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Publication - Professor Jonathan Burnside

    The Hidden Face of the Law-Giver

    Revelation and Concealment in the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai

    Citation

    Burnside, J, 2016, ‘The Hidden Face of the Law-Giver: Revelation and Concealment in the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai’. in: Michael Avioz, Yael Shemesh (eds) Festchrift In Honour of Joseph Fleishman. CDL Press, University of Maryland

    Abstract

    The image of Moses descending Mount Sinai bearing the Ten Commandments is justly iconic. But icons distort and in this case it encourages us to take an unhelpfully positivistic view of biblical law. Moreover this is not the only picture the biblical texts provide regarding the giving of the law (Matan Torah). This paper focuses on one image that is overlooked, namely, the hidden face of the lawgiver. This image applies both to YHWH and Moses and recurs on a number of occasions when torah is communicated. YHWH’s face is hidden in various ways when torah is communicated at Sinai and also at the Tent of Meeting. Moses’ face, in turn, is hidden behind a mask of light. A rigorous exploration of this question means taking a semiotic approach to specific aspects of the giving of the law. The consequence of this analysis is that it changes the way we conventionally understand the nature and character of biblical law. Biblical law is not only an icon of revealed law; it is also an icon of concealed law. This is because revelation is given in the context of concealment. The modality of concealment has the effect of emphasising the speaking voice and gives priority to the words of God. It also mystifies what might otherwise be clear, even prosaic. It signifies that engaging with torah involves a posture of openness towards that which is presently unknown, as well as the limitations of what is presently known, including the mystery of YHWH’s Name and character. It also reminds us that torah cannot be understood apart from a covenantal and relational framework within which questions of encounter and response are crucial. As such it assumes an anthropology in which torah is received and understood in the context of dynamic intercession, discussion, rational argument and strategic risk-taking. This stance of commitment and advocacy, whilst unique to Moses, is, in a certain sense, to be replicated by all Israelites.

    Full details in the University publications repository