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Hava Shalom-Guy





Nehemiah 9: The First Historical Survey in the Bible to Mention Sinai and Torah





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Hava Shalom-Guy





Nehemiah 9: The First Historical Survey in the Bible to Mention Sinai and Torah








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Nehemiah 9: The First Historical Survey in the Bible to Mention Sinai and Torah

The revelation at Sinai emerged as central to Israel’s story in the Persian period. No biblical text outside the Torah mentions it until its unique inclusion in the historical prologue of the Levites’ prayer in Nehemiah 9:13-14. A later scribe redacted the Sinai verses to further include a reference to the Torah of Moses.


Nehemiah 9: The First Historical Survey in the Bible to Mention Sinai and Torah

Sinai, from the Copenhagen Haggadah, 1739, by Uri Feibush, Royal LibraryDenmark, courtesy of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, Chicago.

The Levites’ Prayer in Nehemiah 9

Chapter 9 of the book of Nehemiah, set in the 5th century B.C.E., describes an assembly that took place among the Judean people on the 24th of the seventh month (Tishrei). The people were fasting (v. 1), having just separated from their non-Jewish wives, and were repenting of their sins (v. 2). They spent part of the day reading from “the scroll of the Teaching of YHWH their God,” and part confessing and prostrating themselves before God (v. 3).

At this point, a group of Levites stands up on a podium (vv. 4-5a) and makes a long confession style prayer (vv. 5b-37)[1] that opens with a historical overview: creation (v. 6), then Abraham (vv. 7-8), the exodus (vv. 9-11), the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness (v. 12), and then the revelation of laws at Mount Sinai (vv. 13-14). [2]

The reference to laws in these two verses is strangely doubled:

נחמיה ט:יג וְעַל הַר סִינַי יָרַדְתָּ
וְדַבֵּר עִמָּהֶם מִשָּׁמָיִם
Neh 9:13 You came down on Mount Sinai
and spoke to them from heaven;
וַתִּתֵּן לָהֶם מִשְׁפָּטִים יְשָׁרִים וְתוֹרוֹת אֱמֶת חֻקִּים וּמִצְו‍ֹת טוֹבִים.
You gave them right rules and true teachings (torot), good laws and commandments.
ט:יד וְאֶת שַׁבַּת קָדְשְׁךָ הוֹדַעַתָ לָהֶם
9:14 You made known to them Your holy Shabbat,
וּמִצְווֹת וְחֻקִּים וְתוֹרָה צִוִּיתָ לָהֶם בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה עַבְדֶּךָ.
and You ordained for them commandments, laws, and a Teaching (torah), through Moses Your servant.

Why say essentially the same thing twice in two adjacent verses?

Scribal Migration of Terms

Some scholars try to solve this problem by suggesting that originally, v. 14b was quite different than 13b, and that it only referenced “the Teaching (Torah) of Moses,” namely, the Pentateuch, but that the words “commandments and laws” (וּמִצְווֹת וְחֻקִּים) migrated from verse 13 to verse 14 because of the similarity between the “teaching” (torah) in v. 14 and the “teachings” (torot) in v. 13.[3] But this is unlikely, in part because the Hebrew phrases for “commandments and laws” are not identical in the two verses and are in reversed order.

A Redactional Supplement

It seems more likely to me that all of 14b is an interpolation that aimed to introduce the tradition of Moses giving the Torah, reflecting the central status of the Torah in the late biblical period. As noted above, 14b repeats elements of v. 13b, but in chiastic, abridged order. (Such chiastic reframing typifies quotations.[4])

v. 13b v. 14b
1 וַתִּתֵּן לָהֶם You gave them 5 וּמִצְווֹת Commandments,
2 מִשְׁפָּטִים יְשָׁרִים right rules 4 וְחֻקִּים laws
3 וְתוֹרוֹת אֱמֶת and true teachings, 3 וְתוֹרָה and a Torah
4 חֻקִּים (good) laws 2
5 וּמִצְו‍ֹת טוֹבִים and good commandments. 1 צִוִּיתָ לָהֶם בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה עַבְדֶּךָ You commanded them through Moses Your servant.

V. 14 revises v. 13 in a number of other telling ways:

Torot to Torah – The plural form torot (תורות) in v. 13, which refers to teachings, parallels “rules” (משפטים), “laws” (חקים), and “commandments” (מצות), is changed to the singular Torah,  here referring to the canonical Torah.[5] Thus the meaning in 14b is not “teaching” but Pentateuch.

Giving to Commanding – The verb describing what YHWH does here changes. 13b describes the giving of laws (תתן), just as God gives them water and food, in keeping with the theme of the chapter that emphasizes God’s benevolence to Israel. In 14b, the verb is changed to “command” (צוית).

No Rules (משפטים) – The fourth change may simply reflect the author’s abridgement, but more likely reflects his desire to adhere to a chiastic structure while ending climactically with the phrase “the Torah which you commanded through Moses” (וְתוֹרָה צִוִּיתָ לָהֶם בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה עַבְדֶּךָ). Adding mishpatim after this, where it would appear following the chiastic structure, would deemphasize the centrality of the Torah, as well as decoupling the reference to Torah from Moses. 

Moses – 13b makes no mention of Moses’ role, in keeping with the rest of the chapter which focuses exclusively on YHWH. 14b, however, has the only mention of Moses in the entire prayer.

To understand why an editor would have added this half verse, we must first understand why Moses appears nowhere else in this prayer.

The Absence of Moses

Throughout the historical prologue outlined above, YHWH is the protagonist. YHWH creates the heavens and the earth; YHWH chooses Abram; YHWH sees the suffering of “our ancestors” in Egypt; YHWH splits the sea; YHWH gives the Israelites water from a stone, etc.[6] Even though in the Torah, many of the miracles associated with the exodus from Egypt and the wilderness wandering are carried out by Moses, who is arguably the protagonist of these stories, he is not mentioned here in that context.

Moses’ absence here is consistent with his “removal” from other biblical texts that narrate miraculous events, such as in the “historical” psalm 78.[7] Here too, God (Elohim) is the protagonist and Moses’ role goes unmentioned.[8] This trend, of affording little mention to Moses and Aaron in the desire to exalt and praise God, continues in rabbinic literature, with the most famous example being the virtual absence of Moses and Aaron from the Passover Haggadah.[9] 

This explains why the prayer in Nehemiah 9 avoided mentioning Moses, keeping YHWH as its protagonist. So why did a later editor decide to add Moses into the text, specifically in the section about the giving of laws?

Moses and Torah in Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles

At some point in the Second Temple period, the idea that all of Israel’s laws were taught to Moses at Sinai and inscribed in Moses’ book, the Torah, had become dominant. This tradition, granting Moses a crucial role in the giving of the Torah and as the source for various Pentateuchal commandments, is reflected in various designations used for the Torah in the postexilic works of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles:[10]

  • תורת משה איש האלהים, “the Teaching of Moses, the man of God” (Ezra 3:2; 2 Chron 30:15);

  • תורת משה אשר נתן י-הוה אלהי ישראל, “the Teaching of Moses which YHWH God of Israel had given” (Ezra 7:6);

  • תורת משה, “Teaching of Moses” (2 Chron 23:18);

  • ספר תורת משה אשר צוה י-הוה את ישראל, “the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which YHWH had charged Israel” (Neh 8:1);

  •  ככתוב בתורה אשר צוה י-הוה ביד משה “They found written in the Torah that YHWH had commanded Moses” (Neh 8:14);

  • בתורת האלהים אשר נתנה ביד משה עבד האלהים, “the Teaching of God, given through Moses the servant of God” (Neh 10:30);

  • ספר משה “the Book of Moses” (Ezra 6:18 [in Aramaic]; Neh 13:1; 2 Chron 35:12);

  • בתורה בספר משה “in the Teaching, in the Book of Moses” (2 Chron 25:4).

These references explain why this later scribe felt the lack of any mention of Moses and his Torah, and decided to add it, by taking the previous reference to laws and revising it to include the Torah of Moses.

The Centrality of Torah in Nehemiah

The addition of this supplement completes the trend already obvious in Nehemiah 9’s unique inclusion of the Sinai Revelation in its historical survey.[11] Outside the Torah’s narratives of the Sinai or Horeb revelation, only a handful of biblical texts refer to a tradition of Sinai as the place of divine residence (e.g., Deut 33:2, Ps 68:8–9, 17ff.), but none of these mention the revelation of laws on Sinai.[12]

As many scholars note, the absence of the tradition of the divine revelation at Mount Sinai/Horeb from other biblical historical surveys reflects the lack of this tradition’s centrality for their circles when these surveys were composed.[13] In contrast, its placement here highlights the centrality of the revelation of laws at Sinai concept in the Persian period.

The redactor put the finishing touches on this unique aspect of the prayer by concretizing the “teachings, laws, and commandments” given at Sinai, describing them as the Torah of Moses. This mirrors the stabilization of Pentateuchal authority in Israelite life during the restoration period, and the importance assumed by its public reading and study as reflected in Neh 8:1–9:4; 10:30; 13:1–3.[14]

The mention of the divine revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah in Neh 9 underscores the divine origins of the Torah and the positive attributes of its rules, teachings, laws, and commandments, viewed as binding by many Jews in the Persian period. As David Carr, a biblical scholar from Union Theological Seminary, observes:

The history of Israelite literature can be conceived as the move from older forms of educational literature to a distinctive curriculum centered on the Torah.[15]

This development may not have been merely the result of internal factors but may also have been influenced by external ones related to the policy of the Persian regime during this period.[16] The entirety of Ezra-Nehemiah, which also belongs to the Persian period, not only makes use of Pentateuchal texts, both narrative and legal, but exhibits familiarity with the Pentateuch in its entirety.[17] By this period, the Torah was defined in ways that reflected its divine origins, transmission by Moses, and written form. It had become sacred, authoritative canon.[18]

Shavuot: Sinai and Torah Get a Holiday

The Pentateuch never offers a date for the revelation at Sinai, and no biblical text ties this event to any holiday or yearly celebration.[19] That said, by late Second Temple times, Shavuot was understood to commemorate this event,[20] and this is the assumption of the rabbis as well,[21] who made זמן מתן תורתינו (“the time our Torah was given”) into the official liturgical description of Shavuot.[22]

Despite the absence of any such association in Scripture, such a connection should be understood as the culmination of the process described above, namely, the development of the Torah’s importance and the emerging centrality of the Sinai revelation, as evidenced in the Levites’ prayer of Nehemiah 9.  Such a momentous event surely deserved recognition in the sacred calendar!


Ordinances, Statutes, and Shabbat

Why does v. 14 specifically mention Shabbat after the preceding verse just mentioned all the laws in general?[23] This singling out of Shabbat alongside laws in general is not unique to the Levites’ prayer in Nehemiah, but also appears in Ezekiel 20. For example, when describing what occurred after he took the Israelites out of Egypt, YHWH says to Ezekiel:

יחזקאל כ:יא וָאֶתֵּן לָהֶם אֶת חֻקּוֹתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי הוֹדַעְתִּי אוֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אוֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם. כ:יב וְגַם אֶת שַׁבְּתוֹתַי נָתַתִּי לָהֶם לִהְיוֹת לְאוֹת בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיהֶם לָדַעַת כִּי אֲנִי יְ-הוָה מְקַדְּשָׁם.
Ezek 20:11 I gave them My laws and taught them My rules, by the pursuit of which a man shall live. 20:12 Moreover, I gave them My sabbaths to serve as a sign between Me and them, that they might know that it is I YHWH who sanctify them.[24]

This emphasis on the observance of Shabbat, also evident in the Torah’s Priestly and Holiness sources (Exod 31:13-17, 35:2-3; Lev 19:3, 30, 26:2) was part of the religious renewal in the restoration period.  

Thus, we see great emphasis on Shabbat in the latter half of Isaiah (Isa 56:2, 4, 6) and in the book of Nehemiah itself (Neh 10:32, 13:15–22), in which Nehemiah rebukes the people for breaking Shabbat,[25] declaring that this is why Israel was punished with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 586:[26]

נחמיה יג:יח הֲלוֹא כֹה עָשׂוּ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם וַיָּבֵא אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ אֵת כָּל הָרָעָה הַזֹּאת וְעַל הָעִיר הַזֹּאת וְאַתֶּם מוֹסִיפִים חָרוֹן עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחַלֵּל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת.
Neh 13:18 This is just what your ancestors did, and for it God brought all this misfortune on this city; and now you give cause for further wrath against Israel by profaning Shabbat!

The presentation of Shabbat in the Levites’ song makes the inverse point: along with food and water, Shabbat is one of the gifts the Israelites’ received in the wilderness, along with the rest of YHWH’s laws and commandments.


May 17, 2018


Last Updated

June 13, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Hava Shalom-Guy is academic vice-president at the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem and teaches in its Department of Bible. She has a Ph.D. in Bible from the Hebrew University and is the author of The Gideon Cycle through the Mirror of Its Literary Parallels [Hebrew] and “Three-Way Intertextuality: Some Reflections of Abimelech’s Death at Thebez in Biblical Narrative”(JSOT).