Yitro: The Family Story Or The National Event?

I remember clearly how surprised and even disappointed I was when I realized, for the first time ever, that such a huge event as the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai was included into Torah Portion Yitro, named after Moses father-in-law. Wouldn’t you expect some big words for the title of this Portion, or at least something mentioning Torah and Mount Sinai? Instead, we have this name – Yitro, and to be honest, even today, many years after, every year I am rather taken aback when we get to this Portion. Yitro? That’s it? No big names or titles referring to the giving of the Torah?

Yet, I believe that there is a very profound meaning in this choice. God gave us His Word in order that everything in our lives: our family dynamics, first of all, –  even our relations with our in-laws, would be permeated by this Word—by His Torah. Undoubtedly, there are things that happen on the Mountain – there are peaks and mountains in our lives where we encounter God and receive His word – but then we are to go down from the Mountain and to live our lives in accordance with what we saw there. In one of my favorite scenes in the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan says to a girl whom he is sending to Narnia: “I give you a warning. Here on the Mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.”[1] It is easy to see clearly while you are on the Mountain; but it is even easier to get utterly confused when you go down from the Mountain. However, this is His goal for our lives, and this is our mission: we have to learn to live by His Word, not on the Mountain, but down here, where the air can be very thick indeed. None of us can see clearly here, because we all live in the midst of this thick air. At times we all are flooded by our emotions, overwhelmed by our thoughts, confused by our circumstances – and above all else, blinded by our pain. However, we must take great care not to get confused and must learn to see clearly, even here. We have to live by His Word also when we are with Yitro – and not only on Mount Sinai!

Two Mounts

In our Torah Portion, we read that “in the third month” the Israelites came to the foot of Mount Sinai. The third month after the Exodus is Sivan; since this was also the month of Shavuot, the rabbis long ago deduced that God gave the Torah on Shavuot. The word Shavuot, שבועות , became an additional proof since it can also be read as “oaths”: on that day, God swore eternal faithfulness to Israel, and Israel became God’s people. Thus, in Jewish tradition, the most significant event of our Portion— the giving of the Torah to Moses—became connected to Shavuot, and Shavuot came to be understood as commemorating this event: Chag Matan Torah — חג מתן תורה.

Today, it is widely accepted that the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people happened on Shavuot. The festival of Shavuot was already associated with this event by the first century C.E. and therefore it is against this biblical background that the events of the first two chapters of the Book of Acts must be read. It was certainly no coincidence that the descent of the Spirit is described on the day of Shavuot (Pentecost):

1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them[2].

Let us see the beautiful and profound parallels between God giving His Word and God giving His Spirit. On both occasions, Shavuot becomes the day when Heaven is opened and God Himself claims His people. The “noise like a violent wind” in Acts 2 certainly echoes the thundering from Exodus and the fire of Acts parallels the fire of Exodus: “Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off”[3]. In Midrash Shmot Rabba, we have this commentary on Exodus 20: “One voice was split into seven and they were divided into seventy languages.” Hillary Le Cornu and Joseph Shulam quote an even more amazing midrashic sentence: “The voice went out and was divided into seven voices and from seven voices into seventy tongues, so that all the nations will hear. And every nation heard the voice in its own tongue and was amazed.”[4] Evidently, Luke consciously builds these parallels and describes the events of Acts 2 in terms of a “second Sinai”: as God’s Word was given on Shavuot, God’s Spirit will also be given on Shavuot. In this sense, our Torah Portion today is an important key unlocking one of the most important pages in the New Testament and Christianity.

Up the Mountain

I can’t finish this post without pointing out yet another parallel between Moses and Jesus. In Exodus 19, we read that the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up[5].  Did Jesus go up to the mountain at any point?

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them[6]

From the very beginning of his Gospel, by all the parallels between Jesus’ and Moses’ births and infancy narratives, Matthew prepares his readers to see Jesus as a new Moses and conveys to his audience a clear message: a new Deliverer is born; a new Exodus is coming. It is noteworthy that Matthew’s Gospel is divided into five major discourses, separated by the formula: “when Jesus had finished” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1), and these discourses have often been likened to the five books of Torah. The Sermon on the Mount (chaps. 5–7) is the first of these five major blocks. “Jesus on the mountain” certainly reminds a reader of Moses receiving the law on Mount Sinai (it is remarkable that before this mountain experience, Jesus, like Moses, fasts for forty days and nights). Of course, in Matthew’s Gospel, as in every Gospel, Jesus is also the fulfillment of Torah; however, here, in the middle of his most important teaching section of this Gospel, Jesus is presented as the “new Moses” who interprets the Torah for the people of Israel.

[1] Lewis C.S., The Silver Chair

[2] Acts 2:1-3

[3] Ex.20:18

[4] Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Netivyah Bible Instructions Ministry, 2003, p.55

[5] Ex. 19:20

[6] Mat.5:1-2

I  would like to remind you, dear friends that eTeacher offers a wonderful course, where you can learn from Parashot Shavua commentaries along with their New Testament interpretation. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information!  Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you can get them here

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. D. Verschoor

    Thanks Julia for your new blog.
    Reading about the association between the giving of the Torah and Shavuot: Could there be another association between the two events?
    After the giving of the Torah on mount Sinaï, “3000 of the people fell that day” after the ‘golden calf worshipping’ (Ex. 32:28).
    On Shavuot in Acts 2 (vs 41) 3000 were added to the Messianic Kehila.
    Isn’t this striking? Two times 3000?

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you. Just a little correction: this blog is not new, I’ve been leading it – and posting regularly – for almost 5 years. As for 3000 – yes, you are right, it is indeed a very striking parallel, many people find this connection very profound.

  2. Nick

    Bravo! May Jew and Christian see the big picture your blog paints, and move beyond “us vs: them” mentality.