest, blood-curdling shrieks are completely muted under the waves of sound coming from heaven. God’s declaration causes the ground under you to rumble, sinks into your skin, and makes you feel as if you will vibrate away, disintegrate, without ever even being touched by any force other than His voice. It’s the kind of permeating sound that digs into your very soul and never leaves. It’s the voice of the Lord—spoken in a volume so loud and authoritative that it causes earthquakes (Exodus 19:18)—who is about to give His nonnegotiable Ten Commandments for you to live by. The sound emitting from heaven is one from a Creator who has the power to crush all of His own creation by a mere shout; this is a sound that says He will be taken seriously.
Don’t think us to be sensationalizing. The Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai who had just heard God’s qowl were convinced that they would all be killed if He used His strong voice to speak to them again (Exodus 20:19b: “let not God speak with us, lest we die”). But in addition, we can look at what God’s intense, qowl-from-heaven shout did in similar circumstances elsewhere, as we read in 1 Samuel 7:10:
And as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel: but the Lord thundered [ra’am; Hebrew “roar”] with a great thunder [qowl] on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel.
On a purely technical level, this should read: “the Lord roared with a great voice from heaven.”
Did you notice, though, that all the Philistines died? The bellow from the clouds, in and of itself, killed them…but just before it did, it caused them to burst into a great fit of hysterics, confusion, panic, and scrambling about in fear.
What’s that? You don’t remember reading that?
We know, we know. Much of the Word is lost in translation. Oh, how little the English expresses, sometimes!
The Hebrew hamam, translated in 1 Samuel 7:10 as “discomfited,” is a primitive root word meaning “to put in motion…to disturb, to put in commotion, to put to flight.”[i] In other words, the Philistines were nearby, readying their troops for attack against God’s people, and God’s qowl from the sky caused them to both a) run all over the place in terror, and b) lose the war. This was a total annihilation—not one survivor.
The voice, alone, accomplished that.
If you “go there” all the way in your imagination, then you’re probably taking the same thought journey the translators did when they placed themselves into the narrative in order to choose the most suitable English word for the Mt. Sinai narrative in Exodus. A translator’s responsibility isn’t just to transfer one word after another from the native to the foreign language, but to understand, study, and respect the context in which words or phrases are used throughout the whole work (the Bible, in this case). What else, in English, besides the word “thunder” comes from the heavens and is visible, loud, and potentially frightening enough to confuse multitudes and strike entire armies dead? In this case, “thunder” wasn’t the worst possible choice.
However, amiability to the translators aside, it was not the most accurate choice.
All the Hebrew says about the supposed “thunderings” is that a “voice” came from God, Himself, as He descended on the mountain, and that the Israelites “saw” it.
To be perfectly clear: There is no reason in the Hebrew to believe that thunder was a part of the display of God’s power on Mt. Sinai on the day the Law was given!
In the end, as grammatically awkward as it is to say “the Israelites saw a voice,” that is the true meaning, and this will become clear after reflecting upon the larger picture. As to “what the voice looked like,” put a pin in that thought for a moment while we home in on the “lightnings.”
The Hebrew word baraq can certainly be used in a sentence to mean “lightning,” but only because its root definition is something extremely bright, like a flash of light. By itself, translators may have chosen to say that “bright lights” or “flashes of light” were seen coming from the sky, but because of the word’s association with “lightning” elsewhere in ancient Hebrew—and because, by now, the translators had probably already agreed to make qowl read “thunderings”—it made sense to make this second, observable phenomenon a part of an erratic weather pattern. Again, however, “lightning” doesn’t completely capture this thought.
In fact, this same term is used in other passages such as the following that don’t have the first thing to do with lightning or storms. In these instances, our baraq appears as a flash of light upon a sharp blade: “If I whet my glittering [baraq] sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me” (Deuteronomy 32:41); “It is drawn, and cometh out of the body; yea, the glittering [baraq] sword cometh out of his gall: terrors are upon him” (Job 20:25). For the word baraq, the “light reflecting off of a sword,” along with other similar uses, are more abundant throughout the Old Testament than “lightning.” Besides just the numerous “sword” or “spear” allusions (see Ezekiel 21:15, 28; Nahum 3:3; Habakkuk 3:11) baraq also refers to the brightness of a flame, like from a lamp or torch (Ezekiel 1:13).
Lucky for us, the “lightnings” of Sinai don’t solely rely on our ability to analyze just baraq.
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After the delivery of the Ten Commandments, this supernatural phenomenon was still going on, but in an unexpected and bizarre turn of events, the Hebrew words aren’t exactly the same, nor are they quite where we expected them to be: “And all the people saw the thunderings [qowl], and the lightnings [lappiyd]” (Exodus 20:18).
Wait a second… What is lappiyd? Where did that word come from, and why is it being rendered “lightnings” here, when back in Exodus 19:16 “lightnings” was baraq? Were the “bright, flashing lights” from before morphed into something new?
First of all, please note that the Hebrew word for “fire”—meaning any regular reference to fire—from what belongs on an altar, to what engulfed the burning bush, to what roasts meat, and so on—is ’esh. Here, suddenly, the “lightnings,” or lappiyd, refers to a sort of fire, but it’s a specific enough kind of fire that the Hebrew author purposely steered around using the most common ’esh. As noted, baraq means a bright flash of light. Here, in the same context as baraq, with an identical “lightnings” translation treatment later, the word lappiyd describes the evolution from mere flashes of light to bright flashes of fire!
The Hebrew lappiyd means “torch” (or “lamp”), which is how it is translated the most in the Old Testament (Genesis 15:17; Judges 7:16, 20; Job 12:5, 41:19; Isaiah 62:1; Ezekiel 1:13; Daniel 10:6). Consider the context of this word as a tool: The Hebrews would have had hundreds of useful purposes for regular fire in the middle of the day in the sunshine, such as cooking, forging, cleansing, etc. However, they wouldn’t have had use for a torch in broad daylight. In proper context, a “torch” or “lamp” are tools that burn brighter than their surroundings.
A certain peculiarity about this word, however, appears fairly consistent. Not only does lappiyd indicate a fiery flame, at times this flame appears to have a life of its own, like a kind of floating, animated symbol, as it does here:
And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp [lappiyd] that passed between those pieces. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates. (Genesis 15:17–18)
In Judges 15:4–5, Samson ties a crude hunk of burning wood between two foxes over and over again, eventually setting about three hundred foxes with these lappiyd “firebrands” into the corn stalks of the Philistine fields. This fiery scene is not the only one that depicts a wild, out-of-control brushfire caused by lappiyd. Nahum once compared lappiyd torches to pure chaos, when he prophesied that the chariots in the streets of Nineveh would violently rage and thrash about in the streets and “justle one against another in the broad ways: they shall seem like torches [lappiyd]” (Nahum 2:4). In Zechariah, the image is that God will “make the governors of Judah like an hearth of fire among the wood, and like a torch [lappiyd] of fire in a sheaf; and they shall devour all the people round about, on the right hand and on the left: and Jerusalem shall be inhabited again in her own place, even in Jerusalem” (Zechariah 12:6).
In context within Scripture, lappiyd looks almost feral, untamed, unmanageable, at least out of human control, and at times even autonomous or self-governing. In other words, the account in Exodus is not talking about a regular, everyday, run-of-the-mill “fire,” and it certainly isn’t referring to “lightning.” According to the Hebrew author, what started as bright, flashing lights (baraq) became, by the end of God’s delivery of the Ten Commandments, bright, flashing fire (lappiyd)!
To sum up what we’ve looked at so far: This moment in Exodus never actually mentioned thunder at all. The Israelites “saw a voice,” and it was the one and only powerful voice of God. How they saw a sound has yet to be addressed. Then, we stopped to reflect upon another fact: The lightning they witnessed was never lightning, but a bright, flashing light (baraq) that rapidly evolved into a flashing fire (lappiyd) sometime between God’s arrival at Sinai and His finalizing of the commandments. And, after viewing the context of the words baraq and lappiyd in other parts of the Bible and studying the descriptions, it’s fair to say that this light/fire was probably moving around of its own (God’s) will.
At this point, it might look like we have more information about the lightnings that weren’t really lightnings than we do about the thunderings that weren’t thunderings. What was really going on with the qowl shouting from heaven?
Here’s the glue. Ready?
When you study the sentence structure of the description of the phenomenon in Exodus 19:16 in Hebrew, without all the modern English additions for flow, we arrive at: boqer qowl baraq. That’s it. That’s all the Hebrew says. In a literal, word-for-word, initially nonsensical reading, boqer qowl baraq means “morning voice light.” It is from these seemingly vague three Hebrew words that we were given the English, “In the morning there were thunderings and lightnings.” Similarly, Exodus 20:18: ’am ra’ah qowl lappiyd. Once again, the literal, word-for-word rendering is, “people saw voice torch.” This is where we received, “All the people saw the thunderings and the lightnings.”
Please don’t miss this:
The Hebrew never suggested the need to include “and” in the original formation of the sentence. The translators inserted the “and” (as well as other words), as they did in countless other locations in Scripture to ensure that the sentence made sense to the English-speaker’s ear. It’s all a bit Tarzan style of speech—“morning voice light”; “people saw voice torch”—without the smoothing that occurs during translation. Unfortunately, unless the translators are correct, even the tiniest word, like “and,” can disjoint the original narrative.
We’re not reading about two separate phenomena. The Hebrew doesn’t say that the baraq and lappiyd were “in addition to” the qowl; it says that the baraq and lappiyd “were” the qowl. In English, the Israelites didn’t “see a voice” and then also “see lights/fires”; they “saw a voice appearing as lights/fires.” Go back to the bare-bones, Tarzan-speech version, and imagine inserting not words but just the punctuation that didn’t exist back then. It might look like this: “Morning; voice-light.” “People saw voice-torch.”
The voice manifested as fire!
All this confusion about how a “voice” can be “seen” is finally explained, because we now have the physical manifestation of God’s voice as these flickering, bright flames appeared all over the mountainside.
Dr. Juergen Buehler, physicist, chemist, and president of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), painted what these authors believe to be a striking word picture of this moment in the Word. The teachings of the rabbis on this area, Buehler explains, is that “every word God spoke that day was like the stroke of a hammer on an anvil. With each stroke on the anvil, which was Mount Sinai, sparks…of fire flew outward.”[ii] How appropriate a tapestry this weaves between the qowl, baraq, and lappiyd… God’s voice, like sparks, shooting out with every reverberating boom of the Law.
But this visual, especially for those who are learning about it for the first time, does present a few intriguing questions: Why would God, Himself, appear as smoke and fire all over the mountain, while His voice—declaring the Ten Commandments for the first time—appeared as flickering, glinting flames that grew in intensity as He spoke, described in such a way as to travel about? Why were these little flame lights so animated…if they even were? And what was the purpose in any of this?
Perhaps some of the earlier Torah commentary experts would be of help to us now.
The Midrash, the most respected Jewish Scripture commentary, compiled by celebrated rabbis between AD 400 and 1200, is alive and well when it comes to the subject of the “thunderings” and the “lightnings.” The rabbis observed a great number of related verses in addition to the geographical spread of God’s appearance worldwide as outlined in the Word, and they came to a most interesting connection, starting at Mt. Sinai and spreading outward. Observe what the records say in Midrash, Shemot Rabbah (Hebrew: “Great Exodus”) 5:9, regarding the visible voice of God in Exodus 19:16 and 20:18:
This is that which is written (Job 37:5), “God thunders wonders with His voice”—what is it that He thunders? When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah at Sinai, He showed wonders of wonders to Israel. How is it? The Holy One, blessed be He, would speak and the voice would go out and travel the whole world: Israel would hear the voice coming to them from the South and they would run to the South to meet the voice; and from the South, it would switch for them to the North, and they would all run to the North; and from the North, it would switch to the East, and they would run to the East; and from the East, it would switch to the West, and they would run to the West; and from the West, it would switch [to be] from the heavens, and they would suspend their eyes [to the heavens], and it would switch [to be] in the earth, and they would stare at the earth, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 4:36), “From the Heavens did He make you hear His voice, to discipline you.” And Israel would say one to the other, “And wisdom, from where can it be found” (Job 28:12). And Israel would say, from where is the Holy One, blessed be He, coming, from the East or from the South? As it is stated (Deuteronomy 33:2), “The Lord came from Sinai, and shone from Seir (in the East) to them”; and it is written (Habakuk 3:3), “And God will come from Teiman (in the South).” And it is stated (Exodus 20:18), “And all the people saw the sounds (literally, voices).”[iii]
Hmm. So, according to this explanation, God’s voice “went out” to the north, south, east, and west, all over the world. There was not one area—from Sinai to the opposite point on our round planet—where anyone could escape His message.
Why the multiple light/fires though? God, the Creator of the universe, whose voice can kill entire armies with one utterance, could have just talked really loudly, right?
He could have. But our creative Father chose this method for His tongues to reach everyone on the globe…and it wasn’t the only time He would do so.
UP NEXT: The Mystery of Tongues of Fire in the New Testament Church
[i] “hamam,” Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, accessed online through Blue Letter Bible Online on July 14, 2020, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H2000&t=KJV.
[iii] Shemot Rabbah 5:9, Midrash, Sefaria Community Translation, last accessed July 15, 2020 from The Sefaria Library, https://www.sefaria.org/Shemot_Rabbah.5.9?ven=Sefaria_Community_Translation&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.