Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Is Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia?

Jebel al Lawz in Saudi Arabia, which many fundamentalists claim is the biblical Mt. Sinai

I have been wanting to post on this question for quite awhile, especially since I began the Mount Sinai series back in 2007. Two sites have been proposed for Mt. Sinai: one, the traditional site, Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This site has been venerated as the biblical Mount Sinai since at least the 1st century by Jews and Christians alike and is the site of the famous St. Catherine's monastery. In two previous posts, I went over the historical and scriptural evidence that this indeed is the biblical Mount Sinai upon which Moses received the Ten Commandments.

The second proposed location, and one that has garnered lots of attention in the past twenty years, is a site known as Jebel al Lawz, which is situated in modern Saudi Arabia just across the Gulf of Aqaba from the Sinai Peninsula. There are several reasons put forth for this view, of which I will enumerate here. I want to say first that for many years, I myself was convinced that this site in Arabia was indeed the biblical Sinai, but I have now come to seriously doubt it. After going into the reasons why this site is put forth, we will look at some problems with the theory.


First of all, why is Jebel al Lawz promoted as the possible location of Mt. Sinai? There are several reasons:

First, St. Paul says that Mt. Sinai is "in Arabia" (Gal. 4:25), thus leading some to believe he means the Arabian peninsula.

Second, the existence of a land bridge between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas across the Gulf of Aqaba that would serve as an ideal crossing point for the Israelites.

Third, several archaeological finds at the foot of Jebel al Lawz which are purported to be the remains of the Israelite camps: an altar, carvings of cows, and a split rock.

Fourth, the top of Jebel al Lawz appears to be blackened, as if by a great fire.

Let's look at these points, one at a time.

First, the passage of St. Paul in Galatians 4:25 in which he says that Mount Sinai is in Arabia is, on the surface, a strong argument in favor of Jebel al Lawz until we realize that Saudi Arabia did not become an indepentdent nation until 1927 (until then, it had been part of the Turkish Empire for centuries). St. Paul would not have been using 21st century geopolitical terms in his geography, but rather the political terms of the Roman Empire. As it turns out, "Arabia" was a Roman province that encompassed part of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula and parts of what are now Jordan. Interestingly enough, Roman Arabia did not include the modern Arabian Peninsula. This was all documented in my post on the Scriptural evidence for Jebel Musa. Therefore, I think we can throw out Galatians 4:25 as lending any serious support to Jebel al Lawz.

Second, what about the land bridge that exists between Sinai and Saudi Arabia? Proponents of Jebel al Lawz stress that this land bridge could have been the place where the Israelites crossed into Arabia. Aside from the obvious problem that the Scriptures state that the crossing happened at the Red Sea, not the Gulf of Aqaba (and we will have a future article about the much contested definition of the Hebrew Yam Suph), this theory suffers from other defects.



First, the simple fact that an underwater land bridge happens to exist does not mean that is where the crossing happened. Case in point: a similar land bridge exists north of the Red Sea near the Gulf of Suez, very close to the traditional site. This would be a much better location to place the crossing. Second, this land bridge from Sinai to Arabia is less than a mile across, much to narrow to accomodate the great numbers to people that needed to cross in the amount of time (a single night) that Scripture says it took for them to get across. Third, the makeup of this land bridge is not land at all, but coral. Anyone who has ever been around coral knows that it is extremely dangerous to walk on. It is almost certain that many of the Israelites would have been barefoot, and even a single slip could have been deadly. This would have slowed up the crossing even more and makes a single night crossing almost impossible.

I should also point out that this crossing location is very problematic from the standpoint of the amount of time the Bible says that it took the Israelites to get to the Red Sea. Instead of going just to the Suez on the borders of Goshen, this theory requires them to get to the Gulf of Aqaba on the far side of Sinai (a distance of 350 miles in six days (averaging 58 miles a day, or almost 43 miles per day allowing for six hours of rest per night). While this may be feasible for a man in the prime of his life and aqcuainted with desert travel, it becomes absurd when we apply it to a million people, including the elderly, women and children.

Next, we come to the archaeological finds at Jebel al Lawz. These consist of the following items: a large altar decorated with bovine carvings, which proponents say are the Egyptian deities Hathor and Apis, or perhaps represent the Golden Calf itself. Also found was a large boulder split down the middle, which some say is the stone from which Moses drew water. A cave nearby has been called "The Cave of Moses" since very early times and supposedly was where Moses dwelt.

Most of these finds are easily written off due to a few facts: first, the "altar" at Jebel al Lawz is a pile of massive boulders. The Scripture says that the altar was built by Aaron (Ex. 32:5), indicating it was probably not as monumental in scale as that which exists at Jebel al Lawz. Also, the carvings of cows on the altar are also joined by carvings of plenty of other animals, ibexes, for example. This means that the altar is not necessarily "bovine" in nature. Both it and the carvings have been dated to the Neolithic period, well before the Exodus. Also, if Moses destroyed the Golden Calf because it was an idol, why wouldn't he destroy the carvings as well? And why would he leave the altar up, when if every other case in Scripture the altars of false gods are torn down? Also, this "altar" does not look that much different from hundreds of other rock formations which litter the plains around the site.

What about the so-called "Cave of Moses?" This has been positively identified as a Nabatean tomb dating from a millenium after Moses.

One of piece of evidence touted by proponents of Jebel al Lawz is a large boulder near the site with a split down the center. This is held to be the rock struck by Moses from which water flowed to quench the Israelite's thirst in the desert. Below is a picture of the split rock of Jebel al Lawz:



It must be pointed out that the so-called "split" is not a split at all, but a massive separation (several feet wide in some places) that is due to wind erosion. I have seen such formations on Mackinaw Island in upper Michigan. They are not unique at all.

What about the blackened summit of Jebel al Lawz? It is undeniable that the top of this mountain is blackened. Pseudo-archaeologists Ron Wyatt and Bob Cornuke managed to sneak some of this blackened rock out of Saudi Arabia for testing in the United States. The tests were completed, but the results were not released. They have remained unreleased for 13 years (by the way, this is the same Ron Wyatt who claims to know where the Ark of the Covenant is but won't release the evidence. Oh yeah, he also claims to have discovered Noah's Ark). Many Arabian mountains have such blackened tops, and it is usually due to past volcanic activity. In fact, Arabia and the Horn of Africa are full of volcanic activity. Look at the tectonic map below:


There are literally dozens of sites in Arabia with such blackened tops. In general, it seems that the proponents of this Jebel al Lawz site have one technique in common: to take characteristics that are common to Saudi Arabia (but which most westerners are ignorant of) and put them forward as unique identifiers of this one place with the biblical Mount Sinai.

Two other reasons to be wary of the Jebel al Lawz argument:

First, it was originated by Muslim polemicists during the Crusades. Previously, they had not cared about the location of Mt. Sinai, but with the influx of Christians visiting the Holy Land, they wanted to identify Sinai with their own holy places in the Arabian Peninsula.

Second, the modern theory was forumlated by none other than Ron Wyatt and Bob Cornuke, evangelical fundamentalists who admit that they are neither archaeologists nor geologists and who also claim to have found Noah's Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah and the Ark of the Covenant.

Some people claim that the fact that the Arabian government has this site fenced off is an indicator that it is the true Mt. Sinai. Anybody who has ever been to Greece, Rome or anywhere with lots of historic sites knows that many historic places are fenced off. Many of you probably know the frustration of visiting a famous site only to find that it is closed or gated off, as happened to me when I went to Stonehenge in 1998 (there was a fence prohibiting you from getting closer than 10 feet). My friend went to Greece in 1997 and was ticked when he found that the Parthenon was fenced off that year for renovations. Archaeological sites often get fenced off.

While Jebel al Lawz looks impressive on the outside (and it is a legitimate archaeological site, only it is Neolithic and not Hebraic in origin), we cannot simply abandon the set principles of archaeology and erudition just because we are desperate to identify somewhere with a biblical location. Ultimately, biblical archaeology does not affect our theology; but, often the way we do biblical archaeology tells us something about our theology.

Click here for an excellent article by Gordon Franz treating this much more in depth than I have here.


13 comments:

Anonymous said...

You have listed many reasons why this isn't the Mt. of Moses, but fail to find ANY of these same artifacts at the tradtional site.

At the tradition site, you dont find the bitter water, Palm trees, 12 springs,underwater reef that could have been coral-less at that time, being located in ancient Midian thus being in Arabia Petraea, and so agreeing with Josephus, Philo, and the Apostle Paul, the QUAIL that was present, evidence of an ancient spring, large altar at the foot of the mountain has many calf drawings (Moses destroyed the Center piece... I am sure they got the picture, why would he need to chizzel away every single engraved calf?), chute formed of stones for cattle sacrifice that just so happens to be at the foot of the Mt., cave in the mountain fitting the description of Elijah, large piles of rocks at the base of the Mt. that were not random rock slides, the discovery of the remains of chariots in the Gulf of Aqaba nearby...

Seriously, Where in the world do you find all of these Artifacts located in the same region matching up perfectly with the Biblical Account? Where? Certainly not at the traditional site which you so strongly hold onto! Your certainly dead wrong on Galations 4:25 for he is speaking of the Arabia hagar went to, which was given that name long before Modern Day Saudi Arabia. Your grasping for straws by trying to disprove this site... If you gave the traditional site this same examination... then I bet everything would be a different Story. My friend, you should forsake the traditions of Men for the truth of God.

BONIFACE said...

Well, first of all, I do not think this issue of of any great importance. It is a matter of scholarly interest, and not at all something I would bother getting worked up about.

Secondly, even with the supposed evidence at Jebel-al-Lawz (and the carvings are suggested to be neolithic in origin), I have a problem with it in that it was never proposed as Sinai until Muslim polemicists argued it was so during the Crusades...Christians from the time of Christ venerated another mountain. I would be wary of it for that reason alone.

The chariot wheel is interesting, but I think more than just one would have been turned up if Pharoah's entire army had been drowned there.

Anonymous said...

What about the possible site where the Gold Calf was worshiped? They found carvings of cows on the rocks which isn't normal for Saudi Arabia. what about the 12 stone pillars? What about the land markers?

I just think its interesting. We shouldn't have to go searching for a lot of archeological discoveries in order to believe. I just watched a DVD on this today and I'm researching to see what those have to say that oppose this theory.

Anonymous said...

I think the fact that you are trying to disprove where the "Real" Mt. Sinai is shows your insecurities!

Every piece of evidence that Ihave seen of Mt. Sinai based on the Biblical descriptions, shows that Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia.

Maybe you need to ask God to give you a different kind of heart.

Indy said...

Being a student of archaeology I have listened to many claims about Mt. Sinai. The Blackened rock of Jebel al-Lawz that you said hasn't had any results as far as lab work is concerned is wrong. If you did your research thoroughly as I have then you would know that the results were released five years ago. The rock is metemorphic. It is just melted rock with granite inside not volcanic. Take my advice; read books that cover all sides of an arguement before you start criticizing one side. I believe in this site as being Mt. Sinai so much I have organized a research team to prove to hardheads like you that it IS the real Mt. Sinai

BONIFACE said...

Indy-

First off, I don't have to do any research before criticizing one side or another. This is a blog, my blog, not a freakin' scholarly peer-reviewed journal. If I want to I can say, "Jebel-al-Lawz is not Mt Sinai" and give no reasons if I feel like it. I have attempted to give the best reasons as I know them, and if its not scholarly enough for you, then stick to the books and don't read amatuer blogs.

Second, you sound like you already have a prediliction for the Saudi Arabia site. You can never prove that it is Mt Sinai - you can only interpret evidence as supporting one or another position. I'd be interested to see what you find.

Anonymous said...

Question, do you believe that the Mount Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula is the true location? If you do, please provide evidence to support this claim. I have yet to hear from anyone (not just you) that evidence has been found to show hundreds of thousands of people stayed in the Sinai Peninsula location after the exodus. Thanks in advance.

OPT said...

I'll tell you why I am still leaning toward believing that Mt. Sinai is in modern-day Saudi Arabia. I don't know if it's Jebel al Lawz or not.

3 big reasons for me. First, when the Israelites go into the Promised Land following the 40 years, they approach across the Jordan River. Well, the Jordan River is of course on the other side of Canaan. They would have been on the east of Canaan prior to crossing it. They may have passed through Edom to the south, but they could have done that any time in 40 years.

Second, as the Israelites were wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, they would have without a doubt run into the Egyptians again. There is no reason the Egyptians would have avoided the huge peninsula to their east.

Third, the whole narrative lacks urgency. The Israelites pack up and move southward, still in Egypt, staying in Egypt proper the whole time until they reach the sea. Goshen was right on the border of the Sinai peninsula, another reason to suspect the Egyptians would have had troops in the Pensinsula, because otherwise Hebrew slaves would be escaping constantly.

Unlike others on here, I don't have anything negative to say to you. Just asking your opinion. But I'm Catholic, as well. I think some of the other commenters had a different axe to grind.

Anonymous said...

I would surely support a South Sinai location for Mt. Sinai. The main reasons are 1. "Abraham dwelt between Kadesh (Perhaps Qudeis or Qudeirat, but this is by no means certain) and Shur, and then sojourned in Gerar" (assuming it is Tel Haror). If the Lawz claim is true, this statement would make no sense, as in the Lawz view, Shur is east of Aqaba. Also, Shur's location east of the Delta is corroborated by Hagar fleeing to Shur (Hagar was an Egyptian, and it would make sense if Shur was at the conventional location, east of the Delta, but no sense if it was east of Aqaba). The other main complaint I have against Lawz is that it is way too dry. The chariot wheels of Wyatt are either fakes or 19th/20th century AD handwheels. Real chariot wheels are not gold-plated and are buried deep under sediment. The pillars- Nabataean or Roman. The Egyptians only had control in the North Sinai peninsula and at the easily avoidable Serabit el-Khadim. In Paul and Josephus' day Arabia Petraea included the Sinai Peninsula. In my view Crossing= South Ballah lake, Marah=Great Bitter Lake, Elim=Ayun Musa, and Mt. Sinai= Jebel Musa, Jebel Serbal, or Jebel Saniya near Serabit el-Khadim. I also think the Israelites generally called all the Red Sea and all the lakes of the East Delta connected by the Eastern Frontier Canal the "Sea of Reeds". Last of all, THE BIBLE NEVER SAYS MT. SINAI WAS IN MIDIAN!!! It says it was in "the far side of the desert".

RandS said...

Shall a Lutheran agree with a Roman Catholic? If the Roman Catholic agrees with Scripture, yes. While I recognize some problems with the traditional site, it fits the Scripture record better than Jebel al Lawz. Those anonymous apologists who suggest rejecting Jebel al Lawz is rejecting the truth of God should try applying the spirit of God in their rhetoric.

Any "real Mt. Sinai" site must comply with more than just some Scriptural information; it must comply with all of it, including the following:

The Israelites were in the region of Etham both before and after crossing the Red Sea. They were on the edge of the Desert of Etham just three days after leaving Egypt and traveled for at least three days in the Desert of Etham after crossing the Red Sea. If the Red Sea crossing were of the Gulf of Aqaba, Etham would have to be on the east side, but then the Israelites could hardly have been on the edge of Etham before the crossing. Note, too, that they left the edge of Etham to go to Pi Hiharoth.

The route to Sinai must account for two contacts with the Red Sea before reaching Sinai: the crossing and the camp at the Red Sea after the stay at Elim (Numbers 33:10). This accounting must be logical, not some unexplainable return back to where they had come from during a time when they had Mt. Sinai as a destination. The route to Sinai had to have been fairly close to the Red Sea for some distance to account for all the travel between the crossing and the camp. (This second contact with the Red Sea also means that the Red Sea can't be any of the smaller lakes north of the Gulf of Suez.)

Any location for Mt. Sinai must explain how it was that the Amelekites were present at Rephidim. Rephidim was clearly a relatively short walk from Sinai (and downstream) since Moses and the elders went from there to Sinai/Horeb to provide water from the rock. All the Scriptural evidence places the Amelekites southwest of Palestine, somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula. If Sinai were in Saudi Arabia, the attack of the Amelekites would have come long before the Israelites had left their region.

It must be possible to walk from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh in eleven days (Deut. 1:2). Kadesh, also, must be in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula or in what is called the Negev. This is required by the route after leaving Kadesh. They had to go around the Edomites and left Mt. Hor along the route to the Red Sea (Numbers 21:4). If Kadesh had been east of the Arabah, going toward the Red Sea to get around Edom would put them west of the Arabah; but they entered Canaan by way of the plains of Moab. (Note that this does not mean a third contact with the shore of the Red Sea, but simply that for a while after leaving Mt. Hor, they traveled toward the Red Sea.)

Mt. Sinai was apparently along the normal route that Moses would have taken to go from that part of Midian where Jethro lived to Egypt, for after leaving Jethro to go to Egypt he meets Aaron at Sinai/Horeb (Ex. 4:27). This also suggests that Sinai was about two thirds of the way from Egypt to Jethro's Midian, for Aaron was already on his way when Moses spoke with God at the burning bush (Ex. 4:14), while Moses went back to Jethro to say goodbye and then met Aaron at Horeb.

I grant that the traditional site might not be the real Mt. Sinai. In my opinion it probably is not. But given all the Scriptural evidence, the understanding of "Arabia" in the 1st Century (when the Apostle Paul said Sinai was there), the ancient understanding of the boundaries of Egypt, the fact that "Midian" was not restricted to modern "Arabia", and the logistics of travel in that region, I think one must conclude that the real Mt. Sinai is somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula.

Anonymous said...

There is one aspect of this that seems to have gotten left out...or at least I don't remember anyone mentioning it. Look at the landscape its self. The Bible talks about dessert land. The traditional site on the Sainai peninsula is mountainous. Guess what is all around Jebel al-lawz...dessert.

There is a video series on youtbe called "mountain of fire." It is very good.

Another thought I had is this: If they were going to stop at the Sinai Penisula, why would they not just by-pass the Red Sea by going to the north where its dry land? It would be unsafe to stay there because The Egyptians could follow them. God would have known that so he led them south around the Peninsula and across where the land bridge is. God would not part the Red Sea just to have many die on the "coral". The problem is with this blog is that God's power has been left out to a large extent. God's whole purpose was to lead them to safety. On a side note they wouldn't have had to wander 40 years in the dessert if they had just been obedient to God in the first place.

Another thought I had was once they got across, they would have had to double back-across the Red Sea-to get to the mountain in question.

Any way, it doesn't really matter where it is in the grand sceme of things. If you really want to know then accept Jesus as your personal saviour so you will be able one day to ask God your self where it isin Heaven.

Anonymous said...

"Secondly, even with the supposed evidence at Jebel-al-Lawz (and the carvings are suggested to be neolithic in origin), I have a problem with it in that it was never proposed as Sinai until Muslim polemicists argued it was so during the Crusades...Christians from the time of Christ venerated another mountain. I would be wary of it for that reason alone."


Have you ever considered the possibility that Helena was wrong? Have you considered the possibility that Christianity got something wrong?

The point is, if what they are describing in Saudi Arabia is the site that that story is written around, then that not only supports the idea that it was myth, but that the myth was written around actual geological formations so as to seem true. If the cave paintings are actually from Neolithic times, then that invalidates the story, and thus, parts of Exodus, and thus, reduces the probability of it being true.

Anonymous said...

the picture showing the split rock above is NOT the same as the one found by explorers to Jebel al-Lawz.. that one is a 50-60 feet tall and show visible signs of heavy waterflow.