Allen S. Maller
Allen S. Maller

Qur’an and Torah on why God’s Self-Revelation at Mount Sinai was unique

Every Prophet of the Holy One teaches the same monotheism, but only Prophet Moses was a part of the covenant God made at Mount Sinai with the whole Jewish People; men, women and children. The Torah is the first ancient Holy Book to survive as a living text central to an ongoing religious community to this very day.

The Qur’an and the oral Torah both explain how Allah got the whole Jewish people to jointly choose to accept God’s offer of a covenantal partnership at Mount Sinai. Three verses in the Qur’an narrate that at Sinai, before Allah give the Torah to the Children of Israel; He made a covenant with them.

“Allah raised the mountain (Sinai) above the whole Jewish people: We took a covenant from you when We lifted the Mount (Sinai) over your heads saying, ‘Hold firmly to what We have given you (the Torah) and remember what is in it.’” (Qur’an 2:63).

And Exodus 19:5 states: “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine”

The metaphoric marriage of God and the People of Israel began when God proposed this marriage covenant at Mount Sinai. God said to Moses (the go between): “Speak thus to the house of Jacob, and tell this to the children of Israel… Now if you listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the peoples, for the whole earth is mine. You will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation. These words you shall speak to the people of Israel” (the proposal).

“Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all these proposals as God had commanded him. All the people answered together, “All that God has proposed, we will do. (the acceptance, similar to “I do” at a wedding) Moses brought this answer back to the Lord.” (Exodus 19:5-8)

The principle that God has made a covenant with a whole people, and not just with those who are good and faithful believers, helps us understand two other powerful verses in the Qur’an which narrate that at Sinai, before Allah give the Torah to the Children of Israel, He made a covenant with them. Allah raised the mountain (Sinai) above the whole Jewish people:

“We raised the mountain above them like an umbrella, and they thought it was going to fall on them: “You shall uphold what we have given you, strongly, and remember its contents, that you may be saved.” (Qur’an 7:171)

The whole nation’s future fate stood under the shadow of mount Sinai, and this explains the miracle of all Israel hearing and choosing to agree to the covenant with the One God of Prophet Abraham.

This Jewish experience at Sinai is also referred to in the Oral Torah. When God offered all the newly freed slaves the Torah, a party of them hesitated. Most of our rabbis could not conceive that the Jewish people could hesitate when offered the opportunity to commit themselves to God.

But the Torah itself faithfully records the frequent mood swings and ambivalences felt by both small and large parts of the Jewish people. God’s proposal of a covenant partnership was the most awesome offer the recently freed slaves had ever received. If many people in the Western World today have a problem making a long term marriage commitment, what about people who had been slaves in Egypt only three months earlier.

Most of the Jewish People said yes right away. Others thought about it for many hours and then decided to make a commitment. but a few remained undecided. A small minority were afraid to commit. So, would the fear of making a commitment by an ambivalent few, keep everyone else from accepting God’s proposal of an endless commitment and partnership?

Fortunately, according to Rabbi Avdimi, God came to the rescue: “The Holy One lowered the [uprooted] mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a) Sometimes, the ardor of the proposal makes all the difference in the other person’s answer.

This explains the miracle of all Israel agreeing to the covenant at Sinai; probably the only time in more than 3,500 years of Jewish history, that all Jews agreed on something. But how could the whole Jewish People have heard God speak to them?

Deuteronomy 4:12-13 states: “God spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice. He declared to you the Covenant; He commanded you to observe, the Ten Declarations (commandments)…

This Torah text explicitly states that the people heard God’s voice reciting the entire Decalogue. Rabbi Judah HaLevi (Spain 1075–1141), in his book the Kuzari, explains that giving the Decalogue in a public mass revelation was necessary to convince the Jewish people of the truth of Moses’ prophecy:

“Although the people believed in the message of Moses, they still retained, even after his performance of miracles, some doubt as to whether God really spoke to mortals. They could not associate speech with a divine being, since speech is intangible. God, however, desired to remove this doubt, and commanded them to prepare themselves morally and physically… to be ready to hear the words of God. The people prepared and became fit to receive the divine inspiration, and even to hear publicly the words of God” The people did not receive these ten commandments from a single individual prophet, but from God alone.”

That the Israelites heard at least some of the Decalogue directly from God is made clear by a passage in Deuteronomy, which describes how the Israelites tell Moses that they don’t wish to hear from God any more: (Deuteronomy 5:19-20): “God spoke those words to your whole congregation at the mountain, out of the fire and the dense clouds, with a mighty voice—and no more. He inscribed them on two tablets of stone, which He gave to me (Moses).”

But maybe the Israelites heard the entire Decalogue that was to be written on the two tablets and then told Moses they were too afraid to hear more, and wanted Prophet Moses to be the go-between God and them from then on. But another version of this same event appears in Exodus, and there, the Israelites say something very different.

Exodus 20:14-15 “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they backed away and stood at a distance.“You speak to us,” they said to Prophet Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we [humans] die.”

Here we learn that the people saw/heard thunder, lightning, and the blare of a horn, but were too afraid to hear God’s voice, believing that such a Divine experience would kill human beings. So, Prophet Moses agrees to go up to the mountain himself and hear what God says (Exodus 20:16–18).

And at least one passage in Deuteronomy says both things at once: Deuteronomy 5:4 “Face to face God spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire—I stood between God and you at the time to convey God’s words to you, for you were afraid…”

This description seems self-contradictory. Face-to-face speech means direct communication, yet Moses states that he stood between them, implying that they heard both from him and from God.

The Babylonian Talmud takes a non-binary approach to the problem: they heard only some of the commandments. This suggestion is based on a close reading of the Decalogue itself, for in the first two commandments, God refers to himself in the first person; but then, beginning in the third commandment, the references to God are in the third person.

The rabbis connect this switch with the two views in the Torah about whether the Israelites heard God speak the commandments out loud or not, and suggest that the Israelites heard the first two commandments directly from God—and thus God speaks in the first person here—while the rest are from Prophet Moses, who speaks of God in the third person.

A Chasidic Rabbi, Menachem Mendel (1745–1815), taught that the Israelites heard only the silent letter, aleph, the first letter in the Decalogue, meaning that they did not hear physically with their ears; but heard silently, according to there ability, in their hearts and souls, God’s calling presence-the Sakeenah.

So does Torah state the whole Jewish People heard all ten, or just some of the Ten Commandments? The Qur’an solves the issue by stating that the whole Jewish People heard in addition to the first two monotheistic commandments that every Prophet teaches “do not associate other Gods” and ‘do not worship images or idols” two additional commandment specifically incumbent on Jews:

“And we raised Mount Sinai above them, as we took their covenant. And we said to them, “Enter the gate (covenant) humbly (do not swear falsely).” And we said to them, “Do not desecrate the Sabbath.” Indeed, we took from them a solemn covenant.” (Quran 4:154)

Philosophers and legal scholars demand that reality be clear and tightly fixed. Poets and creative artists know that mutual covenantal relationships are fluid and demand flexibility and love. Or perhaps it was more simple. The adults heard and agreed to accept all ten; and the children heard and understood only the first four.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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