I am reading Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement, which is an approach to Jewish theology.
He has done a kind of phenomenological look at human experience to claim that there is a universal ability to tune in to a divine underpinning to the universe.
Now he comes to a more specifically Jewish way of doing theology. Here he finds the covenant at Sinai central. Before Sinai people engaged in their tendency to name the things they perceived. This included the divine. So polytheism arose. In Israel before Sinai they had developed some wisdom. They appreciated the traditions of their ancestors, recognized continuity from generation to generation, and valued the idea of a safe haven upon earth.
But Sinai added what became the essence of Judaism. Fishbane does not deal much with the historical problem of Sinai. Rather, he says that in ancient Israel a spiritual revolution occurred. The Hebrew Bible and its idea of a covenant relationship with God is evidence. We can call this revolution Sinai.
He also conceives Sinai as something that keeps happening. This means that it happens in the experience of individuals. For this, the recorded experience of the individual, Moses, is pivotal.
Moses experienced the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-4:17). From the divine side this was the revelation of the name YHWH, that God shall be what God shall be and nothing more can be said about it. But from the human side it showed that through being aware of his or her surroundings a human being can develop a religious consciousness in which a charged moment can bring about an authentic experience that seems holy and even supernatural.
Moses has a second experience in Exodus 19:1-6. There is no vision. There is just the voice (v. 3). God says that if the people will keep the covenant, God will make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (v. 6). According to Fishbane, this means that, through Moses, God calls Israel to pay attention so that they may live a divinely guided life filled with meaning.
In the text, three days later God gives the Ten Commandments. Divine wind and fire accompany this. This is different from when God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Here God does not speak just for one man, but invests the law of Israel with the divine effects of wind-fire energy.
This numinous quality also comes across in the commandments themselves. Most law takes the form of “if-then”. If this happens, then these consequences follow. The Ten Commandments, though, take the form of unconditional commands. You shall. You shall not. God, whose name means “shall be”, tells Israel what they shall be.
So Sinai has two sides. On the one hand, it emphasizes the “all-illimitable divine reality”. On the other side, it resonates with the task of specifying human values based on the divine reality.
It is hard to tell just what Fishbane’s historical understanding of the Sinai is. He does go into a discussion of the spiritual consciousness of “a person like Moses”. He apparently thinks that Moses, as lawgiver, used an accumulation of traditions and insights that “gathered” to him.
“Bits and pieces of gathered wisdom collect in Egypt as Moses learns that he must instruct people who could not readily attend to his new words “because they are crushed of spirit and the weight of bondage” (Exodus 6:13); as he learns to understand suffering and stubbornness, and the importance of freedom and worship to express dignity and identity; as he perceives the power of rituals to memorialize the past and sanctify time (Exodus 12 and 16); and as he is able to learn vital cultural information from others, even foreigners–in this instance about establishing judicial procedures and a hierarchy of responsibilities (Exodus 18).”
All these would have been personal insight that Moses did not put together as revelation from God until he had the encounters that we subsume under the name Sinai.