A treasury of religious thought and faithplaces the symbolic world of the Bible in its original context.
About 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.
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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.