From Sin to Sinai

What is the timing of the Hebrews’ journey within the Wilderness of Sin and then to Mount Sinai?

While Torah gives us this information, there are some contradictions and places where it is vague. This post helps me to lay out the different timelines so I can structure the chapters.

Please also see: The Timing of the Tablets

We know that the Hebrews first enter the Wilderness or Desert of Sin (also called Zin) on 15 Iyyar, one month after leaving their village in Egypt.

Setting out from Elim, the whole Israelite community came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt.

Exodus 16:1

That was on a Saturday (Shabbat aka the Sabbath). They first got meat (quail) that evening, after sunset. And they first got manna the following morning. We know the arrival was on Shabbat because “the 6th day” of receiving manna was when they were to collect a double portion of their morning manna so they would not need to gather any the following day, Shabbat.

They were in the Wilderness of Sin for that full week, at least.

From the wilderness of Sin the whole Israelite community continued by stages as the LORD would command. They encamped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink.

Exodus 17:1

They got water the same day and there is nothing about how many days may have passed (if any) before the next event. Though the last day of this battle took place the day after Amalek presented a threat.

Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.

Moses said to Joshua, “Pick some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.”

Exodus 17: 8-9
John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Victory O Lord!, 1871. “This biblical scene is from the book of Exodus and shows Moses flanked by Aaron and Hur. They survey Joshua’s battle with the Amalekites, which he can only win while Moses’ hands are aloft. As tiredness sets in, his arms are supported until sunset, which forms the backdrop of Millais’ painting.” (Description from Manchester Art Gallery)

After their defeat of Amalek, we have Chapter 18 which is about Moses’ family (his wife, children, and father-in-law) arriving to meet the Hebrews. The day after that, Moses spends all day trying legal cases and Jetro, his father-in-law helps him out. Jetro leaves after Moses takes some time to take his advice, but we don’t know when. Zipporah and their sons stay.

Immediately after Jetro leaves, it is 1 Sivan and the Hebrews are in the Wilderness of Sinai.

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.

Exodus 19: 1

This is not the only instance of Torah relating stories out of order. It’s clear from the context of the events that the Hebrews were already at Mount Sinai when Moses’ family arrived. Not to mention, it says so.

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God.

Exodus 18: 5

Moses soon goes up the mountain but perhaps only partway, as God appears to be higher up in the mountain. And Moses has some back and forth with the elders as well.

Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain,

and Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him from the mountain…

Exodus 19: 2-3

Moses relays God’s instructions for the people to be ready for God’s arrival the day after tomorrow.

and the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes.

Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.

Exodus 19: 10-11

Torah does not say the day of God’s arrival, of the Revelation. But Judaism is clear this happened on 6 Sivan, which is a holiday called Shavuot. This means that the instructions to prepare for the day were given on 4 Sivan.

What we don’t know is how the time between 1 and 4 Sivan is broken up. Did they reach the camp on the same day they entered the Wilderness of Sinai or did it take a day or two? Did Moses go up to the Mountain the same day they made camp, or did he wait? Or maybe Moses spent more than one day going back and forth to relay God’s words to the elders.

On 6 Sivan, the Revelation began at dawn. Moses led the people out of the camp to the foot of the Mountain. In the middle of all the goings on, Moses makes another assent.

The LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up.

Exodus 19: 20

Again, it can’t be very far because God called Moses up just to tell him to head back down and return later with Aaron. Moses goes back down and tells the people the Ten Commandments.

Next, as the people freak out, God speaks to Moses from the cloud that descended (or from up top, it’s not clear) and tells Moses many more laws, starting with (surprisingly given how recently they were slaves) rules on how to treat slaves. He adds rules on how to deal with accidental death and thieves, plus a large number of others. Then rules for the three annual festivals (Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot). And more miscellaneous.

After that, God calls for another assent.

Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar.

Moses alone shall come near the LORD; but the others shall not come near, nor shall the people come up with him.”

Exodus 24: 1-2

Before that happens though, Moses tells the people all the rules, builds an alter, and sacrifices cows.

Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the LORD and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the LORD has commanded we will do!”

Moses then wrote down all the commands of the LORD. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.

He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the LORD.

Exodus 24: 3-5

Now they can go.

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended;

and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.

Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

Exodus 24: 9-11

At this point, God calls Moses to the top of the mountain. I outline this and further events in The Timing of the Tablets.

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