Levenson – Sinai & Zion: A Theology of Tension

The first thing to notice about Levenson’s approach to OTT is that it is a theology of tension.  This is because one of Levenson’s main points theologically is that the Hebrew Bible is much more ambiguous than we sometimes like to admit.  There is this ongoing balancing act within the HB to navigate these tensions, sometimes knowingly letting these tensions stand, for theological significance.  In the first section of Levenson’s Sinai & Zion I noted some of the prominent contrasts and we have the following (there could be more):

intersection/barrier (15):  In the theophany of Exodus 19:16-22 there are “contrasting movements,” the first speaks of the intersection between the lives of God and Israel.  The second speaks of the barrier between God and Israel.  This points up the classic tension between the immanence and transcendence of God.

relevant/distant (16):  “The Sinaitic experience is here presented as simultaneously supremely relevant to human experience and distant from it and foreign to it.”

 tree/fire (20-21):  Deut 33:16, Exodus 3, and the wordplay between sene (‘tree’ or ‘bush’) and Sinay (‘Sinai’) suggest that YHWH is traditionally associated with a tree/bush.  Later tradition shows that YHWH is associated with fire (see Deut 4:24).  So then the narrative of Moses and the burning bush has both these symbols, tree and fire, “clash, and neither overpowers the other.”  This is the case as well with the Menorah of the Tabernacle and Temple (Exod 25:31-39; 1 Kings 7:49).  

Egypt/Midian (21):  If you try and figure out where Sinai is, based on the earlier texts, a curious thing becomes known:  Sinai is neither in Egypt nor in Midian, God rather reveals himself in a literal “no man’s land.”  This is seen even in Moses’s request to Pharoah to let the Israelites worship “in the wilderness.”  The contrast is not only governmental (YHWH is not governed by either Egypt or Midian) but also between the desert and urban state.  So then YHWH’s home on Sinai represents freedom, “which stands in opposition to the massive and burdensome regime of Egypt, where state and cult are presented as colluding in the perpetuation of slavery and degradation.”  

legal law/affective law (50):  This again points up the prominent dialectic in Levenson’s works:  “The energy and spiritual power of Torah flows in no small measure from its insistence on holding these two dimensions, the outer (legal) and inner (affective), in a tight unity, refusing to sacrifice the one on the altar of the other.  

YHWH/other gods (56ff):  This is where Levenson becomes somewhat ‘controversial.’  He begins to doubt whether Israel’s religion was monotheistic throughout its history.  I’ll post again soon on his arguments for this.

God as king/Israel’s king (70-72):  Levenson argues here that the covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel precludes human kingship.  YHWH is Israel’s king and only rightful suzerain.  This presents in some texts a tension between pro-monarchical and anti-monarchical texts (the pro-monarchical tradition is typically what Levenson will put under the “Zion” category), see Judges 8:22-23/I Samuel 8:7.  Levenson would argue that even the Davidic covenant itself points up this tension.  “Thus, it is of the utmost significance that the Torah, the law of the theo-polity, was, for all its diversity, always ascribed to Moses and not to David, to the humble mediator of covenant and not to the regal founder of the dynastic state.”  

law/love (86):  “His past grace grounds his present demand…Mount Sinai is the intersection of love and law, of gift and demand, the link between a past together and a future together.”


The point in bringing all of these up is to show again Levenson’s methodology and his Sinai & Zion does this paradigmatically.  Throughout even his part 1 on Sinai, Levenson is continuously pointing out tensions in the text, and this is all under the ‘unified’ rubric of Sinai.  You can imagine what he does then when exploring the relationship between his two parts, Sinai & Zion.  His first part develops one tradition found in the HB, in this case the Sinaitic.  He then goes back and develops what he sees as another tradition found in the HB, in this case, Zion. Then his third part discusses the parts where these traditions both agree, but more importantly, disagree.  I didn’t always agree with Levenson’s conclusions but I found his methodology refreshing.  Pointing out the tensions really did open up the text and allowed me to see things in the text that I would never have seen before, mostly because my methodology didn’t allow me to.    

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s