Summary of Sinai & Zion

The following is a summary of Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible by Jon D. Levinson. I recommend the book to anyone interested in a concise introduction to Judaism.

Part I: Sinai, the Mountain of the Covenant

1. The Sinaitic Experience or the Traditions about It?

Sinai/Horeb—two names given to possibly the same location—“the mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1 and I Kgs 19:8). Then how can we know for certain that they are in fact synonymous; which, if that were the case, would suggest an ambiguity in the tradition promulgating the locations existence, therefore rendering modern readers incapable of fully understanding the events surrounding the mountain’s existence. One way of accounting for the Sinai/Horeb connection is by capitulating to the mystery of God’s power, or as Rudolf Otto defines “the holy,” mysterium tremendum et fascinans.[1] This renders the mountain abstruse—a sort of ethereal object which may not be subject to empirical observation, but nonetheless is real in its experience [by Israel]. However, we can really only attempt to know the historical Sinai/Horeb through the Biblical accounts of it, in which case there are many Midrashim. According to Levinson, the accurate way to paint the picture of Sinai/Horeb is by focusing on the actors involved rather than the historicity of the environment itself, that is, “the relationship of YHWH to his people Israel.”[2] This approach understands Sinai/Horeb to be the binding knot linking the generations of Israel, functioning as commons from whence laws were given.

2. YHWH’s Home in No Man’s Land

Tracing the locality of Sinai in terms of its relation to the territories surrounding the Israelites leads to an indistinct site outside of established civilization, lending to Levinson’s conception of Sinai befitting an allegorical interpretation. As such, the cognomen of YHWH as “The One of Sinai” (Psalm 68:9) indicates parallels with certain traits of God to those of Sinai and, further, to associations between the foreignness of Sinai to that of Israel. Specifically, Levinson points out that Sinai is a sovereign place, unrelenting to the will of any Pharaoh—an amiable place then for the enslaved Israel. Also, for the God of Sinai, YHWH, the correlation between it and Israel is one of echoic instantiations, that is, the God of Israel reflects the upheaval of the people Israel in that it is “mobile, rootless, and unpredictable.”[3] Hence, Sinai serves as hope and refuge for Israel: their guiding light to lead them out of turmoil and enslavement.

3. Sinai and the Covenant Formulary

The earliest stages of Judaism, or YHWHism, indicate an animistic quality to the religion where YHWH is literally a “desert deity who…dwells on a mountain,”[4] however this is not to be taken as the primary and fundamental understanding of the Sinaitic experience. Take for instance the holy covenant between YHWH and Israel delivered at Sinai. This can be recognized as a suzerainty treaty between God the king and Israel the vassal. Following the covenant formulary, such as in Joshua 24:1-28, the holy covenant between YHWH and Israel is seen as a suzerainty treaty reflecting those established by the Hittite Empire (ca. 1500-1200 B.C.E.). This suggests a redaction of biblical history to sustain the notion of Lord-vassal relationships consistent with the Sinaitic experience.

4. The Theology of the Historical Prologue

Viewing Exodus to be the entirety of the historical prologue, the second step in covenant formulary, of the Hebrew Bible, Levinson concludes that the historical journey of Israel to Sinai becomes the journey of every Israelite. Fitting with the prime aspect of a historical prologue, to connect past with present, Exodus establishes a degree of communitas among the present Israelites through its story of Israel’s tribulation and the theophany of YHWH. Hence, the historical prologue draws the religious reader into the communion and covenant with YHWH, thus maintaining the covenant.

5. Mitsvot as the End of History

In this reading, the historical prologue serves as the prime reason for Israel to follow mitsvot. History presents to the people of the covenant a reminder of the stipulations set forth at Sinai and gives the context from which those stipulation were made, i.e., YHWH’s beneficence. This is what Levinson means by the end of history, because although history sets the stage for observance of the law, the duty to follow Mosaic Law surpasses observance of history. Whereas history indicates the relationship between Israel and YHWH, following the mitsvot embodies the suzerain.

6. Are Laws the Same as Commandments?

Referring to Albrecht Alt, the covenant stipulations can be distinguished as two types of law, casuistic, or situational and general, and apodictic, or specific, neither of which is subordinate to the other. These two types are law is exemplified in the Book of the Covenant and the Decalogue, respectively. As such, their acquiescence is held as law, hence, the Laws of YHWH, insomuch as they are commanded by YHWH [via Moses].

7. Ethics and Ritual in the Light of Covenant Theology

Rabbinic understanding of the Mosaic Law is a third way of interpreting the covenant. Under this reading, the law in its entirety is under the obligation of Israel to follow although its reasoning may be concealed from them. When or if it comes to the point of having to decide between the laws, one decree is not held in a lower degree of importance to another but a lower degree of priority. Levinson divides further three classes of law: 1) casuistic and between man and neighbor, 2) apodictic and between man and neighbor, and 3) imperatives lacking foreseeable punishment and between man and God, in an imitative way. This creates a covenant relationship that is encompassing of God’s relation to Israel and Israel’s relation to everyone else.

8. One God or One Lord?

A strict consideration of YHWHism as monotheism provokes problems issuing from the progressive growth of the religion from polytheism. Passages of the Hebrew Bible looked at comparatively show a dualistic component to Israelite monotheism, or at least a mutability to it. Three ways that the religion maintains its monotheism is through, first, attributing all divine power to YHWH, dispossessing that of the other gods, e.g. El, Baal, etc.; second, by observing the mitsvot, Israel fulfills the suzerainty and denies any other god of the role as suzerain, or Lord; and third, by disavowing any and all other gods, thus casting them into a class of fiction. This is where the worship of any besides YHWH is deemed idolatry, or worship of false gods, thus ensuring Israel’s vassalage.

9. The Kingship of God and the Kingship of Man

Permitting the kingship of Man to surpass the kingship of YHWH amounts to a breach in the covenant just as the worship of another god would. This pits YHWH and its law above and against any man viz. kings and pharaohs, in general the state. Based on primacy, the Sinaitic covenant prevents any other suzerain to hedge past YHWH save for a breach in the covenant by Israel. Any human king is to be seen as a secular ruler, separate and distinct from YHWH, the divine ruler.

10. The Wedding of God and Israel

The Sinaitic covenant is analogous to a marriage between YHWH and Israel. It is the culmination of a passionate love affair between the two parties entwined in the covenant, the one whom promises deliverance and those whom praise their redeemer. Therefore, Mosaic Law and mitsvot are reciprocations of the love fixed in the covenantal relationship.

11. The Ever-Renewed Covenant

The ritual of prayer, or specifically the Shma, recycles each generation into the place of the original Israel receiving the covenant at Sinai, thus reinstating the suzerainty. The Shma secures Israel in each generation to YHWH by contracting Israel’s love, reissuing the law, and engraining the words of the Torah into the lives its people.

Part II: Zion, the Mountain of the Temple

1. The Early History of Zion in Prose Traditions

After the theophany of YHWH at Sinai, a different covenant was established at a new mountain, Zion. This site of mysterium tremendum et fascinans supplants that of Sinai, permitting a new locale for YHWH to associate his name. Mount Zion’s geographic reality means that YHWH’s presence will be more succinct with human history and concrete. The movement of Zion from mountain to the house of YHWH is a sequential effort on the part of King David warring with the Jebusites. From his capture of the city, the first Temple is established and sanctified by the theophany presented to David.

2. The House of YHWH and the House of David

Comparing the covenant of David with the covenant of Moses might show a disjunction between who is king—as the Sinaitic experience maintains that only YHWH can fill this role, but David is promulgated as king. However, the notion of whose “house” exactly is being an established show that YHWH is granting a land to his vassal, David, thus forming a new covenant grant as opposed to the old covenant treaty. In this case, YHWH makes an unconditional promise to David, securing for his descendants a kingdom, illustrating the immutability of YHWH and the trust, or faith, it demands.

3. The Vitality of Myth in Biblical Israel

To reconcile the historical events that follow from the Davidic covenant, interpretation of the Hebrew Bible elicits the text as a form of myth. As Levinson uses the word, the myth of the Davidic covenant is an event outside of the space-time chronology of history. As such, the fact that the Davidic dynasty is subject to the discontinuity that all historical empires are subject to does not discount the authority or honesty of YHWH. The Davidic covenant in this sense is recognized as the event of the promise, the theophany.

4. Zion as the Cosmic Mountain

A continuance of this definition of myth is found in the distinction of Zion as a cosmic mountain. As Clifford explains, Zion is analogous with the Greek Pantheon; its being a juncture of opposing natural forces; its position as the axis mundi; and its being the pedestal and podium of decrees, all make Zion a cosmic mountain. This approach to Zion elicits a conceptualization of it as a cross-cultural archetype since the same account of phenomena is given in other religions isolated from Jewish influence.

5. The Temple as Sacred Space

Deriving from the sacral myth of the Temple at Zion, we see that the Temple represents a sanctified structure of the world expressed dioramic, hence the attention to minute detail given to the Temple in Exodus. This goes hand in hand with the previous analysis of Zion as a cosmic mountain because it reiterates the centrality of Zion.

6. Sacred Space and Sacred Time

From this concept of the Temple of Zion as dioramic of the world, it follows that the Tabernacle represents also the creation of the world.[5] The analogy can be made, in the first, drawing from the Temple the characteristic traits of construction and sacred blessing by the Israelites under the direction of Moses. In the second, the creation of the world is, too, constructed and made blessed by God. Further, this significance played to the Temples of God refiguring the model of Genesis is illustrated by Solomon’s Temple. Here the recurrence of the number seven is a reflection of the Jewish calendar, especially the Sabbath. As Levinson points out, the analogies between God’s creation of the world existing in a sacred time and Solomon’s construction of the Temple existing in a sacred space tacitly expresses a correlational effort in the divine work, or sweat equity, God put into the creation and the sufferings of Israel, ultimately culminating in the construction of the Temple. This evidences the in imitatione Dei as Israel does as God does, thus emphasizing the personal relationship of the covenant.

7. The Meaning of the Cosmic Mountain in Israel

Levinson goes about an exegetic examination of Psalms 48, 46, 2, 24, and 15, Isaiah 7-8, 29:1-8, and Jeremiah 7:1-15, in order to provide for the understanding of what the sacred Mount Zion meant to the practitioners of the religion viz. Israel. For instance, the attribution of certain traits to Zion as well as its nomen stem from the contemporary and opposing Canaanite sacred ascription to Mount Zaphon as Baal’s “home.” Here the eminence of YHWH is couched in the visional revelation of Zion; in a way, Zion is Israel’s cosmic television with the volume muted, in effect, it is the alternative to the conventional revelatory “word,” or, following along with the appliance metaphor, the conventional cosmic telephone. Another explication of this chapter’s focus draws from the Genesis account of God’s preeminence in maintaining cosmic order and therefore exhibits God’s unconditional deservedness of worship. In this case, Zion, as the temple or city of God, is the asylum above and free from the “tensegrity” (a modification of R. Buckminster Fuller’s coinage combining tension and integrity, used in this case to mean the clashing elements making up the whole of the world) of the nature and political chaos below. A final example from one of Levinson’s textual autopsies follows from the previous discussion, and it recognizes Zion as, first, the mutual, but not equalized, throne of YHWH and his vicar David and, second, the podium from whence Davidic law is ordained. Here, although David and his kingdom, Jerusalem, are reflexive to their natural condition (they are “in ordinary history”), the two are exhumed and exalted from ordinary history (they are “not of it”)[6] because of their sharing in the status of the divine via the cosmic mountain Zion. The ultimate link between [Davidic] politics and God’s rule is that both oblige Israel to “be still” (Ps 46:11), that is, accept on faith—and trust in—the guidance of YHWH.

8. Yearning for the Temple

Levinson describes the psalmist accounts of a deep and passionate longing to sit forever in the house of YHWH as a poetic hyperbole that emphasizes the prioritized role of ‘right being’ or correct moral conduct. Based on the ascription of the Temple as perfect, an ideal that one aspires towards, Israel is magnetically drawn to attendance at the Temple, in other words, Israel is compelled by the religion itself to emulate the ultimate ideal—God. The subsequent pilgrimage, thus, engenders a “spiritual ascent” for Israel, in that, the individual Jew seeking deliverance into the beatitude of YHWH is obliged by the ethical status of himself within ordinary, secular society; ethics, then, are the figurative ‘key’ to the gate of YHWH’s home.

9. The Survival of the Temple in Judaism

Considering the destruction of the Mosaic and Davidic covenants so long ago, it is a matter of significance to which Levinson focuses that this has not affected the rabbinic tradition surrounding these events. In Zionism, or the Jewish Restorationist belief, the covenant promise to provide a home—Zion/Jerusalem/the land of Israel—is maintained and kept relevant by the cosmic understanding of Jerusalem as both the geographic locale as well as the divine locale, where the two are interrelated in creating the land’s perpetuity. Comparatively, modern rabbinic Judaism epitomizes the anomalous puissance and fortitude of the religion. In this case, the religion reacts and adapts to its environment, e.g., the proscription of sacrifice lends to the supplantation of the ritual by prayer and the “word” of the Hebrew Bible; the destruction of the Temple instigates the use of synagogues; and so on Levinson lists the successions of the old by the new in a microcosmic redefinition of the Jewish status quo. However, this does not suggest the obsolescence of the land and the Temple; rather, the Temple never totally went out of existence. Based on the bilateral theology of the Temple and the bi-leveled understanding of super-reality against the mundane reality, only its physical manifestation is gone, but the cosmic aspect remains in the mythology of its congregation. Characteristic of this doctrine is the protological-eschatological timetable, which evokes an optimistic response from the Jew that deliverance will follow from their struggle; and in addition to this projection, it is suggested that the life of the delivered can be experienced to some degree in this life via the Sabbath and the mitzvah of Torah study.

Part III: The Manifold Relationships between Sinai and Zion

1. Zion as the Heir to Sinai

As time progressed onward from the time of Moses to the time of David and beyond, the significance of Sinai became appropriated to Zion. This is not to say that Sinai was no longer recognized, in fact Sinai remains supreme over Zion being the first and the site of Moses’ revelation. Rather what this means is that the eminence of Sinai as the assembly point for YHWH and Israel has become the eminence of Zion. To paraphrase Levinson, the physicality of Sinai has become Zion, but the message it represents remains that of the Sinaitic covenant.[7]

2. Sinai and Zion, North and South

From the schism of Israel, in 922 B.C.E, the nation’s division produced a northern state (Israel/Ephraim/Joseph) and a southern state (Judah), from which, the religion underwent a shift and apportion of its tenet theology. The regnant position focuses on the differences in interpretation and practice of the Sinai and Zion traditions, holding to these differences the general thesis that the schism produced a bifurcation of Israel theology. In brief, these various theories delineate between the form of YHWHism that Israel assumed and weighs this against the form of YHWHism that Judah assumed. Levinson, however, acknowledges the fact that the differences inherited by each state are real and evident, but he maintains, the conclusion that this signifies a separated and conflicting religion is a hasty one. Together, the following instances of transmission of synchronistic beliefs, or what the regnant theory holds is solely or particularly the case for a singular state, substantiate Levinson’s stance: first, the idea that Israel was alienated from the David royal theology is unfounded; second, although redaction might have followed from the south’s wish to syncretise northern material, the fact that the theology of monarchy is amenably received in the south shows that it’s false to attribute it to the north alone; third, the geographic division of the states did not impede the spread of “northern” materials, nor did it necessitate the isolation of the Sinaitic covenant from the Davidic covenant; fourth, the Mosaic covenant was present in the south; fifth, given to the fact that the Sinaitic and the Davidic theologies do not contradict or are compromised by the other, it follows that they can coexist; sixth, the kingship that is proffered in the Davidic theology is consistent with that of Mosaic theology, save for the dynastic limitation; and, seventh, the covenant formula issued in Davidic theology is consistent with those of foreign theologies, i.e. Jehu’s dynasty.

3. Covenant Renewal on the Cosmic Mountain

Insomuch as the Sinaitic tradition and the Zionist tradition function in concert with one another as a synergetic covenant, Psalm 50 expresses the necessity of one in order to understand correctly the other. It is from the renewal of the covenant that this synergic quality is fashioned. For Zion, the covenant takes the form of a rib because Israel has fallen away from its obligations. YHWH widens his purview from the original covenant formulation to include the entire world, in effect resonating YHWH’s dominion over the world, tying secular and sacred together into Israel’s covenant, and redefines the old dogmatic particularities.

4. Moses and David

The focus here is on the relationship between the Sinaitic covenant of Moses and the Davidic covenant of its namesake. Some theorize that the more recent integrated into the older tradition, but this is undermined by the vast difference in the types of covenants the two were, the first being a treaty and the second being a grant. Others propose that the Mosaic covenant offered a reinterpretation of the Davidic covenant, underscoring the necessity of the observance of the mitsvot, therefore promulgating the primacy of the Mosaic one. However, another approach to the two covenants pits that of Moses in opposition with that of David, given that the Mosaic covenant held YHWH as independent and in control, whereas, the Davidic covenant entailed that YHWH is congruent with the political state. Levinson ascribes to the significance of the two covenants a status of mutual agreement. That is, both covenants serve as the guide from which the Jewish life is established.


[1]  Jon D. Levinson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1985), 16.
[2]  Ibid., 18.
[3]  Ibid., 22.
[4]  Ibid., 23.
[5]  Ibid., 142.
[6]  Ibid., 155.
[7]  Ibid., 188.
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About frommherrtzueternity

About me? For this I refer you, kind reader, to "Black Sabbath Vol. 4." On that album, listen to the song "Supernaut" for an entertaining synopsis of my assumed persona.
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