Sinai—Numbers 1:1

Sinai has two meanings in the Bible, the first as the name of a desert located in the present peninsula of the same name (Exod. 19:1, 2; Num. 1:1) and the second as that of a mountain located in that area (Exod. 19:11; Neh. 9:13). According to Josephus, the surroundings of Mount Sinai had rich pastures in the desert and was considered a place of the divine presence (Flavius ​​Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 2.264; cf. Exod. 3:1). Mount Sinai was also known as Horeb (Exod. 3:1; Deut. 1:6, 19; 4:15; Mal. 4:4).

It was at this mountain that God met Israel, whom He had recently freed from slavery in Egypt (Exod. 19:1, 10-13, 18). There, Israel received the laws that constituted it as a people (Exod.. 19:6; 20:1ff.), but it is also at the foot of this sacred mountain that they worshipped the golden calf and incurred divine wrath (Exod. 32:1-29). The children of Israel stayed there for more than a year before reaching Canaan (Num. 13).

It is not easy to tell precisely where Mount Sinai and its surrounding desert were located. During the third and fourth centuries, AD Christian monks settled in caves around the traditional Mount Sinai, Jebel Musa (“Mount Moses”) which is 2,300 meters high. Later, Eastern Orthodox monks established Saint Catherine Monastery there. Some suggest that the location of the Sinai mountain is in northern Arabia or southern Jordan, based on the apostle Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:25, which clearly presents Sinai as being in Arabia. Also, the first mention of the mountain refers to Moses, who lived in Midian, Arabia (Exod. 3:1). Moses seems to have pastured his flocks fairly close to Sinai. Suitable grazing land is challenging to find anywhere near the present Saint Catherine’s site.

When Paul, who lived in the first century under the Roman Empire, speaks of Arabia, it is not necessarily the region of the present-day nation, a territory that had never been incorporated into the Roman Empire. In his day, and officially from 106 AD, it was precisely the Sinai Peninsula that the Romans would call the province of Arabia. What Paul meant by Arabia, therefore, is not clear but may reflect it as being understood to encompass a larger geographical area that includes the Sinai region.

The first information about Sinai’s location in the Bible appears right after Israel’s departure from Egypt. Numbers 33:3-15 mentions 11 steps between leaving Egypt and arriving at Sinai in the third month (Exod. 19:1, 2). The passage also tells us that after having crossed the Red Sea, they walked on and encountered it again (Num. 33:8, 10), which would not be possible if they crossed the eastern branch of the sea toward current Arabia. Furthermore, 1 Kings 19:3 and 8 are not helpful in finding the location of Mount Sinai. Verse 8 states that Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” between Beersheba and Horeb while Deuteronomy 1:2 speaks 11 days of walking between the oasis of Kadesh Barnea and Mount Sinai, around 300 km. And 100 km separate this oasis and Beersheba where Elijah began his walk. It suggests that the total distance Elijah traveled was 400 km, and 40 days may be a reasonable period for the journey given his weakened condition.

Due to political turmoil in much of the region since the nineteenth century, it has not been possible to conduct systematic archaeological excavations of the Sinai Peninsula.