Revelation (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Revelation refers to a new step in the evolution of Mankind that brought about a sense of Oneness and Responsibility.

We have followed the Jews in their interpretation of the major areas of human experience and found them arriving at a more profound grasp of meaning than any of their Mediterranean neighbors; indeed, a grasp that in its essentials has not been surpassed. This raises the question: What produced this achievement? Was it an accident? Did the Jews simply stumble by chance on this cache of insight? If they had struck profundity in one or two areas, this thesis might be plausible; but as they rose to genius on every basic question, it seems inadequate. Is the alternative, then, that the Jews were innately wiser than other peoples? The Jewish doctrine that humanity constitutes a single family—symbolically announced in the story of Adam and Eve—expressly precludes such a notion. The Jews’ own answer is that they did not reach these insights on their own. They were revealed to them.

The Jewish doctrine that humanity constitutes a single family—symbolically announced in the story of Adam and Eve—shows a more profound grasp of human experience than any of their Mediterranean neighbors.

Revelation means disclosure. When someone says, “It came as a revelation to me,” the meaning is that something hitherto obscure becomes clear. A veil has lifted, and what was concealed is now revealed. As a theological concept revelation shares this basic meaning, while focusing on disclosure of a specific sort: God’s nature and will for humankind.

According to the Jews’, they did not reach these insights on their own. The insights were revealed to them.

As the record of these disclosures is in a book, there has been a tendency to approach revelation as if it were primarily a verbal phenomenon; to think of it as what God said either to the prophets or to other biblical writers. This, however, puts the cart before the horse. For the Jews God revealed himself first and foremost in actions—not words but deeds. This comes out clearly in Moses’ instruction to his people. “When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand’”(Deuteronomy 6:21–22). The Exodus, that incredible event in which God liberated an unorganized, enslaved people from the mightiest power of the age, was not only the event that launched the Israelites as a nation. It was also the first clear act by which Yahweh’s character was made known to them.

For the Jews, God revealed himself first and foremost in deeds, not words. God’s decisive action was bringing an unorganized, enslaved people out of Egypt.

It is true that Genesis describes a number of divine revelations that preceded the Exodus, but the accounts of them were written later in the light of the decisive Exodus event. That God was a direct party to their escape from Pharaoh, the Jews did not doubt. “By every known sociological law,” writes Carl Mayer, “the Jews should have perished long ago.” The biblical writers would have gone further, contending that by every known sociological law the Jews should not have become a distinct people in the first place. Yet here was the fact: a tiny, loosely related group of people, who had no real collective identity and were in servitude to the great power of the day, had succeeded in making their getaway, eluding the chariots of their pursuers. As acutely aware of their own weakness as of Egypt’s strength, it seemed to the Jews impossible that their liberation was their own doing. It was a miracle. “By the grace of God, Israel was saved from death and delivered from the power of the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:50).

It was a miracle that a tiny, loosely related group of people, who had no real collective identity and were in servitude to the great power of the day, had succeeded in making their getaway, eluding the chariots of their pursuers.

Vividly cognizant of God’s saving power in the Exodus, the Jews proceeded to review their earlier history in the light of this divine intervention. As their liberation had obviously been engineered by God, what of the sequence that led up to it? Had it been mere chance? The Jews saw God’s initiative at work in every step of their corporate existence. It was no vagabond impulse that prompted Abraham to leave his home in Ur and assume the long, uncharted trek toward Canaan. Yahweh had called him to father a people of destiny. So it had been throughout: Isaac and Jacob had been providentially protected and Joseph exalted in Egypt for the express purpose of preserving God’s people from famine. From the perspective of the Exodus, everything fell into place. From the beginning God had been leading, protecting, and shaping his people for the decisive Exodus event that made of the Israelites a nation.

From the beginning God had been leading, protecting, and shaping his people for the decisive Exodus event that made of the Israelites a nation.

The Exodus, we are saying, was more than a historical divide that turned a people into a nation. It was an episode in which this people became overwhelmingly aware of God’s reality and character. But to put it this way, saying that the Jews perceived God’s character, is again to put the matter backward. As God took the initiative, it was God who showed the Jews his nature. God should be the subject of the assertion, not its object.

The Exodus could be a much more ancient episode when man first became aware of his intelligence and spread outwards from the African continent.

And what was the nature of the God that the Exodus disclosed? First, Yahweh was powerful—able to outdo the mightiest power of the time and whatever gods might be backing it. But equally, Yahweh was a God of goodness and love. Though this might be less obvious to outsiders, it was overwhelmingly evident to the Jews who were its direct recipients. Repeatedly, their gratitude burst forth in song: “Happy are you, O Israel; who is like you—a people saved by Yahweh?” (Deuteronomy 33:29). Had they themselves done anything to deserve this miraculous release? Not as far as they could see. Freedom had come to them as an act of sheer, unmerited grace, a clear instance of Yahweh’s unanticipated and astonishing love for them. It is of small moment whether the Jews recognized at once that this love was for all humanity, not just for themselves. Once the realization of God’s love had taken root, the Jews soon came to see it as extended to everyone. By the eighth century B.C.E. the Jews would be hearing God saying, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?” But the fact of God’s love had to be grasped before its range could be explored, and it was in the Exodus that this fact was brought home to them.

This could have been a step in evolution for man. “Freedom had come to them as an act of sheer, unmerited grace, a clear instance of Yahweh’s unanticipated and astonishing love for them.” 

Besides God’s power and love, the Exodus disclosed a God who was intensely concerned with human affairs. Whereas the surrounding gods were primarily nature deities, reifications of the numinous awe that people feel for nature’s grand phenomena, the Israelites’ God had come to them not through sun or storm or fertility but in a historical event. The difference in religious meaning was decisive.

This was the dawn of the awareness of oneness of nature.

The God that the Exodus disclosed cared enough about a human situation to step in and do something about it. That realization changed Israel’s religious agenda forever. No longer would the Jews be party to cajoling nature’s forces. They would rivet their attention on discerning Yahweh’s will and trying to enact it.

Jews were the first recipient of this awareness of oneness. The “Egyptian power” may refer to man’s earlier shackled mode of thinking.

Given these three basic disclosures of the Exodus—of God’s power, goodness, and concern for history—the Jews’ other insights into God’s nature followed readily. From the goodness of that nature it followed that God would want people to be good as well; hence Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were established as the Exodus’s immediate corollary. The prophets’ demand for justice extended God’s requirements for virtue to the social sphere—institutional structures, too, are accountable. Finally, suffering must carry significance because it was unthinkable that a God who had miraculously saved his people would ever abandon them completely.

What followed was a sense of responsibility. “The prophets’ demand for justice extended God’s requirements for virtue to the social sphere—institutional structures, too, are accountable.”

The entire gestalt, when it burst upon the Jews, took shape around the idea of the covenant. A covenant is a contract, but more. Whereas a contract (to build a house, for example) concerns only a part of the lives of those who enter into it, a covenant (such as marriage) involves the pledging of total selves. Another difference is that a contract usually has a termination date, whereas a covenant lasts till death. To the Jews, God’s self-disclosure in the Exodus was the invitation to a covenant. Yahweh would continue to bless the Israelites if they, for their part, would honor the laws they had been given.

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:4–6)

It was this evolution toward the deep sense of oneness and responsibility that made Jewish people special.

Once the covenant relation was clearly formulated at Sinai, those who wrote the Bible saw the Abraham epic in its light as well. In the last days of the Sumerian universal state, from all the peoples of the Euphrates, God called Abraham and entered into covenant with him. If Abraham would be faithful to God’s will, God would not only give him a goodly land as inheritance but would cause his descendants to be numbered as the sands of the sea.

The sense of oneness and responsibility lead to the rewards of survival with abundance.

We entered this chapter via the Jewish passion for meaning. As our understanding of the religion deepened, however, we came to see that the key had to be recast. Meaning was secured, but from the Jewish perspective, not because they sought it exceptionally. It was revealed to them—not told to them but shown to them through Yahweh’s amazing actions. The sequence began with the Exodus-disclosure of Yahweh’s power, goodness, and concern. From those we can understand how the rest followed.

This new step in evolution applied to all forward looking people.

But why was this disclosure made to the Jews? Their own answer has been: Because we were chosen. This sounds so simple as to seem ingenuous. Clearly, the answer needs scrutiny.

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