Did the ‘nations of the world’ actually reject the Torah?

For reasons somewhat unclear, the Midrash teaches us that before God offered the Torah to the Children of Israel, He first went to each of the Nations of the World and offered it to them. As if to say, in modern terms: Ethiopia, are you interested? Rome, how about you? France, are you in?  And to all of them, He said, in effect – there’s a lot here, a lot to digest. All of them rejected His entreaty because at least some of the Commandments were contrary to the bedrock of their (sinful) laws: “We cannot give up the law of our Fathers, We do not want Thy Torah.”  Murder, thievery, unchaste behavior, after all.

This scenario seems odd, indeed – especially given that before God offered the House of Israel the Torah at Sinai, it doesn’t appear in the Torah itself that He actually engaged at all with the so-called Nations of the World. It was just we alone. So why would God ask these “heathens” – none of those nations seem to have been monotheists – to accept the Torah? I mean, given that God knew they were all sinners –according to this Midrash they admitted as much to Him –  why would He waste His time with them?

And, maybe more important, how can it make sense that, if God truly spoke with these Nations, they didn’t recognize that He was, after all, the true One God whose offer of the Gift of the Torah it would be ludicrous to reject. If God unambiguously presents the Word to you, as He did to us, wouldn’t you at least tell Him that you would give it your best shot? How do you have the gall to say to God : “thanks, but no thanks”?

Now, one might argue, the House of Israel didn’t turn God down because God had proven Himself to us with His miracles, whereas He had not demonstrated such miraculous capacity to others. So what about that?  Let’s step back.  The stated thinking as to why He first offered the Torah to the Nations was so that they couldn’t later complain that they were never given a chance – only Israel was. But if that’s the case, why wouldn’t those nations be correct? They indeed were not given an “equal chance” – specifically, they hadn’t been shown God’s strength and capacity, whereas Israel had.

And, by the way, why would God actually care what the Nations thought or might say – wasn’t it enough that He would surely have known in advance that they would reject the Torah out of hand if it were offered to them? And, most troubling with the analysis, if God’s plan in offering the Torah all around was to peremptorily silence complaints that the Nations didn’t get an equal chance to follow God’s teachings, one has to wonder whether any of these “heathen nations” actually knew – or even know today – that God offered the Torah to everyone (or are troubled that it wasn’t offered to them). Unless, of course, these heathens are close readers of the Midrash – the only place where this account is actually contained, as it is certainly not directly presented in the Written Torah.

Now, if it isn’t obvious to the reader from the above, I don’t happen to believe that God actually went door to door asking the nations to accept, maybe hoping they would reject, his entreaty of the Torah. And, I suspect, I’m not really alone in that view, even among “believers.” Indeed, one must wonder where and how the author of that Midrash  came up with the idea that it actually occurred, and whether he himself believed it.

Or, was that Midrash designed to accomplish something altogether different? Is it a way to teach our children, hoping they will take that teaching into adulthood, that God was/is exquisitely fair in his dealings with the rest of the world?  Was it designed to establish a feel-good proposition that we are the “Chosen People,” if only because we, unlike all the others, were actually and affirmatively willing to “make the choice” to accept the Torah without qualification?

If the goal of this Midrash was, instead, to provide its readers with a literary non-fact-based understanding of what could have happened, perhaps the Midrash could have said instead that the Children of Israel actually came to God in the wake of the miracles of the Exodus and asked Him to give us a Torah, rather than the other way around.  That might have made the story considerably more compelling –  that we, the House of Israel, were the moving force in seeking to be One Nation Under God, without God having to be concerned that the other nations might complain that they got short shrift from God.  But that, too, would have been nothing more than a literary device to try to help understand what happened at Sinai, wouldn’t it?

Now, you might wonder why I raise the issue of how to understand this – or, for that matter, any – Midrash. To be sure, current, progressive thinking about the Midrash is generally that they are not to be taken literally. That Moses didn’t sit on Pharaoh’s lap, innocently touch burning coals and then put his burning fingers in his mouth, thus the reason why he became  tongue tied. That Moses didn’t tell the Angel of Death the day he died that he would only surrender his soul to God Himself, who (somewhat incredibly) then spoke to the Sun for advice on how to deal with this crisis, as it were. That Abraham actually lived in a tent open on all four sides so that he could see, welcome and attend to passersby traveling from every direction.  (Presumably, these too are not to be taken literally, although one can easily understand the teachable moment – which makes complete sense – to be gained from this Abraham story).

No offense intended to those who see it differently, but many stories of the Midrash sound more like myths, fables or fairy tales that ultimately require a suspension of disbelief. Perhaps even those true believers would, if only in the dark night of their souls, acknowledge that proposition, if not my somewhat rude characterization.

It is easy, of course, to come to such a skeptical view. So, perhaps, instead, we should visualize the Midrash as composed of “imaginings” by rabbis; rabbis whom we would like to believe were in some way divinely-inspired in their thinking. So, if divinely-inspired, does that mean that the events occurred as depicted in the Midrash? I suppose it depends on the subjective belief system of the individual believer.

If the believer holds that “the thing” actually happened, I suppose that is the end of the discussion, i.e., God actually did go door to door with the Torah before he came to the House of Israel. If, instead, the believer holds that the account contained in this particular Midrash is just a way to view the event of Revelation at Sinai in context, conflicting accounts would certainly be possible, as in the instance of modern day Biblical fiction.

As a writer of Biblical fiction, I, for example, “imagine” – with no basis in any writings – that Moses fully appreciated that it would have been unfair to the Israelites who had been slaves in Egypt if he alone were to reach the Promised Land while they died off in the desert.  However painful, Moses accepted his fate, knowing that he could not be the one of his generation to reach that Land.  Some readers may agree; others may reject my premise.  Just as they, dare I say, are free to reject my personal belief that Midrashic accounts are, well-intentioned, but “fictional”.

The problem with the Midrash, as I see it, is that too many “believers” see the Midrash (and I must here use the word) as gospel (meant in the colloquial sense).  They often will not distinguish what is stated in the Written Torah from what might be contained in the Midrash – meaning, having been taught the Midrash’s stories at childhood, they find themselves coming to the belief that many of those stories are actually contained in the Written Torah.  That occurrence, it seems to me, elevates the idiosyncratic imaginings of the humans who wrote the Midrash into Scripture as if it had been authored by God.  And there has to be, as I see it, something wrong with that!

But, put that aside. What’s the ultimate benefit of the Midrash – and in particular, the story in question? Do we somehow feel better that God dispensed (offered) equality to the other Nations, and that, as a matter of pure jingoism, we alone survived having accepted the Torah? Was it really like that?  Some will disagree, even be offended, but we just don’t know.   But – and maybe this is the point of the Midrash – we can take pride, nachas even, in the fact that we alone stood up when God demanded, by His offer to us, that we follow all of his Laws.  And doesn’t that pride bring with it a requirement that we be more scrupulous about our obligations under all those Laws – Laws which Nations of the World are said to have rejected?

And, maybe, just maybe, that’s the goal of all the Midrash at day’s end – to make us better appreciate our obligations, even requisite fealty, to God – whether or not what the Midrash reports in its narratives actually occurred.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.