The Mountain of God

St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, Egypt. Image credit: Makalu from Pixabay.

Mount Sinai is not in Sinai. At least, not what we call the Sinai Peninsula today.

Since the third century, Christians have believed that a mountain on the Sinai Peninsula was the Mountain of God where Moses received the Ten Commandments. About 1,450 years ago, the Roman emperor Justinian built a beautiful monastery dedicated to St. Catherine at the foot of that mountain, called Jebel Musa or Mountain of Moses, in a part of the Sinai Desert that belongs to Egypt. Today, pilgrims are welcomed on most mornings by the Greek Orthodox monks who live there in quiet devotion, and religiously-themed videos still center on this location at the low tip of the triangular Sinai peninsula as the actual backdrop to the biblical stories.

But 21st century archaeologists are very skeptical about the monks’ claims to fame. Decades of research have pretty much established that there was no one living in the harsh Sinai desert at around the time of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, since there are almost no pottery shards anywhere in the area from that era. (There is older rock art, however.)

But despite the scholarly agreement that St. Catherine’s does NOT mark the spot where Moses communed with the god of Abraham – or at least where something interesting happened that got the story started – there’s nothing but argument about the true location of Mt. Sinai. In 2013, a two-day colloquium on the topic forced the presenters to acknowledge that “some 20 or more sites have been proposed.” Not much has changed about that discussion in the years since.

Even the Hebrew Bible doesn’t always agree with itself about what to call the crucial mountain. It’s titled Mt. Sinai in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers – but it’s also called Mt. Horeb in those books, sometimes in the very next chapter after the biblical author (or, more likely, authors) said it was Sinai. And there’s a psalm, which was probably written much later, that styles the Mountain of God not as Sinai or Horeb, but as Bashan.

Some 20 or more sites have been proposed for the true location of Mount Sinai.

Still, the description of the encounter of Moses and the escapees from Pharaoh with this mountain – whatever its name – is consistent. Billowing smoke envelopes its peak, the ground shakes, and there is a sound of trumpet blasts followed by utter silence.

In other words, the Mountain of God was an erupting volcano.

This is not a new idea. Sigmund Freud, in his religious historical work Moses and Monotheism (1939), wrote that the god of the Israelites “was certainly a volcano god”(p. 55). The Sinai Desert is about as volcanically active as the nearest bus stop, so that’s another argument against Jebel Musa and its beautiful monastery.

But there is a mountainous, volcanic area associated in the Bible with Moses, and it is called Midian. It lies in the northwest corner of today’s Saudi Arabia. In Exodus, Moses – who was, at the time, a prince of Egypt – kills an Egyptian slave-driver and flees to Midian. There he gets married, has children, becomes a shepherd and eventually sees a burning bush on – you guessed it – the Mountain of God, called Horeb in this particular verse.

The theory that the real Mt. Sinai is a dormant volcano in today’s Saudi Arabia  is called the “Midianite Hypothesis,” and it was first suggested in the 19th century. Cambridge University physicist Colin J. Humphreys, in his book The Miracles of Exodus, has some more evidence for it from another part of the story. He thinks that the “burning” bush was probably a short tree near a cracked natural gas deposit or volcanic vent in the earth (p.77). If gas near the bush had been set on fire by lightning or some other natural phenomenon, it would have made it look like the bush was “burning, but not consumed” by the flames.

Moses and the Burning Bush, in a scene from the full-length animated film “Seder-Masochism” by Nina Paley.

Shimon Ilani, an emeritus geologist with the Geological Survey of Israel, told the 2013 colloquium on the location of Mt. Sinai that the area of Saudi Arabia identified as biblical Midian has been volcanically active as recently as the year 640. And a chemical engineering consultant named Eric Kvaalen has analyzed the chemical signatures of ice cores from Greenland to see if any eruptions coincided with the generally accepted time frame for the original Exodus stories. He concludes that the volcano Humphreys believes was the true Mt. Sinai, known today as Hala’l Badr, erupted at around that time. 

And yet there are other candidates for the Mountain of God. No fewer than eighteen Arabian volcanoes have been active in the past ten thousand years, according to Humphreys (citing Volcanoes of the World on p. 317). Maybe that’s the reason it’s sometimes called Sinai and other times Horeb: Various Semitic nomads came across different mountains, had similarly earth-shattering experiences – literally – and eventually their stories merged.

I’ve never been to an active volcano, although I can’t think of anything much cooler than that other than traveling into space. But I can certainly imagine how my ancestors might have reacted to a full-bore blast right in front of them, when nothing they’d ever experienced had prepared them to understand it from a geological point of view. No wonder the Jews’ weekly blessings still cite the memory of this moment as crucial to our people. It’s the stuff that millennium-spanning myths are made of.

Volcanic eruption. Image credit: Enrique Lopez Garre from Pixabay

5 thoughts on “The Mountain of God”

  1. Pingback: parting waters

  2. Pingback: How to Escape from Pharaoh

  3. Pingback: Israel in Arabia

  4. Pingback: Medicine and Monotheism

  5. Pingback: Midian and the Midianites

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *