"Hearing and Seeing at Sinai"


Steven D. Fraade

Yale University


The English term “theophany,” often used of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, is made up of two Greek components, theo- (?e??) and -phany (?????), together meaning the “appearance of God,” suggesting that it was an event in which God physically manifested himself in the sight of Israel. As any reader of the biblical account of Sinai is aware, however, the central aspect of the revela-tion is not of God himself, but of his words, instructions, and commandments. Nevertheless, there are ample examples within the biblical account of revelation that stress the visual as well as the auditory aspects, often intermixed, even as there are contradictory statements as to whether the visual experience included seeing God himself, or just his physical manifestations (especially ëáåã/glory).

This paper will explore some postbiblical interpretive repercussions of this scriptural am-biguity, focusing mainly on a set of early rabbinic midrashim, with comparison to antecedents in Second Temple Jewish literature, especially the writings of Philo of Alexandria. Notwithstanding striking similarities between the two, pointing perhaps to shared exegetical traditions, it will be argued that the early rabbinic and Philonic interpretations need to be very differently contextual-ized, both historically and ideologically/rhetorically.