The Biblical Narrative
The mountain of God is first mentioned when God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush. God told Moses "when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain" (Ex. 3:12), but in this tradition the mountain is called Horeb (e and d prefer "Horeb" to the "Sinai" of j and p). Elsewhere in the Torah we read that the People of Israel encamped at the foot of the mountain called Sinai, from the third month after the Exodus until the 20th of the second month of the second year (Ex. 19:1–Num. 10:11). While the people prepared themselves during three days for the theophany (divine manifestation; according to later Jewish tradition this was seven weeks after the Exodus), Moses set up a boundary line beyond which approach was prohibited under penalty of death, and himself ascended the mountain. On the third day God descended upon the mountain and uttered the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20; Deut. 5). He also gave Moses many more laws and ordinances for the people. Moses built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up 12 stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel (Ex. 24). Moses, *Aaron, *Nadab, *Abihu, and 70 of the *elders of Israel then went up the mountain, where they saw the God of Israel. Mt. Sinai was then enveloped in a cloud for six days, while fire burnt on its summit. On the seventh day Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Tablets of the Law, remaining there for 40 days and nights. During his absence the people, led by Aaron, erected the *golden calf (Ex. 32). Moses returned, accompanied by his servant *Joshua, and angrily broke the stone tablets. Later he returned to the mountain and received the second tablets, as well as many other laws concerning different aspects of life, and the instructions for the erection of the *Tabernacle (Ex. 35ff.).
Mt. Sinai is regarded in biblical theology as the place of divine revelation and is often mentioned in the poetical passages describing theophany (Deut. 33:2; Judg. 5:5; Ps. 68:9, 18); when *Elijah sought God he went to the Mount of God, Horeb (i Kings 19:8). No other narrative of pilgrimage to this mountain is found in the Bible. Noth suggested that Numbers 33 is actually a "pilgrims' itinerary to Mt. Sinai in reverse." Since the mountain was called "The Mount of God" even before God's revelation to Moses, scholars have assumed that it was a place of worship even before the Hebrews came to it.
In its present context in the Pentateuch the tradition of Mt. Sinai is closely interwoven with that of the Exodus. Since the study of G. von Rad (1938), scholars tend to agree that this pericope originally formed a separate element in what Christian scholars call Heilsgeschichte, "History of Salvation." According to biblical scholars, the description of the events at Mt. Sinai does not reflect a historical occurrence; in fact it is a miracle tale adjudged by some to be a liturgical narrative (Festlegende) belonging to an ancient Festival of the *Covenant (berit). In Judges 5:5, the Hebrew god is called "Yahwehof-Sinai" (Cross) unconnected to either covenant or revelation of the law. The same holds for the ancient poem Deut. 33:2–5, 26–28 (the remaining verses are later; see Seeligmann).
There is no Jewish tradition of the geographical location of Mt. Sinai; it seems that its exact location was obscure already in the time of the monarchy (B. Mazar, and see below). Rabbinical literature was always more concerned with the contents and ideas of the Torah than with the question of where it was given. The Christian hermits and monks, mostly from Egypt, who settled in southern Sinai from the second century c.e. on, made repeated efforts to identify the localities of the Exodus with actual places to which the believers could make their way as pilgrims. The identification of Mt. Sinai either with Jebel Sirbāl near the oasis of Fīrān (Paran; Nilus, Cosmas Indicopleustes), or with Jebel Mūsā, can be traced back as far as the fourth century c.e. At the foot of Jebel Mūsā, the location of Mt. Sinai which came to prevail, the monks built a church and tower (Etheria) on the spot which they believed to be the place of the burning bush. In the sixth century c.e. Justinian added a fortress/monastery which, from the tenth century on has been connected with the legend and relics of St. Catherine of Alexandria. In spite of the gap between the biblical period and the rise of these traditions, they were accepted by many scholars, such as E. Robinson and E.H. Palmer.
In the 19th century an opinion arose that the description of the theophany on Mt. Sinai reflects a volcanic eruption. Since no volcanoes were active in historical times in the Sinai Peninsula, scholars removed the location of Mt. Sinai to the Arabian Peninsula. This seemed to fit in well with other data about the wanderings, such as the identification of Elim Elath, and the close connection of the Midianites who inhabited Arabia's west coast, with the story of the Exodus (Gal. 4:25 "For this Hagar Sina is a mountain in Arabia"). Although most modern scholars reject the theory that most of the wanderings took place in Arabia, it was maintained that Mt. Sinai is in Arabia by some (M. Noth, O. Eissfeldt, J. Koenig, H. Gese). Comparisons of the descriptions of theophanies in Ancient Near Eastern literature show that the appearance of the divinity on a mountain top with thunder and fire is a common element. Therefore there is no need to connect the theophany on Mt. Sinai with an actual volcanic eruption
If the location of Mt. Sinai is inseparable from the route of the Exodus, all that remains to be done is to find a prominent mountain along one of the three main routes alternatively proposed for the Exodus. Those who hold that the route passed through the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula identify Mt. Sinai with Jebel Halāl (or Ḥalāl), Jebel Ya'allaq, or Jebel Maghāra. Advocates of the route through the central region of Sinai suggest Jebel Sinn Bishr. The hypothesis of a southern route proposes the identification of Mt. Sinai with one of the many lofty peaks in the southern mountain range, such as Jebel Sirbāl, Jebel Mūsā, Jebel Katherina, Jebel Um Shomar, etc. If, however, the historic-traditional conclusion that the account of the Exodus and the tradition of Mt. Sinai were originally independent is accepted, there is no necessity to bring Mt. Sinai in geographical relation with the route of the Exodus. The Torah is shaped by the ideology that a unified nation of Israel entered the promised land with a complete set of laws that it received in the "land that no human passed through" (Jer. 2:6), taking nothing of the "practice of the land of Egypt … and the practice of the land of Canaan" (Lev. 18:3).
There are very few data by which one could locate the holy mountain. Even if Yahweh was originally associated with a specific southern mountain or mountains, as indicated in the ancient traditions of Deut 33, Judges 5, and Habakkuk 3, the multiple traditions surviving in the Pentateuch make an identification impossible (see above). The distance of a three-day journey from Egypt (Ex. 5:3) is not a criterion, not only because Moses might have understated his real objective, but mainly because this would mean deriving an actual geographical distance from a literary formula, the three days being a typological number. The same applies to the distance of 40 days from Beer-Sheba (i Kings 19:8). The only indication of distance seems to be Deuteronomy 1:2: "Eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-Barnea by the Mount Seir route"; but this itself is not enough to make even a plausible suggestion.
[Ora Lipschitz /
S. David Sperling]
In recent years E. Anati has attempted to identify Mount Sinai at Har Karkom in the Negev Desert on the modern border between Egypt and Israel; his identification has not won many supporters, even though he has unearthed unusual finds at the site.
[Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]
In the Aggadah
The world is firmly established by virtue of two holy mountains, Moriah and Sinai (Mid. Ps. to 87:1). Had Israel not stood before Mount Sinai, the world would long have collapsed and been reduced to chaos (Ruth R. Proem 1). This mountain had five names: the mountain of God, Bashan, Gavnunim, Horeb, and Sinai (Ex. R. 2:4). Others say that it had three names: the mountain of God, because there God made known His Divinity; Sinai, because there He rejected (sana, שנא; lit. "hated") the celestials (He did not give them the Torah) and showed His love for the terrestrials (men, by giving them the Torah); Horeb, because the Torah, called ḥerev ("sword," Ps. 149:6) was given there (Ex. R. 51:8). Another interpretation given of the name is that from there "sinah ["hatred," i.e., for the Jewish people] descended to the world" (Shab. 89a).
The mountains quarreled for the honor of having the Torah given on them, but God declared: "Sinai is the only mountain on which no idolatry has been practiced; therefore it alone is fit for the honor" (Gen. R. 99:1). Another reason is that Sinai alone modestly assumed that it was too low to expect the honor; therefore God chose it (Num. R. 13:3). He therefore brought down the upper and the lower heavens and spread them over Sinai, like a bedspread over a bed (Mekh. to Ex. 19:20), and He came from Sinai to welcome Israel like a bridegroom goes out to welcome his bride (ibid., Yitro 19:17).
God caused Sinai to tower menacingly over the children of Israel and said to them: "If you accept the Torah, it will be well with you; if not, here will be your burial" (Shab. 88a). When they accepted it, the lasciviousness with which the primeval serpent had infected mankind left them (ibid., 146a), and when they proclaimed at Sinai, "'We will do and we will listen' (Ex. 24:7), they were vouchsafed the luster of the heavenly Shekhinah" (pr 21:101a). Further, there were no unclean persons or lepers, no lame, blind, deaf or dumb, imbeciles or fools, and there was no dissension among them (Song R. 4:7 No. 1). Every day a bat kol ("heavenly voice") proclaims from Mount Horeb: "Woe to men for slighting the Torah" (Avot 6:2).
C.T. Beke, Mt. Sinai a Volcano (1873); idem, Sinai in Arabia and of Midian (1878); H. Gressmann, Mose und seine Zeit (1913), 409–19; W.J. Phythian Adams, in: pefqs (1930), 135–49, 192–209; idem, in: jpos, 12 (1932), 86–104; M. Noth, in: pjb, 36 (1940), 5–28; G. Hoelscher, in: Festschrift… R. Bultman (1949), 127–32; J. Koenig, in: rhpr, 43 (1963), 2–31; 44 (1964) 200–35; idem, in: rhr, 167 (1965), 129–55; W. Beyerlin, Origins and History of the Oldest Sinaitic Traditions (1965); G. von Rad, in: Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (1966), 11–78; H. Gese, in: bzaw, 105 (1967), 81–94. add. bibliography: F. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (1973), 147–94; I.L. Seeligmann, Studies in Biblical Literature (1992), 189–204; G. Davies, in: abd, 6:47–49; A. Rainey and R. Notley, The Sacred Bridge (2006), 120; M. Har-El, The Sinai Journeys: The Route of the Exodus in the Light of the Historical Geography of the Sinai Peninsula (1973); E. Anati, Har Karkom: The Mountain of God (1986); U. Dahari, "The Monastic Center Around Mount Sinai," in: Monastic Settlements in South Sinai in the Byzantine Period: The Archeological Remains (2000), 25ff. (with comprehensive bibliography on Mount Sinai in later sources). in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index.
The mountain of revelation, called Mt. horeb in the Deuteronomic source, where Moses received the revelation of the Law and the people of Israel entered into solemn covenant with Yahweh. It is traditionally located at the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula.
The origin and meaning of the name Sinai (Heb. sînai ) is uncertain. Some scholars connect it with the Hebrew word s eneh, which is translated as bush in the account of the vision that Moses had of the bush that was aflame but not consumed by the fire (Ex 3.1–4). Actually, in this passage the place of the vision is not called Sinai, but "Horeb, the mountain of God." Other suggestions are that the name Sinai is connected with that of the Babylonian moon-god Sin or that it is related to the Desert of Sin to the northeast. Not only the mountain but the surrounding desert is called Sinai in the Old Testament. The name is now used also for the peninsula or triangle of desert land that lies between the south of Palestine, the Suez arm of the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aqaba. This peninsula, an area of about 10,000 square miles, was the scene of most of the 40-year wandering of the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt. At its southern point is a group of dominating peaks, the highest of which are Jebel Serbāl (6,759 feet), Jebel Katerîn (8,652 feet), Jebel Mûsā (7,497 feet). The Egyptians considered these mountains sacred from antiquity.
Although most scholars agree that the traditional identification of Mt. Sinai with Jebel Mûsā (Mountain of Moses), attested as early as c. a.d. 400 by the pilgrim Silvia, is correct, the location has been doubted by some. Because of Moses' dealings with the Madianites and because of the volcanic activity of the mountain El Bedr in Madianite territory to the east of the Gulf of Aqaba, J. Garstang identified Sinai with this mountain. J. Wellhausen, relying on his interpretation of Dt 33.2, "The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us," as well as for other reasons drawn from literary criticism, put the place of the revelation of the Law at Cades, and not at Sinai. Some, therefore, have identified Mt. Sinai with Jebel Helal, a hill to the west of Cades. Most scholars, however, agree on regarding Rās es-Ṣafṣafeh (6,937 ft),
one of the twin peaks of Jebel Mûsā, as the mountain of the Ten Commandments. Rās es-Ṣafṣafeh accords well with the data found in Exodus. The mile-and-a-half plain at the foot of the mountain would have been ideal for the year's encampment that the Israelites, with their herds and flocks, made at Sinai.
In the 6th century, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great had the Monastery of St. Catherine built on the shady northern slope of Jebel Mûsā, the traditional site of the burning bush. This monastery, with its ancient manuscripts and priceless works of art, still remains as a relic of an age long passed. Because of the monastery's isolation, its icons escaped the iconoclastic ravages of the 8th century. Its collection of manuscripts, more than 3,000 of them, are written in Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, Slavonic, and other languages. The renowned Bible manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the 4th century, was found there by C. Tischendorf in 1844.
Bibliography: g. e. wright, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville 1962) 4:376–378. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 2232–33. m. j. lagrange, "Le Sinaï biblique," Revue Biblique 8 (1899) 369–392. f. m. abel, Géographie de la Palestine, 2 v. (Paris 1933–38) 1:391–396. d. baly, The Geography of the Bible (New York 1957) 5–6. e. g. kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas (2d ed. New York 1962) 107–113. m. du buit, Géographie de la Terre Sainte (Paris 1958) 111–115. g. h. forsyth, "Island of Faith in the Sinai Wilderness," National Geographic Magazine 125 (1964) 82–106.