In Search of Mt. Sinai

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Excerpt Surprisingly, the location of Mt. Sinai, one of the most significant places in the Bible, is not known with any degree of certainty. Over the years some two dozen sites have been proposed, none of which meets the Biblical requirements. Continue reading

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This article was first published in the June 2007 ABR E-Newsletter.

The site favored by most scholars is Gebel Musa (Mountain of Moses), or one of several nearby mountains, in the high-mountain region of southern Sinai.

This problem is of utmost importance, since finding the correct location of Mt. Sinai is at the heart of the question of the historicity of the Exodus account. Scholars today largely discount the Biblical account of the sojourn in Egypt, Exodus and wilderness wanderings as fictional. They reach this conclusion because they say there is no concrete evidence that Israel ever was in Egypt or the Sinai.

The identification of Gebel Musa as Mt. Sinai is a Christian tradition originating in the fourth century. We have no preserved Jewish tradition for the location of Mt. Sinai. Thus, there is a gap of 1800 years between the receiving of the law on Mt. Sinai (1446 BC) and the beginning of the Christian tradition. What is more, there is no documentation in any Christian source as to why this particular mountain was chosen.

The only Jewish tradition we have concerning Mt. Sinai is that it is a low mountain (Babylonian Talmud and BaMidbar Rabbah). Gebel Musa, on the other hand, is very high (7,497 ft.). There are a number of other difficulties with a southern Sinai location for Mt. Sinai. To begin with, it is in the opposite direction from the Promised Land! Moreover, it is much too far from Midian (east of the Gulf of Aqaba) for Moses to have been shepherding Jethro's flocks there (Exod. 3:1). A third difficulty is that Mt. Sinai (also called Mt. Horeb) was located in the territory of Edom (Deut. 33:2, Judges 5:4; Hab. 3:3), which did not extend south of the north shore of the Gulf of Aqaba (Crew 2002). The most serious objection to the traditional location, however, is that it is too far from Kadesh Barnea for the Israelites with their livestock (Exod. 13:38) to have made the journey in 11 days (Deut. 1:2; Wood 2000: 99).

The Bible gives detailed information as to the stopping places of the Israelites on their way to, and after they left, Mt. Sinai, including travel times. But very few of the stopping places can be identified with confidence. It is possible, however, to determine the general area of Mt. Sinai from the Biblical data.

When Moses journeyed from Midian to Egypt in obedience to God (Exod.4:19–20), he would have traveled by way of the Trans-Sinai Highway, which goes from the northern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba across the Sinai Peninsula to the northern end of the Gulf of Suez. Back in Egypt, God appeared to Aaron and commanded him, "Go into the desert to meet Moses" (Exod. 4:27a). Aaron likewise would have traversed this same road since it was the most direct route from Egypt to Midian. And where did Aaron meet Moses? "So he met Moses at the Mountain of God and kissed him" (Exod. 4:27b). Therefore, we would expect the Mountain of God (= Mt. Sinai/Horeb) to be located somewhere along the Trans-Sinai Highway.

Based on the travel times given in the Old Testament (60 days from Rameses to the Desert of Sinai [Exod. 19:1; Num. 33:3] and 11 days from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh Barnea [Deut. 1:2]), and the rate of travel of the Israelites (5–7 mi per day [Wood 2000: 99]), Mt. Sinai should be toward the eastern end of the Trans-Sinai Highway. Interestingly, none of the previously proposed candidates are in this area—they are north, south, east or west!

In the TV documentary, The Exodus Decoded, first aired in the US in August 2006, the producers suggested that Gebel Khashm et-Tarif, located at the eastern end of the Trans-Sinai Highway (N 29º 40’ 15”, E 34º 37’ 30”), is the location of Mt. Sinai. In March 2007 a small team of ABR researchers spent two weeks in the Sinai to check the feasibility of this theory. Although further research is needed, our preliminary assessment is that the mountain fits the Biblical requirements very well:

1. It is located at the eastern end of the Trans-Sinai Highway (Exod. 4:20, 27).
2. It is located near Midian. Moses pastured the flock of Jethro at Sinai (Exod. 3:1) and Jethro and Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law, both visited Moses while he was at Mt. Sinai with the Israelites (Exod. 18:5; Num. 10:29–30).
3. It is in the right location­approximately two month’s journey from Rameses (Exod. 19:1; Num. 33:3), and 11 day’s journey from Kadesh Barnea (Deut. 1:2).
4. It is in the territory of Edom (Deut. 33:2, Judges 5:4; Hab. 3:3).

In addition to meeting these Biblical requirements, Gebel Khashm et-Tarif is a low mountain (2,870 ft.), in accordance with Jewish tradition. Israeli investigator Uzi Avner located 33 rectangular "open air sanctuaries"east and south of the mountain (1984: 120–21). Each one is ca. 25 x 50 size and comprised of a single row of stones. Religious shrines do not normally appear in such large numbers in a single location. They are typically individual structures with cultic material inside. No cultic material was found in association with the buildings at Gebel Khashm et-Tarif. A far more reasonable hypothesis is that the structures are domestic in nature, perhaps stones placed around the periphery of tents.


Gebel Khashm Et-Tarif: Could this be Mount Sinai?

During the brief visit of the ABR team in March 2007 we discovered five similar buildings south of the mountain, suggesting there are many more such structures in the vicinity. Are the buildings the remains of an ancient campsite? In order to postulate a connection between the buildings and the Israelites, it is necessary to demonstrate that they date to the time of the Exodus. Dating the buildings at Gebel Khashm et-Tarif will be a major objective of future ABR research.


Avner, Uzi
1984 Ancient Cult Sites in the Negev and Sinai Deserts. Tel Aviv 11: 115–31, Pls. 13–24.

Crew, Bruce R.
2002 Did Edom's Original Territories Extend West of the 'Wadi Arabah? Bible and Spade 15: 2–10.

Wood, Bryant G.
2000 Beneath the Surface: An Editorial Comment. Bible and Spade 13: 98–99.

Comments Comment RSS

9/24/2010 8:57 PM #

Thank you for the article. I was interested in knowing more about this after watching The Exodus Decoded.  

Justin - 9/24/2010 8:57:46 PM

6/4/2012 5:53 PM #

The article said, “only Jewish tradition we have concerning
Mt. Sinai is that it is a low mountain”

Both Philo and Josephus said it was the tallest
mountain in the area. “For, having gone up into
the highest and most sacred mountain in that district
in accordance with the divine commands, a mountain
which was very difficult of access and very hard
to ascend....” (Philo, On The Life Of Moses, 2:70)
“[T]aking his station at the mountain called Sinai, he
drove his flocks thither to feed them. Now this is the highest of all the mountains thereabout...”(Josephus, Antiquities, II, 12. 1)

They did not say it was the highest in the country
but “in that district” and “thereabout.” What Josephus
and Philo said, would eliminate the traditional Mount Sinai of
Mount Musa at 7,497 feet, for right by it is Mount Catherine
at 8,625 feet.

There is a passage in Legends of the Jews,
where a conversation takes place between mountains
who are arguing over which one should have
the honor to be chosen as the one that God would
descend upon. But the biggest mountains were
rejected because they were too “proud”, and so the
honor went to Mount Sinai, because it was portrayed
as being the smallest of mountains and therefore
more “humble.” At any rate, neither Josephus or Philo
(nor anyone else) got their information from talking mountains.  


Garry Matheny - 6/4/2012 5:53:08 PM

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