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.
Did you know…?
- Biblical scholars don’t really know where Mount Sinai was located—or even if it was in what we call the Sinai Peninsula.
- Some biblical texts (including Deuteronomy and passages in other books that are closely related to Deuteronomy) never use the word “Sinai” when speaking about the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Instead, they speak of Mount Horeb, which might be a different name for the same place or might even refer to a different place altogether.
- The word “Sinai” or references to what happened there serve biblical authors as a shorthand way of referring to a covenant involving mutual responsibilities between God and the people Israel.
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 (
These poetic understandings of Sinai also play a role in
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 (
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.