Mountain of God: Where was the real Mount Sinai, and the Location of the Ark of the Covenant?
In the late twelfth century, crusader knights of the Templar order, from the county of Warwickshire in central England, were rumored to have found the Ark of the Covenant while stationed at the ancient city of Petra in southern Jordan. Regardless of whether or not they really did find this sacred artifact, my research suggests that they were in the right place to have found it.
The Bible tells us that the Ark of the Covenant was the Ancient Israelites’ holiest relic. A golden chest made to hold the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, it was kept in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem until the city was sacked by the Babylonians in 597 BC. According to the Old Testament’s Second Book of Maccabees (still in the Roman Catholic Bible but removed from the King James version), the prophet Jeremiah ordered it to be hidden before Jerusalem fell. In chapter 2, verses 4 and 5 we are told:
[Jeremiah] ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance.
The account goes on to say that the Ark was never recovered. Indeed, it remains lost to this day.
Searching through the Sinai Wilderness
It might seem that the place where Jeremiah is said to have hidden the Ark would be relatively easy to locate. Not so. In the biblical narrative, the mountain where Moses saw “the inheritance of God” could apply to Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land, or Mount Sinai, where he saw God himself and received the Ten Commandments. However, as Mount Sinai is where the Ark was originally made, it seems the more likely of the two. The big problem is that the whereabouts of Mount Sinai seems to have been forgotten, and later wrongly located. The site considered to be Mount Sinai by today’s Church is the mountain of Jebel Musa in eastern Egypt, but this tradition only developed in early Christian times and there is no archeological or biblical evidence to support it. In fact, the local geography fails to match Old Testament descriptions of the place it refers to as Mount Sinai. Consequently, biblical scholars have long debated the sacred mountain’s true location.
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Although Mount Sinai is the best-known name for the site, the Old Testament actually refers to it by two other names: Horeb and the Mountain of God. Said to be where God revealed himself and his laws to mankind, it is depicted as the most hallowed site on Earth.
According to the Bible, God appeared to the Israelites on top of Mount Sinai. Painting by the nineteenth century-artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public domain)
But strangely, although we are told that the sacred mountain was somewhere in the Sinai Wilderness— an area which includes eastern Egypt, together with southern Israel and Jordan— the Bible does not directly reveal its whereabouts. There are hundreds of mountains in the Sinai Wilderness, an area of over fifty thousand square miles of largely inhospitable country, so which one was Mount Sinai? If we examine the Old Testament, we find that it does provide important clues to lead to its location, but they are dispersed throughout different passages. For example, the book of Exodus, chapter 2, verse 1, refers to Moses’ first visit to Mount Sinai while he was living as a nomadic shepherd, having been exiled from Egypt by the pharaoh.
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.
The author places the Mountain of God in the "backside of the desert" with regards to Midian. Midian was at the extreme south of the Sinai Wilderness, the desert in question, and so the mountain would seem to be on its northern side, an area now called the Shara Mountains.
Map showing the locations of Midian, the Sinai Wilderness, and Jebel al-Madhbah. (Graham Phillips)
It is here that Moses is later said to have performed a miracle. According to the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 20, verses 11-14, after he has returned to Egypt and led the Israelites to freedom in the Sinai Wilderness, Moses takes them to a place called Meribah, on the border of the kingdom of Edom. Here, he creates a miraculous spring by striking his staff against a rock. The very same story of the miracle at Meribah is also told in the book of Exodus, chapter 17, verses 5-7, but in this passage we are additionally told that the incident occurs at Horeb – the Mountain of God. So, taken together, these two passages show that the ancient scribes believed that Mount Sinai rose above a place then called Meribah on Edom’s border.