“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Apr. 1998, 32–33
Ray L. Huntington, assistant professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University.
Mount Sinai, or Horeb, is mentioned 14 times in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Scripturally, Sinai was the mountain where the Lord gave a number of important revelations to Moses and then to the Israelites following their miraculous exodus from Egyptian bondage. Among the revelations delivered on Mount Sinai were Moses’ prophetic calling to deliver Israel from Egypt (see Ex. 3–4); the Lord’s appearance amid earthquakes, thunder, lightning, fire, and smoke (see Ex. 19); the Lord’s recitation of the Ten Commandments (see Ex. 20; Deut. 5:4–5; Deut. 9:10); the Lord’s appearance to Moses and the 70 elders of Israel (see Ex. 24); Moses’ reception of the stone tablets (see Ex. 24); and the Lord’s instructions for the tabernacle (see Ex. 25–31). Thus, Mount Sinai is regarded in biblical studies as the Mount of God and the place of divine theophany and revelation (Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v. “Sinai, Mount”).
Yet despite the importance of Mount Sinai, or Horeb, in the Old Testament narrative, biblical scholars are not in agreement regarding the mountain’s location. Much of the confusion is due to a lack of geographical information in the biblical text. For example, Exodus simply informs us that Mount Sinai is in “the desert of Sinai” (see Ex. 19:2). This lack of geographical information is significant, for Mount Sinai was along the route traveled by the children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. But the book of Exodus also does not tell us where the Israelites miraculously crossed the Red Sea or in which direction they traveled once they were on the other side. Consequently, it is difficult to determine if Mount Sinai is, for example, in the north or south of the area we call the Sinai Peninsula or located in another region of the Middle East, such as Arabia. Thus, at least 20 different mountains in the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have been identified as possible locations for the mount of God. Religious and secular scholars typically refer to three specific geographical areas as probable locations for Mount Sinai: southeastern Sinai Peninsula, northwestern Sinai Peninsula, and northwestern Arabia. Let’s look briefly at each of these locales.
Southeastern Sinai Peninsula
According to the so-called traditional route of the Exodus, after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea they traveled in a southeasterly direction until arriving at a mountain traditionally identified as Jebel Musa, which is Arabic for the “mountain of Moses” (see site labeled “Mt. Sinai” on map 3 in the LDS edition of the King James Bible). Jebel Musa is an impressive mountain composed of granite stone and rising 7,500 feet above sea level. The traditional association of Jebel Musa with Mount Sinai dates back at least to the early fourth century A.D., when Helena, the mother of Constantine, erected a small church at the mountain’s base (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “Sinai, Mount”). But it was the practice of Helena to select sites based on Christian traditions predating her time. Therefore, the early Christian community may have linked Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula with Mount Horeb even before the fourth century A.D. The connection between Jebel Musa and Mount Sinai became firmly established when the Byzantine ruler Justinian (A.D. 527–65) replaced Helena’s church with Saint Catherine’s monastery (Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. “Sinai”).
Those who endorse the location of Mount Horeb in the southern region of the Sinai Peninsula often validate their claim by referring to Deuteronomy 1:2 [Deut. 1:2], which indicates that Horeb, or Mount Sinai, was an 11-day journey by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea, located in the northern Sinai Peninsula. This description is regarded as tending to favor a mountain in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. This site was made popular in Cecil B. DeMille’s movie The Ten Commandments.
Northwestern Sinai Peninsula
Yet according to other scholars, after leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea the children of Israel traveled in the northern region of the Sinai Peninsula. Those who accept the northern travel route usually place Mount Horeb near Kadesh-barnea, which was an important settlement for the Israelites during their 40 years in the Sinai wilderness. The mountains in this region usually identified with Mount Sinai or Horeb are Jebel Helal, located 25 miles west of the Kadesh oasis, and Har Karkom, situated between Kadesh-barnea and Eilat.
Scholars who favor Jebel Helal or Har Karkom as Mount Horeb often refer to the events described in Exodus 17 to bolster their claim. Shortly before arriving at Mount Horeb, the Israelites camped at a site called Rephidim (see Ex. 17:1). Because of the arid climate and lack of water at Rephidim, the Lord commanded Moses to smite the rock in Horeb, which miraculously provided water for the thirsty people (see Ex. 17:6). Following this miracle the name of the place was changed to Meribah, which is a Hebrew word meaning “to complain” (see Ex. 17:7). In a similar incident recorded in Numbers 20:1–13 [Num. 20:1–13], the Old Testament text locates Meribah within close proximity to Kadesh-barnea. Further, a passage in the book of Numbers also locates Meribah close to the area of Kadesh (see Num. 27:14). Thus, if Meribah, which was Israel’s last station prior to arriving at Mount Horeb, is in fact near the oasis we call Kadesh-barnea, it naturally follows that Mount Horeb would be located somewhere in the northern region of the Sinai Peninsula.
However, those who oppose the location of Mount Horeb in this area refer to the statement in Deuteronomy 1:2 [Deut. 1:2], which says that “there are eleven days’ journey from Horeb by way of mount Seir unto Kadesh-barnea.” Since Jebel Helal—the claimant for Mount Horeb for this position—is only 25 miles from Kadesh-barnea, which is hardly an 11-day journey, this mount’s location is not felt to be in full harmony with all of the Old Testament text.
According to the Apostle Paul—a knowledgeable student of the Old Testament and an apostolic servant of the Lord who lived 2,000 years closer to the historical event than we do—Mount Sinai is located in Arabia (see Gal. 4:25). In fact, some scholars have associated Mount Sinai with several large mountains in the northwest region of Saudi Arabia as well as mountains along the southern border of Jordan. Those who prefer this region as the site of Mount Horeb support their claim by pointing out that the land of Midian, which was the area Moses inhabited after marrying one of the daughters of Jethro, is to the north and west of the Gulf of Aqaba in what is now the country of Saudi Arabia (see map 3). Consequently, when Moses led his father-in-law’s flock to the mountain of God, or Sinai (see Ex. 3:1), it was in the Arabian territory of Midian and not in the Sinai Peninsula. A second argument for locating Mount Horeb in this region is derived from several poetic references in the Old Testament linking geographical locations in the area of northwestern Arabia with Mount Sinai or God’s symbolic home in the wilderness. For example, the book of Deuteronomy records, “The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir; … he shined forth from mount Paran” (Deut. 33:2). Seir is the mountainous region located in the territory of Edom, which was located northwest of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. In the song of Deborah and Barak, the Lord “wentest out of Seir,” and “marchedst out of the field of Edom. … The mountains melted from before the Lord, even that Sinai from before the Lord God of Israel” (Judg. 5:4–5). Similarly, the book of Habakkuk records that “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran” (Hab. 3:3). Teman, which means “south,” was another name for Edom or part of Edom (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. “Sinai”). Thus, a number of Old Testament references and a New Testament reference associate Mount Sinai, or God’s dwelling place, with locations in northwestern Arabia and the southern regions of Jordan.
Yet despite arguments that would place Mount Sinai in one geographical area over another, to date it has not been possible to locate it with any degree of certainty. No archaeological evidence has been found to sustain the claim of Jebel Musa in the southeast of the Sinai Peninsula, or to sustain Jebel Helal or Har Karkom in the northwest of the Sinai Peninsula, and the case is similar for possible candidates in northwest Saudi Arabia and southern regions of Jordan. Further, the text of the Old Testament does not give us enough information to clarify the matter. We know only that (1) Mount Sinai was an 11-day journey from Kadesh-barnea, (2) it was located in a desert called Sinai, and (3) the Apostle Paul said it was in a region referred to as Arabia.