Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible

Paperback (Print)
Buy Used
Buy Used from
(Save 29%)
Item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging.
Condition: Used – Good details
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $1.99
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 88%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (29) from $1.99   
  • New (5) from $12.63   
  • Used (24) from $1.99   


A treasury of religious thought and faith--places the symbolic world of the Bible in its original context.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062548283
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/7/1987
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 630,917
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Jon D. Levenson is Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, the author of Creation and the Persistence of Evil, and associate editor of Harper's Bible commentary.
Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt


I. The Sinaitic Experience
or the Traditions About It?

Whatever the experience of the people Israel on Mount Sinai was, it was so overwhelming that the texts about it seem to be groping for an adequate metaphor through which to convey the awesomeness of the event. For example, in the description in Exod 19:16-22, the first verse seems to describe a hurricane thunder, lightning, a mysterious cloud. But V 18 presents an image more like that of a volcano--smoke and fire on the mountain, like the fire of a furnace. Both verses mention quaking, the quaking of the people before this momentous sight (V 16) and the quaking of the mountain itself (V 18), which is no more secure than the people against the descent of YHWH, the God of Israel. Fear pervades the spectacle, a fear that infects nature as much as humanity. At the same time, the sight exerts an eerie appeal, which tempts the people to "break through" to catch a glimpse (V 21), but to yield to this temptation is to risk YHWH's displeasure. If they "break through" to him, he will "break out" against them (V 22). Even the priests, who have been singled out-or will be, as the received text has it, a few chapters later-to minister in the presence of God, must submit to special rites of sanctification if they are to survive the Sinaitic experience. In other words, we see here two contrasting movements. The first speaks of an intersection between the lives of God and of Israel. The two meet at Mount Sinai. Moses, the representative of Israel, ascends the mountain onto which YHWH has descended. The second movement, however, speaks of a barrier between God and Israel, which if transgressed,will turn the moment of destiny into one of disaster. Only Moses may ascend. Even the priests are in jeopardy until they have renewed their sanctity. It is as though God beckons with one hand and repels with the other. The twofold quality of the experience narrated in these verses has been explored by the theologian and historian of religion, Rudolf Otto. As is well known, Otto defined "the holy" by the words mysteriom tremendum et fascinans, a Latin expression that admits of no good English equivalent, but which we can render as "a fearsome and fascinating mystery."1It is just such an ambivalent sense of mystery that pervades the account of the theophany, the apparition of God, that was believed to have occurred on Mount Sinai. The Sinaitic experience is here presented as simultaneously supremely relevant to human experience and distant from it and foreign to it. In its quality of indivisible charm and threat, it is eminently exotic, lying outside the boundaries of what is familiar.

What really happened on Mount Sinai? The honest historian must answer that we can say almost nothing in reply to this question. We do not know even the location of the mountain. Its identification with Jebel Musa, on which a Christian monastery stands today, is relatively recent and open to doubt.2In fact, some streams of biblical tradition know the mountain by a different name, Horeb, and we cannot affirm with any confidence that the two sets of tradition, that of Sinai and that of Horeb, derive from the same event and were not welded together in the centuries of retelling the stories. In fact, the expression Mount Horeb occurs only once (Exod 33:6), although two passages speak of "Horeb, the mountain of God."3The other fourteen occurrences of "Horeb" mention no mountain at all. Instead, things tend to happen "at Horeb." For example, the incident in which Moses struck the rock to produce water took place "at Horeb" (17:6), some time before Israel arrived at the Sinai Desert (19:I), where the awesome revelation was to take place. In short, although some passages speak of Horeb as the site at which YHWH spoke to Israel in the midst of fire (Deut 4:15) and proclaimed the terms of the covenant to them (e.g., V 10), we cannot assume that Horeb was always simply synonymous with Sinai.4And even if we could make such an assumption, the presence of two names would suggest that we do not have a straightforward and continuous tradition linking us with the putative event, but, instead, a document whose complex literary history makes the recovery of the event well-nigh impossible. We know nothing about Sinai, but an immense amount about the traditions concerning Sinai. It is the consensus of those who approach these traditions empirically rather than dogmatically that their written form-which is the only way in which we can encounter them today--derives for the most part from periods hundreds of years after the event they purport to record.5In Part 2, for example, we shall see that the Sinaitic experience was re-enacted in the Temple at Jerusalem, which was not built until hundreds of years later. Or is it the case that the Sinaitic experience, as portrayed in Exodus, is retrojected from, or at least colored by, the experience of YHWH's theophany in the Temple? About such issues we can only speculate.

It is my contention, however, that the historical question about Sinai, as important as it is in some contexts, misses the point about the significance of this material in the religion of Israel. The Sinaitic experience is not narrated as if it occurred on the level of mere fact. In truth, unbiased historiography of the sort to which modern historians aspire did not exist in biblical times. Instead, biblical historians always enlisted history in the service of a transcendent and therefore metahistorical truth. It is that truth, conveyed to us through historical narrative, whether accurate historically or not, that interests the narrator, not the details, without which modern historians cannot work at all. What modern historian would tell the story of World War II without ever giving the name of the German Führer?

Sinai and Zion. Copyright © by Jon D. Levenson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)