Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Everything Rests on Sinai: Final Thoughts on Kugel's How to Read the Bible

If you are a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim--or a theist in the Abrahamic vein--your foundational belief is the revelation at Sinai. This claim may surprise you, but bear with me for a moment.

Maybe you don't believe that 600,000 or 3,000,000 (depending on who you ask) Jews gathered at the base of a mountain. Maybe you don't believe the event took place at a mountain. Maybe you are not sure when it happened. But you believe something miraculous happened in the desert. You believe that divine and human communed there. What's more, you believe this event inaugurated the force behind the Torah, Israel, the First and Second Temples, Jesus, Paul, Peter, the New Testament, the Church, Mohammed, and the Qu'ran.

Sinai is unique in the Bible: it's the one thing that must have some kernal of real, historical truth.You don't need Adam and Eve to be a believer. You don't require Babel, or the deluge, or even Abraham's binding of Isaac. The Exodus is almost indispensable. Belief can survive without these. All these stories can be fictional or metaphorical, even wholly so.

The Sinai revelation is different. There is a limit on how metaphorical, poetic, or embellished this story can be. If it is total fiction, then all Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are fictions too. Jesus cannot be God-incarnate if God never gave Israel the two Torahs. Jesus cannot have died for anyone's sins, even his own, without the precedent of God's holy instruction to humanity. Mohammed cannot be a prophet if there was no prophet at Sinai. If nothing truly miraculous happened in the desert, then nothing miraculous happens in minyan, in church or mosque, and in history. The end of days will surely happen, but it too won't be miraculous.

Absolutely everything about Judeo-Christian-Muslim religious belief comes down to Sinai.

This is the lesson taught me by the series on Chapter 36 of James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible. It was not Kugel's lesson, as he did not dwell too much on being a believer except for that final section of the chapter. Nevertheless, as we leave Kugel's book and look at the world, the question that people have to answer and deal with is "What is it you think happened out there in the desert?"

I've given my answer. I don't know Kugel's, unless I have skipped over it. I imagine he thinks that something divine happened out there.

The more important question--that is, the one that has real consequences in the world--is why one would think something happened (or didn't) in that wilderness. The why is the more telling, for what happened merely separates us while why do you think that determines whether we are friends or enemies.

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