Where Has Matan Torah Gone?

The story of the revelation and lawgiving at Mount Sinai is clearly one of the dramatic high points in the narrative of the Torah. The centrality of this event for Israel’s faith is forcefully presented in Deuteronomy iv, 9-10. 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. This central, terrifying event 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.

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 desert (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. It is also missing from other reviews of Israel’s history, such as Deuteronomy 26:5-9; Josh. 24, and Samuel 12: 8ff. Nor do we find the lawgiving at Sinai anticipated at any point in the book of Genesis, again, in contrast to the exodus which is anticipated (Gen. 15). Strikingly, even the list of the encampments of the Israelites in the desert in Numbers 33 makes no mention of any unusual event that occurred during the stop at the Sinai desert (not e : the Sinai Mountain – 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 some other relatively minor events. It is not until the historical review in the late book of Nehemiah that we find reference to the story of Mount Sinai (Neh. 9:13-16)!

How are we to explain this glaring silence with reference to the Sinai event? S. E. Loewenstam [1] attempted to account for the difficulty by arguing that the Sinai event would simply be out of place when reciting the gracious acts that the Lord performed for Israel. The imposition of law is not like the exodus or conquest because it presents 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. I find this explanation suggestive, but ultimately wanting. The explanation does not account for the failure to mention the giving of law at Sinai in so thoroughgoing a manner. We may also question the assumption that the giving of the law was not understood as an act of divine favor until such a late period. Most scholars agree that the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy derives from late first Temple times. This book continually refers to the giving of law as an act of divine concern “to bestow good” upon Israel. It is thus far from clear that Israel would not have given thanks to the Lord for the giving of the law in first Temple times.

It seems that we cannot avoid concluding that the bulk of Israel in first Temple times was simply unaware of the Sinai story or tradition. This does not mean that the tradition of law and covenant at Sinai was “invented” in second Temple times. Rather, the Sinai tradition simply did not achieve the popularity and circulation that the exodus tradition did. Until the later period, it seems that only limited groups preserved the tradition of law and covenant via theophany at Sinai. While most Israelites knew and perpetuated the memory of the exodus, 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.

If this is true, the question then arises: 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/prophets who communicated them to the people gradually and under less dramatic circumstances. Even as late as Daniel 9 we find the confession, “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 . (verse 10).” If the laws derived from multiple prophets in successive generations then there would be little reason to recall any single event of prophetic lawgiving over and above other ones. It would particularly be out of place to recall these prophetic lawgiving events together with the exodus, the divine guidance in the wilderness, and the conquest if the giving of the law was not connected to a dramatic theophany.

The idea that laws and regulations were given to Israel via the prophets is hinted at in several passages. The most blatant example of a prophet who promulgates law is the exilic prophet/priest, Ezekiel (chapters 40-48). 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.

Another example of a prophet who taught and wrote law independent of the Mosaic Torah is Samuel who “told the people the regulation of kingship and wrote it in a book and placed it before the Lord (viz., in the Temple) ” (I Sam. 10:25). The preservation of the book in the Temple of Mizpah is reminiscent of the preservation 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 (Dt. 31:26). It is most likely that what we have here is the legal constitution of the rights and obligations of the king. It may be instructive to compare this to the law in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. After limiting the amount of horses, wives, and money 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 hint that Samuel implements this law with regard to Saul. Rather, the two biblical sections are parallel. The constitution of kingship written by Samuel and preserved in the Temple of Mizpah parallels the Torah of Moses preserved in the Jerusalem Temple. Both are meant to restrict and regulate the authority of the king in accordance with the demands of the prophet.

Two points should be emphasized here. The first regards the apparent independence of Samuel’s constitution from the Torah of Moses. This coincides with the fact that Samuel’s command to go to war with Amalek (I Sam. 15:2-3) is never rooted 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. The second point concerns the manner in which the divine source of Samuel’s constitution is authenticated. In essence, there is no dramatic event authenticating the divine source of Samuel’s constitution the way that the law of Sinai is authenticated by thunder and lightening. The faith in the divine source of Samuel’s constitution, as in the case of Ezekiel’s law, is based upon the prophet’s authority and trustworthiness alone. The people accept this Torah in an atmosphere of ease and calm that contrasts strikingly with the atmosphere of fear and trembling that characterizes the atmosphere of the Sinai theophany.

One final explanation for the failure to mention the giving of the Torah should also be considered, particularly with regard to the later period, when the tradition of Sinai was already well known. It seems reasonable to assume that the idea of a one-time revelation of God’s teaching for Israel was inimical to priests and prophets. 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 probably 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” (Dt. 13:1) then there is no room for the prophets and priests to 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.

The tension between the authoritative Torah of Moses and the voice of the prophet is hinted at in several biblical passages. It is not by accident, for example, that the above quoted warning not to add or subtract from the Torah of Moses comes right before the admonition not to listen to wayward prophets. 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. Again, Deuteronomy has the king read from the book of the Torah all his days. In this way Deuteronomy replaces the role of the prophet as instructor to the king with the role of the book. We may well assume that not all priests and prophets looked favorably upon the claims of the Mosaic Torah from Sinai to finality. 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 may explain why a 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 merely one in a long series. 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. Zechariah’s role as lawgiver in 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 struggle that we are depicting here is essential to the formation of any society. One the one hand there is a need for stability and permanence. The canonization of the story of the Sinai theophany reflects this attempt to stabilize and unify the religion of Israel. Variant traditions are either rejected or 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. Let us hope that we will have the wisdom to foster this tension in Israeli society today.

David Frankel has served since 1992 as a senior lecturer in Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

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