Mount Sinai

SINAI, MOUNT sī’ nī, sī’ nĭ ī (סִינַ֥י; LXX Σ(ε, G1567) ινα; meaning uncertain though miry, clayey, shiny have been suggested; also חֹרֵֽב, LXX Χωρηβ). The name of the sacred mountain before which Israel encamped and upon which Moses communicated with Yahweh. In the Bible, the name occurs almost exclusively in the Pentateuch.

Suggested identifications.

The fact that Deuteronomy 1:2 speaks of an eleven days’ journey from Kadesh to Horeb would seem to militate against the identification of Mt. Sinai with a mountain in the vicinity of Kadesh as well. The reconstruction of the route of the Exodus is rendered well nigh impossible if this identification is assumed.

Some scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries have attempted to locate Sinai in NW Arabia in the ancient land of Midian. One reason given for this is that when Moses fled from Egypt he married into a Midianite family. That in itself, however, would not necessitate a return to Midianite territory following the Exodus, though it might have made it more convenient. Besides that, however, is the fact that the tribe into which Moses married, the Kenites, were prob. wandering smiths (see Kenites) and they may well have located at the traditional site of Sinai with its mines. It is also argued that the description of the events on the mountain with its “thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud...and a very loud trumpet blast...and the smoke...” (Exod 19:16), presupposes a mountain which experienced volcanic activity. The nearest mountains known to have been actively volcanic in ancient times are in Arabia, S of the head of the Gulf of Aqabah. The descriptive language may equally well have been drawn from weather phenomena, however. Alternatively, even if the language itself was drawn from volcanic phenomena, that does not necessitate actual volcanic activity at Mt. Sinai.

Another suggestion made esp. during the 19th cent. is that Mt. Sinai was to be identified with Jebel Serbal (6,730 ft.). Jebel Serbal is located some distance to the W of the traditional Sinai by the Wadi Feiran. Significantly, the city of Pharan (Feiran) was the seat of a bishopric in the 4th and 5th centuries and in the time of Justinian, orthodox monks moved from Jebel Serbal to the traditional site of Sinai (Ptolemy, V. xvii. 3). The Pilgrimage of Sylvia, edited in 1887 and describing the journey of Sylvia of Aquitaine between a.d. 385 and 388, seems to render this identification impossible, however. The account states that the “mount of God” was thirty-five Rom. m. from Pharan. This is the actual distance from the oasis at Feiran to the traditional Sinai. Also, there is no wilderness at the foot of Jebel Serbal which would fit the description given of the plain of encampment in the Pentateuch.

The traditional identification.

Since the 4th cent., the more or less continuous Christian tradition has been that Mt. Sinai is represented by what is now called Jebel Musa (mountain of Moses). This is located in the high mountains of the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Various legends and traditions are associated with the site and a number of chapels and shrines have been built in the area. Catherine of Alexandria is said to have been carried by angels after her martyrdom, to the top of the mountain that now bears her name (8,536 ft.). This story dates from the 4th cent. The summit of Jebel Katarin is some two and a half m. SW of Jebel Musa. By the 4th cent., communities of monks had retired to the region and were subjected to various massacres at the hands of the Saracens. One, Ammonius, of Canopus in Egypt made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in c. a.d. 373 evidently reaching it in eighteen days from Jerusalem. In a.d. 536, Mt. Sinai, Raithou (on the coast of the Red Sea), and the church at Pharan are noted as being under the presbyter Theonos. On the NW slope of Jebel Musa, Constantine’s mother, Helena, built a small church in the 4th cent. The present Monastery of St. Catherine, famous for the fact that Tischendorf found Codex Aleph there in 1859, was built on the same site and is traced back to Justinian in a.d. 527.

Approaching the region from the N one may enter the valley of esh-Sheikh to the E or the Valley of er-Raha to the W. The latter is some two m. long and at its southeastern end opens into a plain about a m. wide at the foot of the steep cliffs of Ras es-Safsaf. Ras es-Safsaf is the NW peak (6,540 ft.) of a ridge which has Jebel Musa as its highest peak (7,363 ft.) two and a half m. to the SE. The plain of er-Raha may well have been the site of the encampment of Israel (Exod 19:1, 2; Num 33:15).

To the SE of Jebel Musa is the Wady es-Sebayeh with its valley up to a m. wide and two and a half m. long. This valley is sometimes identified as the place of the encampment though the former is generally preferred. Christian tradition generally claims Ras es-Safsaf as the Biblical Horeb and Jebel Musa as Sinai.

Josephus describes Mt. Sinai in fearful terms as being “...the highest of all the mountains that are in that country, and is not only very difficult to be ascended by man, on account of its vast altitude, but because of the sharpness of its precipices also; nay, indeed, it cannot be looked at without pain of the eyes: and besides this, it was terrible and inaccessible, on account of the rumour that passed about, that God dwelt there” (Antiq. II. xii. 1; III. v. 1). From St. Catherine’s monastery with its Chapel of the Burning Bush (cf. Exod 3:2) the summit of Jebel Musa can be reached after a hard climb of one and a half hours. Part way up, a little spring is passed and said to have been the place where Moses tended Jethro’s flock (Exod 2:15ff.); at 6,900 ft. is the Chapel of Elijah (1 Kings 19:8ff.). Ras es-Safsaf takes its name from the Arab. word for willow and is a reference to Moses’ rod (cf. Exod 4:2). A large block of granite some eleven ft. high is said to be the rock from which Moses brought water (Num 20:8ff.). A hole in the rock is said to be the mold used for the golden calf (Exod 32) and the place where the earth swallowed up Korah and his followers is identified (Num 16).

Mount Sinai in the Bible.

Elijah later visited Horeb in a time of particular discouragement and depression (1 Kings 19:4-8). In the allegory of Galatians 4:24ff., Mt. Sinai is representative of the bondage of the law in contrast to the Jerusalem above which is free.


E. Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine, I (1841), 90-144; E. H. Palmer, The Desert of the Exodus (1871); W. M. F. Petrie, Researches in Sinai (1906); B. Rothenberg, God’s Wilderness (1961); G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology (rev. ed. 1962), 60-66 and passim. See also the commentaries, esp. on Exodus.