Mount Sinai looms over Judaism much as it loomed over the encamped Israelites of the Exodus. The Ten Commandments, handed down from God on that peak, are central not only to rabbinic law but also to both Christianity and Islam.
Curiously, though, the location of Mount Sinai is unknown. Nor is it certain whether it’s the same mountain as the scriptural “Horeb.” It never became an object of Jewish pilgrimage, and the peak known today as “Jebel Musa,” “Mount Moses,” has few if any scholarly advocates and no archaeological or historical support. Traditions identifying it as the site of Moses’ reception of the law arose no earlier than the fourth Christian century — more than 1,500 years after the Israelite exodus. It’s not even the tallest mountain in the area.
Many peaks have been proposed to replace it. A participant at a recent academic conference in Israel devoted to the question noted that there were nearly as many rival candidates offered as there were presenters at the meeting. (A good short account of the current state of the debate, written following the Israeli conference, is “Where is Mount Sinai?” in the March/April 2014 issue of the “Biblical Archaeology Review.”)
Emmanuel Anati, for example, a combative 83-year-old, has contended for decades that the “real” Mount Sinai is Har Karkom, a high ridge in Israel’s Negev Desert. I put “real” in quotation marks because his theory presupposes that the story of the Exodus never actually occurred, that it was just later fiction set at Har Karkom. He’s obliged to take this position partly because, although it features many artifacts dating from the centuries before and after, his site is archaeologically barren during the likely period of the Exodus.
Anati’s theory seems to suffer from a large number of problems. Accordingly, it hasn’t been well received by other scholars. In fact, reviews of his work have sometimes been surprisingly harsh — as have been his replies.
In the early 20th century, however, the great German scholar Eduard Meyer proposed that the site for Horeb/Sinai should be sought within what is today known as Saudi Arabia. (This is the same Eduard Meyer who, in 1904, took a year’s leave from the University of Berlin in order to write a book titled “The Origin and History of the Mormons.”) When he proposed this “Midianite hypothesis,” as it has come to be called, there was no archaeological evidence to support it, merely his careful reading of the Old Testament.
I pause here to note that this is often how science and scholarship proceed. The neat model in which explanations simply emerge from the objective accumulation of data doesn’t always reflect what actually happens. Intuition often precedes firm evidence. Einstein introduced his General Theory of Relativity, for example, in 1915 with little support in the data. Only through the solar eclipse of 1919 were Arthur Eddington and others able to provide crucial supporting evidence.
As the British scientist Peter Medawar wrote in his “Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought” (1969), “Deductivism in mathematical literature and inductivism in scientific papers are simply the postures we choose to be seen in when the curtain goes up and the public sees us. The theatrical illusion is shattered if we ask what goes on behind the scenes. In real life, discovery and justification are almost always different processes.”
The “Midianite hypothesis” has attracted notable scholarly support since Meyer suggested it. (Speculation seems to focus upon Jebel al-Lawz — at 8,465 feet, the tallest mountain in Midian.) Archaeological remains from the presumed period of the Exodus are abundant there.
Even geology may point toward Midian. The fire, smoke and shaking referred to in Exodus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 5:22-24 suggest volcanic activity — which is utterly invisible at the traditional Mount Sinai but well represented in Midian. Notably, too, when Elijah returned to Horeb, “the mount of God,” “the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12; compare the storms, fire, earthquakes and “small” voice of 3 Nephi).
Many archaeological questions, even in the intensively studied world of the Bible, remain open — and fascinating.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.