Even though the Torah references Sinai (Exodus 19:18) as the place where the Law was given there are indications in the text that another venue was the place of the giving of the Law as well.
After the crossing of the Sea of Reeds we read of another instance where the Law was given. We tend to ignore this episode because of the drama and hyperbole introducing the Sinaitic experience. Chapter 15 of Exodus relates in banal reportage the movement of the Hebrew after the crossing in search of water. After three days of trekking they arrive at Marah (east side of Suez) where they discover non potable water (Exodus 15: 23-24). This will be the first of a long list of complaints documented in the text. Moses beseeched by the people turns to God for a solution and God tell Moses to throw a tree in the bitter waters. Moses complies and the water turns potable. (Exodus 15:25). The verse ends with 7 very profound words: Sham sam lo chok umishpat v’sham nisahu: “there He established a decree and an ordinance and there He tested it.”
A quick survey of the commentaries will allude to the fact that something in the nature of the giving of Law did occur. But before getting to that let us first analyze the text. Two things occurred in chapter 15 verses 22-27. There was the giving of Law as well as the testing of the people’s faith. First came the test and after came the giving of the Law. Testing isn’t unusual in our tradition. Abraham underwent ten tests by God. In this instance the thirst of the Hebrews was the test. This can be discerned by the fact that in the last verse of the chapter (27) the Hebrews arrive at an oasis Elim where there were 12 springs and 70 date palms and there the text tells us they encamped. Had God wanted them to avoid thirst he could have brought them there directly. But He wanted to test their faith.
The sweetening of the water, a miracle, a show of supernatural powers was intended to enhance their faith which was followed by a short carrot and stick speech by God (Exodus 15:26). This short, threatening speech follows the pattern of others in our text although much longer and in greater detail such as the “tochecha” found in Leviticus chapter 26:14-43 and in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. The difference is that the two tochachas don’t pull any punches. Nothing is alluded to. It is all spelled out very clearly – obey or suffer the consequences. The miracle of the sweetening of the waters suggests that God will do “good” by Israel if they recognize Him, and follow His laws. There is of course the implied threat.
The Talmud (T.B. Sanhedrin 56b) suggests that at Marah a version of the Ten Commandments was given: the seven Noachide laws and three more: shabbat, honoring ones parents and laws. The Michilta has another spin on the words “vlo matzy mayim”, that they went three days without torah, reblling claiming that they were thirsty for Torah. Moshe, therefore made an adjustment in his schedule. Torah instruction would be on Shabbat, Tuesday and Thursday. Thus there would never be a situation where three days would go by without the study of Torah. It would appear according to this that they had received Torah at Marah.
There is an interest in maintaining the tradition that the Torah was given in the desert in order to show that we received it in a cultural vacuum. Tradition has it that even in Egypt we lived in Goshen, a segregated community. As we stood at Sinai we did so ready and willing to accept God’s law at the exclusion of all others. Once we enter the Promised Land there are no new laws given. Those that we received in the desert were ample and sufficient. Shoftim did not make new laws neither did the kings nor the prophets. There is one interesting exception to this that I would like to reference: The Book of Joshua, Chapter 24.
In this final chapter Joshua gives his final parting speech in Shechem (Nablus). In this speech (v 1-15) he surveys the short history of the Hebrews from the very beginning until the present and at the conclusion he presents the people with new laws (16-28) with the intention that Shechem become the focal point and central city. Shechem after all had played a significant role in our history hitherto:
• Abraham builds an alter to God (Genesis 12:6-7).
• Jacob buys land there and builds an altar (Genesis 33:18-20).
• Joseph is buried in Shechem.
• Jacob is buried in Shechem.
• Moses commands the people to build an altar near Shechem (Deteronomy 27:1-8).
• Joshua fulfills the commandment of Moses (Joshua 8:30-35).
Incidentally, the Northern Kingdom viewed Shechem as their central city as opposed to the Tribe of Judah who saw Jerusalem as their point of reference.
Throughout Joshua’s survey of the history of the Hebrews never is there reference made to the giving of the law at Sinai or Horeb and he castigates the Hebrews for not giving up their gods, a precondition for receiving the law. Therefore in Joshua 24:16-18 the people promise to renounce their idols promising to follow God. In verse 23 Joshua forces them to surrender the elohei nachor. It is only when they remove Nachor and swear allegiance does Joshua give them the law in verses 25-26. The people respond to Joshua’s call by saying “navod v’nishma” similar to what the Hebrews said at Sinai “naasae v’nuishma”.
The Midrash Tanhuma is uncomfortable with all of this and comments that Moshe wrote the Torah while Joshua wrote in the “sefer torat elohim” (Joshua 24, 26). Thus Joshua is portrayed as a great leader but not of Moshe’s stature. Two examples illustrate this: The crossing of the Sea of Reeds versus the crossing of the Jordan when the text says that Joshua was elevated to the level of Moshe (Joshua 4, 14). The second example is when Moses is commanded to remove his shoes at the burning bush because it was holy ground; Joshua too is commanded as such on the eve of battle (Joshua 5, 15).
The ten northern tribes believed that the Torah was given in Shechem and this set them apart from the tribe of Judah in the south believing that Sinai was the defining moment of the giving of the law. This enmity between these two communities was given expression in the polemics of Genesis 35:4 as an attempt to diminish and devalue Shechem as nothing more than a dumping ground of the idols that Jacob buried under the taberinth rather than burn them as was our tradition (Deuteronomy 7:5)