The Qur’an Discloses Allah’s Engagement With Israel At Sinai – OpEd


Michael Wesley Grave points out that; “In the Qurʾan, the uplifted mountain motif is part of a broader reframing of the topic of Israel’s election. Exodus 19, Israel’s election, represents a pivotal moment, not only in the book of Exodus, but also in the Torah and in the Hebrew Bible as a whole. In this chapter, Moses brings the Israelites to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. God offers to make the people of Israel His “personal possession” (seḡullâ) among all peoples to serve as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:5–6). 

This offer confirms Israel’s identification with Prophet Abraham the Hebrew, (Genesis 14:13) since God promised to make a covenant with Prophet Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 17:6–8; 22:16–18). It also creates a unique relationship between God and the People of Israel, making Banu Israel the first ongoing for 12 centuries caretakers of a divine written revelation, and gives Israel a special mission in the world; as the first of the three Abrahamic religions.  

In Exodus 19:17 Moses brings the people out of the camp to meet God, and the people take their place beṯaḥtîṯ hāhār, which is usually taken to mean,”at the foot of the mountain.” This understanding of the phrase makes sense in the context of the narrative. The word taḥaṯ typically means “under,” or below”. But how can the people be under the mountain?

In two Talmudic tractates Shabbat and Abodah Zarah the following Midrash is reported: “And they stood under the mountain”: Rabbi Abdimi ben-ibn Ḥama said: This teaches that the Holy Blessed One overturned the mountain upon them like a cask, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, well and good; but if not, there shall be your burial (site).

In the Qurʾan, the tradition of a mountain being raised up over Israel is not derived exegetically from a biblical text, for the Qurʾan is a new independent revelation from God. This motif became a part of the Qurʾan in order to disclose and verify through its inclusion whatever accounts of the Sinai event the Qurʾan has employed. Because the Quran is subtle in its inclusion of this narrative element, it is necessary first to confirm that the Qurʾan does in fact intend to convey the idea that a mountain was raised up over the people of Moses.

So there is not just one or two, but four passages in the Qurʾan that make reference to the tradition of the uplifted mountain: Q 2: 63, 2:93; Q 4:154; and Q 7: 171. For suras 2:63, 2:93, and 4:154, the context is God making a covenant with Israel within a narrative centered on Prophet Moses, which suggests that Sinai is the mountain in view. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that the word for “mountain” is not jabal, but ṭūr, a term adapted from Syriac that is twice used explicitly for Sinai (Q 23:20; 95:2) and that normally stands for Sinai in the Qurʾan. 

By contrast, Q 7:171 does not directly refer to a covenant with Israel; but its broader context is Moses in the wilderness (vv. 159–160), and the command, “Hold fast what we have given you” in Q 7:171 connects this passage with Q 2:63 and 2:93, where “what we have given you” is the Torah.

That these passages in the Qurʾan intend to depict the mountain literally being lifted up over Israel can be found in Ṭabarī’s late ninth century commentary on the Qurʾan. On Q 2:63, Ṭabarī quotes an interpretation ascribed to Sa’īd Ibn Zaid, who was ‘Umar’s brother-in-law and an early Muslim according to Ibn Isḥāq’s Life of the Messenger of God. 

As Ṭabarī reports, his earlier source explained the Qurʾanic text as follows: “God sent his angels, and they shook (nataqat) the mountain (jabal) over them, and it was said to them: “Do you know this?” They said: “Yes, this is the Mountain (ṭūr).” They (the angels) said: “Take the Book, otherwise we shall fling it down upon you.” Then they took it with the covenant.” (Cooper, trans. 1987, 365; Cf. Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan-taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān (Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī) 1:427

Rabbi Abraham Geiger PhD, an early leader in developing Reform Judaism, noted the parallel between the Qurʾan and Talmud Bavli Abodah Zarah, but did not comment further (Geiger 1902, 161). Heinrich Speyer (2013, 303–304) cited Geiger’s study and added the reference from Talmud Shabbat.

The Jewish experience at Sinai is referred to in the Oral Torah when God offered all the newly freed slaves the Torah, a party of them hesitated. Most of the 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.

Some 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 in the Jewish People from accepting God’s proposal of an endless commitment and partnership?

Fortunately, according to Rabbi Avdimi, God came to the rescue: “The Holy One, blessed be He, 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 and 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. 

For the next 12 centuries Banu Israel was the only ongoing monotheistic religious community. Yet, as a good parent loves all his or her children, Allah loves all mankind and early in the first century the New Testament was added to the Hebrew Bible by the Christians. 

Then in the seventh century Prophet Muhammad brought the third of the Abrahamic religions revelations, the Qur’an, into the world. Now all three religions should agree that Allah doesn’t just call the qualified, He qualifies the called.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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