Here is the third (and last) portion of the essay I wrote on Moses. Parts 1 & 2 were posted on June 21 and June 26. Click here to see the whole paper, including the footnotes.
Where Was Mount Sinai?
The traditional site for Mt. Sinai, also called Mt. Horeb, is the tallest mountain on the Sinai peninsula, called Jebel Musa by the Arabs. It was identified as the holy mountain by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, in the early fourth century A.D., after she came to the eastern Mediterranean lands, looking for evidence to back up the stories of the Bible. Consequently St. Catherine’s Monastery was built at the base of the mountain. The monastery’s extremely remote location has ensured that it would survive wars and other man-made upheavals, so today it is the oldest Christian monastery in the world that is still active with monks. Over seventeen centuries, the word of St. Helena and the presence of the monastery has convinced most Christians that Jebel Musa is the mountain that Moses stood on, first when he saw the burning bush, then when he received the Ten Commandments. Centuries later, the prophet Elijah fled to Mt. Sinai to escape the evil Queen Jezebel, so we know that the Israelites knew where the mountain was, for quite some time after they left the site.
The traditional route of the Exodus.
(A thumbnail, click on the picture to see it full size in a separate window.)
Not all theologians are satisfied with that, though. Some believe that because the Israelites eventually wandered east of the Sinai peninsula before entering the Promised Land, a location for the mountain in the Negev, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia should be considered. Others have suggested that Mt. Sinai must be a volcano, because of the lights, noise and flames on the peak, while Moses was there. Since the late nineteenth century, more than a dozen mountains have been nominated as alternate candidates for Mt. Sinai.
In 1989 Ron Wyatt, an archaeologist and adventurer, published a book claiming the Durupinar mound in eastern Turkey was Noah’s Ark. In the book, he also claimed to have identified Jebel al-Lawz, a mountain in northwestern Saudi Arabia, as the correct Mt. Sinai. This meant that if he was right, then the Gulf of Aqaba, and not the Gulf of Suez or the “bitter lakes” that existed before the Suez Canal was dug, was the place where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Shortly after that two other adventurers, Larry Williams and Bob Cornuke, went to Saudi Arabia to examine the evidence for themselves, and they came back as believers in the Arabian site. Cornuke wrote an exciting story of that trip, which involved trouble with the Saudi authorities and secret military installations; it sounded like a real-life Indiana Jones expedition. Because readers always like a good story, Cornuke and his associates usually get the credit for the Jebel al-Lawz theory, and it has been popular ever since.
On January 24, 2004, I attended a seminar held by the British archaeologist David Rohl, in Clearwater, Florida. Most of the seminar was a lecture with a slide show, covering the material in his first book, Pharaohs and Kings. You can see and hear the lecture and slides on the DVD set available here. The only part of the seminar not shown on the DVDs was the question & answer session at the end. In his presentation, Rohl did not talk much about the route taken by the Israelites through the wilderness, except for their first steps, which he traced carefully enough to pinpoint a location for the Red Sea crossing. From what I saw on his maps, I got the impression that he follows the route accepted by most Bible scholars, going mostly through the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, with Jebel Musa as Mt. Sinai. Though he did not talk about Mt. Sinai’s location, at least half the questions asked had to do with the “Mt. Sinai in Arabia” theory. That astonished me, and let me know how popular this theory really is. Rohl’s answer was that the only thing Jebel al-Lawz has going for it is that it is a burnt mountain, which you would expect if God was on top of it for forty days. As for the petroglyphs of cattle carved nearby, Rohl did not think those were cult images of the Golden Calf, because he has seen plenty of rock art like that in Egypt’s eastern desert.
Never call me trendy, and I have problems that keep me from accepting the Mt. Sinai = Jebel al-Lawz equation, which can be grouped into two categories. The first is the credibility of its proponents, the second is how it ignores the distances involved in the journey.
1. Credibility: As I read Ron Wyatt’s book, I thought he was onto something when he was looking for the Ark, but the rest of what he wrote seemed too good to be true. Among other things, he claimed to have discovered brimstone that fell on Sodom & Gomorrah; the secret to how the Egyptians built the pyramids; chariot wheels in the Gulf of Aqaba; the burial crypts of Amorite giants; the Ark of the Covenant; and the exact location of the spot where Jesus was crucified. Just one of those discoveries would make an archaeologist famous, and if Wyatt really found all of them, he would have been remembered as the luckiest archaeologist of all; by comparison, the gold of Troy and the treasures of Tutankhamen aren’t very meaningful. Wyatt promised a series of books, each one focused on one of his other discoveries, but he died of cancer before he got around to publishing them. Alas, even a fundamentalist like me can only believe so much. I may have been born in the night, but it wasn’t last night!
Another proponent of the theory I can think of is Dr. Lennart Moller, a Swedish author who wrote The Exodus Case: New Discoveries of the Historical Exodus. The book has enough gorgeous photographs inside to make you feel like you are looking at a National Geographic, and it has gained admirers just for its cool appearance. However, in the name of proving that Jebel al-Lawz is the correct mountain and that evidence for the Exodus exists, Moller also twists the accepted history of ancient Egypt until it is barely recognizable as Egyptian history. For example, he puts forth the theory that the XVIII dynasty pharaohs called Thutmose or Hatshepsut before they were crowned, and Amenhotep afterwards. In addition, he suggests that many Egyptians were really Israelites under other names. Thus, Joseph becomes Imhotep, the builder of the first pyramid, and Moses becomes Thutmose II. I guess that means I saw the body of Moses and didn’t know it, when I was in the mummy room of the Cairo Museum. Sorry, but I find such alterations too confusing to wrap my brain around them, and for me they create more problems than they solve. If I can’t understand what somebody is saying, how can I believe it?
2. Mileage Figures: Although the Bible has detailed information on the journey, today’s scholars have a hard time making sense of it. You can go to Numbers 33 for a list of every campsite, but almost none of those names can be pinpointed on a map; the main one we know for sure is Kadesh-Barnea, at the entrance to the Negev. Nor are any figures in miles or kilometers given for the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. The only way distance is measured is by how many days it took to go from “Point A” to “Point B.”
The first such figure appears in Exodus 3:18 and 5:3, when Moses asks Pharaoh for permission to let the Israelites journey into the wilderness for three days, to perform sacrifices. Presumably this was how long it took Moses to travel from Mt. Sinai to Egypt, after he saw the burning bush. However, the Israelites would have traveled much slower over the same distance, for reasons explained below. Indeed, the commandment given to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days is usually taken as a sign that it took seven days just to get out of Egypt. Later on, we read that it takes eleven days to go from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh-Barnea (Deuteronomy 1:2), so the holy mountain needs to be within range of that campsite, too.
We have a solid figure from the first campaign of Thutmose III, the greatest conqueror of Egypt’s XVIII dynasty. According to him, it took nine or ten days for his army to march from the fortress at Sile to Gaza, a distance of 150 miles. This works out to a little over fifteen miles a day.. Of course the chariots could go faster, but when they weren’t fighting, they had to advance at a slow pace so the foot soldiers and supply wagons could keep up with them. This alone rules out Jebel Musa as a candidate for Mt. Sinai, because it is 200 miles from the Suez Canal. Only an army with 100 percent of its soldiers riding on horseback, like the Huns or the Mongols, could think of 200 miles as a three-day journey.
Okay, if a bronze age army can be expected to go fifteen miles a day, how fast would a horde of civilians go? Well, an ordinary man in good health can also be expected to hike fifteen miles a day, if he is on a road or otherwise following favorable terrain. Unfortunately, the Bible specifically says the Israelites avoided the main road, the “Way of the Philistines” along the Sinai peninsula’s northern coast, so the path they took would have been off the roads, and they would have been slowed down by obstacles like deep sand. In addition, the group included women, children, old and sick adults, and livestock-all of them would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to go fifteen miles in a day. Finally, they would have stayed for days at any decent campsite; the Bible says it took them more than a month to cover the distance Moses covered by himself in three days. From my own travels, I learned that a group moves at the speed of its slowest member, so it’s safe to say these families of ex-slaves would have gone much slower than fifteen miles a day. Modern Bedouin families have been reported traveling an average of six miles a day on their migrations, and because the Israelites were living like Bedouins in the wilderness, we can also give them a speed of six miles a day.
Okay, here are the speed figures we have so far. In miles per day:
- Bedouins = 6
- Individuals on foot, or a typical bronze age army = 15
- Barbarians on horseback = about 60
Because the Strait of Tiran, the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, is 350 miles from the Suez Canal, all Arabian mountains are too far away to be Mt. Sinai. Add another seventy miles from Tiran to Jebel al-Lawz, and the distance becomes 420 miles. Not even Genghis Khan’s messenger could cover that distance in three days!
Nor can the distance be shortened by declaring that the Israelites started from somewhere in the Sinai. Today the Sinai peninsula is Egyptian territory, but for most of history it was not considered part of Egypt. The Egyptians went there to mine copper and turquoise, but they never wanted to live there, and most of the workers were slaves and prisoners, because working conditions in the mines were appalling. Before the twentieth century, nobody built cities in the Sinai. A home in such a place, even at an oasis, would have been about as appealing as living on a modern-day offshore oil rig. Though Egypt has been described as the world’s biggest sandbox, the Egyptians have always been river-dwellers, not desert people; 96 percent of Egypt’s population lives on 4 percent of the land–the part that is not desert. Also remember that when Jacob and his family came into Egypt, Pharaoh invited them to settle on the best land, in the eastern Nile delta. Nowhere in the Biblical account does it say that the Israelites were relocated to the Sinai, before Moses led them on the Exodus. Likewise, the two cities that the Israelites built in Exodus 1, Pithom and Raamses, have been identified with Tell er-Retaba and Tell ed-Daba; again, both sites are in the eastern Nile delta. And when the pharaohs decided that Egypt needed stronger defenses, they built canals, walls and forts where the Suez Canal runs today, which defended the Nile valley but not the Sinai. The only place in the Sinai where the Egyptians built forts was along the previously mentioned “Way of the Philistines.”
For more on the problems that come with putting Mt. Sinai in Arabia, see these pages by Gordon Franz and Brad Sparks.
Okay, so where do I think Mt. Sinai was? Forget Jebel Musa, and forget Jebel al-Lawz. My conclusion is that because the Israelites didn’t have any special transportation to speed them up, Mt. Sinai has to be in the northern half of the Sinai peninsula. A mountain in this area can be reached in the time the Bible says it took to get there, and will also be between 66 and 165 miles (an eleven-day journey) from Kadesh-Barnea. Therefore I favor the theories of Menashe Har-El, an Israeli professor who explored the Sinai during the years when Israel held it (1967-82), and retraced the steps of the Exodus while taking the mileage figures into account.
Menashe Har-El found a good spot for the Red Sea crossing among the previously mentioned “bitter lakes”; he points out that the Hebrew verison of the Old Testament does not say “Red Sea” but Yam Suf, meaning “Sea of Reeds,” and because reeds do not grow in salt water, this must mean the Israelites really crossed a lake of fresh or brackish water. Once in the Sinai, he found places for the first three campsites, Marah, Elim and Rephidim, that fit the descriptions given in Exodus. Rephidim is in the Wadi Suder, a dry riverbed that is the first convenient way to go inland, after leaving Egypt and the Gulf of Suez. Exodus 17:6 gives us a clue because there God says to Moses, “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb,” meaning that Mt. Horeb-Sinai must be visible from Rephidim. Sure enough, there is one imposing mountain you can see from there, a 2,000-foot-high peak called Sinn Bishr. Sinn Bishr is an Arabic name, which appropriately can mean either “the announcement of the law” or “the laws of man.” The distance from the Suez Canal to Sinn Bishr is 45-55 miles, depending on your route–close enough for a three-day journey on foot if you push yourself.
A map showing Dr. Har-El’s proposed Exodus route, including his Mt. Sinai, Sinn Bishr. Source: Secrets of the Past, by the editors of Reader’s Digest, New York, Berkley Books, 1980, pg. 223.
So has the real Mt. Sinai been found? Because more than three thousand years have passed since the original story, I don’t think we’ll find proof that can convince everybody. And because Sinn Bishr is not the highest mountain that has been called Mt. Sinai, I suspect that for the foreseeable future, many people will stick to the candidates they prefer, especially Jebel Musa. But then, who said that truth has to be more spectacular than fiction?