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Shlomi Tal Sinai

The Sinai Argument (2001)

Shlomi Tal


The question of whether the revelation of God to the ancestry of the nation of Israel took place is of great importance to the Jewish faith, comparable to the Empty Tomb debate in Christianity. As do fundamentalist Christians with the latter, Orthodox Jews base the faith on the alleged historical fact of the revelation at Mount Sinai, saying it affirms the religion and negates all objections to it. Let us critically examine the issue and evaluate the case for the historicity of the Sinai Covenant.

Argument from Unique Public Revelation

The argument for the historicity of a public revelation is put forward in Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, and given a recent elaboration by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Somayach, an Orthodox outreach yeshiva network, in his Living Up to Truth apologetics series [1].

The outline of the argument is as follows:

  1. The story of the revelation to the entire ancestry of the nation of Israel is without parallel in all history.
  2. The reason it is without parallel is that such a story cannot be fabricated.
  3. Only private revelations and miracles can be fabricated; a public revelation must actually have happened.

The main issue is whether a public event, all the more so before an entire nation, could be told without having happened. The author says the argument can be falsified by bringing just one claim of a public event which is said to have happened but known to be untrue. He argues that there is no other such claim because it is impossible to make such a claim unless the event really happened. He then goes on to refute the allegation that the Sinai Argument is a result of myth formation, saying that if the myth of the Sinai Covenant was formed by extrapolation of an impressive event then there ought to be parallel myths. The fact of revelation at Sinai must therefore be real, passed from generation to generation without fail, for it is impossible for a father to pass a lie onto his son.

Public Myth Formation

As an example of the principle, Rabbi Gottlieb gives a hypothetical story of gold trees growing all over Romania for a period of twenty years. He argues that if such a public miracle happened, we would not need to search for it, but would know of it already, it being so famous and being the subject of ample literature and account. This claim of copious documentation, however, is falsified by myths which left no trace except themselves. For example, the traditions of Shi’i Islam say that on the day Husain ben Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed, the stones of the Temple Mount were drenched in blood for the whole day. That should have left some commentary from other sources, such as Christians living in Jerusalem at the time, but let us grant that the non-Muslims were not interested, and that the miracle took place only for a single day, and still we have a public miracle. Rabbi Gottlieb says, however, that even thousands of witnesses, as in the Feeding of the Multitudes by Jesus, are “semi-private” affairs. But the 600,000 reported adult male ancestors of the Jews who stood at Sinai are also thousands of witnesses, just more thousands than the number reported for the Christian miracle. How does Gottlieb determine the sufficient number for witnesses? How much public does a miracle need to be in order that there may be no possibility of fabrication? By arbitrarily writing off the number of witnesses to the Feeding of the Multitudes as insufficient but accepting the number of witnesses to the Sinai Covenant as sufficient, Gottlieb is assuming what he is trying to prove. If the Feeding of the Multitudes can be regarded as a myth, and the drenching of stones in blood too, and so too the statewide decree of King Shahrayar in the Arabian Nights to bring a single virgin girl of Persia to him each night, to be killed the next day (not a miracle, but still a public event of statewide influence), and Gottlieb does not take any one of them to be true, then why should the revelation at Sinai be given preferential treatment?

I agree that within a space of one or two generations it is impossible to fabricate a public event. However, when time is distant (say ten generations) it is perfectly possible to make a myth regarding the ancestors. Greek mythology has it that Prometheus gave fire to the first humans, and afterwards the Greek gods gave Pandora’s box of diseases to humanity. Those gifts, for good or bad, were given to the first humans, which are supposedly the ancestors of us all, of the humanity of all the world. “Your ancestors were witnesses to the fact that Prometheus gave them fire”, it could be so phrased. Would Rabbi Gottlieb find it strange? It is no more strange than his own saying, “your ancestors were witnesses to the fact that God gave them the Torah”. There is as much justification in believing the Prometheus myth, but an Orthodox Jew has already taken it for granted that Greek mythology must be false.

The Worldwide Miracle of Joshua 10

At this point the apologist for Orthodox Judaism will request that I should stop giving such seemingly fabulous examples as the Prometheus myth or the statewide decree of the Persian king Shahrayar and present a real example of a very public miracle which is reported to have happened but did not actually take place. I do not think any example could satisfy a person who has already subscribed to a doctrine, but no matter, I have an example from none other than the Hebrew Bible (the TaNaKh, which the Christians call the Old Testament) itself. Joshua 10:13 says that the sun stood in the half (=middle) of the sky and did not hasten to set for about a whole day. Now, I should like to reflect on Joshua’s miracle. It is not given the same emphasis and prominence as the Sinai Covenant, but numerically it should be. Whereas the revelation at Sinai was allegedly witnessed by only one nation, the miracle of Joshua 10 must have been witnessed by the entirety of humanity worldwide. It should be perfectly clear that if the sun stays in its place a whole day (actually the earth, but let us leave this nice piece of Bible errancy), then the whole world is affected. In no part of the world could this miracle have gone unnoticed. It would have been recorded everywhere, or at least in all cultures having a writing system and astronomical awareness.

In the case of this worldwide miracle, not only do we find no recording whatsoever in any book outside the Bible, but we find evidence against the miracle. The Egyptians and the Babylonians had writing systems and astronomical reckoning, yet they left no trace of the event in their writings. Furthermore, the Egyptian pyramids are aligned with the stars exactly as though the suspension of cosmic affairs never took place [2]. The evidence can be explained either by the implausible hypothesis (and unsupported by scripture) that the cosmic order was later restored to what it had been before the miracle, or by the simpler and more likely hypothesis that it never took place. So it is that we have a public, worldwide miracle which all of humankind supposedly witnessed but most probably did not happen at all. Rabbi Gottlieb’s empirical challenge of producing a public story which did not take place is thus answered, and there is no room here even for a numerical dispute, for the miracle of Joshua 10 is the most public miracle that could ever be imagined in the world.[3]

Single-Source Witness

From the start, the Sinai Argument suffers from having a single-source witness, without corroboration from outside sources. Rabbi Gottlieb has tried to prove that no other witness is needed, for the public miracle is self-proving, but I have shown how it is possible for a public, even worldwide, story to be false nonetheless. The revelation at Sinai therefore stands in the same shaky position as the claims of Jesus and Muhammad (both of them solitary men coming with a message from God for humanity). Just as there is no external evidence for the virgin birth of Jesus, or for Muhammad’s reception of the Qur’an from the angel, so there is no external source for the revelation at Sinai. Orthodox, Torah-literal Judaism is thus just another theistic faith without foundation. There is external evidence for some parts of the Bible, such as the siege of Sennacherib on Jerusalem, which is recorded on Assyrian tablets, but no such corroboration for the Sinai Covenant. The revelation is recorded in a single source, which we are supposed to believe is true because it says so. The evidence, however, is to the contrary: the alleged divine source is full of contradictions and errors,[4] failing even in the fundamental point of origins (if God created us then he did so by means of evolution, which the Bible curiously neglects to mention [5]). It is thus plausible to conclude, as with the story of the worldwide miracle of Joshua 10, that the revelation at Sinai never took place. It was formed many generations after the consolidation of the Jewish nation, at a time when no-one could know what the ancestors had seen or done.

[1] The chapter on the Sinai Argument can be found at http://www.ohr.edu/special/books/gott/truth-6.htm, spotted Jun 14, 2001.

[2] Explained in Jim Meritt’s General Anti-Creationism FAQ, at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-meritt/bible.html, spotted Jun 14, 2001.

[3] Don’t be taken in by the NASA Proves Missing Day legend.

[4] See the Biblical Criticism and Biblical Errancy sections.

[5] See the Science and Religion section.

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