Where is Mt. Sinai? And does it matter? The second question is easier to answer than the first. If God’s giving the Ten Commandments to Moses there is a historical event then yes, wanting to attach a genuine geographical location to the mountain makes sense. But finding Mt. Sinai presents a problem different from locating the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Unlike those two holy sites, Mt. Sinai’s exact location isn’t attested by any clear tradition among the people you would expect to be most likely to remember — that is, the people whose ancestors actually stood at Sinai for the occasion, the Jews.
The famous “Mt. Sinai,” called Jebel Musa, in the southern Sinai Peninsula is known from Christian, not Jewish, tradition. It’s popular with modern tourists who hike up to see dawn break. Bible scholars have sought to identify other mountains in the Sinai as the true Mt. Sinai, but these have no traditional backing at all. You would think that if the Sinai event really happened, then somewhere, somehow, the Jews themselves would have kept a memory of its location preserved.
Well, maybe they did. Imagine you knew nothing about later scholarly opinions on the question. What if you were simply handed a Bible and some of the more prominent Jewish traditional sources, ancient and medieval, that explain the Biblical text. Let’s say you had a map in front of you with the important surrounding countries and geographical features, including their ancient names, printed on it. You have Egypt, for example, on one side of the Sinai peninsula. And you have Midian, today’s northwest Saudi Arabia, on the other. The Sinai peninsula is framed on its south, by the Gulf of Suez to the west and the Gulf of Aqaba to the east, like two fingers raised in a victory sign.
Midian is the country where Moses fled from Pharaoh when the Egyptian king sought his life. When the English explorer Richard Burton visited in 1877, he reports the inhabitants still called the place Arz Madyan, the land of Midian. In Midian, Moses met his father-in-law, Jethro, and his wife, Zipporah. He lived there for 40 years before returning to Egypt to lead the Jews out to freedom. He was living there too when he first encountered God in the burning bush on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, the “mountain of God.” Many of the Hebrew prophets were shepherds, and so was Moses. The Bible relates that in search of pasture, he lead his flock into the “backcountry” of the wilderness, which is where Sinai was. The King James Version gives a good rendition: “Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb” (Exodus 3:1).
Shepherds can be long-distance wanderers. But from Midian to the familiar Mt. Sinai would be an extremely long walk to take, all by yourself in a fierce uninhabited wilderness, with your family’s flock entrusted to you. It would require you to go all the way up and around the Gulf of Aqaba before descending on the other side and only then proceeding across the peninsula to “Mt. Sinai.” Why bother?
It’s for that reason among others that recent research suggests the true Sinai is not in the peninsula known now by that name but, instead, in today’s Saudi Arabia. Though the idea is controversial, a straightforward reading of the Bible and Biblical tradition would lead you to exactly that conclusion.
In describing Moses’ experience at the burning bush, the book of Exodus (3:1) intimates that Mt. Sinai was at least convenient to Midian. After that experience, God speaks to Moses again, in Midian, and tells him the time is right to return to Egypt and lead his people to freedom, since Pharaoh, who wanted to kill Moses, has himself died. On the way back, Moses meets his brother Aaron at “the mountain of God” (4:27), namely Sinai. We learn from this that the mountain was en route to Egypt. It was along the way — something that is not true of Jebel Musa. Meeting at the more familiar “Mt. Sinai” would have taken both Moses and Aaron on a wildly inconvenient and dangerous detour. It’s especially hard to picture them doing so when you consider that God had just instructed Moses the time was right now to free the Jews.
Is there a mountain en route to Egypt from Midian that suggests itself as a likelier candidate? The first-century Jewish historian Josephus clearly indicates there was. In his history of the Jews, Jewish Antiquities, he writes of Midian, or Madian in Greek, as a “city.” The mountain of God and of the burning bush, writes Josephus, was “the highest of the mountains in this region.” The Greek Egyptian geographer Ptolemy, who lived at the same time as Josephus, clarifies that Madian was on the east side of the Gulf of Aqaba, opposite the southern Sinai peninsula. The ruins of Madian are identified with al-Bad’ in Saudi Arabia. Local traditions there too associate the place with Jethro and Moses. You can even visit what’s said to be the “Cave of Jethro.” Such traditions are no more and no less credible than the Christian tradition, publicized in the 4rd century by the Emperor Constantine’s mother, that identifies Sinai with Jebel Musa.
The highest mountain in the region, and convenient to al-Bad’, is Jebel el-Lawz. Not coincidentally, the Saudi government has fenced the mountain off against foreign visitors seeking to substantiate its connection with Moses and the Exodus. It happens to be just east of the road you would take from Jethro’s Midian around the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba on your way by the most direct route to Egypt. In ancient times that route was called the Way of the Wilderness. It goes nowhere near the conventionally identified Mt. Sinai. By contrast, Jebel el-Lawz is on the way to Egypt, for Moses, and on the way to Midian, for Aaron. It could well have been the mountain in whose shadow the two brothers met and where Moses first met God.
The Biblical narrative gives us another clue when it tells how Jethro visited the Jews in the wilderness. This was after the Exodus, after the children of Israel had miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds. Jethro appears and is greeted by Moses. Jethro gives his son-in-law some sound advice about sharing leadership responsibilities, and then takes his leave. He speaks of returning “to his land” (Exodus 18:27). That is just before the Israelites encamp at the mountain of God to receive the Torah.
Interestingly, we find Jethro taking his leave on a later occasion, in the book of Numbers, soon after God had given the signal to the Jews to pick up and leave Sinai for their journey to Israel. Their first stop is the wilderness of Paran. Jethro on this second occasion says goodbye once more, seeking Moses’ agreement that he should return “to my land and to my family” (10:30). Both of these statements may sound as if his land were far away — after all, it seems to be in a different “land” from Sinai.
The literal meaning of the Biblical verses may sound that way but ancient Jewish explanatory traditions, midrash, suggest otherwise. So does common sense. The midrash called Mechiltah, on Exodus, and the midrash called Sifrei, on Numbers explain that on his first leaving-taking, Jethro intended to convert the rest of his Midianite family, encouraging them to join the Jewish people at Sinai. Presumably he did not intend to miss the revelation at the mountain of God. He meant to be back quickly, in time for the great event. His second leaving-taking, after the giving of the Torah, was for a different but related reason. Returning “to my land and to my family” should really be translated “for my land and for my family.” (The Hebrew preposition, el, is used similarly elsewhere in the Bible.) He meant to sell his real estate and gather his family members. We know from the later Biblical narrative, in the book of Judges, that Jethro’s family in fact did rejoin the Jews and settle in Israel in the city of Jericho.
Far from indicating that Mt. Sinai was distant from Midian, Jethro’s making these repeated back-and-forth trips between Sinai and Midian tells us the two places were, once again, convenient to each another. Jebel el-Lawz fits that criterion. The better known Jebel Musa doesn’t. Nor do any of the other suggested Sinais.
Later Jewish commentators on the Bible amplify the point. Rashi, the preeminent medieval rabbinic sage who explained the details of the Bible in great detail based on much older sources, transmits both of these midrashic explanations of Jethro’s reasons for making his trips between Sinai and Midian. Another great commentator, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, called Ramban, devoted care to matters of geography. Ramban lived in Spain in the 13th century but migrated to Israel at the end of his life and added to his Torah commentary in light of physical facts about the land of Israel that he only discovered on having moved there. He writes explicitly (on Exodus 4:27) that “Mt. Sinai is between Egypt and Midian” and (on 18:1), “It is possible that [Jethro] went there [back to Midian] to convert his family to Judaism, and he returned to Moses while [Moses] was still at Mt. Sinai, for it is close to Midian.”
If these Biblical and extra-Biblical sources mean what they seem to mean, then that also helps us answer a related question about geography. With Mt. Sinai located in Saudi Arabia, the Israelites’ passage of the Sea of Reeds, the Yam Suph, can be pictured in a more suitable spot than as imagined by many Bible scholars. They prefer to see it as having happened, if it did happen, at a lake or lagoon by Egypt’s eastern border — Lake Timsah, Lake Balah, the Bitter Lakes. This is a disappointing and improbable spot for a miracle that God meant to cap the Exodus from Egypt in a most spectacular way, as the ecstatic Song of the Sea in Exodus makes clear.
The book of Exodus describes the Jews as having allowed themselves to be trapped by Pharaoh’s army, crying out in terror because, between the water and the Egyptian chariots, they have no route of escape. In front of a lake, and a fairly shallow one at that? Why not just go around it?
In fact, the Bible is unambiguous that Yam Suph was a much more awesome body of water than just a lake. The first book of Kings relates that King Solomon anchored his fleet on the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds, near Eilat (9:26). The city of Eilat is easily identified in Israel today. It’s a popular beach resort as well as being Israel’s port city. It’s at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. The Gulf of Aqaba can lay a strong claim on being the Biblical Sea of Reeds. A lake in Egypt can’t make such a claim.
So here is the likeliest interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish traditional explanations of it. In the Exodus, the Jews left Pharaoh’s land and crossed the peninsula that is today erroneously called Sinai. Pursued by the Egyptian army, they miraculously crossed through the Gulf of Aqaba, perhaps at a gently sloping underwater land bridge, known to divers who have investigated there, which begins at Nuweiba in ancient times on the west side of the Gulf. The children of Israel then proceeded in good time to Mt. Sinai — in today’s S