Notes on Mt. Sinai

from the International Standard Bible Enclylopedia


From the 1911 Edition:

SINAI: si'-ni, si'-na-i (cinay; Codex Alexandrinus Sina, Codex Vaticanus Seina):

1. The Name:

The name comes probably from a root meaning "to shine," which occurs in Syriac, and which in Babylonian is found in the name sinu for "the moon." The old explanation, "clayey," is inappropriate to any place in the Sinaitic desert, though it might apply to Sin (Eze 30:15,16) or Pelusium; even there, however, the applicability is doubtful. The desert of Sin (Ex 16:1; 17:1; Nu 33:11 f) lay between Sinai and the Gulf of Suez, and may have been named from the "glare" of its white chalk. But at Sinai "the glory of Yahweh was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel" (Ex 24:17); and, indeed, the glory of the Lord still dyes the crags of Jebel Musa (the "mountain of Moses") with fiery red, reflected from its red granite and pink gneiss rocks, long after the shadows have fallen on the plain beneath. Sinai is mentioned, as a desert and a mountain, in 35 passages of the Old Testament. In 17 passages the same desert and mountain are called "Horeb," or "the waste." This term is chiefly used in Deuteronomy, though Sinai also occurs (De 33:2). In the other books of the Pentateuch, Sinai is the usual name, though Horeb also occurs (Ex 3:1; 17:6; 33:6), applying both to the "Mount of God" and to the desert of Rephidim, some 20 miles to the Northwest.

2. Traditional Site:

The indications of position, in various passages of the Pentateuch, favor the identification with the traditional site, which has become generally accepted by all those explorers who have carefully considered the subject, though two other theories may need notice. Moses fled to the land of Midian (or "empty land"), which lay East of the Sinaitic peninsula (Nu 22:4,7; 25; 31), and when he wandered with his flocks to Horeb (Ex 3:1) he is said to have reached the west side of the desert. In another note (De 1:2) we read that the distance was "eleven days' journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir unto Kadesh-barnea" or Petra (see WANDERINGS OF ISRAEL), the distance being about 145 miles, or 14 miles of daily march, though Israel-with its flocks, women and children-made 16 marches between these points. Sinai again is described as being distant from Egypt "three days' journey into the wilderness" (Ex 5:3), the actual route being 117 miles, which Israel accomplished in 10 journeys. But, for Arabs not encumbered with families and herds, this distance could still be covered by an average march of 39 miles daily, on riding camels, or even, if necessary, on foot.

3. Identification with Jebel Musa:

These distances will not, however, allow of our placing Sinai farther East than Jebel Musa. Lofty mountains, in all parts of the world, have always been sacred and regarded as the mysterious abode of God; and Josephus says that Sinai is "the highest of all the mountains thereabout," and again is "the highest of all the mountains that are in that country, and is not only very difficult to be ascended by men, on account of its vast. altitude but because of the sharpness of its precipices: nay, indeed, it cannot be looked at without pain of the eyes, and besides this it was terrible and inaccessible, on account of the rumor that passed about, that God dwelt there" (Ant., II, xii, 1; III, v, 1). Evidently in his time Sinai was supposed to be one of the peaks of the great granitic block called et Tur-a term applying to any lofty mountain. This block has its highest peak in Jebel Katarin (so named from a legend of Catherine of Egypt), rising 8,550 ft. above the sea. Northeast of this is Jebel Musa (7,370 ft.), which, though less high, is more conspicuous because of the open plain called er Rachah ("the wide") to its Northwest. This plain is about 4 miles long and has a width of over a mile, so that it forms, as Dr. E. Robinson (Biblical Researches, 1838, I, 89) seems to have been the first to note, a natural camp at the foot of the mountain, large enough for the probable numbers (see EXODUS, 3) of Israel.

4. Description of Jebel Musu:

Jebel Musa has two main tops, that to the Southeast being crowned by a chapel. The other, divided by gorges into three precipitous crags, has the Convent to its North, and is called Ras-es-Cafcafeh, or "the willow top." North of the Convent is the lower top of Jebel edition Deir ("mountain of the monastery"). These heights were accurately determined by Royal Engineer surveyors in 1868 (Sir C. Wilson, Ordnance Survey of Sinai); and, though it is impossible to say which of the peaks Moses ascended, yet they are all much higher than any mountains in the Sinaitic desert, or in Midian. The highest tops in the Tih desert to the North are not much over 4,000 ft. Those in Midian, East of Elath, rise only to 4,200 ft. Even Jebel Serbal, 20 miles West of Sinai-a ridge with many crags, running 3 miles in length-is at its highest only 6,730 ft. above the sea. Horeb is not recorded to have been visited by any of the Hebrews after Moses, except by Elijah (1Ki 19:8) in a time of storm. In favor of the traditional site it may also be observed that clouds suddenly formed, or lasting for days (Ex 24:15 f), are apt to cap very lofty mountains. The Hebrews reached Sinai about the end of May (Ex 19:1) and, on the 3rd day, "there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount" (Ex 19:16). Such storms occur as a rule in the Sinaitic desert only in December and January, but thunderstorms are not unknown in Palestine even in May.

5. Patristic Evidence:

A constant tradition fixing the site is traceable back to the 4th century AD. Eusebius and Jerome (Onomasticon, under the word "Choreb") place Horeb near Paran, which in their time was placed (Onomasticon, under the word "Raphidim") in Wady Feiran. Anchorites lived at Paran, and at Sinai at least as early as 365 AD, and are noticed in 373 AD, and often later (Robinson, Biblical Res., 1838, I, 122-28); the monastery was first built for them by Justinian in 527 AD and his chapel still exists. Cosmas (Topogr. Christ.), in the same reign, says that Rephidim was then called Pharan, and (distinguishing Horeb from Sinai, as Eusebius also does) he places it "about 6 miles from Pharan," and "near Sinai." These various considerations may suffice to show that the tradition as to Horeb is at least as old as the time of Josephus, and that it agrees with all the indications given in the Old Testament.

6. Lepsius' Theory:

Lepsius, it is true (Letters from Egypt, 1842-44), denying the existence of any unbroken tradition, and relying on his understanding of Cosmas, supposed Sinai to be the Jebel Serbal above mentioned, which lies immediately South of Wady Feiran. His main argument was that, visiting Sinai in March, he considered that the vicinity did not present sufficient water for Israel (Appendix B, 303-18). But, on this point, it is sufficient to give the opinion of the late F. W. Holland, based on the experience of four visits, in 1861, 1865, 1867-68.

He says (Recovery of Jerusalem, 524):

"With regard to water-supply there is no other spot in the whole Peninsula which is nearly so well supplied as the neighborhood of Jebel Musa. Four streams of running water are found there: one in Wady Leja; a second in Wady et Tl'ah which waters a succession of gardens extending more than 3 miles in length, and forms pools in which I have often had a swim; a third stream rises to the North of the watershed of the plain of er Rachah and runs West into Wady et Tl'ah; and a fourth, is formed by the drainage from the mountains of Umm Alawy, to the East of Wady Sebaiyeh and finds its way into that valley by a narrow ravine opposite Jebel edition Deir. In addition to these streams there are numerous wells and springs, affording excellent water throughout the whole of the granitie district. I have seldom found it necessary to carry water when making a mountain excursion, and the intermediate neighborhood of Jebel Masa would, I think, bear comparison with many mountain districts in Scotland with regard to its supply of water. There is also no other district in the Peninsula which affords such excellent pasturage."

This is important, as Israel encamped near Sinai from the end of May till April of the next year. There is also a well on the lower slope of Jebel Musa itself, where the ascent begins.

7. Greene's Theory:

Another theory, put forward by Mr. Baker Greene (The Hebrew Migration from Egypt), though accepted by Dr. Sayce (Higher Cricitism, 1894, 268), appears likewise to be entirely untenable. Mr. Greene supposed Elim (Ex 15:27) to be Elath (De 2:8), now 'Ailah at the head of the Gulf of 'Akabah; and that Sinai therefore was some unknown mountain in Midian. But in this case Israel would in 4 days (see Ex 15:22,23,27) have traveled a distance of 200 miles to reach Elim, which cannot but be regarded as quite impossible for the Hebrews when accompanied by women, children, flocks and herds.

Written by C. R. Conder

From the 1988 Edition:

SINAI: si'ni, sl'n.-i [Heb. sinay; Gk. A. Sina, B. Seina); AV also SINA (Acts 7:38). The name of the sacred mountain before which Israel encamped al the lime of the lawgiving and the establishing of the covenant relationship. The Hebrew is sometimes qualified by the words har, "hill" or "mountain," or migbar, "desert." The origin of the name is uncertain; some have suggested that it is related etymologically either to Heb. seneh, "thornbush," or to the Bab. Sin, the ancient Semitic moon-deity. Neither of these suggestions seems particularly satisfactory, however, and "Sinai" is less likely the name of a mountain than the normal designation of one particular peak in the Sinai wilderness. In several OT passages both the desolate Rephidim area to the northwest and the mountain itself are called "Horeb" (Heb. Horeb, from a root meaning a "desolate region" or "ruin"), a feature that is prominent in Deuteronomy (1;2, 6, 19; 4:10, 15; etc.) although present elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Ex. 3:1; 17:6; 33:6). In many instances "Sinai" and "Horeb" are used synonymously; where a distinction appears, the mountain itself is Sinai and the neighboring wilderness area bears the wider designation Horeb.

I. In the OT. The covenant between God and Israel was established at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19-24). When the divine presence was revealed to the people, it was accompanied by seismic disturbances and a cloud of smoke that came down upon the mountain (19:16-18). Dt. 1:2 records that the journey from Horeb to Kadesh-bamea by way of Mt. Seir took eleven days. This distance has been confirmed independently by modem scholarship, on the assumption that the route went from the traditional Sinai (Jebel Musa) to Dhahab on the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, then N toward Edom and across to Kadesh-bamea ('Ain Qudeis).

In the time of Ahab of Israel (874-853 B.C.) a discouraged and apprehensive Elijah made a pilgrimage to Horeb for spiritual enlightenment (I K. [9:8). Perhaps the detailed list of Stations between the mountain and Kadesh as found in Nu. 33:16-37 had been preserved with such care because religious pilgrimages similar to Elijah's were undertaken more often in the early days of Israel's nationhood, although such journeys were not recorded.

II. Traditional Location. For about fifteen hundred years the sacred mountain of the lawgiving has been located by tradition in the rugged terrain at the apex of the Sinai Peninsula. In the 4th cent. A.D. the area attracted small settlements of monks and received some prominence through the reports of an Egyptian pilgrim named Ammonius, who visited Sinai ca. 373, having previously traveled to the holy places of Palestine. During Justinian's reign (527-565) the association of Sinai with Jebel Musa, the "mountain of Moses," became firmly established. Justinian established the present St. Catherine's monastery on the northwest slope of Jebel Musa to replace a smaller church built two centuries earlier.

Leaving the ancient Egyptian mining center of Serabit el-Khadim, perhaps to be identified with Dophkah, and journeying to the southeast, the traveler enters a wide valley called er-Raha. This area is much like a small plain, being about 3 km. (2 mi.) long, nearly 11 km. (7 mi.) wide, and about 1.5 sq. km. (1 sq. mi.) in area. It would have been the only natural area for the encampment of Israel before the sacred mountain (Ex. 19:1; Nu. 33:15). Rising majestically over the plain of er-Raba are the steep ascents of Ras es-Safsafeh, with a valley on each side. This elevation, which is approximately 1970 m. (6540 ft.), comprises the northwest summit of the granite ridge stretching about 3 km. (2 mi.) SE, where Jebel Musa completes the formation and towers to a height of about 2300 m. (7500 ft.). Southwest of Jebel Musa is the elevation known as Jebel Katerin, "Mt. of St. Catherine," which rises another 300 m. (1000 ft.) above Jebel Musa. The Monastery of St. Catherine is located between these two mountains.

The heart of the problem is that the etymology of Sinai is not known. Horeb is clearly a Semitic word, meaning "dryness, drought, heat," and "dry ground, waste, and desolation" (BDB, p. 351), and thus seems to be a good descriptive term for the Sinai Peninsula or a specific pan of it. "Sinai" might be connected with the name of the Egyptian frontier city Sin, called Heb. sin in Ex. 16:1 (see PELUSIUM). Another suggested root for Sinai is seneh, "bush," used of the burning bush in Ex. 3:2; according to this proposal the area was named for the bushes that covered it. Neither proposal has been accepted with any degree of confidence.

"Sinai" is used both for the area (wilderness of Sinai, sixteen times in the Pentateuch) and for the mountain (fourteen times in the Pentateuch). "Horeb," however, is used primarily as the name of the area. Only once in the OT is the mountain called Horeb (Ex. 33:6; cf. also 2 Esd. 2:33 [AV Oreb]), and that might be a shortened form (either deliberate or accidental) for the fuller expression "the mountain of God, Horeb" (cf. 3:1; I K. 19:8). In Ex. 3: 1, where the term Horeb first appears, Moses is said to come to "the mountain of God horebah." The directional h at the end of the word for Horeb suggests that Horeb was not the name of the mountain but of the area in which the mountain was located. This leads to the suggestion that both Horeb and Sinai are names for the general area, Horeb clearly a Semitic term and Sinai possibly a name used by some other people. A place having two different names representing different languages or ethnic groups is known elsewhere in the ancient Near East (K. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and OT [1966J, p. 124). A good example is the city of Hebron (Semitic name), which was also known as Kiriath-arba (Indo-European name: see Y. Arbeitman. "The Hittite is their Mother: An Anatolian Approach to Gen. 23." in Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistics Science IV. 889ff.).

III. Problems of Identification. The traditional interpretation has identified Ras es-Safsafeh with Mt. Horeb and Jebel Musa with Mt. Sinai. Although the two elevations may be considered twin peaks of one lar8e mountain. the association of Horeb in some OT passages with wilderness areas seems to preclude its identification with Ras es-Safsafeh. Nevertheless. this peak has certain topographical features favoring its identification with Sinai. From the plain of er-Raba the summit of Ras es-Safsafeh can best be reached by means of a detour up a steep ravine called "Jethro's path" (Sikkel Shu'eib) near the northeast end of the range. Descending from this point. Moses and Joshua could have heard the summit of the camp in er-Raba prior to witnessing it (Ex. 32: 15-181. Jebel Musa. has the double disadvantage of being about 5 km. (3 mi.) from ,he plain of er-Raba and of having the view from its summit restricted by other peaks to the east, south. and west. The prospect NW along the ridge extends beyond the peak of Ras es-Safsafeh to the distant horizon. No pan of the plain of er-Raba can be seen from Jebel Musa; there is. however. a smaller and more elevated plain beneath its highest part that could have witnessed the events connected with the lawgiving. Thus it is possible that the Israelites did not assemble on the plain of er-Riba.

From Jebel Katerin, another peak. the view is obstructed only by the peak of Jebel Umm Shomer to the south: the Gulf of Suez and Egypt can be seen to the west and the Gulf of Aqabah and Arabia to the east. The principal difficulty with both Ras es-Safsafeh and Jebel Katerin is that neither appears to have been regarded as a holy mountain until well into the Christian era. Jebel Musa, on the other hand. seems to have enjoyed special sanctity long before Christian limes, culminating in its identification with Mt. Sinai. Quite aside from the weight of tradition. The granite formations of the mountain are so imposing that they lend support to this identification. In addition. the presence of a few stations on the way to Jebel Musa that are traditionally associated with the wilderness wanderings point to the same conclusion.

IV. Other Identifications. Because of the apparently volcanic phenomena associated with the giving of the law on Sinai. some nineteenth-century scholars thought that the most acceptable identification was with a volcanic peak near al-Hrob. But this opinion has fallen into disrepute because it makes the route of the Exodus virtually impossible to reconstruct and because it reads far too much into the phenomena of Ex. 19:11-25. Another view located Sinai at Jebel Serbal, some distance W of the Jebel Musa--Ras es-Safsafeh ridge, where the early Christian center of Pharan was situated. This identification was repudiated by the Peregrinatio Silvae (ca. A.D. 388). which specifically locates the "mount of God" 35 Roman mi. from Pharan (Feiran) this is the actual distance between the oasis in the Wadi Feiran and Jebel Musa.

Volcanic interpretation of Ex. 19:16. 18 has led some to place Sinai in northwest Arabia. near Midian. where the nearest volcanoes active in historical times are located. Another argument supporting this site involves Moses' marriage into a Midianite family (Ex. 3:1: 18:11). Moses' father-in-law Jethro is also called a Kenite (Judges 1:16: 4:11), and the Kenites were a clan of wandering smiths (Nu. 10:291 whose presence near the mines of Sinai would hardly be surprising. But Midianite territory as such was too far N of the Sinai Peninsula proper to furnish the kind of topographical isolation from Egyptian influence that depicted by the narratives of the wilderness sojourn. Furthermore, volcanic interpretation of the events of Ex. 19:16, 18 might well read too much into the narrative.

Yet another suggested location for Mt. Sinai is one of the mountains near Kadesh-bamea. This identification is based partly on the occasional OT association of Sinai with Seir, Mt. Paran, and even Teman, a town in Edom, as places of divine revelation (Dt. 33:2; 19s. 5:4; Hab. 3:3). In addition, the association of Rephidim with Meribah -- the latter being placed rather arbitrarily in the Kadesh-barnea area -- as well as the Edomite king's apparent claim to territory on both sides of the Arabah at the time of the wilderness wanderings (Nu. 20: 14-16), seem to support such a location. But since the tradition of producing water from the rock is narrated twice (Ex. 17:1-7; Nu. 20:2-13) and may actually have occurred even more frequently, too much geographical reliance ought not to be placed upon attempts to associate the incident in Ex. 17 with the area of Kadesh-barnea. Scholars have also argued that Sinai should be placed near Kadesh-barnea because Moses asked Pharaoh's permission to make a three-day journey into the wilderness to sacrifice (Ex. 5:1-3). This consideration has gained some currency in academic circles but is completely irrelevant in any discussion of the location of Sinai. The "holy mount"' is not even mentioned in the request, and neither Kadesh nor Jebel Musa can be reached from the eastern delta region in three days' travel on foot.

Indeed, Moses' request on behalf of Israel can be fined into any of the proposed locations for Sinai. None of the encampments of the wilderness wanderings can be meaningful if the Israelites went directly to either Kadesh or Midian, Again. locating Sinai elsewhere than at Jebel Musa would leave the ancient traditions about that mountain unexplained. Finally, the reference in Dt. 1:2 to a journey of eleven days from Kadesh to Horeb can be properly understood only in relationship to the southern portion of the Sinai Peninsula. On balance, therefore, the identification of Mt. Sinai with Jebel Musa, as traditionally maintained, seems the most satisfactory.