The Biblical Mount Sinai (Hebrew: הר סיני, Har Sinai) is an ambiguously located mountain at which the Hebrew Bible states that the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God. In certain biblical passages these events are described as having transpired at Horeb. Sinai and Horeb are generally considered to refer to the same place although there is a small body of opinion that they refer to different locations.
Passages prior to the Israelite encounter with Sinai indicate that the ground of the mountain was considered holy, but according to the rule of Ein mukdam u'meuchar baTorah (אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה) -- "[There is] not 'earlier' and 'later' in [the] Torah," that is, the Torah is not authored in a chronological fashion, classical biblical commentators regard this as insignificant. Some modern-day scholars, however, who do not recognize the authority of the Oral Law, explain it as having been a sacred place dedicated to one of the Semitic deities, long before the Israelites encountered it. Some modern biblical scholars regard these laws 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.
In Classical rabbinical literature, Mount Sinai became synonymous with holiness; indeed, 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.
According to Hasidic tradition, the name of 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 divine laws. However, according to biblical scholars, Sinai is most likely derived from the name of Sin, the Akkadian lunar deity. Horeb is thought to mean Glowing/Heat; this could be a reference to the sun, and thus Sinai and Horeb would be the mountain of the moon and sun, respectively.
According to the researchers of 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.
Albright has stated:
|“||...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 Namnar) 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.||”|
Classical rabbinical literature mentions the mountain having other names:
- Har ha-Elohim (הר האלהים), meaning the mountain of God or the mountain of the gods
- 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
- Har Gebnunim (הר גבנונים), meaning the mountain as pure as cheese
According to the Biblical account of the law-giving, Sinai was enveloped in a cloud, it quaked and was filled with smoke, while lightning-flashes shot forth, and the roar of thunder mingled with the blasts of a trumpet; the account later adds that fire was seen burning at the summit of the mountain. Several scholars have indicated that it seems to suggest that Sinai was a volcano, although there is no mention of ash; other scholars have suggested that the description fits a storm, especially as the Song of Deborah seems to allude to rain having occurred at the time.
In the Biblical account, the fire and clouds are a direct consequence of the arrival of God upon the mountain. The biblical description of God's descent superficially seems to be in conflict with the statement shortly after that God spoke to the Israelites from heaven; while textual scholars argue that these passages simply have come from different sources, the Mekhilta argues that God had lowered the heavens and spread them over Sinai, 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.
Modern scholars differ as to the exact geographical position of Mount Sinai, and the same has long been true of scholars of Judaism. The location intended would obviously have been known at some point, and 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, but there are no later biblical references to it that suggest the location remained known; Josephus only specifies that it was within Arabia Petraea, 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
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. (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. Nevertheless, Josephus had stated that Mount Sinai was the highest of all the mountains thereabout, which would imply that Mount Catherine was actually the mountain in question, if Sinai was to be sited on the Sinai peninsula at all; 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 AD, 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, 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. 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. 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. Mount Helal, in the north of the peninsula has also been proposed. On the north-east of the peninsula is a mountain named Hashem el-Tarif, which The Exodus Decoded (a James Cameron-produced History Channel special) suggested was the correct location because in addition to its geographic site, it also has certain other features that make it suitable; there is a cleft that overlooks a natural amphitheatre at which the Israelites could have been addressed by Moses; there is a nearby plateau on which the large numbers of Israelites could camp, with enough foliage for their flocks to graze; and there is evidence of an ancient spring at the top of the mountain.
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; the Kenites and Midianites appear to have resided east of the Gulf of Aqaba. Additionally, the Song of Deborah, which textual scholars consider one of the oldest parts of the Bible, portrays God as having dwelt at Mount Seir, and seems to suggest that this equates with Mount Sinai; 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; since then, as well as a number of scholars, a number of amateur investigators such as Graham Phillips, Andrew Collins, and Chris Ogilvie-Herald have also made the identification. The biblical description of a loud trumpet at Sinai fits the natural phenomena of the loud trumpeting sound caused by wind being funnelled down the Siq; the local Bedouins refer to the sound as the trumpet of God. The dramatic biblical descriptions of devouring fire on the summit, would fit with the fact that there have been many reports and sightings of plasma phenomena at al-Madhbah over the centuries; the pre-requisite that storm conditions exist before plasma phenomena usually occur would fit with the storm-like biblical description of thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud.
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; 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. 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.
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, Sigmund Freud, 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; Beke died during the following year, but 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. 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, and Colin Humphreys in 2003, among others.
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. Halfway between Kadesh Barnea and Petra is Jabal Ideid, 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 BC, the exodus is dated 15 Iyar 2448 (Hebrew calendar; 1313 BC), and the mountain appears to have been abandoned between 1950-1000 BC, Anati proposed that Jabal Idead was equatable with biblical Sinai. 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.
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- Book of Exodus
- Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
- Mount Gerizim
- Jebel Musa, a mountain in Morocco whose name translates as mountain of Moses
- Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
- Talmud, Pesachim 7a
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Peake's commentary on the Bible
- Yalkut (Psalms) 785
- Yalkut Isaiah 391
- Breslov—Judaism with Heart
- Harris, J. Rendel. "Sinai, Mount". in James Hastings. A Dictionary of the Bible.
- William Foxwell Albright (1957). From Stone Age to Christianity. Doubleday Anchor Book.
- http://books.google.com/books?id=JXwOAAAAQAAJ&pg=RA2-PR95&dq=%22koh-e-toor%22 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.
- http://books.google.com/books?id=ejkFAAAAMAAJ&q=%22koh-e-toor%22&dq=%22koh-e-toor%22&lr= 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.
- http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008%5C11%5C30%5Cstory_30-11-2008_pg12_12 From the Pakistani Daily Times, November 30, 2008, where the author indicates a translation of Koh-e-Toor to be Mount Sinai.
- Mekhilta on Exodus 20:22, 4
- Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer, 41
- "Sinai". New Advent, The Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14011a.htm.
- Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 2:12
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
- Menashe Har-El, The Sinai Journeys: The Route of the Exodus
- Ditlef Nielsen, The Site of the Biblical Mount Sinai – A Claim for Petra (1927)
- Andrew Collins & Chris Ogilvie-Herald, Mercy
- Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica, Hoshen
- Charles Beke, Mount Sinai, a Volcano (1873)
- Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (1939)
- Charles Beke (deceased), Sinai in Arabia and of Median (1878)
- Jean Koenig, Le site de Al-Jaw dans l'ancien pays de Madian
- Colin Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist's Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories
- Ex.16:1,7,13;Tal. Kid.38a
- Emmanuel Anati, The riddle of Mount Sinai : archaeological discoveries at Har Karkom (2001)
- Mount Sinai has been found: Archaeological discoveries at Har Karkom
- http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14011a.htm%7Cpublisher=New Advent, The Catholic Encyclopedia
- http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,808671,00.html The Lost Mountain, 1956-12-03, TIME