The Omission of the Sinai Theophany in the Bikkurim Declaration
The Ritual Declaration
If we were to ask the average readers of the Torah which passage should be selected to narrate the story of the Exodus, most likely they would suggest sections from the biblical book of Exodus. However, when the Passover Haggadah recounts that story, it chooses the farmer’s recitation from Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:5-10:
ה וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. ו וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. ז וַנִּצְעַק אֶל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת לַחֲצֵנוּ. ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים. ט וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. י וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי יְהוָה וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
My father was a renegade Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there as a small band of people that became a great and very numerous people. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us. They forced us to do hard labor. We cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our appeal and saw our extreme misery. The LORD took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awe-inspiring deeds and with signs and portents, and he brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Now I have brought the first crops of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.
In this ritual, the farmer travels to the central sanctuary (in Jerusalem) bearing the first crops (bikkurim) from his spring harvest, whether vegetables, grain, or fruit, at the time of the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot). The farmer greets the priest and acknowledges that he has taken up residence in the land that was promised to their ancestors. The priest takes the crops that the farmer has brought, puts it before the altar, and the farmer recites this passage.
Where Is the Sinai/Horeb Theophany?
What is striking about this liturgical summary is that it completely omits any mention of the Theophany (the divine appearance) at Sinai, surely an essential part of the Exodus story and the shape of the Torah as a whole. It presents the narrative of the Exodus, from the enslavement in Egypt to the Settlement of Canaan, with a huge hole in the middle, the Theophany at Mt. Sinai.
Deuteronomy 26 is far from the only passage with this exclusion. In fact, other celebrated passages also do not mention the Theophany. The Song at the Sea of Reeds in Exodus 15, the great celebration after the Egyptians’ final defeat, also lacks any mention of the Theophany at Sinai when it recounts history from the Exodus from Egypt to the building of the Temple.
The Deuteronomic text that shows parents how to answer a child’s question about the Exodus also exhibits this same striking omission (Deuteronomy 6:20-25):
כ כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם. כא וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יְהוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה. כב וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה אוֹתֹת וּמֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִים וְרָעִים בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל בֵּיתוֹ לְעֵינֵינוּ. כג וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ. כד וַיְצַוֵּנוּ יְהוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל הַיָּמִים לְחַיֹּתֵנוּ כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. כה וּצְדָקָה תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ כִּי נִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ.
When, in the future, your child asks you, “What is the meaning of the decrees, statutes, and laws that the LORD our God has commanded us?” you will say to your child, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD took us out of there with a strong hand. The LORD performed before our eyes great and dangerous signs and portents against Pharaoh and his household. He took us out of there, so that he might take us and give us the land that he had promised to our fathers. Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the LORD our God, for our own good and our own survival, as is now the case. It will be right for us before the LORD to observe faithfully all the commandments as he has commanded us.
This passage, a trigger for the unit of the Four Sons in the Passover Haggadah, omits the Theophany in the sample answer it provides for parents. If a Jewish educator today were to offer parents a sample answer to children’s questions about the Exodus, that educator would surely mention the Theophany at Sinai.
Why Is the Theophany Missing from These Passages?
This omission has inspired critical scholars to consider a number of possibilities about the tradition of the Theophany at Sinai.
1. A Late Addition
One suggestion has been that the original tradition of the Exodus did not include the Theophany and that only in the late First Temple or early Second Temple periods, when the Torah as we have it was in the process of being shaped, was the tradition about the Theophany at Sinai incorporated into the Exodus narrative. It was, therefore, a late and secondary addition to the Torah.
2. A Consequence of Combining Traditions
Other scholars have suggested that only some of the tribes had the Theophany as part of their tradition, and that only in the Late First Temple or early Second Temple periods, when Israelites groups, who had been living separately until that time, came together and combined their traditions did it become a standard part of Israelite historiography.
3. Separate Contexts
A third possibility is that the tradition of the liturgical recitations about the Exodus and the tradition about the Theophany at Sinai originated and were used in separate contexts. The two traditions were known to the same groups early on, but that they were used liturgically in different contexts. Thus, the bikkurim declaration does not reference the Theophany at Sinai because it was not relevant to that ritual, not because it was unknown.
It may also be that the two traditions were employed in different religious settings and for different religious purposes, and the reason why a number of the liturgical recitations about the Exodus omitted the mention of the Theophany at Sinai is that they retained the original shape of the ritual including the original words of the liturgy. The two traditions were integrated at some point, perhaps in the late First Temple period or early Second Temple periods, as evidenced by the overall shape of the book of Deuteronomy, a composition that recounts the Exodus and the Theophany at Sinai and devotes the bulk of its text to the revelation of law.
The biblical text offers explicit evidence for the bikkurim ritual, as evidenced by this week’s parasha. While there is no explicit evidence of a Theophany at Sinai ritual, we do have a number of texts that refer to a public ceremony of recitation of Scripture. (For example, Nehemiah 8 indicates that there were blessings, whatever those included, and a recitation of Scripture, whatever selection that might have been.) A ritual recitation about the Theophany might have originated in such a context.
Focusing Solely on God’s Actions
Whichever explanation one prefers, the tradition that recounts the Exodus and omits the Theophany emphasizes how God redeemed the Israelites through a formative period of history. It highlights what God did for the Israelites, freeing them from Egyptian bondage, leading them safely through the Wilderness, and settling them in the Land of Israel.
This is similar to the famous (near) omission of Moses in the traditional Passover Haggadah, an absence that highlights God’s role in the Exodus. Both the Passover Haggadah and the parashah focus on God’s saving deeds without the interference of any mention of Moses or of the Theophany and its covenant requiring the Israelites to perform certain deeds. By focusing solely on God’s actions, they highlight God’s redemptive acts.
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September 8, 2014
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Prof. Rabbi Pamela Barmash is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a B.A. from Yale University, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Laws of Hammurabi: At the Confluence of Royal and Scribal Traditions (Oxford 2020) and Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge 2005). She is the co-editor of the Exodus: Echoes and Reverberations in the Jewish Experience, and the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law. She is the editor of the scholarly journal Hebrew Studies, and she serves as co-chair of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and as a dayyan on the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative/Masorti movement.
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