The Torah's contrasting portraits of Hashem's revelation to the nation lead commentators to varying understandings of what the nation grasped directly from Hashem and what they understood only via Moshe. These, in turn, have important ramifications for how one understands the entire purpose of the revelation at Mt. Sinai.
On one end of the spectrum, Rambam and R. D"Z Hoffmann focus on the verses which present Moshe as an intermediary, asserting that the people heard only the voice of Hashem, but could not distinguish His words. Moshe, thus, acted as a mediator or translator for all ten. As such, the main purpose of revelation was not to instill faith in Hashem, but to teach the nation to believe in Moshe's prophecy. On the other end of the spectrum, Ibn Ezra and others look at the depiction of the episode as a "face to face" encounter. They posit that Hashem conversed directly with the people, relaying to them all ten utterances with the goal of inculcating belief in God.
A middle ground is charted by Rashi, Ramban, and others, who attempt to harmonize the various verses by positing that there was a split in the commandments. The nation understood only the first two from Hashem, but needed Moshe to explain the final eight. Ramban explains that the goal of Revelation was twofold – to instill belief in both Hashem and in Moshe as His prophet. The fundamentals of faith were thus relayed directly, while the rest was taught via Moshe, who from this point on was to continue in this capacity as teacher of the law.
The nation heard only the voice of Hashem, but understood none of His words, and Moshe's mediation between the people and Hashem was thus needed throughout the entire Decalogue. Commentators disagree whether the voice was directed at the nation or if they merely overheard the sounds of the Divine conversation with Moshe.
The people listened as Hashem communicated the Decalogue to Moshe, but they only heard the Divine voice and could not decipher His words.
Heard Voice Directly
Hashem spoke to the people directly, but due to their distance, they could make out only a voice and not distinct words.
Understood All Ten
The nation understood the entire Decalogue from Hashem. This position subdivides regarding whether Hashem's words were aimed at the people or Moshe.
Hashem's spoke to Moshe only, but He intended that the nation would listen in on this conversation.
Heard Words Directly
Hashem spoke directly to the people themselves, and they, not Moshe, were His target audience for the entire Decalogue.
- This position highlights the goal of teaching the nation to believe in Hashem, as per the verse in Devarim, "אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת כִּי ה' הוּא הָאֱ-לֹהִים".22 Divine revelation to a mass audience was a unique event in world history and constitutes one of the strongest proofs of God's existence and the Torah's Divine origin.23
- According to Shadal, there may have been a dual purpose of instilling belief in both Hashem and Moshe. By hearing Hashem speak to Moshe before the actual revelation (see below), the nation recognized his prophetic stature, and by hearing Hashem on their own during revelation, they came to believe in God.
- Spoke to all – According to Ibn Ezra,28 this verse does not insinuate that Hashem was to speak to Moshe alone, but only that when Hashem did speak to him (along with everyone else), his prophetic stature would be verified. The nation had doubted Moshe's prophecy, believing that if Hashem speaks to a person, he cannot live afterwards. Thus, Hashem tells Moshe that when the nation sees Him speaking to Moshe during the giving of the Decalogue, they will finally recognize that their preconception was false.
- Change of plan – According to Ralbag and Abarbanel, Hashem originally told Moshe that He would speak to him alone and the nation would overhear, leading them to believe in Moshe's prophecy. Moshe then clarified to Hashem that the nation preferred to not have a mediator, but rather desired a direct face to face encounter. As a result, Hashem acquiesced and changed the original plan.29
- Before the Decalogue – Shadal asserts that this refers to the nation hearing Hashem's conversation with Moshe before the Decalogue.
- According to Ibn Ezra, Moshe is saying that the nation feared the fire, despite the fact that they did not go up the mountain.
- This position could also maintain that the original plan (had the nation not been overcome by fear) was to ascend the mountain after the giving of the Decalogue and to hear the rest of the 613 commandments from perhaps an even closer vantage point and at a higher spiritual level.31
- Before the Decalogue – According to Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, and Shadal,32 this refers to the conversation between Moshe and Hashem before the giving of the Decalogue and, as such, provides no information regarding how Hashem delivered the commandments.33
- Before and during – Ralbag maintains that the verse refers to Hashem's words both before and during the Decalogue.34 The mention of Moshe speaking refers only to the earlier conversation, but the fact that Hashem spoke "בְקוֹל" can refer to both.35
- During the Decalogue – R. Eliezer suggests that that the verse refers to the Decalogue but is simply saying that before Hashem spoke to the nation, He waited for Moshe to tell Him that they were ready.36
Understood Only Two
The nation understood only two commandments directly from Hashem. These commentators disagree as to how the nation received the other eight:
Other Eight Only From Moshe
Due to the nation's fear, Hashem stopped speaking to them and instead spoke only to Moshe, who then relayed the final eight commandments to the nation.
Voice Without Words for Other Eight
Hashem communicated also the final eight commandments to the nation, but in these they discerned only His voice and needed Moshe to serve as an interpreter.