Sloterdijk, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, part 4

Continuing my posts on Peter Sloterdijk’s recent text: In the Shadow of Mount Sinai: A Footnote on the Origins and Changing Forms of Total Membership (2016). See previous posts 1,  2 and 3 above.

For Sloterdijk the second form of ethnoplastic religion, that is ‘boundaried’ religion, is clearly demonstrated in the Sinai episodes of the Hebrew Bible, which he understands to be ‘the primal scene of ancient Jewish anti-miscegenation policy’ (p.25). Here then, the methodological funnel of Sloterdijk’s analysis finally begins to narrow-down or focus-in on one historical instantiation of religion, namely, Judeo-Christian religion.


For Sloterdijk, the various episodes of ‘the Sinai schema’ (we will note in a moment why his bracketing of the biblical Sinai material is pre-orientated and problematic) all have the following structure:

First movement: an attempted sin-action

There is always an account of an attempt on behalf of the people of Israel (or a sub-section of it) to open-out the boundaries of their religion in some syncretistic break-out. Sloterdijk describes this as a gesture of ‘zeal’. Such actions, then, are ‘the mode of being of a zealous collective’ (p.43).

Second movement: an enacted punishment

The judgment of God is then enacted against that group of Israelites for this attempt (enacted, of course, by some priestly hegemon purporting to act in place of God himself).

Third movement: renewal of boundaries

Finally, there is an enacted renewal of the relationship between God and the people of Israel in the form of a covenant, reclose the boundaries once again in the form of ‘total membership’ (p.44), so as to reinforce the self-identification of ‘chosenness’ (p.41) of this human grouping.

Sloterdijk believes that he sees this structure repeated in the Sinai narratives. And indeed that it is ‘prototypical’ (p.34) of the entirety of Judeo-Christian religion that follows.

Before going on, it is interesting to note how Sloterdijk chooses to bypass an older strand of biblical material that handles the YHWH-istic covenant with Abraham (we might note that the commonality of the three monotheisms is usually described in terms of their ‘Abrahamic’ inheritance). Here, of course, is a strand of covenantal material that does not function with the Sinai schema, and seems to contain concepts that would be problematic to the three-fold movement described above (cf. the movement of YHWH himself through the divided animal pieces in Genesis 15, thereby signally his self-identification with the punishment owed to the Isrealites on account of their boundary-sins). The absence of a properly biblical theology is a significant weakness of Sloterdijk’s analysis.


3 thoughts on “Sloterdijk, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, part 4

  1. A methodological approach respectful of the diachronic nature of Scriptural witness in relation to its key integrating themes. This would mean that one text or strand of material relating to this theme (eg. Sinai covenant) should not be isolated from units that precede it (eg. Abrahamic covenant) or succeed it (eg. covenant of the New Testament). As a methodology, this would be distinct from systematics (synchronic analysis of doctrine in a philosophical system) or historical theology (the development of Christian thought in the centuries that have followed the closure of the canon, that is, Church history).

    From a confessional perspective, this could be taken further, such as to say that there is a progressive revelation of God in Scripture, and that the whole is never smaller than its parts.

    Sloterdijk, I suggest, is monolithic in his treatment of the covenant theme in this book, and therefore provides a very faulty biblical theology indeed.


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