Biblical Mount Sinai

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The approach to Mount Sinai, painting by David Roberts

According to the Book of Exodus, Mount Sinai (Hebrew: הר סיני, Har Sinai) is the mountain at which the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God. In the Book of Deuteronomy, these events are described as having transpired at Mount Horeb.

According to the documentary hypothesis, the name "Sinai" is only used in the Torah by the Jahwist and Priestly source, whereas Horeb is only used by the Elohist and Deuteronomist.[1] "Sinai" and "Horeb" are generally considered to refer to the same place, although there is a small body of opinion that the two names may refer to different locations.

Hebrew Bible texts describe Mount Sinai in terms which some scholars[who?] believe may describe the mountain as a volcano, although the word is omitted. This theory is not shared by all scholars.


'Out of the Sinai desert', painting by Eugen Bracht, c. 1880

According to the Documentary hypothesis, the name "Sinai" is only used in the Torah by the Jahwist and Priestly source, whereas Horeb is only used by the Elohist and Deuteronomist.[1]

According to some biblical scholars[who?], Horeb is thought to mean "glowing/heat", which seems to be a reference to the sun, while Sinai may have derived from the name of Sin, the Sumerian deity of the moon,[2][3] and thus Sinai and Horeb would be the mountains of the moon and sun, respectively.

Regarding the Sumerian Sin deity assumption, William F. Albright, an American biblical scholar, had stated:[4]

...there is nothing that requires us to explain Him as a modified moon-god. It is improbable that the name Sinai is derived from that of the Sumerian Zen (older Zu-en), Akkadian Sin, the moon-god worshiped at Ur (in his form Nannar) and at Harran, since there is no indication that the name Sin was ever employed by the Canaanites or the Semitic nomads of Palestine.

It is much more likely that the name Sinai is connected with the place-name Sin, which belongs to a desert plain in Sinai as well as to a Canaanite city in Syria and perhaps to a city in the northeast Delta of Egypt. It has also been recognized that it may somehow be connected with seneh (Aram. sanya), the name of a kind of bush where Moses is said to have first witnessed the theophany of Yahweh.

According to Rabbinic tradition, the name "Sinai" derives from sin-ah (שִׂנְאָה), meaning hatred, in reference to the other nations hating the Jews out of jealousy, due to the Jews being the ones to receive the word of God.[5]

Other names[edit]

Classical rabbinic literature mentions the mountain having other names:

  • Har ha-Elohim (הר האלהים), meaning "the mountain of God" or "the mountain of the gods"[6]
  • Har Bashan (הר בשן), meaning "the mountain of Bashan"; however, Bashan is interpreted in rabbinical literature as here being a corruption of beshen, meaning "with the teeth", and argued to refer to the sustenance of mankind through the virtue of the mountain[6]
  • Har Gebnunim (הר גבנונים), meaning "the mountain as pure as cheese"[6]


  • Tūr Sīnāʾ / Tūr Sīnīn (طور سيناء / سينين), is the term that appears in most Islamic sources, including the Qur'an, and it means, "The mount of Sinai".[7][8][9]
  • Jabal Mūsa (جبل موسى), is another term that appears in Islamic sources, and it means, "The Mountain of Moses".[6]

Biblical description[edit]

Mass-revelation at the Mount Horeb in an illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907

According to the biblical account of the giving of the instructions and teachings of both the Written and the Oral Torah, Sinai was enveloped in a cloud,[10] it quaked and was filled with smoke,[11] while lightning-flashes shot forth, and the roar of thunder mingled with the blasts of a trumpet;[10] the account later adds that fire was seen burning at the summit of the mountain.[12] In the biblical account, the fire and clouds are a direct consequence of the arrival of God upon the mountain.[13] According to the biblical story, Moses departed to the mountain and stayed there for 40 days and nights in order to receive the Ten Commandments, the Written and the Oral Torah, and he did so twice because he broke the first set of the tablets of stone after returning from the mountain for the first time.

The biblical description of God's descent[13] seems to be in conflict with the statement shortly after that God spoke to the Israelites from Heaven.[14] While biblical scholars argue that these passages are from different sources, the Mekhilta argues that God had lowered the heavens and spread them over Sinai,[15] and the Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer argues that a hole was torn in the heavens, and Sinai was torn away from the earth and the summit pushed through the hole. 'The heavens' could be a metaphor for clouds and the 'lake of fire' could be a metaphor for the lava-filled crater.[16] Several bible criticsWho? have indicated that the smoke and fire reference from the Bible suggests that Mt Sinai was a volcano;[17] despite the absence of ash.[18] Other bible scholars have suggested that the description fits a storm[18] especially as the Song of Deborah seems to allude to rain having occurred at the time.[19]

Critical views[edit]

Some modern biblical scholars explain Mount Sinai as having been a sacred place dedicated to one of the Semitic deities, even before the Israelites encountered it.[6] Others regard the set of laws given on the mountain to have originated in different time periods from one another, with the later ones mainly being the result of natural evolution over the centuries of the earlier ones, rather than all originating from a single moment in time.[20]

Suggested locations[edit]

Modern scholars differ as to the exact geographical position of Mount Sinai,[6] and the same has long been true of scholars of Judaism. The Elijah narrative appears to suggest that when it was written, the location of Horeb was still known with some certainty, as Elijah is described as travelling to Horeb on one occasion,[21] but there are no later biblical references to it that suggest the location remained known; Josephus only specifies that it was within Arabia Petraea (a Roman Province encompassing modern Jordan, southern modern Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and northwestern Saudi Arabia with its capital in Petra), and the Pauline Epistles are even more vague, specifying only that it was in Arabia, which covers most of the south-western Middle east.

The Sinai Peninsula[edit]

Map of Sinai Peninsula with country borders shown.

The Sinai peninsula has traditionally been considered Sinai's location by Christians, although it should also be noted that the peninsula gained its name from this tradition, and was not called that in Josephus' time or earlier.[6] (The Sinai was earlier inhabited by the Monitu and was called Mafkat or Country of Turquoise.) In early Christian times, a number of Anchorites settled on Mount Serbal, considering it to be the biblical mountain, and in the 4th century a monastery was constructed at its base.[22] Nevertheless, Josephus had stated that Mount Sinai was the highest of all the mountains thereabout,[23] which would imply that Mount Catherine was actually the mountain in question, if Sinai was to be sited on the Sinai peninsula at all;[6] in the 6th century, Saint Catherine's Monastery was constructed at the base of this mountain, leading to the abandonment of the monastery at Serbal, and two monks, allegedly in 300 CE[citation needed], claimed that one of the bushes in the monastic grounds was the biblical Burning Bush, and according to monastic tradition this bush still survives (rather than another having grown in its place).

Unlike these Christian traditions, Bedouin tradition considered Jabal Musa, which lies adjacent to Mount Catherine, to be the biblical mountain,[6] and it is this mountain that local tour groups and religious groups presently advertise as the biblical Mount Sinai; this claim goes back to the time of Helena of Constantinople[citation needed]. Evidently this view was eventually taken up by Christian groups as well, as in the 16th century a church was constructed at the peak of this mountain, which was replaced by a Greek Orthodox chapel in 1954.

According to textual scholars, in the JE version of the Exodus narrative, the Israelites travel in a roughly straight line to Kadesh Barnea from the Yam Suph (literally meaning "the Reed Sea", but considered traditionally to refer to the Red sea), and the detour via the south of the Sinai peninsula is only present in the Priestly Source.[17][24] A number of scholars and commentators have therefore looked towards the more central and northern parts of the Sinai peninsula for the mountain. Mount Sin Bishar, in the west-central part of the peninsula, was proposed to be the biblical Mount Sinai by Menashe Har-El, a biblical geographer at Tel Aviv University.[25] Mount Helal, in the north of the peninsula has also been proposed[citation needed].


The Siq, facing the Treasury, at the foot of Jebel al-Madhbah

Since Moses is described by the Bible as encountering Jethro, a Kenite who was a Midianite priest, shortly before encountering Sinai, this suggests that Sinai would be somewhere near their territory in Saudi Arabia;[20][17] the Kenites and Midianites appear to have resided east of the Gulf of Aqaba.[20][17] Additionally, the Song of Deborah, which some textual scholars consider one of the oldest parts of the Bible,[17] portrays God as having dwelt at Mount Seir, and seems to suggest that this equates with Mount Sinai;[6][19] Mount Seir designates the mountain range in the centre of Edom.

Based on a number of local names and features, in 1927 Ditlef Nielsen identified the Jebel al-Madhbah (meaning mountain of the Altar) at Petra as being identical to the biblical Mount Sinai;[26] since then, as well as a number of scholars,[17] a number of amateur investigators such as Graham Phillips, Andrew Collins, and Chris Ogilvie-Herald[27] have also made the identification. The biblical description of a loud trumpet at Sinai[10] fits the natural phenomenon of the sound of a volcano erupting or the loud trumpeting sound caused by wind being funnelled down the Siq[citation needed]; the local Bedouins refer to the sound as the trumpet of God.[citation needed] The dramatic biblical descriptions of devouring fire on the summit,[12] would fit with the fact that there have been many reports and sightings of plasma phenomena at al-Madhbah over the centuries[citation needed]; the pre-requisite that storm conditions exist before plasma phenomena usually occur would fit with the storm-like biblical description of thunder, lightning,[10] and a thick cloud.[28]

The valley in which Petra resides is known as the Wadi Musa, meaning valley of Moses, and at the entrance to the Siq is the Ain Musa, meaning spring of Moses; the 13th century Arab chronicler Numari stated was Ain Musa was the location where Moses had brought water from the ground, by striking it with his rod. The Jebel al-Madhbah was evidently considered particularly sacred, as the well known ritual building known as The Treasury is carved into its base, the mountain top is covered with a number of different altars, and over 8 metres of the original peak were carved away to leave a flat surface with two 8 metre tall obelisks sticking out of it; these obelisks, which frame the end of the path leading up to them, and are now only 6 metres tall, have led to the mountain being colloquially known as Zibb 'Atuf, meaning penis of love in Arabic. Archaeological artifacts discovered at the top of the mountain indicate that it was once covered by polished shiny blue slate, fitting with the biblical description of paved work of sapphire stone;[29] biblical references to sapphire are considered by scholars to be unlikely to refer to the stone called sapphire in modern times, as sapphire had a different meaning, and wasn't even mined, before the Roman era.[30] Unfortunately, the removal of the original peak has destroyed most other archaeological remains from the late Bronze Age (the standard dating of the Exodus) that might previously have been present.

Saudi Arabia[edit]

Map of Saudi Arabia

Instead of plasma effects, another possible naturalistic explanation of the biblical devouring fire is that Sinai could have been an erupting volcano; this has been suggested by Charles Beke,[31] Sigmund Freud,[32] and Immanuel Velikovsky, among others. This possibility would exclude all the peaks on the Sinai peninsula and Seir, but would make a number of locations in north western Saudi Arabia reasonable candidates. In 1873, Charles Beke proposed that Sinai was the Jabal al-Nour (meaning mountain of light), a volcanic mountain at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, and which has great significance in Islam for other reasons;[31] Beke died during the following year, but his writings (published posthumously) retracted this identification four years later in favour of Jebel Baggir, with Horeb being argued to be a different mountain - the nearby Jebel Ertowa.[33] Beke's suggestions have not found as much scholarly support as the candidature of Hala-'l Badr; the equation of Sinai with Hala-'l Badr has been advocated by Alois Musil in the early 20th century, Jean Koenig in 1971,[34] and Colin Humphreys in 2003,[35] among others.

The possibility of an alternate site located in Saudi Arabia has also drawn attention due to the Apostle Paul's assertion in the first century that Mount Sinai was located in Arabia, an assertion made hundreds of years before the tradition of Mount Sinai in Egypt was developed. A possible candidate within the Arabia theory has been that of Jabal al-Lawz. Advocates for Jabal al-Lawz include Lennart Möller (a Swedish professor in environmental medicine) and also Ron Wyatt and Bob Cornuke.[36][37][38] Allen Kerkselager, associate professor of Theology at St. Joseph's University has stated that "Jabal al Lawz may also be the most convincing option for identifying the Mt. Sinai of biblical tradition" and should be researched.[39] A number of researchers support this hypothesis while others dispute it.[40]

Jabal al-Lawz has been rejected by scholars such as James Karl Hoffmeier (Professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern History and Archaeology) who details what he calls Cornuke's "monumental blunders" and others.[41][42] Gordon Franz, a professional researcher, has studied this topic in depth and has published a refutation of this hypothesis.[43][44]

Although Jabal al-Lawz has drawn considerable debate as a possible candidate, the broader Arabia hypothesis as a region in which Mount Sinai is located continues to draw attention.

The Negev[edit]

While equating Sinai with Petra would indicate that the Israelites journeyed in roughly a straight line from Egypt via Kadesh Barnea, and locating Sinai in Saudi Arabia would suggest Kadesh Barnea was skirted to the south, some scholars have wondered whether Sinai was much closer to the vicinity of Kadesh Barnea itself. Half way between Kadesh Barnea and Petra is Har Karkom, which Emmanuel Anati excavated, and discovered to have been a major Paleolithic cult centre, with the surrounding plateau covered with shrines, altars, stone circles, stone pillars, and over 40,000 rock engravings; although the peak of religious activity at the site dates to 2350-2000 BCE, the exodus is dated 15 Nisan 2448 (Hebrew calendar; 1313 BCE),[45] and the mountain appears to have been abandoned between 1950-1000 BCE, Anati proposed that Jabal Idead was equatable with biblical Sinai.[46][47] Other scholars have criticised this identification, as, in addition to being almost 1000 years too early, it also appears to require the wholesale relocation of the Midianites, Amalekites, and other ancient peoples, from the locations where the majority of scholars currently place them.

Mount Sinai in culture[edit]

In Classical rabbinical literature, Mount Sinai became synonymous with holiness;[48] as it was said that when the Messiah arrives, God will bring Sinai together with Mount Carmel and Mount Tabor, rebuild the Temple upon the combined mountain, and the peaks would sing a chorus of praise to God.[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Harris, J. Rendel (1902). "Sinai, Mount". In James Hastings. A Dictionary of the Bible. 
  2. ^ Joseph Jacobs; M. Seligsohn and Wilhelm Bacher. "Mount Horeb". Jewish Encyclopedia. 
  3. ^ D. M. G. Stalker (1963). "Exodus". In Matthew Black and H. H. Rowley. Peake's Commentary on the Bible (second edition ed.). Thomas Nelson. pp. section 178c. 
  4. ^ William Foxwell Albright (1957). From Stone Age to Christianity. Doubleday Anchor Book. 
  5. ^ Breslov—Judaism with Heart
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jewish Encyclopedia
  7. ^ where the authors, Jaʻfar Sharīf and Gerhard Andreas Herklots (Oxford University) discuss in the glossary "Koh-e-Toor" and indicates it as an alternative name for Mount Sinai, written 1832.
  8. ^ From the "World is my Village," by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, where he relates the story of Moses using Koh-e-Toor not Mount Sinai. Same story, different name.
  9. ^ From the Pakistani Daily Times, November 30, 2008, where the author indicates a translation of Koh-e-Toor to be Mount Sinai.
  10. ^ a b c d Exodus 19:16
  11. ^ Exodus 19:18
  12. ^ a b Exodus 24:17
  13. ^ a b Exodus 19:20
  14. ^ Exodus 20:22
  15. ^ Mekhilta on Exodus 20:22, 4
  16. ^ Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer, 41
  17. ^ a b c d e f Peake's commentary on the Bible
  18. ^ a b Peake's commentary on the Bible
  19. ^ a b Judges 5:4-5
  20. ^ a b c Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
  21. ^ 1 Kings 19:8
  22. ^ "Sinai". New Advent, The Catholic Encyclopedia. 
  23. ^ Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 2:12
  24. ^ Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
  25. ^ Menashe Har-El, The Sinai Journeys: The Route of the Exodus
  26. ^ Ditlef Nielsen, The Site of the Biblical Mount Sinai – A Claim for Petra (1927)
  27. ^ Andrew Collins & Chris Ogilvie-Herald, Mercy
  28. ^ Exodus 24:15
  29. ^ Exodus 24:10
  30. ^ Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica, Hoshen
  31. ^ a b Charles Beke, Mount Sinai, a Volcano (1873)
  32. ^ Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (1939)
  33. ^ Charles Beke (deceased), Sinai in Arabia and of Median (1878)
  34. ^ Jean Koenig, Le site de Al-Jaw dans l'ancien pays de Madian
  35. ^ Colin Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories
  36. ^ Kelly, Mark (June 17, 2005). "IN SEARCH OF NOAH'S ARK: Wyatt's quest: Part 8". Baptist Press. Retrieved 3 December 2010. 
  37. ^ The Mountain of Moses: The Discovery of Mount Sinai, by Larry Williams, (Wynwood Press, New York, 1990; reprinted as The Discovery of Mount Sinai, 1997) p. 182.
  38. ^ Wilson, Jennifer. "Is Noah's Ark on mount in Iran? Man scours the world looking for religious artifacts", Deseret Morning News, August 11, 2006. Accessed December 19, 2007. "Bob Cornuke doesn't have a degree in archaeology; he holds a doctorate in Bible and theology from Louisiana Baptist University."
  39. ^, Where is Mount Sinai? St Catherine's or Jabal al Lawz?
  40. ^ Mount Sinai is NOT Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia, by Gordon Franz, Associates for Biblical Research. Quote, from subsection "PROBLEMS WITH THE GULF OF AKABA / EILAT CROSSINGS": "The proponents of Jebel al-Lawz do not agree on the crossing site of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat. One group, consisting of R. Wyatt, J. Pinkoski and L. Moller suggests that the Israelites crossed at Nuweiba. The other group, consisting of J. Irwin, R. Cornuke, L. Williams, R. Knuteson, K. Kluetz, and K. Durham argues for the Strait of Tiran."
  41. ^ Hoffmeier, James Karl Ancient Israel in Sinai Oxford University Press USA 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-515546-4 p133 [1]
  42. ^ Jameson, John H. John E. Ehrenhard, Christine Finn Ancient muses: archaeology and the arts University of Alabama Press (30 Jun 2003) ISBN 978-0-8173-1274-9 p.179 [2]
  43. ^ Mount Sinai is NOT Jebel al-Lawz, Oct 03, 2007, by Gordon Franz MA, Associates for Biblical Research website.
  44. ^ Is Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia?, Jun 10, 2008, by Gordon Franz MA, Associates for Biblical Research website. (alternate cite: Is Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia? July 1, 2006.)
  45. ^ Ex.16:1,7,13;Tal. Kid.38a
  46. ^ Emmanuel Anati, The riddle of Mount Sinai: archaeological discoveries at Har Karkom (2001)
  47. ^ Mount Sinai has been found: Archaeological discoveries at Har Karkom
  48. ^ Yalkut (Psalms) 785
  49. ^ Yalkut Isaiah 391

External links[edit]