The Exodus - Finding Mt. Sinai (3/3)
Knowing that the Exodus happened in 1446/5 B.C, under the reign of Pharaoh Thutmosis III, there is just one last riddle on the historicity of the Exodus. Where was Mt. Sinai?
This question seems very trivial, and in some ways, it is. But in terms of historicity and the reliability of the Biblical Scriptures, it is not. Let me explain:
The Bible tells us that Moses and the Israelites wandered 40 years in "the wilderness" before finally entering the Land of Canaan where they settled for good. We know that the Land of Canaan is modern-day Israel and the West Bank/Palestine - but we still don't know where the "wilderness" is.
In the wilderness, Moses received the Ten Commandments by God on top of Mount Sinai. Mt. Sinai is clearly very Holy Ground for Jews, Christians and Muslims - a mountain worthy to be found. In order to find it, therefore, we (1) first need to identify where "the wilderness" is, and (2.) where the mountain is.
Scholars have usually ascribed "the wilderness" to the Sinai peninsula, and identified a specific mountain there - Jabal Musa - as Mt. Sinai. But having the Sinai peninsula as "the wilderness" is very problematic:
The Israelites must have walked on the relatively small peninsula in loops for 40 years. That seems extremely odd and unlikely, especially when it takes about three to four weeks of circling the entire peninsula.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were pursued by an army of Egyptian chariots who wanted to capture them. They therefore needed to escape Egyptian troops. However, at the time of Pharaoh Thutmosis III, the entire Sinai peninsula was controlled by the Egyptian army and was used for mining important minerals and stones. It would be unthinkable for the Israelites to linger on in Egyptian-controlled territory for 40 years after their escape.
The Israelites crossed the Red Sea when escaping the Egyptian chariots. However, there is no way of crossing the Red Sea in Gulf of Suez (from Egyptian mainland to the Sinai peninsula), because the sea has a drop of hundreds of metres on both banks. Even if the sea was parted (as the Bible affirms), it would be impossible to walk down such a steep path, especially with a baggage train.
According to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites to the lands of Midian, and then onwards into the wilderness. He received the Ten Commandments at the same mountain where he first encountered God in Midian. Mt. Sinai must therefore be around Midian, and the lands of Midian are not on the Sinai peninsula.
These concerns have made scholars consider the Biblical account simply unreliable. But is the Bible really unreliable, or is it our assumption of the Sinai peninsula as "the wilderness" that's wrong? I think it's the latter.
If we revisit the points above, we diagnose the conditions we need to establish the correct wilderness:
It must be a much larger and wider territory that's possible to wander in for 40 years.
It must be outside Egyptian territory or out of reach of Egyptian armies (Exodus 19:1).
It must be by the Red Sea, but allow a crossing point that's shallow enough for a large population to cross if the water is parted.
It must be beyond the land of Midian.
Those who know their maps well will realize where this leads us to: the Arabian peninsula. It is a massive, desert territory (1) far beyond Egyptian borders (2) and is by the Red Sea (3) and includes the land of Midian (4).
So how did the Israelites arrive there? If the Red Sea truly split to form a corridor through which the Israelites could pass, then we need a passing point that is shallow enough for the Israelites to walk through.
Scholars of various disciplines have investigated this and found a very interesting pass by Sharm El-Sheik (Egypt), namely, the Strait of Tiran. The Strait is much shallower and includes two islands (Tiran island and Sanafir island). Theoretically, if the sea parted here, then a very convenient corridor could appear from Sharm El-Sheik to Tiran island, then Sanafir island, and then the Arabian peninsula, landing in Hamid. We may never know, of course (and its difficult to perform archaeological studies on this Strait due to the maritime traffic), but this is at least the best and most likely crossing point if the sea were to be parted at a particular point.
If one crosses the Strait of Tiran, one would arrive exactly at the Land of Midian.
We therefore have a route that fits perfectly with the Biblical narrative: The Israelites escaped Egypt and rushed through the Sinai peninsula while chased by chariots. They reached Sharm El-Sheik where the sea parted at the delicate point connecting the islands to form a corridor to Arabia.
This means that the true Mt. Sinai, according to this theory, is somewhere close to the land of Midian in Arabia!
"Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children." (Galatians 4:25)
So where does the idea that the Sinai peninsula is "the wilderness" come from? This is unclear, but is likely to originate in the 6th century A.D. A Christian monastery was erected on what was then believed to be Mt. Sinai. There is also a mosque there. Later, the entire peninsula got its name from the now-famous mountain. Therefore, when the Bible mentions Mt. Sinai, modern scholars immediately place it on the peninsula without thinking further.
If this theory is correct, then we may begin searching for Mt. Sinai in Saudi-Arabia. We may even find remains of the Israelite people in the desert there. This adds much more validity to the Exodus story and places it in a more reliable context.
Close to Midian there is a tall mountain that many now claim is Mt. Sinai - Jabal Al-Lawz. Interestingly, the summit of the mountain is completely burned black - a trait no other mountains have in the area, let alone the peninsula. Without digressing too much into religious themes, this burned summit does correspond to the events recorded in ancient Jewish Scripture.
Photos of the now-popular "Mt. Sinai": Mt Sinai - Mount Sinai of Saudi Arabia (biblemountains.com)