There is a claim, made by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen in his books (such as Permission to Receive) and lectures (such as this “The Veracity of Torah” lecture on TorahCafé), that the story of a divine miracle at Mt. Sinai (the revelation of God) taking place before the entire “nation of Israel” is unique among cultures and religions. He says that the Jews claim that at the founding of their religion, God personally spoke the Ten Commandments to each of the millions of Jewish people. He posits if it were naturally possible for false national revelation claims to be made, at least one other religion, nation, or culture should also claim that all of their ancestors witnessed divine miracles. (A non-sequitor, I know, but that’s besides the point.) Instead he says that all other religions start up with a divine revelation to only one or two people. Kelemen asks, “If it’s so normal for an entire people to think that their ancestors heard God speak, why didn’t it happen more than once in recorded history?” (Permission to Receive p.70).

Thus, Kelemen appears to claim that there has been no other religion or culture that claims that their ancestors witnessed a deity or other supernatural miracles on a national scale. “National scale” means that all, or at least enough, members of the culture or religion directly witnessed the miraculous (divine, supernatural) occurrence such that the claim that their ancestors witnessed such an event became a continuous national tradition.*

Is this in fact so? Are there no other cultures, nations, or religions other than Judaism that have a tradition that their ancestors all directly witnessed a divine miracle(s)?

*Although Kelemen also says that no other religion was founded with a revelation of God speaking to more than two people, he does appear to acknowledge claims of Jesus performing public miracles. He apparently does not consider this as a counterexample though, saying that people wouldn’t necessarily have known where the people who saw his miracles were, and they and later generations therefore may not have had the ability to check the claim. So this is why I’m asking about the “national” claim rather than an easier to challenge public miracle claim.

The point of “tradition” is also important to the claim. Kelemen seems to require that the revelation story doesn’t involve the people forgetting and being re-told by a smaller group or prophet. In Permission to Receive and some of his lectures, he mentions a Hindu story where Krishna is revealed to millions of people, but since they almost all die out shortly thereafter, there wouldn’t be a nation of people who could check this story with their ancestors. And so he dismisses this sort of counterexample.

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Also, this was cross-posted here:… – user5582 Jul 4 ’13 at 22:25
+1. Why the down voting? The question is interesting, historical (i.e., on topic), and references a notable claim. – William Grobman Jul 5 ’13 at 0:46
You shouldn’t dual post like that. Pick one. I think this might be a better question for History.SE, but note the warning comment you have there. – hunter2 Jul 5 ’13 at 8:53
The problem I have with the claim is that it paints itself into the corner. It is carefully constructed out of seemingly (but maybe I’m mistaken?) irrelevant tidbits, which just serve to make it unique – for instance, why is the mass revelation, rather than any of the events preceding or succeeding it the foundation of Judaism? Why does it matter that the people are the Jew’s direct ancestors? The latter in particular is simply a genetic peculiarity, and, while interesting, hardly relevant here (we are all related to the crowd members at Jerusalem, if ever there was a crowd). – Konrad Rudolph Jul 5 ’13 at 9:59
@AL What evidence of such a claim would be acceptable? That Homer wrote down that all the Greeks at the time saw it ? That there was a public proclamation or monument? The former would only be the word of one person, while the latter might be the word of only the leadership. But any supposed belief of ‘all the people’ is at best a proclamation by leaders. Of course, the Greeks don’t still cling to these ancient myths. But then not all biological Jews still believe in Judaisim. – Paul Jul 7 ’13 at 21:30

5 Answers

There seem to be two claims here. One is that there are no counterexamples of other cultures with a national tradition of a national divine revelation or miracle. The other is an implicit claim that Judaism itself does have such a tradition.

Claim that Judaism has an unbroken national revelation tradition

In terms of whether Judaism itself has such an uninterrupted nation-wide tradition of the entire nation hearing God directly speak the Ten Commandments, as Kelemen claims, it seems only partially true going by the biblical narrative.

National revelation

First, it does appear as he says that the biblical narrative includes the Jewish nation experiencing national miracles and at Mt. Sinai hearing God speak, though this latter detail is not obvious from the narrative. Some verses do say that the Jewish people heard God directly, for example:

Face to face, the Lord spoke with you at the mountain out of the midst of the fire. (Deuteronomy 5:4)

For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? (Deuteronomy 5:22)

But at the same time, other verses may conflict with this. For example, Exodus 19:21-25 has God allowing only Moses and Aaron up the mountain to see God and receive the commandments, but nobody else could even touch the bottom of the mountain. The people, according to Exodus 19:18-19, simply saw fire, heard loud noise, and possibly heard the voice Moses was conversing with. Deuteronomy 5:5 appears to make Moses the intermediary when God delivers the Ten Commandments.

It seems that the view that all Jews directly heard God did become the accepted position among rabbinic leaders, however. For an example, Rashi on Exodus 20:2 says:

…Alternatively, [God mentions the Exodus] since they [the Israelites] heard many voices [during the revelation], as it is said: “And all the people saw the voices” (verse 15), [meaning that] voices came from four directions and from the heavens and from the earth…

Even if it’s not clear whether the people were supposed to have heard God speak directly, Deuteronomy 11:2-7 does describe various national miracles, such as the splitting of the Red Sea. Kelemen may have been better served using one of those other miracles as his main example. It is clear that according to the Torah the Jewish people did witness at least some nation-wide miracles, but whether the people were supposed to have all heard God speak directly in the way Kelemen says is not as clear.

Nation-wide unbroken tradition

Whether the biblical narrative includes an unbroken chain of tradition about Mt. Sinai is a different story. There are various places in the Hebrew Bible that describe periods of time when the Jewish people apparently rejected and/or forgot their religion for Canaanite religion en masse, for example:

And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers; and there arose another generation after them, that knew not the LORD, nor yet the work which He had wrought for Israel. And the children of Israel did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baalim. And they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the peoples that were round about them, and worshipped them; and they provoked the LORD. And they forsook the LORD, and served Baal and the Ashtaroth. (Judges 2:10-13)

Further, a reading of II Kings chapters 21-23 describes a 75 year period where Canaanite religion was national and Torah was apparently unknown before being discovered under King Josiah who implemented major religious reforms and restored monotheism (known to scholars as the Deuteronomic Reform). Medieval Jewish commentator Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK) describes the state to which the Jewish people were unfamiliar with the Torah and its contents:

Manasseh had systematically destroyed all the Torah Scrolls and alienated the nation so thoroughly from the Torah that the people were completely unfamiliar with its contents. Sixty-seven [sic] years had elapsed since the beginning of Manasseh’s reign, so that this discovery was a surprising revelation to everyone. (The Stone Edition Tanach, The Artscroll Series, citing RaDaK on II Kings 22:8)

So the biblical narrative does include later reintroduction of the Torah to the Jewish nation, and there appears no reason to say that the Mt. Sinai story was excluded from what the people had forgotten. It may be arguable whether an elite few always held on to tradition, but this is not Kelemen’s claim. Going by the Hebrew Bible, Judaism does not seem to claim an unbroken nation-wide tradition of the Mt. Sinai events as Kelemen says and his implicit claim in this regard is false.

Note: This is not to say anything of the actual authorship of the Torah and origin of the the Mt. Sinai story. Whether a king made it up as part of a religious reform and told people it had been forgotten, whether it was the product of natural mythological development and embellishment over centuries, whether the Biblical narrative is completely accurate, or whether it is from some combination of the above, it does not change the reality of the resulting biblical narrative and Jewish beliefs. Whatever the history regarding the Egyptian exodus and Mt. Sinai, the biblical narrative does involve the Jewish people forgetting and being re-introduced to monotheism and the Torah.

Claim of no counterexamples

The claim that there is no other example of a culture with mythology of a national supernatural experience is quite an ambitious one as it would require an analysis of a huge range of beliefs of present and past cultures to verify that there were no other examples. However, there indeed areexamples of cultures with myths comparable to the Mt. Sinai tradition, in the sense that these people believed all of their ancestors experienced supernatural events or witnessed their deity speaking:

  • Aztec Huitzilopochtli Myth and revelation of Huitzilopochtli: The Aztecs, who settled in Lake Texcoco, believed themselves to be descended from tribes of immortal people from Aztlan until they had to leave as instructed by their god Huitzilopochtli who took the form of a white eagle. The journey took 200 years and the ultimate destination of the lake on which they built an artificial island was prophesied in advance and in detail. Whether the Aztecs believed their god to have spoken to all the people or just a prophet is not clear from what I’ve seen. However, the story does involve all Aztec ancestors experiencing supernatural events, that is, the supernaturally long lifespans. Additionally, this story is an important aspect of the origin of Aztec religion. (source)
  • Fifth Creation of the World by Marumda and the Pomo tribes: The Pomo people, a group of tribes in California that exists today and had settlements dating back several thousand years, have an oral tradition that their god, Marumda, created the world five times (the first four destroyed due to sin), and that they were created the fifth time. They believe all of the Pomo villages were planted by Marumda and that he revealed themselves to their ancestors, sometimes accompanied with miracles, and taught them how to survive and behave and taught them dances that are still performed today. This story does involve national miracles as their god Marumda created their villages, it does have Marumda performing public miracles, it does have their god speaking to the people, and it does tell the story of the origin of their religious beliefs. What the size of the initial population that Marumda created and was revealed to was, and whether Marumda spoke to the entire nation at once or only to individual groups, is less clear. (source)
  • Revelation of Gitche Manitou at Pipestone, Minnesota: Sioux Indians have an oral tradition of a majestic, direct, divine revelation of their god and creator Gitche Manitou at the Pipestone National Monument to all the Native American tribes. He breathed into a peace pipe he formed and made a large smoke signal that beckoned all the tribes to gather. They had spite between them, but Gitche Manitou chided them to do away with their weapons, behave properly, and make peace. After this, before all the nations, Gitche Manitou ascended to heaven amidst the smoke. This story does have a lot of similarities with the Mt. Sinai story, but as the source is a poem based upon legends, it is more difficult to ascertain for certain that the Sioux people actually believe all aspects of the story as history. (source)
  • The Lakota legend of White Buffalo Calf Woman: The Lakota People are a subset of the Sioux. In 1805 their population was estimated to be about 8,500 (and today there are tens of thousands of their people who speak the language). The people have an oral tradition of an event that took place one summer between year 12 and 10 BCE (according to this retelling) when their god Wakan Tanka (same as Gitchie Manitou) revealed itself to all seven tribes of the Lakota as White Buffalo Calf Woman. The story goes that there was famine, so all seven Lakota tribes gathered together, and they sent out two hunters to look for food. The first part of the miracles was only witnessed by one survivor, but for context, they saw a beautiful woman, with clothes and an appearance than no ordinary human could fashion, floating towards them. One of the hunters desired the woman and was turned into a pile of bones amidst a cloud. The other hunter became afraid and prepared to shoot the woman, but she couldn’t be harmed. She informed the hunter to return and have the Lakota prepare for her arrival. When she arrived, she taught the Lakota how to behave and perform all the sacred rituals. She gave them seven religious practices, including the sun dance and fasting. She talked to all the people and gave them advice, and gave them a sacred living pipe that is still guarded to this day. As she left, the people saw her turn into a black buffalo, then brown, then red, and then white, which is sacred. As she disappeared, large herds of buffalo appeared where she was and allowed themselves to be killed for the Lakota to live. This story also meets a lot of Kelemen’s criterion, it does tell the story of the origin of their religious beliefs, and the tradition is very strong. (source)

There may be additional counterexamples too, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (and related flood myths) or the Founding of Thebes by Cadmus if you say that Rabbi Kelemen’s claim does not necessitate that a sizable group experienced the miracles (just that all of the people’s ancestors experienced it).

Whether these counterexamples do disprove his claim may depend on how narrow Rabbi Kelemen’s claim is understood to be. If he argues that other peoples should have all their ancestors experience miracles or interaction with their god, then it is easy to see these as counterexamples, and his claim would be false. If, however, he requires that the peoples must have experienced something that matches his understanding of a national prophesy of a large population as the start of a religion with a continuous chain of tradition to the verifiably known believers, then some counterexamples become more arguable. But by the same token the claim would be far less meaningful, and as discussed above it would even be doubtful that the stories in the Hebrew Bible actually meet such a threshold. With the less narrow understanding of Kelemen’s claim, though, the Mt. Sinai story would not be unique in the way he says and the claim would not be true on those grounds.