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Nobody knows where Mount Sinai is, and, even for ancient Israelites, it was the memory of what happened at Sinai that mattered, not the mountain itself

Sinai desert near Ein Hudra (Egypt)

Is Mount Sinai a place or an idea?

Sinai refers less to a place than to a set of ideas. Nobody knows where Mount Sinai is. Scholars are not even sure it is located in what we call the Sinai Desert, southwest of Canaan; some speculate that it may instead be on the northwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. The reason for our doubts is that ancient Israelites did not regard Mount Sinai as a site of pilgrimage, so its exact location was forgotten. Even for ancient Israelites, it was the memory of what happened at Sinai that mattered, not the mountain itself.

Biblical authors narrate what happened at Sinai; they allude to those events, and they evoke them for rhetorical purposes. But they do not recommend that Israelites travel to Sinai to pay homage to the deity who appeared to the people there. Thus Sinai differs from the other hilltop that loomed large in Israel’s religious imagination: Zion. Events at Mount Zion (the almost-sacrifice of Isaac; the magnificent dedication of Solomon’s temple) played a relatively small role in the memories of biblical and early postbiblical writers; few allusions to the events there occur in the Hebrew Bible. But Zion itself was of great importance. Many Israelites believed God literally lived within the temple on Mount Zion, or at least that the hilltop was God’s mailing address on earth. Israelites went there to experience God’s presence, to bask in the holy, to offer sacrifices. Zion was the mountain of Israel’s religious present and (especially after the Babylonians destroyed the temple) its religious future. Sinai, however, was relevant to Israel’s past, for it was there that Israel became God’s partner in a covenant. If Zion was the locus of worship and hope, Sinai was a site of memory.

Revelation happened at Sinai—but what do biblical texts say was revealed?

Many texts recall Sinai as a place of law giving following the exodus from Egypt (Exod 19-24, Deut 4-5, Deut 3:2-4). Several biblical poems, however, refer to Sinai as a place where God appeared to Israel for the sake of the manifestation itself (Hab 3:3-6; see also Ps 114, which alludes to a number of the events around the exodus without mentioning law giving); others speak of Sinai or similar locations south of Canaan as the place from which God went forth to wage war on behalf of the people (Judg 5:4-5, Ps 68:8-10).

These poetic understandings of Sinai also play a role in Exod 3-4, where Moses experiences God’s presence in the form of a strange flame inside a bush. There God reveals the divine name (Yhwh); the purpose of revelation at the bush was not law giving or theological teaching but simply the revelation itself. God commissioned Moses there to serve as God’s lieutenant in the war of liberation against Israel’s Egyptian oppressors. Who appeared at Sinai: God the lawgiver, God the warrior, or quite simply, God? There is no contradiction among these three possibilities, but different texts emphasize them differently.

Even as the place of law giving, Sinai plays varied roles. The account in Exodus is built from several originally separate documents and perhaps scribal supplements as well. All these sources associate Sinai with the formation of covenant and law giving, but in different ways. In one source in Exodus, God revealed laws to Moses on top of the mountain itself. In another (the Priestly source), Moses received only architectural plans for constructing a portable sanctuary at Sinai; the actual law giving occurred later on. Deuteronomy tells us the people heard only the Ten Commandments at Sinai, and the rest of the laws were revealed to them 40 years later, on the plains of Moab. For several sources, Sinai was less the location of law giving than the place where the conditions for the future law giving were prepared.

What did the word “Sinai” conjure up for an audience in biblical times?

Biblical authors agree that Sinai was somehow associated with law and covenant. By alluding to Sinai or to Moses (the main actor in the Sinai story), they evoke a conception of covenant involving responsibilities on the people’s part. They sometimes contrast that conception of covenant with one emphasizing God’s promises more than the nation’s obligations. They allude to the latter conception by mentioning Zion, David, or the patriarchs or matriarchs. Sometimes authors claim that the Sinai covenant was of greater importance (Jer 7) or that it was of limited duration, whereas the promises to Abraham or David endure forever (Gal 3-4), or that the two worked together, so that the eternity of the promises ensured that the Sinai covenant could always be renewed (Isa 54, Lev 26).

We saw at the beginning of this article that Sinai’s location is unknown, even though Sinai is tremendously important to biblical religion. Appropriately enough, the same is true of the covenant made at Sinai: its place in the religion of Israel, and in the religions that grew out of it, is central. But theologians—in the Bible and afterwards—conduct rich debates on where that central place is and what it means.

  • Benjamin Sommer

    Benjamin Sommer is professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Prior to teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he served as Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. His book The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2009) won several awards. His most recent book is Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2015).