Shavuot and the echo of the desert

The desert as experienced by the pre-biblical people who lived there, left its mark, its echo, on the Bible.

THE SINAI Desert. (photo credit: PIXABAY)
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
The beginning of the 19th chapter of the Book of Exodus sets the stage for the giving of the Torah, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The text tells us that we came “to the Desert of Sinai,” on our way to revelation.
Why did the revelation take place in the desert? A number of answers are given.
In Numbers Raba (1:7) we read, “Whoever does not make themselves like the wilderness, hefker [open to all], cannot attain wisdom and Torah; therefore it says, ‘in the Desert of Sinai.’” That is to say the Desert of Sinai, and by extension the Negev and Arava, are not covered with topsoil; rather, layers of limestone, sandstone and magmatic rocks are fully exposed. In such a setting, where the earth is open and exposed, we, too, can become more open and exposed; open to hear “a voice of thin silence” (I Kings 19:12). It is not surprising that so many of the early spiritual leaders and prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam spent time in the desert.
Whatever the answer may be as to why the revelation of the Torah took place in the desert, there is no question that the desert, including the desert as experienced by the pre-biblical people who lived there, left its mark, its echo, on the Bible. This becomes clearly evident when one walks in the Uvda Valley, in the southern Negev, just above the Arava valley, with archaeologist Uzi Avner, as we do during my The Bible as a Key to Environmental Thought class at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura.
Avner notes that Egyptian written sources of the 2nd millennium BCE often refer to the Shasu, a Semitic people who lived in the Negev, southern Jordan and Sinai. Inscriptions of Amenhotep III (circa 1386-1353 BCE), Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) and Ramesses III mention lists of territories in this broad desert zone, one of them was referred to “the Shasu land YAHW. ” That is to say, the name of their god was the same as the Tetragrammaton! It’s use by the Shasu predates its adoption in the Torah, suggesting a borrowing from that earlier desert peoples by the Torah.
We also find in the Uvda and Arava valleys abundant examples of matzevot, standing stones, from the Neolithic period to the end of the early Bronze Age (7000 to 2000 BCE), as well the late Bronze and Iron Age (1500 to 600 BCE), that represent deities, their families and human ancestors. Almost all matzevot are unfinished rocks that have not been shaped by human activity. As Avner explains, “the absence of shaping cannot be explained by a lack of technical ability, but, rather, as the result of a principle, which is later eloquently expressed in the Bible: “and if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your tool upon it, you profane it” (Exodus 20:25).
Stones used for such holy places, both in the Bible and earlier, were to remain as they were, not shaped by humans (see also Deut. 27:5–6; Josh. 8:30–31; 1 Kings 6:7). Elaborating further, Avner says, “Prehistoric desert inhabitants probably did not believe that they could construct their gods, i.e., create statues (cf. Ex. 20:4–5; Deut 4:28), so they developed a distinctive theology of abstract presentation of gods, later known in the Israelite, Nabataean and Islamic religions.” What is common to all three? They all followed a prehistoric desert theological principle.
At one location in the Uvda Valley, Avner showed us a matzevah with a trio of grinding stones next to it for the making of bread as an offering to the goddess that “dwelled” in the stone. A parallel of that practice is found in the bread of display, which was placed in the Tabernacle and the Temple, as we read, “On the table you shall set the bread of display, to be before Me always” (Ex. 25:30; see also Leviticus 24: 5-9). In addition, we know it was difficult to wean the Israelites from the practice of making bread for other deities. In the Book of Jeremiah (7:18), the prophet criticizes women who “knead the dough to make cakes to the queen of heaven.”
A half-day walk south of the Uvda Valley, at Timna, basins were found next to matzevot, used for two purposes: one is the biblical “agan,” for collecting sacrificial blood, the other contained water for the priest’s ablution, for washing of the sacrificed animal, and the rinsing of the altar after the sacrifice.
All of these are also mentioned in the rituals of ancient Israel (Ex. 29:17; 30:18-21; 31:9; 35:17; 40:30-32; Leviticus 4:34; 7:27; 9:9,14; II Kings 17:12; II Chronicles 4:6; 6:13). Drainage channels for water were also found at the Timna shrine and are mentioned in the Bible (I Kings 18:32, 33).
Most matzevot are oriented toward the east, the rising sun, as were the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. Another interesting aspect of the matzevot is that they are often found either as a single standing stone or in pairs. The narrow taller stone represents the male god, while the shorter, wider stone represents the female goddess. We see this gendered aspect of God found in Judaism as late as Kabbalah with its idea of God as male and His female counterpart, the Shechina.
Matzevot are also found in groups of prime numbers 3, 5, 7. Avner suggests this has to do with symmetry, when it comes to an understanding of the world and universe. We note this same 3, 5, 7 progression in the word and sentence structure of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).
Matzevot can also be groups of multiple stones, representing human ancestors. We find a similar idea in the Jewish realm of “zechut avot,” where we gain merit by the actions of our biblical ancestors. We see this clearly at the beginning of the Amida prayer, where we invoke our biblical ancestors as we begin our conversation with God.
When we rise for the Amida prayer three times a day, we stand as we did at the base of Mount Sinai, in the desert, at the moment of revelation (Ex. 19:17). On Shavuot we do the same when we stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments. We have never fully left the desert as a people, and the desert has never fully left us.
The writer, a rabbi, teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.