Where on Earth is Mount Sinai?
Israel at Mount Sinai, Jan Luyken (1704)
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson April 18 – April 24, Exodus 18-20
Mount Sinai, the place where God met with Moses and gave the Children of Israel the Ten Commandments, is considered one of the most Holy places on Earth, yet for millennia there has been an ongoing debate as to where on earth Mount Sinai is located. It is not at all clear why a mountain, which has been named Mount Sinai for at least the past two thousand years, and for which the entire Sinai Peninsula is named, has been equated with Jebel Musa (Mountain of Moses), but according to Graham Davies of Cambridge University, early Jewish pilgrims identified Jebel Musa as Mount Sinai before the first century AD, and this identification was later adopted by Christian pilgrims. (Davies, Graham I., The Way of the Wilderness a Geographical Study of the Wilderness Itineraries in the Old Testament, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1979, pp 23-24) Most scholars today reject this traditional site for Mount Sinai. The reasons for this rejection are numerous and go all the way back to the Old Testament text itself.
We are told in Exodus 2:15 “…Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian…” We are given no information in the scripture as to where Midian was or what route Moses may have taken to get there. Some scholars have proposed that the term “Midian” refers to a loose confederation of tribes rather than to a specific geographic place. However, one location associated with the Midianites is Elath at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. The American archaeologist, historian, and Old Testament scholar, William Dever, former Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona, and now Distinguished Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at Lycoming College, identifies Midian with the “northwest Arabian Peninsula, on the east shore of the Gulf of Aqaba.” Most Biblical maps agree.
Parsimony argues that Moses would have taken the most direct route he could across the Sinai Peninsula from the north tip of the Gulf of Suez to the north tip of the Gulf of Aqaba – unless, of course, he became lost in the process. There is no reason to assume that he traveled all the way down to the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, along the east bank of the Gulf of Suez, only to turn northeast back up the west bank of the Gulf of Aqaba – just so that he could visit modern Mount Sinai – one of the most inhospitable places on earth. We are told in Exodus 3:12 that when Moses was visited by God on Mount Horeb, and was called to return to Egypt and bring out Israel, God told him, “…Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.” So Moses was commanded to bring the liberated Israelites back to this mountain. Parsimony also dictates that when Moses led the Israelites back to Mount Horeb, he would have retraced the course he had already taken twice, and with which by then he would have been quite familiar.
Again, it makes no sense that he would have lead the Israelites all the way down to the inhospitable, mountainous southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Some of the terrain there is almost impassible, and water and feed for animals is almost non-existent. By contrast, the more direct route across the center of the peninsula, though harsh, was passible. Furthermore, river tributaries of the Wadi El-Arish, which flows north into the Mediterranean, constitutes the largest watershed in the Sinai Peninsula and collects over sixty percent of the peninsula's precipitation. Those tributaries fan out across the center of the peninsula, providing water and feed sources much of the way. Although, when Israel reached the eastern edge of its watershed toward the land of Horeb, water became scarce and the people started to murmur – again (see Exodus 17:1-6).
When Moses led the Israelites past the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba and entered the land of Midian, he encamped them in the plain before the mountain of God – Mount Horeb. He had completed God’s commandment to him to bring the Israelites to this mountain (Exodus 3:12). We read in Deuteronomy 5:1-5, “And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. The Lord talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire, (I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to shew you the word of the Lord: for ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount;)…”
But we are told in Exodus 19:16-20, “And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. And the Lord came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up.” These accounts in Deuteronomy and Exodus appear to be the same, but two different mountains are cited.
Today, most scholars consider Sinai and Horeb to be different names for the same place. Abraham Ibn Ezra (c. 1089-1167), one of the most distinguished Jewish biblical scholars and philosophers of his time, suggested that there was one mountain, “only it had two tops, which bore these different names.” The Protestant reformer John Calvin agreed. He proposed that there was one mountain with two peaks: the eastern peak of the mountain being called Sinai and the western peak called Horeb. The name “Horeb” has been proposed to mean glowing/heat, which may be a reference to the Sun, whereas the name “Sinai” may be derived from the word Sin, the Ancient Mesopotamian deity of the Moon, and thus Sinai and Horeb may be the mountains of the Moon and Sun, respectively. However, Horeb also was the place where Moses saw the burning bush, so maybe the term glowing/heat was referring to that event, as well as to the fire seen by all Israel when they came to that same mountain.
So Moses saw the burning bush on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:1-4) and was called to go get the Israelites in Egypt and bring them back to this mountain (Exodus 3:12). Was the bush still burning when they returned? The fires that inspired Zoroaster, which I saw in 2009 in Azerbaijan, had been burning for perhaps over 3000 years (see my essay “Moses and the Burning Bush”). In my opinion, the burning bush which Moses saw on Mount Horeb was indeed still burning when he returned with the Israelites. “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire…” (Exodus 19:18)
Aside from the appearance of God in the above verses, this story seems to be describing a volcanic eruption, as well as an earthquake. The narrative continues in Exodus 20: 18-21, “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not. And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.”
From a scientific perspective, one question may be asked: how seismically active are the Sinai and Arabic Peninsulas? In a 2009 paper entitled, “Seismicity of Sinai Peninsula, Egypt,” published in the Arabian Journal of Geosciences, Kamal Abdel-Rahman, Abdullah M. S. Al-Amri, & Enayat Abdel-Moneim of the Seismology Department, National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics, Helwan, Cairo, Egypt, answered: quite active. They stated, “The Sinai Peninsula…is affected by strong and destructive earthquakes (e.g., March 31, 1969 and November 22, 1995) and moderate earthquakes (m b > 5) throughout its history.” The authors concluded, “…there are two local seismic zones passing through Sinai contributing to the earthquake activities of Sinai, these are the Negev shear zone and Central Sinai fault (Themed fault) zone.” (Abdel-Rahman, K., Al-Amri, A.M.S. & Abdel-Moneim, E. Seismicity of Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. Arab J Geosci 2, 103, 2009). In addition, there is an active seismic zone at the northeast corner of the Gulf of Aqaba, and between there and the Dead Sea.
However, the seismic zone on the Sinai Peninsula is confined to the upper half and western border of the peninsula and does not extend to the southern tip where Mount Sinai is located. Indeed, Mount Sinai’s rocks were formed during the late Precambrian, around 540 million years ago, as part of the Arabian-Nubian Shield. Mount Sinai is part of a ring complex formed by the collapse of the magma chamber beneath a now extinct caldera. Seismic and volcanic activity in the area, although once intense, ended some 500 million ago. Furthermore, the Arabian-Nubian Shield is not a good geological candidate for natural gas sources. Therefore, in modern terms, the mountain identified historically is not a good candidate for the “Mountain of God.” However, the northwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba is in a seismic zone and may have some sources of natural gas. Furthermore, the Uwayrid volcanic region at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba is covered with dormant, but not dead volcanic domes. Was Mount Herob/Sinai a volcano?
Although Glen Fritz described much of the scriptural account as being consistent with a volcanic eruption, he addressed some of the confounding issues concerning a volcanic eruption on Mount Sinai/Horeb in a 2016 paper, “Was Mount Sinai a Volcano?” (ancientexodus.com/was-mount-sinai-a-volcano). He concluded, “The volcanic theories…all seem to ignore the potentially noxious environments associated with active volcanoes. The ‘elephant in the room,’ the obvious element missing from the arguments, concerns the incompatibility between human activity and volcanic eruptions…The products of this sort of eruption would include ejecta or tephra, steam, gasses, and molten lava flows…The tephra fallout from volcanic plumes is very hazardous, easily deadly to man, animals, and vegetation. Surface accumulation of ash prior to the arrival of the Hebrews would inhibit, if not preclude, pastoral and habitation activity. In the least, ash is a significant respiratory and eye irritant.”
I agree with Fritz’s evaluation. It seems that describing the Mountain of God as a volcano at the time of the Israelite visit is not scientifically feasible, especially given that the Israelites were encamped at its base for over eleven months and Moses spent over eighty days on its summit. But what if the events reported in Exodus 19:16-20 and Exodus 20:18-21 resulted, not from a huge volcanic eruption, but from the release of natural gas, perhaps expanded by an earthquake shaking the ground and opening new fissures, which would burn any extant shrubs and grass, sending smoke into the air. Thus, the burning bush, which Moses saw when he first visited Mount Horeb had by the time of his return with the Israelites, turned into a mountain of fire, much like what I saw in Azerbaijan in 2009.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD