Why Mount Sinai is in Egypt and Other Exodus Enigmas
Historians have dedicated significant efforts to authenticating the biblical narratives of the Exodus. Despite their best efforts, the actual locations of the events described in the account remain under dispute. Curiously, Mount Sinai, the name of a mountain peak on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, and an important pilgrimage site for Jews, Christians and Muslims to this day, may actually have nothing to do with the famed mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
Satellite image of the Sinai Peninsula separating the Gulf of Suez to the west and the Gulf of Aqaba, to the east. (Public domain)
Solving the Mystery of Mount Sinai's Identity and Location
As far as we know, the words ‘Sinai’ and ‘Horeb’ are unknown in Egyptian records. The peninsula between the present-day Suez Canal, and the ancient border of Egypt at the El Arish River, was known in Egyptian history as ‘the Mafkat’, meaning the ‘land of turquoise’, because this valuable stone had been mined there since the dawn of history.
In the Bible, Sinai was the mountain where, after the Exodus, Moses was given the Law by God. Because this mountain was presumed to be in the peninsula east of Egypt, the peninsula was also given the name Sinai. But this is almost certainly a mistake.
- Mountain of God: Where Was the Real Mount Sinai, and the Location of the Ark of the Covenant?
- Elusive Mount Sinai, Hidden In Plain Site In Egypt
The first reference we have to the mountain we call ‘Sinai’ is recorded in Exodus 3, and is the story of Moses and the burning bush. There is no doubt that this event took place in Midian, which lay on the east coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, nowhere near the peninsula called Sinai. Moses is attending to his father-in-law’s sheep and takes them to the “far side of the mountains, to the wilderness”.
The mountain is named here in the text as ‘Horeb’, but the Illustrated Bible Dictionary, published by Tyndale, identifies Horeb and Sinai as one and the same. Could it be that ‘Horeb’ is the Midianite name and ‘Sinai’ the later Hebrew name. We do not know. It is also possible that the name ‘Sinai’ has come from the name of the moon god ‘Sin’, but if this god once had a connection with this area, this information has been lost.
At the burning bush, God directs Moses to go to Egypt. He tells Moses that when he has brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, he was to bring them to worship God on this mountain. This is the occasion when Moses is given the first part of the Law, by God, and we are told that this occurred at ‘Mount Sinai’.
Moses on Mount Sinai by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public domain)
Was Mount Sinai Actually Located in Ancient Midian?
With this evidence, we can conclude that ‘Mount Sinai’ is in Midian. This is confirmed by St Paul in his letter to the Galatians, 4:25, where he states that Hagar represents Sinai “in Arabia”, where God gave the Law to Moses, confirming the geographical position of this mountain. Additionally, this mountain has periods of volcanic activity in the past, which aligns with the narrative of the giving of the Law in Exodus 19:18.
Ancient Midian is now largely in Saudi Arabia, with a small area in Jordan. There is an Arab tradition that ‘Mount Sinai’, the mountain where God gave Moses the Law, is the same mountain as the one known today as Jebel Larz in Saudi Arabia. The Arabs consider their land to be a ‘holy land’ because of the presence of this holy mountain. Again, the Illustrated Bible Dictionary says that Sinai used to be thought to be in Midian, but is now uncertain.
If Mount Sinai is in ancient Midian, who decided that it was in the peninsula east of Egypt?
It is generally believed that it was Helena, mother of the first Emperor Constantine, who was herself a Christian and was very interested in identifying biblical sites. She thought she had identified the mountain of the ‘Burning Bush’ and set up a religious house at its base, that was later developed by the Emperor Justinian into the well-known St Catherine’s monastery on the same site. Once the mountain was identified as Sinai, it ultimately led to the peninsula being named after it.
“You Will Never See the Egyptians Again”
Exodus 14:13. During the Exodus, the Hebrews realise they are being pursued by the Egyptians and they are terrified. God says to Moses, tell the people that ‘the Egyptians who you see today, you will never see again, for ever.’
This promise is pretty clear. So after the Exodus it will not be possible for the Egyptians to harass the Hebrews any more, as they will never see them again. Where could the Hebrews go where they would never see Egyptians again?
Looking at a map we see that the peninsula known as Sinai is adjacent to Egypt. In fact, Egypt had controlled, and continued to control this peninsula, all through history. Its mountains towards the southeast had been mined by Egypt for copper and turquoise for millennia, and they continued to do so. The Egyptian army travelled across the peninsula constantly on route to Canaan which was subject to Egyptian rule. The Hebrews were wandering for 40 years, and they were a vast company of people, so if they were never to meet Egyptians, they could not have been living in this area.
On the other hand, if we follow the thinking that the people crossed into Midian which lies on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, as the Illustrated Bible Dictionary says was previously believed, they would not be exposed to any contact with the Egyptians.
Moses draws water from the rock, by Francoise Perrier. (Public domain)
Water Provides Clues as the Hebrews Wandered in the Wilderness
The Hebrews made up a mammoth group, who wandered the hot wilderness for 40 years along with their flocks and herds. The peninsula called Sinai had very limited access to water with only seasonal rain filling its few transient rivers. We are told that God provided water miraculously twice, in emergencies, but generally there was just not much water to be had.
If we look at the present-day deserts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which cover ancient Midian, the prospect of finding sufficient water does not seem any more promising. However, this is not the case. In fact, there are huge underground aquafers under these deserts even to this day. The city of Aqaba uses this as its water supply still, and Saudi Arabia uses it to grow vegetables in the desert.
The water has come from snow melt in the mountains to the north and accumulated in the rock strata over millennia. It is probable that the water table was also much nearer the surface during the Hebrew migration when it had not been tapped by large thirsty cities as it is now. This body of water was and is still vast and would have been available for the people to access from any number of wells, easily supplying their needs for 40 years.
Moses crossing the desert with the Hebrews to escape the Egyptians. (neirfy / Adobe Stock)
How Did the Slaves Reach the Gulf of Aqaba Before the Egyptians?
Could the slaves have reached the west coast of the Gulf of Aqaba (one branch of the Red Sea) before being overtaken by the Egyptians?
We know from the Exodus record that the Hebrew slaves had carts with them with which to carry the young and old. The adults were strong. Very strong. They had been slaves, required to do very hard unrelenting work. Any weak among them would not have survived. I think we can assume that God chose a time of year when there would not have been vulnerable young animals in the herds.
They left Egypt after gathering at Succoth, believed to be the fort of Tharu (Tjaru), as this was the only substantial bridge to cross the canal forming the border into Egypt proper, at its junction with the peninsula called Sinai. This was where the army crossed when entering the peninsula.
The distance from here to the Nuweba beach on the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, is 167 miles (269 km). There is a record of Moshe Dyan, the Israeli military General, in the late 1900s, making a similar crossing on foot, in the other direction, with his men in 6 days. I know relatively sedentary men, in their sixties, who have walked 33 miles in a day in a ‘Thames Path Challenge’. And the Hebrews had every motivation to cross this terrain. They were escaping from slavery. With all things considered, this is doable in my opinion.
- Manna: What Was the Mysterious Substance that Fed the Israelites for 40 Years?
- Exodus: Which Way Did Moses Choose And Why?
Details of the First Passover
The text of Exodus 12 is informative. It is the story of the first Passover which was to last 7 days and during this time all bread was unleavened bread only.
On the night they left Egypt with Moses, the slaves had just eaten a nourishing meal of roast lamb, as much as they wanted to eat. Now they were told to leave immediately. It was night. Verse 34 says they took their dough before it could rise. Enough for 7 days. These became the rules of the Passover in order that this night and this journey be remembered. Roast lamb, then 7 days of unleavened bread; chapter 12:15. It is a picture of this Exodus. They were escaping. It took 7 days until they had crossed the Red Sea.
So this is the time scale I have used in my story. They travelled at night across the peninsular, guided by the ‘pillar of fire’ God provided. They ate and slept during the hottest part of the day then continued their walk as evening fell. They crossed the Gulf of Aqaba (the Red Sea) on the seventh night and reached the shore of Midian as dawn was breaking.
Moses parting the Red Sea. (pozitivo / Adobe Stock)
How could the Gulf of Aqaba be the place of the Red Sea crossing?
The Gulf of Aqaba is about 11 miles (17.7 km) across. There is a huge beach on the Egyptian side called ‘Nuweba’ where the people gathered after coming through the narrow passes between the huge mountains of the peninsular of Sinai.
More interesting and relevant is the fact that the Gulf of Aqaba is part of the junction between the Earth’s Asian and African continental plates. This junction runs south from the Jordan valley, down the Gulf of Aqaba, continuing as the Great Rift Valley of east Africa. So we might logically expect seismic movement to occur here. It occurs to this day.
The story of the Exodus suggests seismic activity in other places. The plague of darkness ‘that could be felt’ could well have been caused by ash from volcanic activity on the Island of ‘Thera’ north of Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea.
There had been minor eruptions there for centuries, causing the population of Thera and Crete - the Philistines - to leave their dangerous islands and settle elsewhere. And it is possible that the last great explosion of the Island of Thera happened when the Hebrews were about to cross the Red Sea in 1446 BC. It would have destabilised the whole region. And where the continental plates joined was the most likely point of movement.
The return of the sea which took out the Pharaoh and his army, sounds very like a tsunami. I found an article recently describing a 4-meter-high tsunami that took place in the Gulf of Aqaba in the 1990s damaging the village at Nuweba beach. It went on to give warning that industries along the coastline of the Gulf of Aqaba must make contingency plans for future tsunamis that could be damaging to their infrastructure.
Annette Duckworth’s book, titled ‘The King and her Children’ was published in October 2018 by Mirador and is now available in paperback from Waterstones and Amazon.
Top image: Moses on Mount Sinai. Source: Bargais / Adobe Stock