The Multifaceted Revelation at Sinai
Though it is never explicit in the Torah or elsewhere in the Tanakh, according to Jewish tradition Shavuot is זמן מתן תורתינו, the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah. The Torah reading, from Shemot 19–20, relates the revelation at Sinai, when God gave the people of Israel the so-called “Ten Commandments,” or Decalogue (biblical עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים / rabbinic עשרת הדברות, properly translated “the ten divine utterances”). But the Torah does not only focus on the Decalogue itself. From the Torah’s perspective, law is only important when it is embedded in a story. And what a story it is, highlighting what the God of revelation looked like.
Most Jews’ understanding of revelation is in keeping with Devarim 4.12:
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ: קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים, וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל
“The LORD spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape — nothing but a voice.” (Here and elsewhere I follow the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation).
This accords with Maimonides’ notion that God has no physical form, which is memorialized in the Yigdal prayer: אין לו דמות הגוף ואינו גוף, “he has neither body or bodily appearance.” But is that what the chapter before the Decalogue in Shemot says?
Several verses before the Decalogue, we read (Shemot 19.20):
וְהַר סִינַי, עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ, מִפְּנֵי אֲשֶׁר יָרַד עָלָיו יְהוָה, ,בָּאֵשׁ
“Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire.”
Can a God with no physical form “come down”? To complicate matters further, several verses later we read:
אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם–כִּי מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם
“You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens” (20:22).
Was God on heaven or on Mount Sinai? Was he embodied or bodiless? Does God ever come down to us, or even at revelation is God distant, in heaven?
Even more remarkable is the following account:
ט וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן–נָדָב, וַאֲבִיהוּא, וְשִׁבְעִים, מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. י וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.יא וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ; וַיֶּחֱזוּ, אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאכְלוּ, וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.
Ex. 24:9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; 10 and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire [lapis lazuli is a better translation—MZB], like the very sky for purity. 11 Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank.
Some interpreters understand this passage metaphorically, but nothing in the text itself suggests this. On the contrary, the text uses two synonyms for seeing, … וַיִּרְאוּ (“and they saw”), and …וַיֶּחֱזוּ (“they beheld”), as if to emphasize that these people really did see God.
These differences matter. The Bible, especially the Torah, is the central text we use to understand God. The Torah’s depiction of God as distant or approachable, physical or formless, The Torah’s answers to these questions will inform our religious beliefs in fundamental ways. I am not the first to notice these differences. Open a Miqra’ot Gedolot and you will find numerous attempts to reconcile these images. But should they be reconciled?
The Pesiqta de Rav Kahana, a fifth-century rabbinic work from the land of Israel, offers an alternative to other commentators’ efforts to arrive at a single, uniform picture of God. Unlike most midrashic works, which are structured around biblical books, the Pesiqta is structured around the festivals, and it includes the following passage in its section on Shavuot:
א״ר חננא בר פפא נראה להם הקב״ה פנים זעופות, פנים בינוניות, פנים מסבירות, פנים שוחקות. … אמ׳ להם הקב״ה אע״פ שאתם רואין כל הדמוייות הללו, אלא אנכי י״י אלהיך. א״ר לוי נראה להם הקב״ה כאיקונין הזו שיש לה פנים מכל מקום, אלף בני אדם מביטין בה והיא מבטת בכלם …
R. Hanina bar Papa said: The Holy One appeared to Israel with a stern face, with an equanimous face, with a friendly face, with a joyous face. …Therefore the Holy One said to them: “Though you see Me in all these guises [I am still one]—“I am the Lord your God.” R. Levi said: The Holy One appeared to them as though He were a statue with faces on every side, so that though a thousand men might be looking at the statue, they would be led to believe that it was looking at each one of them. …
א׳ דוד קול י״י בכח (תהילים כט:ד), קול י״י בכוחו אין כתי׳, אלא קול י״י בכח, של כל אחד ואחד. א׳ להם הקב״ה לא מפני שאתם שומעי׳ קולות הרבה, אלא היו יודעים שאני הוא, אנכי י״י אלהיך (שמות כ:ב).
Thus David said: “The voice of the Lord is in His strength” (Ps 29:4)—not “The voice of the Lord is in its strength”—that is in its strength to make itself heard and understood according to the capacity of each and every person who listens to the Divine Word. Therefore the Holy One said: Do not be misled because you hear many voices. Know that I am He who is one and the same: “I am the Lord your God.” (Braude translation, slightly modified)
This is among the most remarkable rabbinic traditions—at least for me, as an observant Bible scholar. It recognizes that God’s word is, indeed must be, multi-vocal rather than univocal since it speaks to humans, and different people by their nature need different understandings of God. Even the same person at different times may view God differently.
As a modern Bible scholar, I understand the different conceptions of revelation found in Shemot and Devarim, and even within Shemot, as coming from different sources, from different times and places. I use the Pesiqta to suggest that the Bible not only has different conceptions of God, but these different conceptions represent different human understandings of the divine, coming from different people, writing at different times and places. These understandings are conditioned by and mediated by human experience. But for me, Jewish biblical scholarship is not only deconstruction but also reconstruction.
Here the Pesiqta is very helpful: it allows, even encourages, me to seek the different voices in the Torah and to appreciate this diversity as reflecting different attempts by my ancestors to understand God and God’s nature—exactly as I, as a modern Jew, struggle to understand God. I am grateful that the Torah does not offer one answer for all times but has rather incorporated various answers and perspectives that we may each appreciate and appropriate, each one of us, following the words of the Pesiqta, according to our “strength” and ability.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.
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