Where Is Mount Sinai?

Where Is Mount Sinai? Dallas C. Kennedy [email protected] Tikkun Leyl Shavuot 5774 Temple Israel, Natick, June 3/4, 2014 Thanks to Temple Isra...
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Where Is Mount Sinai? Dallas C. Kennedy [email protected]

Tikkun Leyl Shavuot 5774 Temple Israel, Natick, June 3/4, 2014 Thanks to Temple Israel, to Cantor Richmond and Rabbi Liben, and to everyone who came to listen and ask questions at this year’s tikkun.

I. Introduction Jewish tradition contains limited information on the geography of Mount Sinai and emphasizes the event and the message, rather than the location. The oldest Christian traditions are no different, but the later development of interest in location is almost entirely Christian, at least superficially. Actually, it is characteristically Western in its concern with exact time and place. This focus was evident with the first scientific geographers, the post-Alexandrian, Hellenistic Greeks; transformed in Christianity into locating and marking holy places; then transformed again since the late Renaissance into independent and academic research about religious traditions but outside of the control of religious authority. This talk sidesteps the larger debate over the historicity of the Exodus account, or of the route and dates, and assumes a conventional reconstructed chronology. (See Figure 1.) I take biblical and extrabiblical traditions largely at face value and raise questions only when they conflict. Jewish tradition is emphatic on one point: Mount Sinai is not in the land of Israel. Its wilderness location was far from then-established centers of civilization, religion, and power, and well-suited to Moses’ radical message.

II. Mount Sinai in Scripture Torah references. Almost all of our information about Mount Sinai (har Sinai) comes from the Torah, especially Exodus 1-3 and 14-18, and parts of Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Exodus route is detailed with the names of places mostly unidentifiable today, but presumably familiar in biblical times. The text does provide detailed topographic information. As with many biblical traditions, there are two names for the mountain, Sinai and Horeb (Chorev). There are also two names for its region, the wilderness of Sin/Sinai (midbar Sin, midbar Sinai) and the land of Midian, about which the text is ambiguous. Exodus 3 implies that Midian and Sin are more or less the same and uses Horeb as a region name. Exodus 18 implies that Midian and Sin are different. Deuteronomy uses Horeb as the mountain name. There is no commonly accepted etymology for Sinai. It might be connected, as Exodus suggests, to seneh (burning bush). Another plausible source is based on Sin, the ancient Akkadian moon god. Horeb is clearer, the shoresh (root) being ch.r.v, for “laid waste,” “destroyed,” or “dry/desiccated”; cf. Arabic horayb. Many sites along the Exodus route are unidentifiable today. But we can identify Goshen in the eastern Nile delta and the oasis Ein Qedeis (Ein Qudeirat) on the Negev-Sinai border as a possible Kadesh-Barnea. And in between? Routes should not conflict with the biblical itinerary. Depending on the exact reading, Exodus implies 45-60 days to get to Sinai, but Deuteronomy gives only 11 days to get from Sinai to KadeshBarnea. And how do we understand these times: elapsed sun time, rounded, or stylized conventions? Elijah. One additional geographic reference (I Kings 18-19) to Sinai occurs in Tanakh, the story of Elijah fleeing into the wilderness after his violent confrontation with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (modern Haifa). He first flees to Be’ersheva and then takes forty days to journey to Horeb, where he hides in a cave and hears the “still, small voice,” or “silent sound.” This story occurs in the solidly historical Divided Monarchy period (c. 930-721 BCE) and reflects an already existing tradition regarding Mount Sinai as the place where Moses encountered the divine — which is why Elijah goes there.


Christian and Islamic references. Both the New Testament and the Koran assume their listeners and readers are familiar with the biblical tale in some form. They both acknowledge Mount Sinai for what happened there and are not much concerned about where it is. The New Testament refers to Sinai a few times. Acts of the Apostles, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, refers to Sinai as the “wilderness” (Acts 7), while Paul in his letters refers to Mount Sinai as being in “Arabia” (Galatians 4). This reference might seem vague, but his comment is part of a homily (midrash) connected to Hagar and Ishmael and thus specific to Arabia. Whether that includes the Sinai peninsula is not clear. On the other hand, the Koran has many references to Mount Sinai, some alluding to rabbinic themes. (For example, the mountain is depicted repeatedly as “towering above” the Israelites while they accept the divine covenant.) Sometimes it is just called “the Mount” (at-Tur), and an entire chapter (Sura 52: The Mount) is devoted to it. Midian and Jethro (Shu’eyb) are also referred to extensively. But the Koran contains no geographic information about Sinai or Midian.

III. The Traditional Site: Jebel Musa/Jebel Katarina The Sinai Peninsula, the size of Ireland or West Virginia, is named for the mountain, not vice versa. Thus the identification of the peninsula is not definitive. The best views of it are from orbit (Figure 2). It is worth noting that the Great Rift system (East Africa, Bab al-Mandeb, Red Sea, the two Gulfs, the Aravah, and the Jordan Valley) was geologically more active in ancient times. Deuteronomy calls Sin/Sinai a “terrible and howling wilderness.” Modern visitors have discovered there that the apparently supernatural (burning bushes, falling quails, manna) sometimes has a real basis (Exodus 3 & 16; Numbers 11; Deuteronomy 8). Jabal or jebel means mountain or mount in Arabic. Thus Jebel Musa = Mount Moses and Jebel Katarina = Mount Katherine form the traditional Mount Sinai and its neighboring peak. Jebel Musa is the location of St. Katherine’s Monastery and features other prominent Christian and a few Muslim shrines. Many prominent Christian holy sites (Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Church of the Nativity) were identified over a period of several centuries on the basis of popular legends. Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 313 CE and its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 led to the building of churches and monasteries at these sites, which became officially endorsed by the Church. They continued to be recognized by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches after their split. Protestant churches have questioned some of them and accepted others as replacements. The identification of sites was often only loosely factual, although they almost always have some connection to history. Sometimes as important were site identities as popular pagan, pre-Christian, shrines, as well as political factors. This development was recorded by the important early church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea. Muslims mainly follow pre-existing Christian traditions regarding the location of Mount Sinai, with one important exception (see section V, below).

IV. Difficulties with the Traditional Site There are many. The topography is wrong. There is no cave. Josephus states the lone peak is the “highest in that country,” not two neighboring mountains. There is no brook or wilderness area at the base. The northern Sinai Peninsula was fortified and garrisoned by the Egyptians, while the mountainous southern part was mined by Egypt for copper and turquoise. (Some scholars think this is not a fatal objection.) Exodus is conventionally placed in the Late Bronze Age, in the latter part of the second millenium BCE. No identifiably Israelite Late Bronze Age remains have been found at this site or anywhere in peninsula. Perhaps the wandering Israelites’ material culture, like the Beduin’s today, was entirely perishable.


V. Plausible Alternatives While there are few reasons to accept the traditional site as authentic, searching for alternatives is a slippery game and depends on how one reads the biblical itinerary and identifies modern sites with biblical ones. For reference, walking in the desert with the elderly, children, and animals makes about 10 miles/day. A fit adult can make about 20 miles/day. For comparison, camels can make 40 miles/day. These estimates assume 12 hours per day in motion. See Figure 3. Other Sinai Peninsula sites: Some plausible alternatives in the Sinai have been put forward, largely on the basis of reconstructed Exodus routes and identification of Kadesh-Barnea. These are Jebel Serbal in southwest Sinai (a nineteenth-century proposal) and Jebel Sin Bishar in west central Sinai (proposed by Menashe Har-el in the 1970s). Another, less plausible, contender is Har Karkom in the Negev. Northwest Arabia: There are limited but strong and unanimous traditions connecting Moses and Jethro to northwest Arabia. The key is Midian. There is little doubt about its location, immediately east of the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat and south of Jordan (Edom and Moab). It extends down the northeast coast of the Red Sea and forms the northern end of the Hejaz, which contains the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. PreIslamic Arab tradition in particular (not influenced by the later Christian identification of Jebel Musa) is unequivocal about the geographic context of Sinai/Midian and Jethro. Midian was, like the Near East in general, cooler, wetter, and more fertile in ancient times. Another pre-Islamic tradition, of uncertain origin and veracity, connects the mysterious Amalek (‘Amaliq or ‘Amliq) with the same region of Arabia. The tallest mountain in the region is Jabal al-Laws, first identified by Western explorers in the nineteenth century. The area was surveyed in the 1940s by Harry Philby. Two American amateur archaeologists, the late David Fasold (a marine engineer) and Larry Williams (a well-known commodities trader), visited this site several times in the late 1980s. Fasold’s notes, photos, and videos were confiscated by Saudi authorities. Williams made it twice in and out (illegally), with photos and videos later released publicly. If we take their findings at face value, Jabal al-Laws should be considered as a serious candidate site, although the nature of what they found remains controversial. A prominent academic scholar and epigrapher, the late Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, endorsed northwest Arabia as the Sinai wilderness. Orbital infrared photographs of the region show ancient trails and camping areas in the region around the mountain not visible in ordinary light on the ground. The traditional site shows nothing like this. More infrared imaging studies of Midian and the Sinai Peninsula should be done. The Jabal al-Laws site requires a non-standard location for Kadesh-Barnea. Archaeology, like astronomy, is one of those sciences where talented amateurs with spare time and other resources can make important contributions. Prejudice sometimes blinds academics and others to this fact.

VI. Open Questions It is important to keep an open mind and fight the urge to dogmatic conclusions without good evidence. But it is also important to apply what we do know consistently and logically. Failure to do this is what keeps people attached to Jebel Musa as Mount Sinai. The traditional site of Jebel Musa is probably not the correct Mount Sinai. The Sinai Peninsula and northwest Arabia offer good alternatives with sounder support. The Jabal al-Laws site has attracted attention since the nineteenth century. In those days, it was physically remote. Today it’s not remote, but it is hard to get into and out of Saudi Arabia, and archaeology has only just started there. But even the limited archaeology of other parts of Arabia has been tantalizing and valuable. Better answers will come when the Saudi kingdom is opened up for archaeological exploration.


Bibliography Scriptures - Hebrew Bible [c. 1250-440 BCE]: JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society, 1985/1999) - New Testament [c. 50-120 CE]: The Jerusalem Bible: Reader’s Edition, ed. Alexander Jones (Doubleday & Co., 1968). See Acts 7.30 and Galatians 4.25. - Koran [c. 630 CE]: The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, trans. Marmaduke Pickthall (Knopf/Everyman’s Library, 1930/1992). For Sinai, see 2.63/93, 4.154, 7.171, 19.52, 20.80, 23.20, 28.44/46, 52, 95.2. For Midian/Shu’eyb, see 7.85, 9.70, 11.84/95, 15.78f., 20.40, 22.44, 26.176, 28.22ff./45, 29.36f., 38.14f.

Classical and Medieval Works - Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus [c. 90 CE], trans. William Whiston (1736) (Hendrickson, 1980). See Antiquities of the Jews 2–4 and Against Apion 2.25. - Eusebius, The History of the Church [c. 330 CE], trans. G. A. Williamson (Penguin, 1990) - al-Masudi, Meadows of Gold [c. 940 CE], trans. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone (Kegan Paul, 1989)

Modern Studies - T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Oxford, 1922). - Harry Saint John Philby, The Land of Midian (Ernest Benn, 1957) - Jean Koenig, Le Site de Al-Jaws: Dans L'ancien Pays de Madian (Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1971) - Menashe Har-el, The Sinai Journeys: The Route of the Exodus (Ridgefield, 1983) - Larry Williams, The Mountain of Moses: The Discovery of Mount Sinai (Wynwood Press, 1990). A more sensationalistic treatment is Howard Blum’s The Gold of Exodus. - Peter James, Centuries of Darkness (Jonathan Cape, 1991). A searching reconsideration of ancient chronology. - Hershel Shanks, ed., Frank Moore Cross: Conversations with a Bible Scholar (Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994), chapter I, “Israelite Origins” - Joseph J. Hobbs, Mount Sinai (University of Texas Press, 1995) - Hershel Shanks, ed., Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple (Prentice Hall, 1999) - Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003) - Hershel Shanks, ed., and the Biblical Archaeology Society, Biblical Archaeology Review, bimonthly. See March/April 2014 issue, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 30-41 and 66-68. Two important memoirs by Nicholas Clapp report his and others’ work in Arabian archaeology: - The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) - Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen (Mariner, 2002) Catch it if you can: touring exhibit, www.roadsofarabia.com, archaeology and history of Saudi Arabia.

Reference Works - Madeleine S. Miller & J. Lane Miller, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (HarperCollins, 1973) - Anchor Bible Series: Exodus 1-18 (William H. Propp, 1999); Numbers 21-36 (Baruch Levine, 2000); Deuteronomy 1-11 (Moshe Weinfeld, 1991) - Herbert Gordon May, ed., Oxford Bible Atlas (Oxford University Press, 1985) - C. E. Bosworth, ed., Encyclopedia of Islam (Brill, 2004) NASA and the European Space Agency maintain several Web sites with orbital photographic archives. This talk is based on Minyan Shaleym and Brookline community tikkun sessions in 2004–7 and 2011.


Bronze Age

1500 BCE

Moses? Egypt New Kingdom (c. 1550 - c. 1070)

Cyrus – Fall of Babylon (539)

500 BCE

1000 BCE


Maccabean revolt Dead Sea (167-160) Scrolls Alexander (335-323)

Divided Monarchy Assyrian conquest (721) – Fall of northern kingdom (Israel)

David / Solomon? (United Monarchy)


Ezra Nehemiah

Return from Babylon (538 – )

Iron Age



Babylonian conquest (597/586) – Fall of southern kingdom (Judah)



Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73)

Augustus Caesar (30 BCE-14 CE) ±1


Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135)

Fall of Rome (476)

500 CE

Figure 1: Timeline of biblical and classical antiquity

Figure 2: Sinai Peninsula and Midian photographed from orbit by Apollo 7 in October 1968 (NASA)


Figure 3: Exodus routes and Mount Sinai candidates