Judaism Without Sinai?
The Centrality of the Sinai Theophany
The story of the revelation and lawgiving at Mount Sinai is one of the dramatic highpoints in the narrative of the Torah. The centrality of this event for Israel’s faith is forcefully presented in Deuteronomy 4:9-10, where Moses warns the Israelites that they dare not forget how the Lord spoke to them out of the fire that burned from the top of the mountain into the heart of the heavens.
ט רַ֡ק הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֩ וּשְׁמֹ֨ר נַפְשְׁךָ֜ מְאֹ֗ד פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּ֨ח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר רָא֣וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ וּפֶן יָס֙וּרוּ֙ מִלְּבָ֣בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּ֑יךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּ֥ם לְבָנֶ֖יךָ וְלִבְנֵ֥י בָנֶֽיךָ: י י֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָמַ֜דְתָּ לִפְנֵ֨י יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ֘ בְּחֹרֵב֒ בֶּאֱמֹ֨ר יְ-הֹוָ֜ה אֵלַ֗י הַקְהֶל לִי֙ אֶת הָעָ֔ם וְאַשְׁמִעֵ֖ם אֶת דְּבָרָ֑י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִלְמְד֜וּן לְיִרְאָ֣ה אֹתִ֗י כָּל הַיָּמִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֵ֤ם חַיִּים֙ עַל הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וְאֶת בְּנֵיהֶ֖ם יְלַמֵּדֽוּן:
9 But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children: 10 The day you stood before Yhwh your God at Horeb, when Yhwh said to Me, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn to revere Me as long as they live on earth, and may so teach their children.”
The central, terrifying event, which establishes Moses as Israel’s lawgiver and God as the source of Mosaic law, must be remembered and recounted to each new generation so that they may fear the Lord and observe the commandments that He personally imposed upon them.
The Absence of the Theophany in the Rest of the Bible
In light of the clear centrality and importance of the Sinai theophany in the book of Exodus, and in passages in Deuteronomy such as the one just cited, it is striking to note that, in the rest of the Tanach, this event is almost totally ignored! Not once is the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai explicitly referred to in the entire book of Psalms. Mention can even be made of the relatively less impressive divine act of leading Israel through the wilderness (Ps. 136: 16), but the revelation and lawgiving at Sinai are nowhere to be found.
The revelation at Sinai is also absent in the prophetic literature as well as from other reviews of Israel’s history, such as Deuteronomy 26:5-9; Josh. 24, and 1Samuel 12: 8. Nor do we find the lawgiving at Sinai anticipated at any point in the book of Genesis , in contrast to the exodus which is anticipated in Gen. 15.
Strikingly, even the list of the encampments of the Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers 33 makes no mention of any unusual event that occurred during the stop at the Sinai wildnerness (vv. 15-16,) though reference is made to the crossing of the Sea (v. 7-8), the provision of wells and date trees at Elim (v.9), and other events that seem much more minor than the Sinai revelation. The list doesn’t even mention Mount Sinai as a stop at all. It is not until the historical review in the late book of Nehemiah that we find reference to the story of Mount Sinai in a historical summary (Neh. 9:13-16)!
Theophany is not an Act of Grace: Loewenstamm’s Approach
How are we to explain this glaring silence with reference to the Sinai event? Samuel E. Loewenstamm attempted to account for the difficulty by arguing that the Sinai event would simply be out of place in these historical resumés, which focus on the gracious acts that the Lord performed for Israel. The imposition of law reflects a demand and an obligation rather than a gracious provision. It is only in the period of the Second Temple that the lawgiving was seen as an expression of divine favor and kindness rather than a mere assertion of authority.
This explanation is wanting, since it cannot explain the total lack of mention of Sinai. In addition, it is unlikely that the giving of the law was first understood as an act of divine favor only in such a late period. The bulk of the book of Deuteronomy derives from late first Temple times and it continually refers to the giving of law as an act of divine concern “to bestow good” upon Israel. It is thus likely that Israel would have given thanks to the Lord for the giving of the law in First Temple times as well.
Most Ancient Israelites were Unaware of the Sinai Theophany Account
It seems that we cannot avoid concluding that the bulk of Israel in First Temple times was unaware of the Sinai story or tradition. This does not necessarily mean that the tradition of law and covenant at Sinai was “invented” in Second Temple times. Rather, the Sinai tradition may simply not have achieved the popularity and circulation that the exodus tradition did until a relatively late date.
While many Israelites knew and perpetuated the memory of the exodus from a relatively early period on, much fewer were aware of the Sinai tradition. Only when the basic form of the Torah was canonized, presumably some time in the Second Temple period, did the tradition of lawgiving at Sinai become common knowledge.
This explains why the Torah contains a festival commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, but none that commemorates the giving of the Torah. Only in the Second Temple period was Shavuot transformed to commemorate the giving of the Torah.
Origin of Law and Rituals without the Theophany
This raises an obvious question: How did these early Israelites understand the rituals that they observed and the regulations that they lived by if not as given to Israel on Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning?
One conception seems to have been that the laws derived not from a one–time, public divine theophany in which all the laws were given together, before entering the land, amidst fire and thunder, but from successive generations of individual priests and/or prophets who communicated them to the people gradually and under less dramatic circumstances.
If the laws derived from multiple priests or prophets in successive generations, then a narrative about lawgiving at Sinai within the context of the great national events of the exodus, the divine guidance in the wilderness, and the conquest, would be superfluous.
Generations of Prophets as Israel’s Lawgivers – The No Sinai Model
The idea that laws and regulations were given to Israel via the prophets is hinted at in several passages.
In Daniel 9—a very late text—we find the phrase (v. 10):
וְלֹ֣א שָׁמַ֔עְנוּ בְּק֖וֹל יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֵ֑ינוּ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּתֽוֹרֹתָיו֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָתַ֣ן לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ בְּיַ֖ד עֲבָדָ֥יו הַנְּבִיאִֽים:
We have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to follow His teachings that He gave us at the hand of his servants the prophets.
This implies that Jewish/Israelite law comes from “the prophets” in plural, and not “the prophet” (=Moses).
The most blatant example of a prophet who promulgates law is the exilic prophet-priest, Ezekiel. In chapters 40-48 of the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet lists many laws, never making any reference to these laws coming from Moses or “the Torah.” Strikingly, some of Ezekiel’s laws even contradict the laws of the Torah of Moses and, according to the Rabbis, the book was nearly suppressed for that reason (b. Shabbat 13b). It is likely, however, that Ezekiel was not ignoring or polemicizing against the Torah of Moses since that Torah, as we know it today, didn’t yet exist, and wasn’t yet canonical. He was simply following the tradition of prophets quoting God and legislating directly.
Samuel and the Law of the King
Another example of a prophet who taught and wrote law independent of the Mosaic Torah is Samuel who,
א שמואל י:י וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר שְׁמוּאֵ֜ל אֶל הָעָ֗ם אֵ֚ת מִשְׁפַּ֣ט הַמְּלֻכָ֔ה וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב בַּסֵּ֔פֶר וַיַּנַּ֖ח לִפְנֵ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֑ה
1 Sam. 10:25 told the people the regulation of kingship and wrote it in a book and placed it before the Lord (viz., in the Temple).”
It is most likely that 1 Sam 10:25 refers to the legal constitution of the rights and obligations of the king and is similar to Deuteronomy 17:14-20. In this latter text, after limiting the amount of horses, wives, and silver and gold that the king may gather, he is instructed to make his own personal copy of the Torah, and read from it continually, and follow its laws strictly.
There is no reference to the Torah of Moses in Samuel, or any hint that Samuel is implementing the law of the Torah with regard to Saul. Rather, the two biblical sections are parallel. Both are meant to restrict and regulate the authority of the king in accordance with the demands of the prophet.
This placing of the book in the Temple of Mizpah is reminiscent of the placing of the tablets of the covenant within the ark and of the preservation of the book of the Torah at the side of the ark (Deut. 31:26). This preservation of a sacred document reflects a general practice; the storage in a holy site of parallel “Torahs”—that of Samuel and that of Deuteronomy—that apparently do not know of each other’s existence.
Samuel and the Command about Amalek
We see this same phenomenon again with Samuel’s command to go to war with Amalek (1 Sam. 15:1-3).
א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל֙ אֶל שָׁא֔וּל אֹתִ֨י שָׁלַ֤ח יְ-הֹוָה֙ לִמְשָׁחֳךָ֣ לְמֶ֔לֶךְ עַל עַמּ֖וֹ עַל יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְעַתָּ֣ה שְׁמַ֔ע לְק֖וֹל דִּבְרֵ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה: ס ב כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת פָּקַ֕דְתִּי אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂ֥ה עֲמָלֵ֖ק לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁר שָׂ֥ם לוֹ֙ בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ בַּעֲלֹת֖וֹ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם: ג עַתָּה֩ לֵ֨ךְ וְהִכִּֽיתָ֜ה אֶת עֲמָלֵ֗ק וְהַֽחֲרַמְתֶּם֙ אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר ל֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ל עָלָ֑יו וְהֵמַתָּ֞ה מֵאִ֣ישׁ עַד אִשָּׁ֗ה מֵֽעֹלֵל֙ וְעַד יוֹנֵ֔ק מִשּׁ֣וֹר וְעַד שֶׂ֔ה מִגָּמָ֖ל וְעַד חֲמֽוֹר: ס
1 Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one Yhwh sent to anoint you king over His people Israel. Therefore, listen to Yhwh’s command! 2 “Thus said Yhwh of Hosts: I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”
Samuel quotes God directly and does not root the command in the law of Deuteronomy 25:17-19. The source of the command to attack Amalek is the word of the Lord to Samuel, and not any word of the Lord to Moses.
Prophets have Authority with No Need of a Sinai-like Revelation
According to the Torah, God authenticates Moses’ divine legislation through the Sinai theophany, in the context of which the people hear God’s pronouncement of laws. This experience of the entire Israelite people secures and guarantees that Moses’ laws are the laws of God (Ex. 19:19; 20:19; 24:15—18; Deut. 5:19—30). No parallel event is referenced by any other prophetic book to support the right of the respective prophet to legislate in God’s name. No special, dramatic event authenticates the divine source of Samuel’s constitution or Ezekiel’s laws. Both are based solely upon the prophet’s general authority and trustworthiness.
Sinai Theophany as a Limitation on the Authority of Prophets
This observation brings me to a another possible explanation for the failure to mention the giving of the Torah, particularly with regard to the later period, when the tradition of Sinai was already well known: the idea of a one-time revelation of God’s teaching for Israel was inimical to priests and prophets, who composed much of biblical literature.
One of the underlying purposes of presenting a single, complete Torah that was accepted by all of Israel in a unique and unequivocal theophany in the earliest period of the exodus is the suppression of the prophetic voice. If there is one clear version of the will of God to which one “must not add to and from which one must not subtract” (Deut. 13:1 cf. 4:2) then prophets and priests cannot promulgate laws of their own. If the Torah is a priori and absolute, rather than revealed successively in response to the realities of each generation, then the role of the prophets and priests is reduced to that of preaching and supporting the law of Moses to which all the prophets are now subordinated.
Biblical Hints to Conflict between Mosaic Torah and Prophets
We may well assume that not all priests and prophets looked favorably upon the claims that the Mosaic Torah from Sinai is a necessary and sufficient source. These surely would have struggled to assert their power and authority and would not have passively accepted their subordination to the Torah of Moses. This tension between the authoritative Torah of Moses and the voice of the prophet is hinted at in several biblical passages.
Avoiding False Prophets
It is not by accident, for example, that the warning quoted above not to add or subtract from the Torah of Moses comes right before the admonition not to listen to wayward prophets (Deut 13:2-6). The prophetic voice is unpredictably dangerous, and one never can be sure that a respected prophet will not one day say things that are heterodox. In many ways the legislation in Deuteronomy concerning prophets is interested in curbing prophetic power in favor of the (Deuteronomic) Torah, and it is easy to imagine a counter-group that favored the Torah over the prophets.
The King Reading the Torah
Deuteronomy has the king read from the book of the Torah all his days (Deut 17:18-20). In this way, Deuteronomy replaces the role of the prophet as instructor to the king—a role seen e.g. with Nathan in reference to David (2 Sam. 12)—with the role of the book.
Zechariah Ignoring Moses and Torah
This may explain why late prophet, like Zechariah, continues to refer to the laws of first temple times as “my words and laws which I commanded to my servants the prophets” (1:6 and cf. 7:12). If Moses is at all thought of here, he is not mentioned by name, and is considered as one in a long series of prophets through whom God reveals laws.
Zechariah’s conception of the law as given by prophets, which implicitly denies the finality of the Deuteronomic Torah, allows Zechariah himself, as a later day prophet, to continue to play a formative role in relaying the divine law and expanding the corpus of commandments (cf. 7:3 and 8:18-19). This may also explain why other late texts are equally silent about the Sinai theophany, even if they knew the tradition.
The Social Significance of the Sinai versus Prophets Conflict
The struggle that we are depicting here is essential to the formation of any society. Societies desire stability and permanence, and the canonization of the story of the Sinai theophany reflects an attempt to stabilize and unify the religion of Israel. Variant laws and traditions are either rejected or modified and absorbed into the framework of the dominant tradition, and prophets are subordinated to the less creative role of supporting the canonized teachings.
On the other hand, no written law can possibly address all possible issues for all times. New issues that were never addressed continually arise, and sanctified rulings on issues that were addressed often become obsolete. This tendency is reflected in the continued attempt of the prophets to assert their creative authority and to diminish the centrality or finality of the Sinaitic law.
The struggle between these two important tendencies was never resolved in a single formula in biblical times. The struggle itself is probably the most important sign of vitality, and any attempt to diffuse the tension would be inimical to any healthy society. It is this same tension that is needed today as well in our own Jewish life.
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February 5, 2015
November 11, 2019
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
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