By Gordon Franz
The last ten years has witnessed the proliferation of books, videos, websites and television programs that have proposed a new site for Mt. Sinai – Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia. They also told about underwater searches for Pharaoh’s chariots and weapons from the Egyptian army. This paper examines three aspects of the identification of Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia. First, the paper questions the credibility of the claims. Second, the paper disputes the false assumptions by the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz. Third, the paper examines the archaeological evidence.
This paper discusses the first two aspects briefly because they have already been dealt with in the Fall 2000 issue of Bible and Spade (Franz 2000:101-113). I have given you a copy of that article. You have my permission, as well as the editor, Dr. Bryant Wood, to make copies and pass along to those who might be interested. The article is also posted on Lambert Dolphin’s website. (www.ldolphin.org/franz-sinai.html). A revised form of this paper will appear as an article in Bible and Spade.
The paper discusses the third aspect, the archaeological evidence, in more detail. The questions dealt with include, 1) Are the archaeological remains that were observed by the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz credible? And 2) Does the remains match the Biblical text? The final section of this paper deals with the location of the Red Sea crossing. Was it in the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat or the Gulf of Suez?
I believe that this paper, along with the Bible and Spade article, will conclusively demonstrate that there is no credible historical, geographical, archaeological or Biblical evidence to support the thesis that Mt. Sinai is at Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia.
The Proponents of Jebel al-Lawz as Mt. Sinai
Ron Wyatt first proposed the idea that Mt. Sinai was at Jebel al-Lawz. Whatever one may think of Ron Wyatt’s “discoveries”, he should be given full credit for this discovery. However, I would like to call your attention to a recent book examining the claims of Ron Wyatt. It is entitled Holy Relics or Revelation, by two SDA researchers, Russell and Colin Standish. (Hartland Publications, Box 1, Rapidan, VA 22733. 1-800-774-3566). This book is a careful, meticulous, in-depth study of Ron Wyatt’s claims. These researchers “speak the truth in love” but state that Ron Wyatt has not been truthful in his claims.
During the course of writing the first article, other proponents of Jebel al-Lawz requested that I not mention Ron Wyatt. Their stated concern to me was that my mentioning of him would “dignify him” and they consider him a “con man”. They feared that mentioning them in the same paragraph as Wyatt would result in “guilt by associations”! I pointed out to them that when publishing research results one must begin with a discussion of the history of research and include a review of the literature on the subject. Ron Wyatt is the key player in this discovery. Both sets of proponents of this view used the same archaeological evidence to prove their points. The only difference between the views is their proposed route from Egypt to the Red Sea and the placing of the Red Sea crossing.
Ron Wyatt went to Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia with his two sons in 1984. They were arrested for entering Saudi Arabia illegally and expelled after 78 days. Eleven months later, Wyatt returned with David Fasold and his “molecular frequency generator” to look for the “gold of the Exodus.” Again they were expelled and made to promise that they would not return to Saudi Arabia or talk or write about their findings.
Fasold told Jim Irwin, the Apollo 15 astronaut, of their discoveries. Irwin, in turn, made contact with Bob Cornuke and Larry Williams who eventually went to Saudi Arabia at least twice in order to ascertain whether Mt. Sinai is at Jebel al-Lawz. Both returned home and wrote books about their adventures. Others have since gone and taken video footage of the sites that are now in videos and television programs. The most recent is a video entitled “The Exodus Revealed” by Lennart Moller. He also has a book entitled The Exodus Case. He basically uses Ron Wyatt’s material and follows his ideas.
Problems with the Jebel al-Lawz location view
The biggest problem with the identification of Jebel al-Lawz as Mt. Sinai is that it does not meet the Biblical criteria for the site. In my Bible and Spade article I point out three questionable assumptions made by the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz.
The first questionable assumption that the proponents make is that the Sinai Peninsula was considered part of the “Land of Egypt” (Franz 2000: 103-105). The Bible says that when the Israelites left Succoth they were “out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:8-20). The Land of Goshen was the eastern limits of Egypt. Apparently the line of fortresses on the eastern frontier canal was the border between Egypt and Sinai (Hoffmeier 1997: 164-175).
Nadav Na’aman, a professor of Bible geography at Tel Aviv University, made an important point in an article on the “Brook of Egypt”. He states, “Traditionally, in the eyes of the Egyptians the Nile or the Isthmus fringes were considered to be their northern boundary, the Sinai peninsula being regarded as part of Asia. This view is diametrically opposite to the northern point of view, according to which the southern limits of Gaza, the southernmost city along the coast of Philistia, and the edges of the urban settlements on its eastern side were thought of as the southern border of Canaan, the intervening desert of Sinai being regarded by the northerners as part of Egypt. In the Late Bronze Age, as the Egyptians came into closer contact with the north, they also became aware of the fact that the Sinai desert was not part of Canaan. Thus, when their scribes were concerned with the southern coastal area exclusively, they considered its border to be the southernmost limits of the urban settlements in this region, Sinai having the status of a kind of ‘no-man’s land’.” (Italics his; 1979:74). Moses never arrived in Canaan so he wrote from an Egyptian, not a Canaanite perspective. Also note that part of northeastern Sinai was Amalakite territory (Mattingly 1992).
The second inaccurate assumption is the claim that Mt. Sinai is in the Land of Midian (Franz 2000:105,106). Most scholars would agree that Midian is in the area of northwest Saudi Arabia, and even part of southern Jordan. The proponents of Jebel al-Lawz often point to the interview of Prof. Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University in Bible Review as their authority on this point (Shanks 1992: 32). However, they fail to point out that one of the reasons Cross and “Continental scholars” hold to this view is their adherence to the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP). See Cross 1998:53-70. I also have a letter from Prof. Cross, which states his rejection of the evidence of the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz even thought he still believes Mt. Sinai is still in Midian (Letter from Cross, May 21, 2001).
Two Biblical passages clearly place Mt. Sinai outside the Land of Midian. In Exodus 18, Moses and the Israelites are camped at “the Mountain of God” (Mt. Sinai) when Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, visits them. Verse 27 says, “Then Moses let his father-in-law depart [from Mt. Sinai], and he went his way to his own land [Midian].” Jethro departs from Mt. Sinai to return to the Land of Midian. According to Mandelkern Biblical Concordance, the phrase “his own land” (third person singular possessive) is used 30 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex. 18:27; Num. 21:24,26,34,35; Deut. 2:24,31; 3:2; 4:47; 11:3; 29:1 [29:2 Eng.]; 33:13; 34:11; Josh. 8:1; I Kings 22:36; II Kings 18:33; Isa. 2:7,8; 13:14; 18:2,7; 36:18; 37:7; Jer. 2:15; 27:7; 50:18; Prov. 8:31; Dan. 11:19,28; Neh. 9:10; Mandelkern 1896:153). In the Pentateuch the phrase is use 13 times. Each time it is used of a specific geo-political entity, a kingdom, nation or tribal area. It is used of the Kingdom of the Amorites (Num. 21:24,26; Deut. 2:24,31; 4:47), with the borders clearly delineated as going from the Arnon to the Jabbok (Num. 21:24). The Kingdom of Bashan (Num. 21:34,35; Deut. 3:2; 4:47), which is implied as going from the Jabbok to Mt. Hermon (Deut. 4:48). The nation of Egypt (Deut. 11:3; 29:1 [29:2 Eng.]; 34:11) as well as the tribal territory of Joseph (Deut. 33:13). Joshua gives the delineation of the tribal territory of Ephraim and Manasseh which make up the tribes of Joseph (Deut. 33:17; Josh. 13:29-33; 16:1-10; 17:1-18). If Moses is consistent with his use of the word, and I think he is, the context suggests Jethro returned to the country of Midian, not to a plot of ground that he controlled as the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz contend.
Ken Durham, a research assistant for Bob Cornuke and the BASE Institute, interpret the phrase “his own land” as an “actual, physical tract of land under the control of a person mentioned in the text- not to an arbitrary political/geographical designation” or “land under ones jurisdiction” (Letter to Bryant Wood, April 12, 2001). There does not appear to be lexical support or Hebrew dictionary references that support this use of the term.
The second passage that places Mt. Sinai outside the land of Midian is Numbers 10:30. It states, “I [Hobab] will not go, but I will depart [from Mt. Sinai] to my own land [Midian] and to my kinsmen.” Hobab is returning to Midian where his kinsmen live from Mt. Sinai.
The third questionable assumption made by the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz is that Galatians 4:25 says that Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia (Franz 2000: 106,107). One proponent affirms this conclusion when he writes, “The apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, informs us that Mount Sinai is in Saudi Arabia. Not Egypt!” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000: 17). The Bible does not say Saudi Arabia, it only says Arabia.
One can easily argue that the Apostle Paul used the First Century AD Roman concept of Arabia in this passage. In the first century AD, based on the prior use by Herodotus, Pliny and Strabo, Arabia extended from the Persian Gulf to the Nile Delta, thus including the Sinai Peninsula in Arabia. Paul would be perfectly correct in placing Mt. Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula because the Sinai Peninsula was part of Arabia of his day.
I also interacted in this section with Prof. Cross and Mike Heiser’s suggestion (made at the NEAS meeting in 1998) that Mt. Sinai was outside the Sinai Peninsula based on three passages from the Bible, Deut. 33:2; Judges 5:4; and Habakkuk 3:3 (Franz 2000: 107). Cross (1998) and Heiser suggest that Seir, Mt. Paran and Teman are located in present day Jordan or even Saudi Arabia. In my article, I suggested that Teman was at or near Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, Mt. Paran is situated in the area of Kadesh Barnea (Num. 13:26) and Seir (Biblical Edom) included the area of the Central Negev Highlands, the area to the west of the Aravah.
When my article came out, I realized that I had not adequately documented the thesis that Edom is also on the west side of the Aravah. My assertion initially came 20 years ago from a friend and fellow student at the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem, Bruce Crew. This assertion was part of his MA thesis. At my request, Bruce wrote a follow-up article for Bible and Spade on why Edom was also west of the Aravah. He produced an excellent article demonstrating the case, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of Bible and Spade. In the course of his writing, I was able to supply him with some articles to help update his material. I was surprised at the number of archaeologists that had come to this same position based on the Biblical text as well as the topography and archaeological considerations. Perhaps some day Biblical scholars might catch up with the archaeological world!
The Archaeological and Geographical Evidence
There are at least eight pieces of archaeological or geographical evidence that the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz use to support their idea.
- A land bridge that goes across the Strait of Tiran from the southern tip of Sinai to Saudi Arabia, or the other view has a land bridge that crosses the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat from Nuweiba.
- A set of bitter wells that they identify as Marah.
- Twelve springs of al-Bad’ that they identify as Elim.
- The caves of Moses and Jethro at al-Bad’.
- An altar for the golden calf with petroglyphs of bovine.
- The altar of Moses and the twelve pillars.
- The blackened rock on top of Jebel al-Lawz.
- The “split rock of Horeb”.
I examined the archaeological evidence in my article in Bible and Spade and found that this evidence did not line up with the Biblical record (Franz 2000:107-111). One Saudi archaeologist was very helpful in explaining what the archaeological sites actually were. I stated in my article that Biblical scholarship ought to wait for an archaeological publication of the material. I am pleased to announce that an archaeological report of the surveys and excavations in the al-Bad’ area, with a special chapter on Jebel al-Lawz, is “in press” and will be out “shortly”. My Saudi friend promised me the first copy off the press!
My original article elicited an interesting exchange of letters with the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz. One proponent considered the evidence I put forth as the “Muslim position / interpretation” (Letter from Cornuke, May 30, 2001). Another proponent “discounted the Saudi archaeologists’ objectivity” because they were Moslems (Letter from Durham, Sept. 7, 2001, p. 20, see also pp. 1-5). These proponents want to take the archaeological evidence out of the realm of science and scientific investigation and placing it in the realm of religion. One went so far as to suggest that if the Saudis found anything that might relate to the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites they would follow the example of the Talibans in Afghanistan and destroy the evidence! (Letter from Durham, Sept. 7, 2001, p. 2). I was shocked and appalled that he would even suggest such a thing. Saudi Arabia is a member of ICOMOS, the International Council of Monuments and Sites. This is an “international non-governmental organization of professionals, dedicated to the conservation of [the] world’s historic monuments and sites.” Afghanistan is not a member. If the Saudis found anything of interest, they would do what they have done to over 300 other sites in Saudi Arabia. They would fence them in to protect them, not destroy them! A Saudi archaeologist recently took an Australian archaeologist to the rock art site of Jubbah in northern Saudi Arabia where they had fenced in the site with 5 km of fence. The Australian was surprised to see this fence and commented that no other country has gone to such great length to fence in an area!
While I agree with the stated view of the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz that the Bible should interpret the archaeological finds, my conclusion is that in some instances, it is obvious they have not followed their own principles. For example, the so-called “altar of the golden calf” is made up of huge boulders. The Bible clearly states that Aaron built the altar (Ex. 32:5). Yet the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz reconstruct an elaborate scenario whereby the Israelites lifted these heavy boulders into place because they had done heavy manual labor in Egypt. This scenario goes contrary to the Scriptures; Aaron built the altar, not the Israelites. These boulders contain petroglyphs of bovine which the proponents claim is the Egyptian deities Hathor or Apis. Jeff Harrison reports in the video of the proponents that he saw other kinds of animals as well (www.totheends.com). If that is the case, then an explanation for why they are there must be given. An ibex can be clearly seen in a picture in one of their books (Williams 1990: plate 14). Yet more telling is the fact that Moses destroyed the golden calf because it was an idol. If this was the altar, why didn’t he remove the petroglyphs as well, after all, they represent graven images! A Saudi archaeologist who did his doctoral dissertation on the petroglyphs in Saudi Arabia informed me that the bovine dated to the Neolithic period, considerably earlier than the Exodus and Wilderness Wanderings. The archaeological evidence goes contrary to the Biblical records and must be rejected.
One claim I have heard from people who have heard the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz is that this “altar” with the bovine petroglyphs is the only one in the area. I was informed by the Saudi archaeologist who did the survey of the area that there were about 300 rock art sites in the northwest Saudi Arabia and about 50 rock art sites with bovine in the al-Bad’ / Jebel al-Lawz area. If they were drawn by Israelites, then Hebrew graffiti artists drew them as they roamed the desert drawing what the Lord had forbidden them to make!
The proponents of Jebel al-Lawz might discount the objectivity of the Saudi archaeologists, but they must consider the archaeological remains. The so-called “Cave of Moses” is clearly a First Century AD Nabatean tomb. A British archaeologist who worked on the survey of those tombs explained to me how he could date them so precisely. He said the paleography of an inscription in an al-Bad’ tomb is identical with the paleography of another tomb at another site nearby. This tomb had an inscription with the name of the decease as well as a date of his death. It is safe to say the style of those tombs is Nabatean and not earlier.
The archaeology of the so-called “altar of Moses and the 12 pillars” is also clear. I was informed by a Saudi archaeologist that the pottery is purely, and only, Nabatean. There is nothing earlier. One may debate the function of the building, but the dating is clear. It is considerably later than the Exodus.
The proponents of Jebel al-Lawz rejected a Mt. Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula because of lack of archaeological evidence. They also objected to my suggestion that one would not expect to find any because they were nomadic people dwelling in tents. A leading American archaeologist, William Dever, said, “we would still find no remains of their ephemeral camps in the desert.” He goes on to say that any attempts to make maps tracing the route of the Exodus was “doomed to failure” (1997:72). K. A. Kitchen, a British Egyptologist, concurs with him on the first statement when he says, “That we should find no trace of ever-moving camps in the Sinai desert is entirely correct” (1998:107). But he goes on to chide Dever about not being able to trace the route.
The proponents also claim they have other archaeological evidence (Letter from Durham, Sept. 7, 2001, p. 2), but that their evidence awaits publication. Hopefully it will appear in a peer-reviewed archaeological journal.
I have asked a British archaeologist to review the soon to be released excavation and survey report of the al-Bad’ area and Jebel al-Lawz for Bible and Spade. He is a non-Moslem archaeologist who has worked on the survey of the area as well as an expert on Midianite and Nabatean archaeology. His approach to reviewing the excavation report for the article will include the following steps. First, he will discuss each of the archaeological sites cited by the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz. Second, he will deal with how they interpreted the archaeological data. Third, he will include what the Saudis excavated or surveyed and how they interpreted the finds. His final step will be his assessment of the different interpretations. The archaeologist will be well qualified to bring the discussion back to an archaeological debate and not a religious one, as the proponents would like to make it.