Sinai and Zion by Jon Levenson is the third on my list of 10 essential books for those who are beginning serious study of the Bible. It’s the first of them that is about the Bible as a book of religion.
The Jewish Study Bible presents the Bible as a collection of individual books; Who Wrote the Bible? demonstrates how scholars have begun to split the atom and find individual voices even within books of the Bible. Sinai and Zion continues the work of finding different traditions embodied in the Bible, but in a way that reunifies it into a single book that presents a multi-faceted portrait of the religious beliefs of ancient Israel.
Levenson uses the two mountains to represent the “two foci of the religion of ancient Israel, Torah and Temple”—the covenant with God, established in a place and time that is represented as being outside normal history in an almost mythical way, and the daily ritual of sacrifice, centered in Jerusalem and inextricably entwined with Israel’s political history. Using these two themes permits Levenson to tie together biblical texts from very different books in a way that illustrates the tensions within ancient Israelite religion.
Sinai and Zion is a quarter of a century old now, and Levenson would certainly rewrite his description of “contemporary” biblical studies if he were writing the book today. But though this aspect of the book isn’t current, it is also not misleading—the picture he paints retains its truth. One thing that has changed is a direct result of Levenson’s work. When he originally wrote, “Old Testament theology” was (as the name implies) strictly Christian. But in recent years Jews too have become interested in developing a “theology” by reading the Bible as a whole. What this means is that Sinai and Zion is also a book about the religion of Israel as Jews practice it now. For these two complementary—and sometimes conflicting—traditions not only shaped the Bible. They continue to shape Judaism.
You’ll find an example of how these biblical ideas continue to resonate in today’s world in a recent dvar Torah by Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth (scroll down to the second part).
A final note: If you found Who Wrote the Bible? disturbing from a traditional religious perspective, you will find Levenson’s introduction important reading. It is a frank discussion of how one might to be able to integrate the results of modern scholarship with traditional religious beliefs.