Israel’s Journey to Mount Sinai

Sinai Wilderness

Image: Sinai Wilderness

 

Today I begin a study of Israel’s journey to Mount Sinai, the place known as “the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1). The sacred mountain is also known in the Old Testament as Mount Horeb. What happened at Mount Sinai provides a window to the proper understanding of the mission and destiny of Israel in the world. At Sinai God manifested himself to the people and that theophany became the prelude to the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel.

Sinai is the name of the mountain where God appeared to Moses while he was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law. Mount Sinai was also the place where the Israelites came to worship God on the third month after the exodus from their oppression in Egypt.

It was at the foot of Mount Sinai where the covenant between God and Israel was established. The covenant made Israel God’s special people, a people set apart for God’s service in the world: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:4-6).

After Moses told the leaders of Israel the conditions of the covenant, he ascended to the top of Mount Sinai where from the midst of thunder and lightning that came from the cloud-shrouded mountain, God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel. The Ten Commandments became the basic principles by which the legal system of Israel was developed.

The Sinai Peninsula

When Israel left Egypt, their destination was Mount Sinai. The location of Mount Sinai has been debated. The traditional view identifies Mount Sinai with Jebel Musa, the Mountain of Moses (Jebel is an Arabic word that means “mountain”). Jebel Musa is located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Three other peaks in the area have also been identified as Mt. Sinai: Jebel Katerin (Mouth Catherine), Ras es-Safsafeh, and Mount Serbal.[1]

When looking at a map, the Sinai Peninsula resembles an upside down triangle. The Sinai Peninsula serves as a land bridge between Asia and Africa. In the west its boundary is the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Suez; in the east it is the Negeb and the Gulf of Aqaba.

In the north, the boundary of the Sinai Peninsula is the Mediterranean Sea and in the south it is the Red Sea. The Sinai Peninsula is 250 miles from the Mediterranean to its southern tip in the Red Sea. To the Egyptians, the Sinai Peninsula was important because from there came turquoise and copper used in trade and commerce.[2]

Although the Sinai Peninsula is not mentioned directly in the Old Testament, five areas of wilderness of this large territory are mentioned: the wildernesses of Shur, Sin, Paran, Zin and Sinai. The Wilderness of Shur was the place on the northern border of Egypt where the Israelites went after they crossed the Red Sea. In the journeys of Israel through the desert, this place was between the Red Sea and Marah, where the people complained because there was no water (Exodus 15:22-24).

The Wilderness of Sinai

The Wilderness of Sin was the region between Elim and Sinai (Exodus 16:1). It was here that God provided food for his hungry people. The Wilderness of Paran was the place where the Israelites camped after they left Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:12). It was from the Wilderness of Paran that Moses sent the spies to explore the land (Numbers 13:3). The Wilderness of Zin was a region through which the Israelites passed on their way to Canaan (Numbers 13:21; 20:1). It was an area on the southern border of Palestine and probably included Kadesh Barnea.

The Wilderness of Sinai takes its name from the name of the mountain and is a general description of the desert region in the neighborhood of Mount Sinai. This is the place where the people of Israel set their camp in preparation to receive the law of God. The book of Exodus locates Mount Sinai in the Wilderness of Sinai, a place located between the Wilderness of Sin and the Wilderness of Paran. Mount Sinai appears in the Old Testament with many names: “The Mountain” (Exodus 19:2), “The Mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1), “The Mountain of the Lord” (Numbers 10:33) and “Mount Horeb” (Exodus 3:1).

Sinai became one of the most significant sites for important events in the history of Israel. It was at Sinai that the people received the law that would set them apart as God’s special people (Exodus 19:1-6); it was there the people were numbered (Numbers 1:19; 3:14; 26:64); it was at Sinai that they celebrated the Passover (Numbers 9:4-5); and it was to Sinai that Elijah made a pilgrimage when he was running from the fury of Jezebel (1 Kings 19:8).

When Israel left Egypt, God did not lead them by the Mediterranean, through Philistine country, although that was a closer way to the land of Canaan (Exodus 13:17). The reason for avoiding the Way of the Sea was the desire for the people to avoid the fortifications guarded by Egyptian soldiers who protected the commercial and military routes that brought the caravans into Egypt. Instead, the Israelites traveled south along the eastern shores of the Gulf of Suez.

To Be Continued

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Footnotes:

[1] Martin Noth, The History of Israel (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1960), p. 129.

[2] Kathleen M. Kenyon, Archaeology in the Holy Land (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), pp. 33, 85.

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