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Sinai and Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible


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Reviews of Sinai and Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible

Overall customer rating: 5.000

5 stars, albeit in disagreement

by drspainhour on Nov 14, 2009

In his book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, Jon Levenson sets out to offer a theology of the Jewish Bible in a way that is true to the nature of history, which is diachronic, not synchronic. According to Levenson, the Christian Canon, which views the Old Testament largely with reference to its Christology, demands a uniform reading that obscures the pluriform nature of the text and flattens history (Levenson, 4). Levenson wants to take into account ?the involvement of the Hebrew Bible in history and its character as imaginative literature and?not seek to deny this involvement and this character in the name of faith? (8). He does this by emphasizing human involvement in the writing of history rather than seeing it as one manifest plan of God. This means observing the changes throughout Israel?s history as evolutionary, not revolutionary (4). Levenson will endeavor to trace Israel?s history, or, rather, their theology of history, in light of the two greatest land markers of their religion, Sinai and Zion, attempting to show that their theology was not shaped by their history as much as their history was shaped by their theology. The book is divided into three major sections. In the first section, ?Sinai, the Mountain of the Covenant,? Levenson approaches Sinai and its covenant in its written form, not presuming upon the event itself, in order to begin discussing the numerous traditions concerning it (17). Sinai was the controlling metaphor for Israel?s relationship with YHWH, whose primary function was not to recount YHWH?s revelation to them in history, but to illustrate the type of relationship they shared with Him in the present (36, 43). According to Levenson, to be sure, the recitation of the Shma was ?the rabbinic covenantal renewal ceremony?the portal to continuing life in covenant? (86). A theology of history was being established that provided a way of understanding their place in history and a way of engaging YHWH in the present. Thus, toward the end of the Jewish Bible, the prophets could look back and account for the adversity and privilege Israel and Judah had experienced throughout their history with reference to their disloyalty or loyalty to the covenant (55). Woven into this section is Levenson?s attempt to substantiate the evolutionary nature of Israel?s history. He begins by showing that YHWH seems to evolve as the people evolve, even arguing that in the beginning YHWH was the greatest God of the pantheon, suggesting that early Israelite tradition was polytheistic! YHWH as Suzerain won his kingship by humiliating the other gods, and thus Israel?s monotheism was ?dynamic rather than static? (62). The groundwork has thus been laid for the continuity of Sinai and its covenant in Israel?s history. It was not merely an ancient relic, but the reality with which they were perpetually confronted, which served both as an interpretation of their past and a means of shaping their future. In the second section, ?Zion, the Mountain of the Temple,? Levenson shows that as Jewish tradition developed, Sinai was absorbed into a new mountain, Zion, a known hill in Jerusalem. No longer did YHWH reside ?in an extraterritorial no man?s land, but within the borders of the Israelite community? (91). The Sinaitic covenant, which focused upon the changeability of humanity, is now supplemented by the Davidic covenant, which focused on the constancy of God (101). Levenson notes that the faith in this everlasting dynasty gives no credence to political history, the rise and fall of kingdoms, and was thus born out of something quite different from a mere meditation of history. This nonhistorical way of relating history was through myth, which is characterized primarily by symbols with ?unlimited scope and import,? in this case Mount Zion (103). Zion was the cosmic mountain, whose most significant characteristic was that it was the meeting place of heaven, earth and hell (111, 122). Ordinary concepts of space and time are not adequate in describing the essence of Zion because it transcends both; it is qualitatively different from ordinary reality (127). Furthermore, comparing the similar language of Zion with the Garden of Eden, Levenson concludes that Zion was the place ?in which the primal perfection of Eden is?preserved? (129). Having established its relationship with creation, the temple thus serves as a picture of what creation and life were supposed to be, perfect and eternal (133). What is greatly significant in light of the meaning of Zion is that it was not confined by spatial limitation. Zion was not a ?place in the world, but the world in essence?The temple?is a microcosm of which the world itself is the macrocosm? (139). Thus, YHWH?s being enthroned in Zion ultimately implicates His providential rule over his universal kingdom. This ?cosmic significance? explains why even at the loss of Land and Temple the Jews did not lose their essential identity; the ?Temple was more than a building? and the land was based on a covenant that is still in force. ?The earthly Temple lay in ruins, but YHWH remained enthroned?? (181). Thus the mythical, rather than historical, nature of the Land and Temple allowed the Jews to survive in the absence of both. Finally, in his last section, ?Zion as the Heir to Sinai,? Levenson shows that Zion and the Davidic covenant did not replace Sinai and the Mosaic covenant, nor did Sinai survive in the Northern Kingdom while Zion displaced it in the Southern Kingdom. Rather, they were compounded into a holistic tradition, where Sinai represented the voice of God that was present at Zion, which represented the presence of God. This is illustrated in the feature of covenant renewals of the Sinaitic tradition?the indictment of the people for a breach of covenant?that survived into the Zionist tradition, e.g. Psalm 81 and 50. Hence, ?The?Lord speaks and summons the earth?? (Ps 50:1, emphasis added). The voice spoken to Israel at Sinai has thus been amplified to the entire world at Zion. Levenson shows that this cooperation of Sinai and Zion is a necessary corrective one for the other, where both the disregard of Israel?s ethical status and the presumptuousness of the sacrificial cult are held to account. ?Sinai demolishes the hubris of Zion?Zion demolishes the hubris of Sinai? (209, cf. Jer 7; Ps 50). As such, the messianic hope of the Davidic covenant should be located within the Sinaitic tradition (209). According to Levenson, whereas Judaism maintains the Mosaic and Davidic covenants necessarily in their pluriform nature, the New Testament has used the Davidic covenant to displace the Sinaitic covenant (216, 217). As such, ?David is subordinated to Moses, and the restoration of Zion?is subordinated to the righteousness of the Jews?? (217). For Levenson, this does an injustice to the nature and trajectory of the Jewish Bible, which still looks for a righteousness generation of Jews to which the Messiah will come. Although Levenson offers many wonderful insights to Old Testament studies, the entire book is somewhat undermined by his failure to qualify its premise that the changes in Israel?s history ?seem more evolutionary than revolutionary? (4). In other words, the development of Jewish history does not reflect major historical events that changed the course of history. Rather, throughout Israel?s history their writings were shaped by the world in which they lived, in conjunction with a developing and changing theology. This inability to view the Old Testament stories as essentially historical, rather than merely a theological recasting of the past, leaves many unanswered questions and unqualified arguments. For example, Sandra Richter reads YHWH?s suzerain-vassal covenant with Israel as a means of communicating with the Hebrew people, who had been steeped in the polytheism of Egypt, in a language they would understand (Richter, 83). But Levenson interprets this as a natural development that

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