In this post I will fulfill my promise to explain how the Mt. Sinai story originated and developed. In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I am not a biblical scholar, critic, or historian. If you are reading this post and want to use it in a school paper or cite it as a source...you really should move along. I should be considered a Herbert with an opinion, not a credible source for scholarship.
In previous posts on this topic I have clarified what the story actually is and is not. For instance, we have three different versions of the story from the J source, the E source, and the P source. On the other hand, we have a later commentary and interpretation in the D source (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:9-40). This later text is not a version of the story.
For my purposes, the Sinai story will be what we get in the earliest source, which is J. The verses below are the J source pulled from Exodus 19:
And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments. And they shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day, the Lord will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai. And you shall set boundaries for the people around, saying, Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.' No hand shall touch it, for he shall be stoned or cast down; whether man or beast, he shall not live. When the ram's horn sounds a long, drawn out blast, they may ascend the mountain."As before, I am using text drawn from Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed. The main question before us is how the story began. We have several possible answers to consider:
So Moses descended from the mountain to the people, and he prepared the people, and they washed their garments. He said to the people, "Be ready for three days; do not go near a woman." It came to pass on the third day when it was morning. And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently.
The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord summoned Moses to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended. The Lord said to Moses, "Go down, warn the people lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to the Lord, and many of them will fall. And also, the priests who go near to the Lord shall prepare themselves, lest the Lord wreak destruction upon them." And Moses said to the Lord, "The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it.'" But the Lord said to him, "Go, descend, and [then] you shall ascend, and Aaron with you, but the priests and the populace shall not break [their formation] to ascend to the Lord, lest He wreak destruction upon them."
So Moses went down to the people and said [this] to them.
1. The story is one-hundred-percent literally true. This answer is unrealistic because in the text of the story, the narrator presumes to know the actions and statements of both YHWH and Moses. The plain presentation of the content provides no reason to think that either YHWH or Moses is speaking in the third-person about himself. Instead, we have an unidentified and unknown storyteller relating events, actions, and speech--this is a very common mode of storytelling! The implication that YHWH was somehow directly responsible for the smoke and fire on Sinai is unsupportable.
2. The story is partially true and partially embellished. This option is more plausible than #1. Could there have been a Moses-like leader and a gathering of people around a smoking mountain? Yes, certainly this is a possible scenario. This is the legend option. In this case, however, we have no information to tell us definitively how close the story is to the true part. That is, we don’t know how much is factual, and we don’t know the distance in time between the real events and the story.
3. The story is completely fabricated. This option is plausible, as fabricated stories are a particularly human pastime. Today, no one thinks the movie Independence Day is based on real events and people, even though it mentions real places, real occupations (such as President of the United States), realistic scenarios (sometimes), and so forth. No one requires a real Harry Potter or Hogwarts. So why should we doubt that ancient people could want and could create fictional stories? The story could have served a didactic function (explaining why we observe the laws taught by Moses and his heirs), an entertainment function (titillating with fire and smoke on a desert mountain – ooh!), or both.
We can justifiably take option #1 off the table because we have no reason to keep it. Can we decide between #2 and #3? Personally, I lean toward #3, since there’s no evidence that there ever was a real Moses. Yet, perhaps #2 is salvaged if we speculate that the earliest performances of the Sinai story drew upon a character known more generally in the Ancient Near East, like a Sargon of Akkad. After all, YHWH was one of something like 70 deities in the Ugaritic pantheon.
So we can only speculate--let’s call it option #3.1--that the Sinai story was a fabrication using pre-existing narrative elements which may have been factual at some point in the distant past. The story was part of a larger tapestry of narratives involving legendary figures and the local god. The story later became taken as historical. It became the basis for justifying the various daily religious observances and obligations of the people.
The E version already signals some of the elaborations that could be made from the story:
And Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel, ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles' wings, and I brought you to me. And now, if you obey me and keep my covenant, you shall be to me a treasure out of all peoples, for mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel."The god of E is less the warrior than that of J. This god is more interested in a covenant, in the mutual embrace between a divinity and his people.
Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, "All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!" and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord.
And the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever." And Moses relayed the words of the people to the Lord.
There were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered. Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice.
The people remained far off, but Moses drew near to the opaque darkness, where God was. The Lord said to Moses, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, ‘You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken with you. You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves. An altar of earth you shall make for me, and you shall slaughter beside it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. Wherever I allow my name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.’”
In both J and E, God is obscured. Whether by cloud or by shofar, the people are apparently in an ecstasy yet at a prescribed distance from Moses (and Aaron, in J) and from God. I am reminded of those TV shows where pastors magically heal the crippled or where people speak in tongues. Both J and E describe not witnessed events but whipped-up events. Perhaps this is the kind of religious ceremony they cultivated in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
So, I have fulfilled my promise to offer my own explanation of how the Sinai story originated and developed. Readers will recall that I was asked for such an explanation because I had challenged the way Kuzari proponents characterized the arguments of Kuzari opponents (like me). Those who support Kuzari state that we opponents argue either that
(a) someone along the way made it [i.e., the Sinai story] all up and sold a tall tale to millions about their own ancestorsor
(b) The story of mass Divine revelation started out as a small scale, untrue, but plausible story. After is [sic] was accepted, it evolved and grew imperceptibly into the full blown version we have today.My account differs from (a) by separating the origination and circulation of the story from its being “sold” as true and as “scriptural.” The problem with the (a) scenario is that it assumes the story was invented and offered as true at the same time. My account assumes just the opposite, that the story appeared first and was later re-interpreted as something people needed to understand as true and important.
The problem with the (b) scenario is that it assumes the story was taken to be true from the first and then became ever more outlandish over time, yet still regarded as true. The story, in other words, became more and more fantastical, yet it was never regarded as anything other than true. My account of the Sinai story does not assume the story was taken as true. In fact, it really does not matter whether the story was taken as factually true or literally true at the outset. What actually matters is that at some point in time, after the story had been around and known, the story’s implications--if it were true--were articulated and exploited. Sinai was transformed from a story to a teaching, from a narrative component to a theocratic justification.
The Sinai story is neither a hoax nor an evolved entity. The story was invented at some point, and elements of its narrative did “grow” over generations of re-telling and reflection. But what I think really changed over time was the cultural environment that the story circulated within. As that environment developed and underwent changes, it saw the Sinai story anew and saw new aspects of it. It helped ancient stories such as Sinai to become capital-b Biblical.
* * * * *
Now, we all know that the Kuzari Principle gets invoked to keep option #1 in the conversation and to make it seem reasonably, if not eminently, plausible. As I have shown, however, Kuzari-based arguments have very limited value, at best. I once wrote,
Whether or not we are convinced by Kuzari, we must never ignore or forget what it actually is. It is a principle designed to favor a certain interpretation of Jewish history and texts. It is not evidence and it is not proof. Most of all, it is itself unproven.Furthermore,
We have come to another concluding point in this ongoing discussion of the Kuzari Principle. To sum up, let me bulletize the important ideas that we have reached through study and discussion:
outside of the Torah's report of Sinai, there is no positive case for the event. To my knowledge, we have no reason to believe Sinai actually happened other than the Torah's ambiguous description of an event. As thinkers, we have a responsibility to ask what sorts of evidence might reasonably have been produced from the Sinai event in the Torah. For instance, should we expect that other nations might have seen something from afar and reported it? If we say "no" in this case, then perhaps we need to address the problem of Sinai's being an enclosed event. Kuzari downplays other revelations [in other religions, that is] as being "semi-private," yet the Sinai revelation is private in its own way because only the one group has received the revelation. Had Israel, Sinai, and the Amalekites all experienced the same revelation and recorded it, then we would have strong[er] evidence of a most momentous event in human history.
- We can construct an historically plausible model of how stories such as Sinai originated and developed.
- What's more, this model is more nuanced and realistic than the "evolutionary myth hypothesis" usually ascribed to those who challenge Kuzari-based arguments.
- Anyone who wants to argue for option #1, or its enhanced version which says that Torah we have today is 100% literally true as it appears, must make the full case for it--including justified explanations of how the Torah was written, when, by whom, where, over how long, for what purposes, and with what relationships to the societies within which this composition took place
- What's more, this case must go beyond "tradition" or "this is what the sages tell us," because I am asking for the historical case.