1902 Encyclopedia > Sinai


SINAI. In judging of the points of controversy connected with Sinai we are brought face to face with the question of the historicity of the Hebrew records involved. Though new attempts to fix the stations of the wilderness wandering appear every year, critics have long agreed that the number of forty for the years of wandering and for the stations are round numbers, and that the details are not based on historical tradition of the Mosaic age. This does not exclude the possibility that the names of some or all of the stations belong to real places and are based on more or less careful research on the part of the writers who record them. As regards the Mountain of the Law in particular, if the record of Exod. xix. sq. is strictly historical, we must seek a locality where 600,000 fighting men, or some two million souls in all, could encamp and remain for some time, finding pasture and drink for their cattle, and where there was a mountain (with a wilderness at its foot) rising so sharply that its base could be fenced in, while yet it was easily ascended, and its summit could be seen by a great multitude below. In the valley there must have been a flowing stream. The peninsula of Sinai does not furnish any locality where so great a host could meet under the conditions specified, and accordingly many investigators give up the statistics of the number of Hebrews and seek a place that fulfils the other conditions. But when we consider that the various records embodied in the PENTATEUCH (q.v.) were composed long after the time of Moses, and that the authors in all probability never saw Sinai, and had no exact topographical tradition to fall back on, but could picture to themselves the scene of the events they recorded only by the aid of imagination, the topographical method of identifying the Mountain of the Law becomes very questionable. The Pentateuchal writers are not at one even about the name of the mountain. It used to be thought that Horeb was the name of the mountain mass as a whole, or of its southern part, while Sinai was the Mountain of the Law proper, but it has been shown by Dillmann that the Elohist and Deuteronomy always use the name Horeb for the same mountain which the Jahvist and the Priestly Code call Sinai. The Elohist belonged to Northern Israel, but Judges v. 5 shows that even in Northern Israel the other name Sinai was not unknown. And it might be shown, though that cannot be done here, that the several accounts vary not only as regards the name but in topographical details. Thus all that can be taken as historically fixed is that after leaving Goshen the Hebrews abode for some time near a mountain called Sinai or Horeb (cf. ISRAEL, vol. xiii. p. 396), and that this mountain or range was held to be holy as a seat of the Deity (Exod. ii. 1, 1 Kings xix.).

Where, then, was this mountain? The Midianites, of whom according to one source Jethro was priest, probably always lived east of the Gulf of 'Akaba; yet we can hardly follow Beke in seeking Sinai beyond that gulf, but must rather think of some point in the so-called peninsula of Sinai, which lies between the Gulfs of Akaba and Suez, bounded on the N. by the Wilderness el-Tíh, which slopes gently towards the Mediterranean. To the south of this wilderness rises the Jebel el-Tíh, a mass composed mainly of Nubian sandstone and cretaceous limestone, which attains in fantastic forms an altitude of some 3000 feet; its ridges converge towards the south and are cut off by great valleys from the mass now known as Mount Sinai. The latter is composed of primitive rocks,—granite, porphyry, diorite, gneiss, &c. The sandstones of Jebel el-Tíh are rich in minerals; inscriptions of Amenophis III. and Thothmes III. found on the spot show that the ancient Egyptians got emerald, malachite, and kupfergrün at Sarbút al-Khádem; and still older are the turquoise and copper mines of Maghára, where inscriptions occur bearing the names of kings from Senefru and Cheops down to Rameses II. These mines were worked by criminals and prisoners of war, and the waste products of copper foundries indicate that the peninsula was once better wooded than now, of which indeed we have express testimony of post-Christian date. At present the dominant feature is bare walls of rock, especially in the primitive formations ; the steep and jagged summits have a striking effect, which is increased by the various colours of the rock and the clearness of the atmosphere. The deep-cut valleys are filled by rushing torrents after rain, but soon dry up again. In the south the centre of the main mountain mass is Mount Catherine (8540 feet), Omm Shomar to the south-east being little lower ; this peak and north of it Mount Serbal (6750 feet), which rises more immediately from the plain, dominate the Ka'ah, a waste expanse of sand strown with pebbles, which occupies the south-west margin of the peninsula. In the Kâ'ah is the village of Tur, and at the southern promontory (Ras Mohammed) is the little hamlet of Sherm. The Sinai group as a whole is called by the Arabs Jebel al-Túr; the name Sina in Arabic comes only from books. The area of the peninsula is about 11,200 square miles, the population is four to five thousand souls, chiefly Bedouins of various tribes, whose common name, derived from Tiir, is Towara. They have sheep and goats, with which they retire in summer to the higher lands, where there is good pasture ground, and where springs are comparatively common. On the chalk and sandstone water is scarcer than among the primitive rocks, and often brackish. Though the rocks are bare, there is always vegetation in the dales, especially acacias and tamarisks; from the latter (T. mannifera) manna is still derived in quantities that vary with the rainfall. On the hills grow aromatic plants, especially Thymaceae. The fauna includes the ibex, hyrax, and hyagna; the panther too is sometimes found. Flights of quail have been observed. In some valleys there are well-kept gardens and good date-palms; the most noted oasis is that of Feiran, in the north-west of the peninsula, which is watered by a perennial stream. Whether Feiran is the Rephidim of Exod. xvii. is a question which, like the identification of the other stations of the Israelites, depends on the localization of the Mountain of the Law.

There is no genuine pre-Christian tradition on this subject. The chief authority for the ancient sanctity of Mount Sinai is Antoninus Martyr (end of the 6th century), who tells that the heathen Arabs in his time still celebrated a moon feast there. As sín means "moon," this feast has been connected with the name of Sinai, but the proposed etymology is not certain. Of heathen origin, too, are the many Nabataean inscriptions (see NABATAEANS) of Sinai, found especially in the Wady Mokatteb (in the north-west), and sometimes accompanied by rude drawings. The language and character are Aramaic, but the proper names are mainly those of Arabs, who passing by graved their names on the rocks. That they were pilgrims to Sinai cannot be made out with certainty. The inscriptions date from the early years of the Christian era, when the Nabataaan kingdom was at its height.

In early Christian times many anchorites inhabited Sinai, living for the most part in the caves, which are numerous even in the primitive rocks. Then monasteries were built, the most famous being the great one of St Catherine in Wády el-Dér (the valley of the monastery). On Serbal, too, there were many granite dwellings, and in the neighbouring Pharan (Phoenicion), which was a bishop's see, there were, as the ruins show, churches and convents.

The question then is whether when the hermits first settled in the peninsula there existed a tradition as to the place of the Mountain of the Law, and whether they chose for their residence a spot which was already traditionally consecrated by memories significant to the Christian as well as to the Jew. No assertion of the existence of such a tradition is to be found in Josephus, who only says that Sinai was the highest mountain of the district—a description which might apply to Serbál as seen from the plain below. Eusebius uses expressions which may also seem to point to Serbal as the place of the law-giving, and it must be admitted that the tradition which seeks the holy site in the group of Jebel Músá (i.e., the mass of which Mount Catherine is the highest peak) is not older than the time of Justinian, so that the identification with Mount Serbál seems to have greater antiquity in its favour. In later times Jebel Musa and Serbal had each its own tradition, and the holy places were pointed out at each; thus from the monastery of St Catherine a path of granite steps was constructed up to "the Mountain of the Law," but similar steps are found at Serbál. That these traditions are not decisive, however, is admitted, more or less, even by those moderns who, like Lepsius, Ebers, Bartlett, give their voice for Serbál. Most authorities still prefer Jebel Musa or some point in that group, but they again differ in details. First of all there is much difficulty in determining the route by which the Hebrews approached the mountain. Then comes the question of finding a suitable plain for their encampment under the mountain, which is best met if, with Robinson, Stanley, Palmer, and others, the plain is taken to be that of al-Ráhe and the overhanging mountain to be Jebel Sufsáfeh. The latter is over 6300 feet high, and consists of pasture ground; it does not fit all the details in Exodus, but this objection is quite strong against the traditional site on Jebel Músá (Mount Moses), which lies farther to the south. Jebel Músá has been accepted by Tischendorf, Laborde, Ritter, Strauss, Farrar, and many others; on this view the Israelites must have encamped in the narrow Wády al-Seba'iyeh, north of the mount. But the absence of exact topographical detail on the part of the Biblical narrators, who always speak of Sinai as if it were a single summit and give no hint about several summits of which it is one, shows that in their time there was no real tradition on the matter, and that all attempts at identification are necessarily vain.

Literature.—Burckhardt, Travels in Syria, &c., London, 1822; Leon de Laborde, Voyage de I'Arabie Petrée, Paris, 1830-36; Robinson, Biblical Researches, London, 1841; Lepsius, Reise, Berlin, 1845 ; Stanley, Sinai and Palestine; Fraas, Aus d. Orient, Stuttgart, 1867 ; Ordnance Survey of the Pen. of Sinai, Southampton, 1869, 3 vols.; Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, Cambridge, 1871; Ebers, Durch Gosen zum Sinai, 2d ed., Leipsic, 1881; Baker Greene, The Hebrew Migration, London, 1883 ; Hull, Mount Seir, Sinai, and West Palestine, London, 1885. See also the Palestine Society's Quarterly Statement, passim. (A. SO.)

The above article was written by: Prof. Albrecht Socin, University of Tübingen.

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