The Torah merely describes Shavuot as a harvest festival. In pre-Torah pagan cultures, harvest festivals were often associated with gifts, as they mark a time of plenty and abundance.
Our rabbis, however, directed our focus during this time towards a more precious gift — the Torah. As the day commemorates the receipt of this God-given gift, it is worth reminding ourselves of its revolutionary ideas, which we can do by contrasting the Torah with the established ideas of its ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context.
Thanks to the advancing fields of archaeology and religious history, we are aware of this context today at a level that some of our greatest rabbis would have only dreamed of.
In his Guide for the Perplexed Maimonides states: “If we knew the histories of ancient times… and were cognisant of the events that happened in those days, we would know in detail the reasons for many things mentioned in the Torah” (3:50).
The Ancient Near East was home to various civilisations. Remarkably, of all the peoples who inhabited this expansive region, only those from a small enclave known as Canaan still exist.
It is paradoxical that this group did not construct or occupy any of the distinguished metropolises of ANE civilisation. Instead, they championed novel ideas, those that broke free from the established paradigms of their time. These people are our ancestors, the Israelites.
Their ideas are found in our book, the Torah. Throughout history, conquests and exiles have often led to the dissolution of ethnic national groups. Typically, subjugated peoples were compelled to adopt the religion and customs of their conquerors.
Despite the loss of their territorial and institutional anchors, our ancestors constructed a living framework and culture in covenant with God that continues to persist. This unprecedented feat is a testament to God’s care and concern for His people, and our unyielding determination and creativity.
The first of many differences between Torah and ANE texts is its conception of God. In the ANE period, individuals commonly believed that the various forces of nature were distinct gods, or that competing gods were subject to a meta-divine realm.
Contrast this with the Torah’s single Deity who transcends nature and has a unique relationship with humanity and Israel. In the Torah, God is not born or coming to be; His very name connotes “Being” or “Existence” itself.
This paradigm shift had a far-reaching impact on every aspect of Israelite culture and facilitated our survival and identity.
The notion of a transcendent God with absolute control over history enabled us to interpret the most catastrophic events, such as the subsequent exile of our people, not as a rejection of our God or a manifestation of His defeat, but rather as integral components of His grand plan.
Another stark contrast is ironically expressed from a stark similarity. Some of the narratives described in the Torah seem eerily familiar to well-known traditions of the ANE region.
To many of our greatest rabbis, this comes as no surprise. In the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh (1822-1900), these “common humanitarian traditions” were simply “preserved by Israel”.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935) elaborates even further, stating that “similarities between the teachings of the Torah and some cuneiform texts” are simply the result of similar environments.
He goes on to critique (and rightly so) those who use such information to dismiss, rather than hold up, the distinctiveness of our sacred Torah: “There is no basis whatsoever for the fraudulent heresy being strengthened by these discoveries.”
A well-known comparison is that of the Sumerian narrative of Ziusudra and the Torah’s account of Noah and the flood.
Both stories share numerous parallels, including a flood resulting from divine mandate, the selection of an individual to be rescued, instructions on constructing a vessel, the annihilation of all living beings, and the offering of a sacrifice after the protagonist exits the vessel.
However, the differences are critical. In the Sumerian rendition, the gods appear capricious and act on a whim, their sole justification for the annihilation of humanity being their purported annoyance with the excessive noise generated by humans!
There is no mention of any warning or chance for returning (teshuvah), which results in a portrayal of rule that is both unjust and uncaring.
In contrast, God in Torah is uncompromising in His ethical standards and the flood serves as a punishment for the wicked and corrupt behaviour of humans, whom He created with tender love and whose moral decline He can scarcely bear to witness.
Our version conveys a radically different conception of reality. It is the differences between such accounts that are of paramount importance, not the similarities.
There is a unique interpretive lens through which the Torah reimagines the shared ANE heritage in light of its novel and radical conceptions of God, the world and humanity.
Tales that were commonly known to the people of the ANE are transformed through the distinctive prism of the Torah’s perspective.
There are many other profound differences. But the examples I have cited indicate that our Torah expresses a fundamental discontent with the broader pagan milieu in which it was given.
Our Torah is a revolutionary, cultural critique. As we celebrate Shavuot, let us honour this gift of Torah by appreciating its distinctiveness and maintaining our own distinctiveness through commitment to its Covenant.
Sina Kahen is co-founder of TheHabura.com and a contributor to its recently published book Shabuot: Insights from the Past, Present, and Future, available at daat.press