In the Hebrew Bible, lightning makes its first appearance after the Exodus from Egypt, when God appears to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai to give them His commandments. Dov Lerner contrasts this sparing usage to the ubiquity of lightning in so much of the Western tradition:
Of all the so-called “acts of God,” lightning was seen as the most striking. For the Greeks, it was the weapon of the chief god Zeus; for Nordic peoples, it was the product of an otherworldly hammer; for Shakespeare, it accompanied witches and signaled both speed and evil; for medieval bestiaries, it signaled the singular conditions under which the wolf is born; and in the modern age, it spawned Frankenstein’s monster and marked Harry Potter as chosen. And yet, from man’s first breath to Moses’ last, lightning strikes only one time in the Bible.
Why does lightning strike at Sinai? Unlike the chief gods of Nordic and Greek myth, the biblical God does not conduct electricity on arrival or in every speech. Most often, His presence speaks for itself, and His entrances are quite pacific. He has no need for weather to demonstrate His power. So why, if weather is so incidental to God’s presence, does lightning strike at Sinai?
Lerner surveys the opinions of several rabbinic commentators, many of whom argue that the lightning at Sinai was no ordinary storm, but something supernatural. Then he then presents an alternative view:
[One] way to see this meteorological phenomenon [is] not as a breach of nature but as a fact of life, a lesson to former slaves as they became a nation: namely, that though they were now free, the storm was not over.
The Hebrew people were taught that there would still be wars and want and allures beyond the pomp of revelation. The code of law, heaven’s guide for life, was revealed not in a utopian field defined by quiet and tranquility and calm, but at the foot of a mountain in the throes of a storm. The Hebrews were, as a nation, storm-born—forged in the shadow of a tempest, beneath a sky struck by lightning and roaring with thunder.