In its current form, Exodus 19-24 is a compilation of different traditions relating Moses’ or Moses and company’s ascent(s) and descent(s) to and fro Yahweh, the giving(s) of Yahweh’s commandments, Yahweh’s theophany(ies), and the ritual ceremonies ratifying Yahweh and Israel’s covenant—all of which are a byproduct of lengthy editorial processes, which in the end have created a composite narrative with some amusing internal inconsistencies.
For example, in the text’s current narrative sequence Moses ascends a total of 6 times (19:3, 8, 20; 24:1, 9, 13) and descends only 4 times (19:7, 14, 25; 24:3). Once he is commanded to ascend only to be commanded to descend (19:19-21), and on another occasion Moses is commanded to ascend while still on the mountain (24:9-13)!
In other places, Moses is commanded to ascend not alone but with Aaron (Ex 19:24), or with a larger host: Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders (24:1, 9). There is also conflicting reports as to which mountain Moses and/or Moses and company ascend: Horeb, “the mountain of the god” (24:13) or Sinai (19:1, 24:16). See #86.
Other inherent problems reflective of a cumulative process of editorial insertions and revisions may be summed up as follows. In 19:7-8 the people agree to Yahweh’s words, claiming “all that Yahweh spoke we will do.” Yet Yahweh’s words or commandments are not uttered until 20:1-17 (the Ten Commandments) and 21:1-23:32 (the law code). Yahweh had not even spoken yet. Additionally, in 24:3, after the case-laws have been given to Moses and he descends and speaks them to the people, Moses performs a ritualized covenant ceremony binding the people to Yahweh through the laws. Yet, the making of this covenant and its ratification by the people via a ritual rite of blood aspersion was already introduced in 19:3-5. It would seem therefore that one tradition of this composite passage first saw Yahweh declaring that a covenant will be made between himself and the people, and that if the people keep his covenant then they will be treasured by Yahweh (19:3-6), then second, the giving of the covenant in the form of case laws (21:1-23:32), and lastly the binding of the covenant via the blood ritual (24:3-7). Exodus 19:7, wherein the people agree to Yahweh’s words, originally must have been placed after the giving of the case laws, as part of the covenant ceremony described in 24:3-7: “All that Yahweh spoke we will do and heed” (24:7).
There are also narrative problems with respect to the giving of the decalogue or the Ten Commandments. Typically biblical narrative presents the deity conveying laws to Moses and then Moses to the people. But multiple textual redactions has resulted in the text’s current form where Moses conveys the Ten Commandments to the people, without them having been dictated to him by Yahweh. As commentators have noticed the Ten Commandments are simply inserted into the narrative as the direct words of Yahweh with a brief introductory formula: “And God spoke all these words, saying. . .” However the Ten Commandments must have originally been presented in the context of Yahweh speaking them to Moses, but here an editor has simply inserted them before this verse: “So Moses descended to the people and said to them. . .” (19:25). But in fact it is Yahweh who is speaking the Ten Commandments directly to the people (20:1), not Moses.
There are also conflicting accounts about who approaches Yahweh, and who does not. Exodus 19:24 mentions Aaron ascending with Moses, but this does not actually occur until 24:1, where it is not just Moses and Aaron, but Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy, who, we are told in 24:11, even saw, ate and drank with Yahweh!
In yet another place, we are informed that the priests approaching Yahweh must be sanctified (19:22); yet in 19:24 we are informed that the priest are not to ascend to Yahweh, and in 24:1 it is rather a host of others who ascend. Furthermore, the awkward syntax of verse 22 and the fact that the mention of priests here is anachronistic—for the priesthood is a later institution here retrojected into the past—leads us to believe that these verses were at some point inserted into the narrative as well.
These various textual problems and contradictions bear witness to the multiple traditions and editorial reworking evident in Exodus 19-24. In other words, the story of Yahweh’s revelation and the giving of the laws was variously told. The most radical retellings and modifications of this tradition come through the pen of our later writers, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly writer.