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Moses and Mount Sinai

The location of Mount Sinai. Where is the real Mount Sinai? For centuries, scholars, explorers, and pilgrims have sought the location of the real Mount Sinai-Horeb, the mountain of God-from the biblical story of Moses and the Exodus.

The traditional site called "Mount Sinai" is in the south central Sinai Peninsula, west of the Gulf of Aqaba. It would seem that the only reason the traditional site is designated "Mount Sinai" is that Helena, mother of Constantine I, decreed it as such in the early 300s AD.

Several other proposed sites for the real Mount Sinai have been suggested over the years, but no hard evidence has been produced by scholars or archaeologists to date. Perhaps the secret to Mount Sinai's location is in the scriptures. Consider the following:

Exodus 3:1 plainly identifies Mount Horeb (Sinai) as being in Midian, east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in what is now Saudi Arabia: "Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God." There is a general consensus today that the biblical Midian was located in what is now Saudi Arabia-again, east of the Gulf of Aqaba. The traditional site for Mount Sinai on the Sinai Peninsula has nothing to do geographically with the "back" of a desert. By contrast, certain mountains in Saudi Arabia are on the far side or margin of a vast desert in ancient Midian.

Exodus 2:15 reveals more. After killing an Egyptian, Moses fled Egypt for safer ground. "When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian." Egypt and its holdings would not have been a safe redoubt. He would not have fled to the Sinai Peninsula, where archaeology shows that Pharaoh had multiple mining interests and military outposts. The Bible is clear that Moses went out of Egypt, to the land of Midian east of the Gulf of Aqaba.

The Bible makes several references to Moses's returning to Egypt from Midian, including Exodus 4:19, where we read: "Now the Lord had said to Moses in Midian, 'Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.'" All passages associated with Moses's stay in Midian point toward present-day Saudi Arabia as the area to which Moses fled, subsequently met God at the burning bush, and then returned to Egypt and the children of Israel.

In the New Testament, Paul wrote the phrase in Galatians 4:25: "Mount Sinai in Arabia . . .." As a "Hebrew of Hebrews," Paul's understanding of Arabia would have been one that was consistent with Old Testament passages like 1 King 10:15; 2 Chronicles 9:14; Isaiah 21:13; Jeremiah 25:24; and Ezekiel 27:21, in which Arabia is clearly identified with the region east of the Gulf of Aqaba, where "kings" ruled and the "Dedanites" co-dwelt with other nomadic peoples.

So, where is the real Mount Sinai? We simply cannot be sure, but many evidences seem to point away from the traditional Mount Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula and toward the mountains of Saudi Arabia.

Moses's audiences with the Lord. Moses's first direct epiphany or audience with the Lord took place in Midian, on the slopes of Mount Sinai where Moses was attracted to a bush which continually burned but was not consumed (Exodus 3:1-6). The Lord called Moses to deliver Israel out of captivity. The eighty year old Moses was a spiritual adolescent, and it appears that the Lord began a series of visits with Moses during which Moses was instructed spiritually by the Lord. These may well have occurred on Mount Sinai. The only account of these "visions" or audiences with the Lord are contained in Moses 1. Moses 1:1 may refer to this period in Moses's life when it says: "The words of God, which he spake unto Moses at a time when Moses was caught up into an exceedingly high mountain, And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence."

About two months after the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, they arrived and camped in the wilderness of Sinai at the foot of Mount Sinai. Subsequently Moses was to make several journeys up onto the mountain to communicate with the Lord. These will each be summarized briefly.

1. Shortly after the Israelites' arrival at Sinai, Moses was invited up onto the mountain to discuss with the Lord the possibility of the Israelites' making solemn covenants with the Lord that would enable them to become "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:6) akin to the covenants which Enoch's people made with the Lord.

After returning to the people and reporting this conversation, the people agreed to do all that they were asked by the Lord.

2. Moses returned to the mount to report his people's favorable response to the Lord's offer. While there, the Lord instructed Moses to return to his people and have them sanctify and prepare themselves by washing their clothes, and that on the third day the Lord would appear to Moses's people to prove his reality to them (Exodus 19:10-11). The Lord also warned the people not to set foot on the mountain. On the third day, the Lord did appear to the people in the form of "thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud" (Exodus 19:16).

3. During these miraculous manifestations, Moses was invited back up onto the mountain. On arriving at the top of the mount, the Lord immediately sent him back down the mountain to warn his people not to attempt to start up the mountain. Before Moses departed again for the base of the mountain, the Lord promised to allow Moses's brother Aaron to come up onto the mountain with him. After Moses returned to his people, the miraculous demonstration by the Lord continued, and the Lord spoke so that all could hear him and gave unto them the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).

4. Moses then immediately re-ascended the mount, and the Lord revealed to him his laws concerning the behavior of the people of Israel (Exodus 21-23). By these laws, Moses would govern and judge his people. The Lord then invited Moses to return again up the mountain and this time bring with him Aaron, two of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel. These would be allowed to ascend only part way up the mountain. Moses returned to his people who entered into a covenant to obey the laws of the Lord.

5. Then Moses returned to the mountain, this time accompanied by Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel. God showed himself to these 73 men. The men were then commanded to wait while Moses and Joshua ascended up farther onto the mountain. Joshua was allowed to ascend part way to the top, and then he was also asked to tarry while Moses completed the journey to the top. On the top of the mount, Moses waited six days before the Lord manifest himself. Moses was on top of the mountain for forty days where he received the tablets containing the Ten Commandments written by the finger of the Lord. He also received the plans for a portable temple or tabernacle and the temple ordinances to be used in the tabernacle. The Lord promised to dwell among the Israelites if they kept their covenants just as he had dwelt among the people of Enoch.

When Moses finally descended the mount, he learned that Joshua had followed Moses's instructions and had waited faithfully for him, but Aaron and the others had already descended the mountain. At the base of the mountain, Moses found that his people had corrupted themselves by worshiping a golden calf which had been made by Aaron! In anger he broke the plates into pieces. The Lord threatened to destroy the people, and the Levites were commanded to slay 3,000 of the most unrighteous among the people.

6. Moses again ascended the mountain to plead for the lives of his people, and the Lord relented. The portable tabernacle was constructed, and Moses saw and spoke with the Lord in the tabernacle.

7. Moses then returned up onto the mountain for the final time and brought with him two tablets of stone. He again remained on the mountain for forty days, and the Lord inscribed the Ten Commandments again upon the plates of stone and made another covenant with Israel-the lesser covenant. Moses received the law of carnal commandments, the law of Moses. As he descended the mountain some of his people observe that his face was shining-a residual from his having been transfigured so that he might tolerate the presence of the Lord.

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