This article will examine four aspects of the question regarding whether or not Mt. Sinai is located in Saudi Arabia. First, the credibility of the claims will be questioned. Second, the false assumptions by the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz will be disputed. Third, the Biblical evidence will be discussed. Fourth, the archaeological evidence will be examined...
This article was originally published in the Fall 2000 issue of Bible and Spade.
Two treasure hunters stood on the top of Jebel al-Lawz thinking it was the real Mt. Sinai, the “Mountain of God”. One was struck with fear because he thought he was trespassing on the “holiest place on earth”. As he gulped down Gatorade and munched on M & M’s, a sense of guilt overcame him because he had forged a letter from the king of Saudi Arabia in order to obtain a visa into the Kingdom (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 10, 11, 74, 77, 79; Blum 1998: 206). Should he have felt guilty for this deceit? Yes, what he did was illegal, and offended the honor of the Saudi Arabian people. Should he have been afraid because he was on the holy mountain of God (Ex. 19:12)? No, because he was standing on the wrong mountain. MT. SINAI IS NOT IN SAUDI ARABIA!
This article will examine four aspects of the question regarding whether or not Mt. Sinai is located in Saudi Arabia. First, the credibility of the claims will be questioned. Second, the false assumptions by the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz will be disputed. Third, the Biblical evidence will be discussed. Fourth, the archaeological evidence will be examined.
Mount Sinai was the destination of Moses and the Children of Israel after the Lord miraculously delivered them from the bondage of Egypt (Ex. 18:5). It was from this mountain that the Lord also gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and the people of Israel (Ex. 19:1-3, 11,18; 20:1-17). Here, too, the prophet Elijah found himself after his escape from wicked Queen Jezebel (I Kings 19).
Pilgrims, scholars and tourists have visited the traditional site, Jebel Musa (Arabic for the Mountain of Moses) for more than 1,600 years. In the early 4th century AD Eusebius of Caesarea placed Mt. Sinai in the southern Sinai Peninsula. When Egeria made a pilgrimage to the East between AD 381 and 384, she visited Jebel Musa as Mt. Sinai (Wilkinson 1981: 1, 18, 91-100). This impressive mountain located in the southern Sinai Peninsula is situated behind the Byzantine monastery of St. Catherine’s built by Emperor Justinian in the middle of the sixth century AD (Tsafrir 1978:219).
It may come as a surprise to most people, but scholars have identified 13 different sites as the “real” Mount Sinai (Har-el 1983:2). I would agree with the proponents of the Jebel al-Lawz hypothesis that Jebel Musa, the traditional Mt. Sinai, or any other site in the southern Sinai Peninsula, could not be the real Mt. Sinai. Professor Har-el in his book, The Sinai Journeys, has argued very convincingly, against the southern Sinai theory (1983: 175-233).
Recently, six American treasure hunters have added a 14th mountain to the already long list of candidates for the real Mt. Sinai: Jebel al-Lawz.
Who's Who Among the Treasure Hunters
The idea of Mt. Sinai being in Midian (Saudi Arabia) is not new. Charles Beke suggested Mount Baggir, to the NE of the Gulf of Akaba, as the true location of Mt. Sinai in his book Sinai in Arabia and of Midian in 1878. Alois Musil (1926: 263,264, 269, 296-298) and H. Philby (1957: 222-224) identify Mt. Sinai / Horeb with Jebel al-Manifa, near Wadi al-Hrob, 20 kilometers north of ‘Ajnuna (1926: 269, 297). A French scholar, Jean Koenig (1971), has added the volcanic peak of Hala’l bedr to the list.
The late Ron Wyatt, a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) turned treasure hunter, added a fourth Midian site, Jebel al-Lawz, to the list. He also claimed to have discovered Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Red Sea crossing and some of pharaoh’s chariots, the Ark of the Covenant with the blood of Jesus on the mercy seat, and other spectacular archaeological discoveries. This list is enough to make any archaeologist green with envy!1 However, one of Wyatt’s partners in his Saudi Arabian venture called it a “treasure hunt” (Fasold 1993b:4).
In 1978, Wyatt claimed to have discovered the Red Sea crossing at Newaba in the Gulf of Akaba (the eastern branch of the Red Sea) and some of “pharaoh’s chariot wheels.”2 This led Wyatt to conclude that Mt. Sinai must be in Saudi Arabia. His candidate for Mt. Sinai was Jebel al-Lawz because it was the highest peak in the entire NW Saudi Arabian region (Noorbergen 1982: 157-174). In 1984, Ron Wyatt and his two sons illegally crossed the border of Jordan into Saudi Arabia to visit the site. They explored and photographed the area around Jebel al-Lawz. As they tried to get back across the border they were captured, their film confiscated, and were jailed for 78 days as Israeli spies. They were eventually released.
In April 1985, Wyatt returned to Saudi Arabia legally under the patronage of a certain Mr. Samran al-Motairy. This time he had a contract with Samran to split the take on any “commercial minerals” found by them on their treasure hunt (Fasold 1993b: 4-6; Blum 1998: 47). To help locate the gold, Wyatt convinced David Fasold, with his “molecular frequency generator” (MFG), into joining their expedition to search for the “gold of Exodus” (Blum 1998: 49-51). Fasold claims this device can detect various types of metal under the ground.
When one of Samran’s workers discovered “a bracelet that glittered for all the world like the purest of gold” (Blum 1998: 58), they were arrested and charged with “robbing Saudi Arabia of its wealth from antiquity” which they claimed was a capital offense (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 218). When they were finally released, all their film and notes were confiscated, and they were made to promise they would never return to Saudi Arabia and never publish or talk about their findings (Blum 1998: 59; Williams 1990: 25).
Upon his return, Fasold told Jim Irwin, the Apollo 15 astronaut who walked on the moon. Irwin in turn put Fasold in touch with two other potential treasure hunters — Larry Williams, a commodity trader and part time treasure hunter, and Robert Cornuke, a former police officer and SWAT team member (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 218). Fasold told them about the location of Mt. Sinai and the gold from Egypt. Part of his material is reproduced in Williams’ book (1990: 25, 209-211) as well as his own newsletters (1993a; 1993b). Before they began this venture, they consulted an unnamed university professor in California, who wishes his identity to remain a “deep dark secret” (Blum 1998: 108). He seemed to agree with this idea and encouraged them in their pursuit.
Williams and Cornuke journeyed to Saudi Arabia twice in the summer of 1988 as self-proclaimed “Adventurers of History” in search of Mt. Sinai and the “gold of Exodus.” They returned to tell the tale (Williams 1990:10,23). Larry Williams wrote a book about their adventures entitled The Mountain of Moses, The Discovery of Mount Sinai (1990). It was later reprinted under the title The Mount Sinai Myth (1990). For a further review of Cornuke's claims, see: How Accurate Are Bob Cornuke's Claims? (off site link).
Another author, Howard Blum also wrote a popular book entitled The Gold of Exodus: The Discovery of the True Mount Sinai (1998a) based on the adventures of these two treasure hunters. The book has some inconsistencies. For example, Ronald Hendel (1999: 54) points out that before Williams and Cornuke went to Saudi Arabia in the summer of 1988, they had a meeting with an unnamed Biblical scholar from southern California. During the course of the conversation the unnamed scholar mentioned an interview of Dr. Frank Moore Cross in the August 1992 edition of Bible Review (Blum 1998:120-122). Talk about getting an advance copy of a publication! How did this professor get a copy of a 1992 issue of Bible Review in 1988?! The book is excerpted in an article in the February 1998 issue of Vanity Fair (Bloom 1998b).
A video entitled; “The Search for the Real Mt. Sinai” (1998) is being distributed based on these books. According to the advertisement for the video, Hershel Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, endorsed this video by saying; “Jabal al Lawz is the most likely site for Mount Sinai.”
A weak review of Blum’s book and the video was given by Ronald Hendel in the July / August 1999 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (pages 54, 56) in which he never adequately deals with the arguments set forth by Williams and Blum. A spirited response appeared in the November / December 1999 issue of the same magazine by Tom Beard, the producer of the video (pages 66, 67). Hershel Shanks also added a clarification of his endorsement. He said, “The quote attributed to me is accurate but incomplete. I went on to say that all identifications of Mt. Sinai are highly speculative. A good case has been made that it is somewhere in northwest Saudi Arabia, and Jebel al-Lawz is the highest point in this area” (page 67).
In the spring of 2000, Bob Cornuke came out with his book that recounts their adventures in Saudi Arabia. The book is entitled In Search of the Mountain of God with the subtitle “The discovery of the real Mt. Sinai” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000). It is basically a retelling of his and Williams’ adventures found in the other books, but it also has a section at the end of the book about their search for pharaoh’s chariots in the Gulf of Akaba. He has a tendency to embellish, just like Blum. For example, he claims the signs on the fence surrounding Jebel al-Lawz said, “No Trespassing Allowed. Violators Will Be Put to Death” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 1). Yet if one looks at the photograph in Blum’s book, the sign actually says,
Archaeological area warning: It is unlawful to trespass. Violators are subject to penalties stipulated in the antiquities regulations passed by royal decree no. M 26, U 23.6.1392 (1998: plate 4, top).
Williams (1990: 157) just mentions the fines, but not the death penalty.
The thesis of these books and video is that the real Mount Sinai is located at Jebel el-Lawz in Saudi Arabia, and the gold that the Israelites took from the Egyptians is in “them thar hills!” Are their views correct? The simple answer is no. There are a number of significant problems with this view. Mount Sinai is in the Sinai Peninsula right where the Bible places it.
Problems With This View
The biggest problem with the identification of Mt. Sinai at Jebel el-Lawz is that it does not meet the Biblical criteria for the site. These claims are based on three false assumptions and a misunderstanding of the archaeological remains that they observed. It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the Red Sea crossing and the chronology of the Exodus from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. I will tackle these issues in a future issue of Bible and Spade.
False Assumption #1: The Sinai Peninsula was considered the Land of Egypt
The first false assumption is that the Sinai Peninsula was within the territorial borders of the Land of Egypt. Over and over in his book, Williams (1990: 15-17, 22, 26) calls the Sinai Peninsula the “Egyptian Peninsula”. If one looks at a modern Rand McNally Road map, the Sinai Peninsula is part of modern-day Egypt. However, 3,500 years ago, that was not the case.
The Bible says that once the Israelites left Succoth they were “out of Egypt” (Ex. 13: 18-20). The Land of Goshen was the eastern limits of the Land of Egypt. Apparently the fortresses on the Eastern Frontier Canal was the border between Egypt and the Sinai (Hoffmeier 1997: 164-175). Sir Flinders Petrie, the Father of Palestinian Archaeology, states that the copper and turquoise mines in Sinai were “in the desert outside the territorial border of Egypt, which passed to the east of the delta” (emphasis mine, cited in Williams 1990: 56). Ironically Williams missed the implication of this statement.
One gets the impression reading Williams, Blum and Cornuke that the Egyptians had year-round mining activities and a standing army all over Sinai (Williams 1990: 58). It is true there were turquoise mines at Serabit el-Khadem in southern Sinai (Beit-Arieh 1993:4:1335-1338). However, as Petrie (1906: viii, 169) points out, mining was seasonal, from January to April, so the Israelites would have found Sinai “quite empty” when they left Egypt. He concluded,
The argument that the Israelites would not have travelled down to the region of the Egyptian mines has no force whatever. The Egyptians never occupied that mining district with a garrison, but only sent expeditions; at the most these were in alternate years, and in the time of Merenptah only once in many years (Petrie 1906: 206).
It is also true that there were Egyptian soldiers garrisoned in fortresses in Sinai. However, those fortresses were limited to northern Sinai. Alan Gardiner, a leading Egyptologist, did an important study from the Egyptian sources of the “Ways of Horus” across the northern Sinai (1920: 99-116). An extensive survey and some excavations were conducted between 1972 and 1982 along this road in northern Sinai. The excavator concluded,
The survey results enable us for the first time to delineate the course of the "Ways of Horus" in accurate detail, and to reconstruct the history of settlement and the degree of Egyptian activity on the land bridge between the Delta and southern Canaan (Oren 1987: 76).
One can understand why
God did not lead them [the Children of Israel] by the way of the land of the Philistines [another name for the "Ways of Horus"], although that was near; for God said, "Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war [with the Egyptian garrisons], and return to Egypt (Ex. 13: 17; NKJV; the parenthetical statements are the author’s).
This verse also places the Sinai Peninsula outside the Land of Egypt. If the Children of Israel saw war with the Egyptian garrisons on the Ways of Horus in the Sinai Peninsula, they would return to Egypt. The Sinai was outside the Land of Egypt.
Another archaeologist who excavated extensively in Sinai observed,
ancient Egyptian hegemony never extended into south central Sinai. ... The Egyptians did reach the western strip of southern Sinai, where they worked the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem and similar mines at nearby Wadi Maghara. But despite the fact that south central Sinai contains copper deposits that were highly prized in ancient times, there is no evidence to indicate that the Egyptians were active in the exploitation of these copper deposits (Beit-Arieh 1988: 36).
Williams (1990: 57,58) and others wonder how the Israelites could wander in the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years without running into the Egyptians. As noted above, there were some parts of Sinai that did not have any Egyptians. It should also be kept in mind what happened at the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s elite force of 600 chariots and all his other chariots (Ex. 14:7, 9, 23-30; Josephus says that there was an additional 50,000 horsemen and 200,000 infantry, Antiquities 2:324, LCL 4: 307) were destroyed when the Red Sea collapsed on them (Ex. 14:23-30; 15:4,5).
As a result, Israel “feared and believed” the LORD (Ex. 14: 31). The Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, and Canaanites3 were afraid and trembled (Ex. 15:14-16; Josh. 2: 10). If there were any military units left in Sinai, either from an expedition to the turquoise mines in Southern Sinai or guarding the “Ways of Horus” in Northern Sinai, what Egyptian military commander in his right mind would want to confront Israel?! They understood Moses’ statement that the LORD was a “Man of War” and He was an awesome and powerful God (Ex. 15: 3,6,7; cf. 14:25 NKJV).
Cornuke raises the problem of the lack of archaeological evidence for Israel in Sinai. After citing Beit-Arieh’s 1984 article in Biblical Archaeology Review, he says,
Fifteen years of exhaustive, painstaking investigation by veteran archaeologists found nothing to suggest as many as two-and-a-half million Jewish pilgrims once flooded the Egyptian landscape. No trace of a mighty host littering the wilderness with their smoking campfires, stores of food, cook pots, and acres of pottery, ceremonial implements and utensils, weapons, jewels, trinkets, and religious objects. No evidence of huge herds, flocks, or the daily waste and abandoned junk of a wandering multitude. Nothing (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 168).
In another article, Dr. Beit-Arieh (1988: 37) reiterates the problem:
Nowhere have we found any material remains of human occupation at the time (Late Bronze Age — 1550-1200 BC) when the Exodus is supposed to have occurred.
He continues with a plausible solution to the problem, although I do not think he believes it:
Perhaps it will be argued, by those who subscribe to the traditional account in the Bible, that the Israelite material culture was only of the flimsiest kind and left no trace. Presumably the Israelite dwellings and artifacts consisted only of perishable materials (Beit-Arieh 1988: 37).
The above results are understandable under “normal” conditions. Perhaps Cornuke did not consider that when the Israelites left Egypt, they had their kneading bowls (probably made of wood); the clothes on their back and any other clothes the Egyptians gave them. They also asked for, and received, gold and silver (Ex. 3: 21,22; 11: 2,3; 12: 34,35). Josephus adds that they received vessels of brass, which were used for their manna, metals, woven fabrics, decorations for armor, beasts of burden, and military implements (Antiquities of the Jews 3: 57; LCL 4: 347). The armor they picked up after the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea (Antiquities of the Jews 3: 59; LCL 4: 347). They dwelt in tents made from goat hair, not buildings. They also had the promise of God that their clothes and sandals would not wear out (Deut. 8: 4; 29: 5,6). Most of the articles were perishable and those metal objects were closely guarded because of their value. Most likely the Israelites left their pottery in Egypt because they knew it would break so they used the brass given to them by the Egyptians. They would have had no personal religious articles because that would be idolatry. Due to the above factors, it is understandable that one would not expect to find archaeological remains. In summary, Egypt exploited the natural resources of Sinai and controlled certain roads in the northern part of the peninsula, but it was not within the borders of the Land of Egypt.
False Assumption #2: Mt. Sinai is in the Land of Midian
The second false assumption is that Mt. Sinai is located in the Land of Midian, which is identified as part of the Saudi Arabian peninsula (Williams 1990:68-74).
I would agree with the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz that Midian is in the area of northwestern Saudi Arabia today. I think most scholars would attest to that (Parr 1989: 39-66; 1996: 213-218). However, the Biblical text does not place Mt. Sinai in the Land of Midian.
In an interview with Hershel Shanks, Prof. Frank Moore Cross, retired professor of Hebrew at Harvard University opines that the mountain of God was located in the Land of Midian. When asked if he had a guess what mountain might be Mt. Sinai, he responded,
I really don’t. There are several enormous mountains in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia. Jebel el-Lawz is the highest of the mountain in Midian — 8,465 feet — higher than any mountain in the Sinai Peninsula; but biblical Mt. Sinai need not be the highest mountain. There is some reason to search for it in southern Edom, which was Midianite terrain before the expansion of the Edomites south (Shanks 1992:32).
He later put the “Midian Hypothesis” in print, but did not endorse any mountains for the location of Mt. Sinai (Cross 1998: 60-68). Yet the question is still remains, Is Mt. Sinai in Midian?
The assumption that Mt. Sinai is in Midian is based on Ex. 3:1. As Cross (1998: 61) says, “This text presumes that the mountain is in Midian territory”. It would be assumed that because Moses kept Jethro’s flock of sheep and Jethro was a Midianite. When it says “he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God,” the mountain of God must be in Midian. Williams (1990: 58) also states that Moses tended Jethro’s flock at Mt. Sinai for 40 years. First of all, it should be pointed out that the Bible, in this verse, does not state that Moses tended the flock at Mt. Sinai for 40 years, nor does it explicitly state Mt. Horeb is in Midian. Second, I think a more plausible explanation of the geography can be given. (For a moment, permit me to assume that Mt. Sinai is outside the Land of Midian. Below I will demonstrate this from Scripture).
It is important to note the chronology and context of Ex. 3:1. In Ex. 2:23 the king of Egypt, who wanted to kill Moses 40 years earlier, died (Ex. 2:15; 4:19; cf. Acts 7:23, 30). Moses, while tending the flock in Midian for most of the 40 years, heard of his death. A plausible scenario of how he heard about the death was from some frankincense caravan that was returning from Egypt to “South Arabia” (MacDonald 1995: 1357). The Children of Israel were groaning because of their bondage in Egypt and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex. 2:23-25). Moses, who had a concern for his family (Ex. 4:18) and a heart for the children of Israel, wanted to learn more about what was going on. He took Jethro’s flock to Mt. Sinai (we will assume Mt. Sinai is located at Jebel Sin Bishar in western central Sinai. This region had good pastureland and was well-watered (Har-el 1983: 425]).
It is not unusual for Bedouin shepherds to go long distances to find pasture for their flocks. I have met Bedouin shepherds who come from the Beersheva region with their flocks north of Jerusalem, a distance of over 70 miles. What better cover could Moses want than being an old shepherd tending his sheep? Moses left Egypt as a 40-year-old Egyptian administrator, most likely clean-shaven and bald.4 Now he was returning as an 80-year-old man, probably with a beard and white hair! (At least that’s what Charlton Heston looked like in “The Ten Commandments”)! Nobody would recognize him after 40 years of being away (contra Williams 1990: 59). The Angel of the LORD, however, knew who he was and appeared to him in a burning bush (Ex. 3:2 4:17). Moses returned to Jethro (in Midian) and asked his permission to return to Egypt after being away for 40 years (Ex. 4:18). Jethro granted him permission and Moses set out toward Egypt. The Lord instructed Aaron to meet his brother at the mountain of God (Ex. 4:27). The impression from the text is that Moses was almost back to Egypt when he met Aaron and not Aaron travelling all the way to Midian to meet Moses.
If one looks at the Bible carefully, it will be observed that Mt. Sinai is outside the Land of Midian. Two verses demonstrate this placement. The first is found in Exodus 18. In the context, Moses and the Children of Israel are camped at “the Mountain of God” (Mt. Sinai). Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, brings his family to visit with Moses. During the course of their stay, Jethro gives Moses some invaluable advice about governing the people. In verse 27, it states,
Then Moses let his father-in-law depart [from Mt. Sinai], and he went his way to his own land [Midian] (NKJV, parenthetical statements added by the author).
Jethro departs from Mt. Sinai to return to his own land of Midian.
The second verse that places Mt. Sinai outside the Land of Midian is found in Numbers 10. In the context, the Children of Israel are getting ready to depart from Mt. Sinai and Moses invites his brother-in-law, Hobab, to join them in going to the Promised Land (10:29). Hobab responds,
I will not go, but I will depart [from Mt. Sinai] to my own land [Midian] and to my kinsmen (10:30).
Williams (1990: 73) misses the point of this passage. He says Hobab is telling Moses “that he has no desire to leave his homeland of Midian”. Williams is assuming that Mt. Sinai is in Midian. If that were the case, Hobab would have said, “I will not depart, but stay in my own land and with my kinsmen.” However, the text is saying Hobab wants to return to his own land, the place of his birth (Midian), which can only be done by departing from Mt. Sinai, because it is outside his homeland. [My thanks to Prof. Faiman for pointing these two verses out to me. Har-el also makes this point (1983: 250)].
False Assumption #3: Galatians 4:25 says Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia
The third false assumption is that the Apostle Paul says in Gal. 4:25 that Mt. Sinai was in Saudi Arabia. Cornuke plainly states this when he says,
The apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, informs us that Mount Sinai is in Saudi Arabia. Not Egypt! (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 171).
The Bible says nothing of the sort. Granted, the Holy Spirit could have predicted the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia long before it came on the world scene. After all, He predicted Cyrus by name 210 years before he became king of Persia (Isa. 44:28; 45:1; Antiquities of the Jews 11: 5; LCL 6: 315). Yet all the Bible says is that Mount Sinai is in Arabia.
Moses never uses the word “Arab” or “Arabia” at the time he wrote the Pentateuch. The words appear later in the Bible (I Kings 10:15; II Chron. 9:14; 17:11; 21:16; 22:1; 26:7; Neh. 2:19; 4:7; 6:1; Isa. 13:20; 21:13; Jer. 3:2; 25:24; Ezek. 27:21). So the Apostle Paul does not have a Mosaic use of the word “Arabia” in mind when he uses the word in Gal. 4:25 because “Arabia” did not exist in Moses’ day.
The Galatians 4:25 reference might indeed support the view that Mount Sinai was in Saudi Arabia if the Apostle Paul was looking at a 1990 Rand McNally Atlas. However, it would not be true if he was looking at a First Century AD Roman road map. Although no actual maps of Roman Arabia exist from this period, we do possess the accounts of the contemporary travelers such as Strabo, a Greek from Pontus (64 BC to ca. AD 25). He describes the borders of Arabia as having its eastern border at the Persian Gulf and its western border at the East Side of the Nile River. This means that Strabo understood the entire Arabian Peninsula and the Sinai Peninsula to be included in First Century Arabia (Geography 16:4:2; 17:1:21,24-26,30,31; LCL VII: 309; VIII: 71-79, 85-87).
The word “Arab” first appears in an extra-Biblical inscription from a monolith found at Kurkh from the time of Shalmaneser III (853 BC). Throughout the Assyrian period, various Assyrian kings describe the activities of the Arabs, or desert nomads.
The first time the word “Arabia” is used as a term for a designated geographical area is in the mid-fifth century BC by the famous Greek historian and traveler, Herodotus (born ca. 484 BC). He traveled to Egypt and wrote about his trip in his book, The Persian Wars. In his monumental work on ancient Arabs, Dr. Israel Eph’al of Tel Aviv University, points out that
Herodotus ... calls the entire region east of the Nile and the Pelusian Branch, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, "Arabia", and its population "Arabs" (2: 8, 15, 19, 30, 75, 124, 158) (Eph’al 1982: 193).
“Now in Arabia, not far from Egypt, there is a gulf of the sea entering in from the sea called Red [the Gulf of Suez], of which the length and narrowness is such as I shalI show.” Herodotus, The Persian Wars 2:11; LCL I: 285,287.
Moreover, in the mid-third century BC, 72 Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek (known as the Septuagint) and followed the contemporary use of the word “Arabia” when they referred to Goshen as “Goshen of Arabia” (Gen. 45:10; 46:34). While Goshen is clearly part of Egypt (Gen. 37:6, 27; Ex. 9:26), the translator imposed the third century BC geographical reality on their translation.
On Egeria’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, she visited Mt. Sinai (Jebel Musa) and also the Land of Goshen (Wilkinson 1981:91-103). In Goshen, she stayed at Clysma, a “city of Arabia” (Wilkinson 1981:100). She wrote, “It gets its name from the region, which is called "the land of Arabia, the land of Goshen," a region which, while it is part of Egypt, is a great deal better than any of the rest” (1981:100,101). Egeria followed the Septuagint reading of Gen. 46:34 in her description of Goshen being in the Land of Arabia.
Therefore, when the Apostle Paul says that Mt. Sinai is in Arabia, he is using the First century AD understanding of the word. He would be perfectly correct in placing Mt. Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula because the Sinai Peninsula was part of Arabia in his day.
In conjunction with Galatians 4:25, three other verses have been used to demonstrate that Mt. Sinai was outside the Sinai Peninsula: Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4; and Habakkuk 3:3. It is stated that Seir, Mt. Paran and Teman are located in present day Jordan or even Saudi Arabia (Heiser 1998; Cross 1998).
Most scholars put the territory of Edom in the Transjordanian mountains to the east of the Aravah and northeast of the Gulf of Akaba. A careful examination of the Scriptures places it also on the west side of the Aravah (Num. 34: 3; Josh. 15:1). The area, called today the Central Negev Highlands, from the Wilderness of Zin and Kadesh Barnea, south to Eilat was also Edomite territory (Crew 1981: 121-151; Rasmussen 1989: 91; Meshel 2000: 104). If this were the case, the locations of Seir, Mt. Paran and Teman could be moved back into the Central Negev Highlands and northeast Sinai. A case can be made for Mt. Paran being in the area of Kadesh Barnea, known today as Ein Qudeirat (Num. 13: 26). Mt. Seir could be identified with the Jebel-es-Se’ira, 45 km to the west of Eilat and west of the Kadesh Barnea Eilat road (Har-el 1983: 338). Teman would be located in the area of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud where the inscriptions with the name “Yahweh of Teman” were found (Meshel 1993). If these identifications are accepted, then these passages (Deut. 33:2; Judges 5:4; Habakkuk 3:3) refer to the Lord leading the Children of Israel by the pillar of fire through the northeastern part of the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years.
Another major problem for the Jebel el-Lawz site is the statement by Moses that Mt. Horeb (another name for Mt. Sinai) is “eleven days journey from Kadesh Barnea” (Deut. 1:2). It would be impossible to march more than 2 million Israelites through the difficult terrain from Jebel el-Lawz to Kadesh Barnea in the allotted time. However, Wyatt, Williams, Blum and Cornuke all ignore this problem.
Biblical Kadesh Barnea has been located at Ein Qedis (the spring of Qedis), where the Arabic name preserves the Biblical name Kadesh, in NE Sinai. Others have placed it 10 km. to the northwest at the tel near Ein Qudeirat that has an Iron Age fortress on it. Ein Qudeirat is the richest spring in all of Sinai producing a flow of water at about 40 cubic meters per hour! (Dothan 1965: 134). In a popular article on his excavations at Kadesh Barnea, Rudolph Cohen (1981: 21) asks, “Has the site been correctly identified? If so, why have we found no remains from the Exodus period?” I believe the area is correctly identified and as suggested before, would not expect to find remains of the Israelites.
Others that place Mt. Sinai in Midian recognize the “eleven days” problem and place Kadesh Barnea near Petra. The problem with this identification is that the southern border of Israel goes from the Salt Sea (Dead Sea) to the Sea (Mediterranean Sea) via the Wilderness of Zin and Kadesh Barnea (Num. 34: 1-5; Josh. 15: 1-4). If Kadesh Barnea were in the area of Petra, then most of ancient Edom’s territory would be in Biblical Israel! Geographically that does not make any sense.
Misunderstanding the Archaeological Evidence
Those who hold to the Jebel al-Lawz site as Mt. Sinai are quick to point out the “archaeological evidence”. Their reasoning is, “Look what was found, everything fits, it must be the site”! Let’s look at the evidence and see if it really “fits”.
Survey of the Area
Our treasure hunters write as if they were the first westerners to explore Jebel al-Lawz and the surrounding area to do “research” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 2; Williams 1990: 101). Such is not the case.
In the early 1950’s, Harry St. John Philby visited the region of Midian and surveyed sites in the area. His book, The Land of Midian, was published in 1957, and
gives a detailed and reliable account of the topography of the country. ... Philby’s descriptions of such ancient sites as he knew of and visited (such as Mugha’ir Shu’ayb, Rawwafah, and Qurayyah) are also, so far as they go, accurate and useful, but unfortunately his photographs are poor, and he did not publish any plans or any of the surface sherds and other antiquities which he diligently collected during his journeying (Parr, et. al. 1968-1969: 194).
Philby (1957: 209,215) viewed Jebel al-Lawz from a distance and observed a “patch of snow” at the summit, but did not visit the mountain.
Prior to Philby’s explorations, the region had received a certain amount of attention from travellers and orientalists during the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. The early history of this activity has been recounted by Hogarth in The Penetration of Arabia (1904), and includes such names as Burckhart (1812), Ruppell (1826), Moresby and Wellsted (1831), Wallin (1848), Burton (1877), Doughty (1877/8), Huber (1878 and 1883) and Euting (1883). The construction of the Hejaz Railway between 1904 and 1908 made the area more accessible, and the opportunity to investigate was taken by such scholars as Jaussen and Savignac (1907-10), Moritz (1910), and Musil (1910) (Parr et. al. 1968-1969: 196).
Williams laments that he tried to get information on Jebel al-Lawz and the caves at al-Bad’ from people in Saudi Arabia. He claims that the government had not produced anything on these archaeological remains (1990: 183). As will be shown below, that is not the case either.
Mt. Sinai Covered with Smoke
Williams and Conuke have pictures of the summit of Jebel al-Lawz “scorched black”. Cornuke attributes this to the smoke that covered the mountain when the Lord came down on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19: 16-20). He claims that the
blackened rock had become a holy handprint for the ages. God placed his signature in heavenly flames in a fashion so electrifying, so stupefying, that man’s proud logic and science would be hard-pressed to explain it (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 77).
Williams (1990: 78) is a bit more cautious concerning this evidence.
Science may provide the answer. Cornuke (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 75) and Williams (1990: 167) brought back rocks for “future laboratory analysis”. They arranged for geologists to look at their rock samples (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 116). Researchers are interested in seeing the lab analyses, but they have been unavailable for the last 13 years. Judgment on this evidence should be withheld until the rocks have been scientifically analyzed and properly published.
The Altar of the Golden Calf
The golden calf incident is recorded in Exodus 32 (see also Deut. 9:21). When Moses did not return from his trip to Mt. Sinai, the people requested Aaron make gods for them. He obliged them by taking their earrings and fashioning them into a molded calf. When he presented the calf he said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt” (32:4). How soon he and the Children of Israel forgot the statement of the LORD that He brought them out of Egypt (Ex. 29:45,46)! The Bible says Aaron built an altar before the calf (Ex. 32:5).
Wyatt and Fasold found a huge pile of granite rocks in a plain about a quarter of a mile from the base of the mountain. On it, there were petroglyphs of bovine (bulls, cows and oxen) (Fasold 1993b: 8). Wyatt and Fasold claims that a Saudi archaeologist from Riyadh University said these were Egyptian-style cows and bulls, and that they had never been found anywhere else in Saudi Arabia (Williams 1990: 210, 211).5 However, in a later article, Fasold (1993b: 12) does not mention the archaeologist’s claim, but attributes the identification of the bovine as Hathor and Apis to Wyatt (Fasold 1993b: 8).
At Fasold’s trial, the archaeologist that represented the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia allegedly said,
These drawings are the Hathor and Apis bull from Egypt — I have never seen them in this country before (Williams 1990: 106).
No Saudi archaeologist would say such nonsense. They would be well aware of the surveys that had been done in the area and the unpublished petroglyphs. They know that bovine petroglyphs were found in the Midian area as well as other parts of the country (Livingstone et. al. 1985: 132-134; Plates 126, 127, 133; Nayeem 1990: 91, 92, 95). In all the archaeological literature that I read on rock art in Saudi Arabia, not once have I ever seen the word “Egyptian” connected with the bovine petroglyphs.
Cornuke wondered why bovine petroglyphs were found in this area. He reasoned:
This isn’t cattle country. It is sheep country and had been for as long as men had walked these plains. Saudi Arabia has never been known for cattle unless, of course, they were driven here by the fleeing Israelites (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 66).
Williams makes similar statements as well (1990: 106).
What are we to make of this “evidence”? First, the Bible clearly states that Aaron, not the Children of Israel, made the altar before the golden calf (Ex. 32:5). I find it hard to believe that he could pick up these giant boulders and put them in place to make an altar! Cornuke believed that this “huge mound of stacked granite” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 64) was built by “workers skilled in the art of building cities and moving mountains” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 65). This view is contrary to the Scriptures. Aaron built the altar, not the Israelites.
Second, one Saudi archaeologist who did his doctoral thesis on Saudi Arabian rock art dates the “patched bovine” to the Neolithic period (Khan 1991: 115; plate 1). The Neolithic period is considerably earlier than the Late Bronze Age and the date of the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, it has nothing to do with the livestock the Israelites brought out of Egypt (Ex. 12: 38; 17:3; Num. 20:19; 32:1; Deut. 3:19).
Third, during the Neolithic period there was much more rainfall in Saudi Arabia than at the present (Ingraham 1981: 62). Thus there would be ample grazing places for cattle then. One does not have to make the assumption the Israelites drove the livestock to Saudi Arabia.
Fourth, let’s assume for a minute that this was the site of the golden calf (However, I do not believe it is). Moses destroyed the golden calf because it was an idol. He would also have erased the petroglyphs of the bovine because they were graven images. Petroglyphs would be totally contrary to the Law that Moses had just received from the Lord on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20:4).6 To answer Cornuke’s question, “Had we really stumbled upon the altar of the golden calf?” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000:67). The simple answer is no.
Cave of Moses
Some two kilometers south of the town of al-Bad’ are caves called by the local people the caves of Moses and Jethro. Philby (1957: 214) records the local tradition at Bir al Saidni “as the very (well) from which Moses rolled away the stone to draw water for the flocks of Jethro’s daughters” (cf. Ex. 2:15-19). Cornuke (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 89-104; plate 13) and Williams (1990: 177-183; pictures 17-19) tell of their adventures in the al-Bad’ area.
It should surprise no one that there are traditions that Moses and Jethro lived in the area, after all, this is in the Land of Midian (Ex. 2:15; Acts 7:29). The traditions stem from the fact that there were early Jewish traditions of them in the area (Kerkeslager 1998: 156-158), a Jewish community at the town of Makna to the southwest of al-Bad’ on the coast in the 9th century AD (cf. Acts 2: 11; Musil 1926: 114, 115) and the Moslem tradition that Moses was one of their prophets (Bosworth 1984). However, the interpretations that Williams and Cornuke put on these caves do not stand up to the facts. First, it is claimed that Moses and his family lived in these caves (Blum 1998a: plate 2; Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 103). Second, Cornuke relates that the local tradition states that Jethro and Zipporah were buried in these caves based on some inscriptions found in them (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 99). Williams (1990: 192) reluctantly came to the conclusion that these were burial caves. Unfortunately they give no serious consideration to the dating of these burial caves. The closest they come is to Williams’ (1990: picture 19) claims that they have “Egyptian fronts”. What are the facts?
The region around al-Bad’ as well as these caves have been explored, surveyed, photographed and published long before Williams and Cornuke ever visited the area (Musil 1926: 108-116; Philby 1957: 233, 257-262; Parr et. al. 1971: 30-35; plate 12-17). The caves are called “Magha’ir Shu’ayb“ (the Caves of Jethro) and are in reality, Nabatean tombs dating to the 1st century AD. They are not Midianite tombs dating to the Late Bronze Age. The so-called “Egyptian front” is similar to what tourists see on the Nabatean tombs of Petra when they visit that site. As for the inscriptions, Musil (1926: 112) found five tombs with them but no mention of Moses, Jethro or Zipporah. Later, a British team of archaeologists resurveyed the tombs and found four inscriptions and published them, again saying nothing about Moses, Jethro or Zipporah (Parr, et. al. 1971: 32, 59). The caves are much later than the time of Moses and have nothing to do with the Exodus narratives.
The Altar of Moses and the 12 Pillars
The Bible says that Moses got up early one morning and built an altar at the base of the Mt. Sinai and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex. 24: 4).
At the base of Jebel al-Lawz is an enigmatic stone structure. It is comprised pf three parallel V-shaped stone walls (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: plate 11 top, 12 top). The Vs are at a 45 degree angle and measures 120 feet in length (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 86). This complex has been identified as an “angular stone altar” (ibid), trenches where they held the animals for sacrifice (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: plate 12 top), or a temple (Williams 1990: 208, 211; Fasold 1993a: 10).
Dr. Majeed Kahn, a Saudi archaeologist who worked on the survey of the area, has informed me that these are the remains of the living quarters for the miners of a marble quarry in the area. The pottery collected at the site dates to the Nabatean period second century BC-first century AD). “White crude marble” pillars were prepared there and exported to Petra for the buildings in that city. These pillars are not to be identified as the 12 pillars representing the 12 tribes of Israel as Williams (1990: 212) claims.
Williams (1990: 97) states that the
local Bedouins tell us the stones had been removed to Haql for a temple or monument erected by Solomon or Sulliman.
Fasold reported that some of the stones were removed in the 1930’s to build a mosque in Haql (1993a:10). Elsewhere he says,
There was mention that the temple was put there by Sulliman, I think the name could have been Solomon (Williams 1990: 211).
In a later publication, Fasold reported that their Bedouin guide, Ibrahim, claimed Suleyman erected the temple. He then goes on to say,
It wasn’t long before Ron [Wyatt] had the story elaborated into the temple being built by Solomon and Suleyman tearing it down to build the mosque, without a shred of evidence... (Fasold 1993a: 10).
The only way the dating of this structure will be resolved is by an archaeological excavation.
To add some confusion to the finds in the area, Wyatt and Fasold found large circular structures some 18 feet in diameter in the immediate area (Williams 1990: 208-210; picture 3; Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 124). Williams (1990: picture 3) says they are the 12 pillars representing the tribes of Israel, but Cornuke discounts that and says they are either ceremonial platforms or large cisterns (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 124). From the photographs and drawings, they look to me like the cairns, large stone circles probably connected with burials that are typical to the northwest Saudi Arabian area. The date and function of the cairns are unknown (Ingraham et. al. 1981: 69-71). Similar structures have been found elsewhere in the Levant. Mordechai Haiman, the excavator and surveyor of the cairn fields in the western Negev Highland in Israel, states that those cairns generally dated to the Early Bronze age “were not burial sites, but were probably used in a death ritual” (1992: 25). I would also place the so-called “boundary stones” (Ex. 19:12) in the same category (Williams 1990: 63; Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 85,86; plate 10 bottom; Blum 1998: plate 6 bottom).
Dr. Khan informs me that a book on the rock art and archaeology of the al-Bad’ area is in preparation by the Saudi Department of Archaeology. It will have a chapter on the archaeology of the Jebel al-Lawz area. We eagerly await this publication for a more definitive explanation of the archaeological remains.
The Split Rock at Horeb
Deuteronomy 9:21 says there is a “brook that descended from the mountain” into which Moses threw the gold dust from the golden calf. Cornuke and Williams found a large ravine that snakes down the mountain. Cornuke observed,
The ancient watershed — a chalky, blister-dry remnant of a bygone wellspring — was filled with large, water-polished boulders, clear evidence of a fast-rushing torrent. In a land that receives half an inch of rain per decade, it was proof that a stream of some magnitude had once caressed these rocks (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 82).
They also show a picture of a rock that is split 20 inches apart and suggest this is the rock the Moses struck (Ex. 17:2-6; Ps. 78: 15, 16, 20; 105:41; Cornuke 2000: plates 8 and 9).
Is this evidence of the split rock at Horeb? First, one should be cautious about making dogmatic statements based on photographs until a team of geologists is able to examine the rock closely. Second, Cornuke implies that the smooth rock was a result of the “river” flowing from the split rock because the area only gets a half-inch of rain per decade. While the area is classified as an arid desert, it does get 100 mm (4 inches) or less rain per year that comes in the form of tropical monsoons (Ingraham et. al. 1981: 62). In Philby’s (1957: 205-228) account of his travels to the Midian Valley, he mentioned heavy rains and floods. Those people familiar with desert geology know that flash floods can provide the mechanism to polish the rocks (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: plate 8, bottom).
One of the reasons the treasure hunters went to the mountain was to look for the gold and silver that the Children of Israel took from the Egyptians as they departed Egypt (Ex. 3:22; 11:2; 12:35,36). Fasold claims that his “molecular frequency generator” (MFG) produced readings that indicated the whole area was “loaded with buried gold — the gold of the Exodus” (Blum 1998: 59). He also claims that his MFG device picked up gold readings in the area of the “golden calf altar” (Williams 1990: 107,108; Fasold 1993b: 8). Is this possible? Gold in this area should not surprise any geologist or archaeologist. The Land of Midian was noted for its gold mines! In 1982 (before the treasure hunters showed up), a survey was done in the Jebel al-Lawz area and two gold deposits were discovered. One at J. Maqda Ar Rahyat (site 200-1004), northwest of Jebel el-Lawz and another in the Wadi Maswat (site 200-1003), on the southwest slopes of the mountain (Kisnawi, et al. 1983: 82, plate 79). The surveyors indicate that one of the places gold is found is in alluvial deposits found in pits in the wadi (dry river bed). The miner just sifts the gravel or sand to find the gold (1983: 77). Fasold had set up his MFG device about 50 feet from the edge of the wadi (Blum 1998a: 53). Samran’s workers were digging in the wadi when they allegedly discovered the “gold bracelet” (1998a: 58). One “braclet” is insufficient evidence to claim that the gold of the Exodus is located at Jebel al-Lawz.
Why is the area fenced in?
The question has been raised, “If the area is not an important historical site, then why is it fenced in? What are they trying to prevent people from seeing?
In most countries, it is standard practice to fence in archaeological sites. There are at least four reasons why archaeologists fence in any given site. (1) To protect the sites from animals. In the case of Jebel al-Lawz they might be concerned about sheep and goats knocking down the walls of the “v-shaped altar”. (2) To prevent military maneuvers from running over an archaeological site. (3) To protect the archaeological site from trespassers and vandals. (4) To prevent illegal excavations by treasure hunters. It seems reasonable to assume that the Saudi Department of Antiquities fenced in the sites after the first set of treasure hunters visited it because they were concerned others might follow. As it turned out, they were right.
The Saudis are also members of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). This is an “international non-governmental organization of professionals, dedicated to the conservation of [the] world’s historic monuments and sites.”7
To answer the questions raised above, the Saudis were protecting the sites and have nothing to hide. In fact, they should be commended for fencing in the sites to protect the world’s historic sites and cultural heritage.
The Conclusion of the Matter
Contrary to their claims and the dust jacket endorsements that calls their evidence “overwhelming” and “scholarly” the case for Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia has not been made. The identification of Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia is not new. Other scholars and explorers have identified different mountains in Midian as Mt. Sinai and such identifications have long ago received proper scholarly assessment. For example, Dr. Menashe Har-el, one of Israel’s leading geographers and an expert on the Sinai Peninsula, and for many years professor of Historical and Biblical Geography at Tel Aviv University, researched these questions several decades ago in his doctoral dissertation at New York University. He reworked his dissertation and published it under the title The Sinai Journeys, The Route of the Exodus. In this book, Har-el (1983: 242-275) spends a whole chapter refuting the idea that Mt. Sinai is in Midian (Saudi Arabia).8
Professor Har-el also sets forth a very plausible alternative for the identification of Mt. Sinai. He proposed Mt. Sinai should be located at Jebel Sin Bishar in western central Sinai. This proposal is followed in the Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible (Rasmussen 1989: 88-90). In the next article, Professor David Faiman (1986, 1989, 1994) of Ben Gurion University of the Negev will discuss Har-el’s proposal.
Simply stated, Mt. Sinai should be located in the Sinai Peninsula right where the Bible places it, not in Saudi Arabia.
Recommended Resource for Further Study
Biblical archaeologists have gathered archaeologist data with painstaking effort and scholarship. Their work validates the accuracy of the Bible. Yet mostly within a single decade, Ron Wyatt sought out and claimed the most amazing Biblical sites and relics. The sensational discoveries claimed by Wyatt number nearly 100 and include such things as the Ark of the Covenant, anchor stones from Noah's Ark, a book of the law written by Moses, and the original Ten Commandments in stone. Also Christ's literal living blood, fences from Noah's farm, the Golden Censer, Goliath's sword, the graves of Korah and friends, the Table of Showbread, and the wheels of Pharaoh's chariots (Standish, pages 7-10). These are only the beginning. It is unfortunate for those who love the Bible that all of these incredible claims are almost certainly fraudulent. A great criticism leveled at Mr. Wyatt has been that his "evidence" has generally been in the form of either photographs or nonconclusive specimens, which may or may not have come from the source he claims. His "findings" have not been given independent confirmation by other researchers with specialized training in the fields of archaeology and related sciences, which Mr. Wyatt (a nurse anesthetist by profession) did not have (he died in 1999). This lack of specific education by itself would not invalidate his findings if they could be supported by others, but they cannot. In this book, the Standish brothers examine the Wyatt claims in-depth, going beyond his videotaped claims. These findings can serve as a benchmark upon which Ron Wyatt's "discoveries" can be more carefully evaluated. In 58 easily-read chapters the Standishs meticulously, painstakingly examine in detail all of Wyatt's claims.
The archaeologists in his own denomination, the Seventh Day Adventist, do not support his views. One can contact Dr. David Merling at the Institute of Archaeology, Horn Archaeological Museum, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104-0990 for a prepared packet with articles refuting some of his ideas. Two other SDA researchers have evaluated Wyatt's ideas and found them wanting (Standish and Standish 1999). Another balanced review of Ron Wyatt's claims can be found on Bill Crouse's,"Christian Information Ministries" website
Some have questioned the validity of this claim (Fasold 1993a:6,7; Anonymous 1999: 13).
Midian is left out of this list because Moses was related to Jethro by marriage.
Egyptian tomb paintings depict administrative officials with shaved heads.
This information was also found on Wyatt's web site.
My thanks to Jeffrey J. Harrison for pointing this out. See his web site: www.totheends.com.
Their web site is www.icomos.org.
For other arguments against the "Midian Hypothesis" see "Problems with Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia" by Brad Sparks at www.ldolphin.org/sinai.html