By Gordon Franz
Some have raised the objection that Mount Sinai could not be in the Sinai Peninsula because millions of Israelites died during the Wilderness Wanderings and no graves of any of these Israelites have been discovered in the Sinai Peninsula from this period. Recently we received such an inquiry at the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) website by an anonymous individual identified only as “Curious.”
This individual states: “How can it be logical to say the Israelites wandered in the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years, and the older ones all died, and kept the younger ones very busy burying their older generation (all the millions of adults who came out of Egypt), and yet archaeology in that location never has found a single gravesite from the entire time of the wilderness wanderings? I don’t think the Sinai Peninsula is the right location for the 40 years of wanderings because there should be millions of graves there if that is where the Israelites wandered” (Italics by Gordon Franz).
Is this a valid objection to Mount Sinai being in the Sinai Peninsula?
First, we should start with the hermeneutical questions: Does the Bible interpret the archaeological finds? Or, do the archaeological finds interpret the Bible? In “Curious’” case, archaeology is used to interpret the Bible (see italics quote). That is a very dangerous precedent to follow because archaeology is not an exact science and it is always changing with new excavations and new interpretations. Views held by archaeologists today may be passé tomorrow due to new evidence. So I would reject “Curious’” underlying presupposition.
I believe that the Bible is divine revelation and it should interpret the archaeological finds. The Bible is clear, Mount Sinai is in the Sinai Peninsula, and so the Bible has to dictate how we interpret the archaeological finds (Har-el 1983; Rasmussen 1989:86-92).
Second, to say that there are no graves in the Sinai from the period of the Exodus / Wilderness Wanderings is very misleading. One should first ask the question: In what archaeological period was the Wilderness Wanderings (Cohen 1983:16-39; for surveys of Sinai, see Meshel 2000)? Does a preconceived idea of which archaeological period to look at happen to eliminate all your evidence?
Third, what kind of graves would Israelites have been buried in? If the Israelites buried their dead in a simple trench burial in the ground, would they have even left a marker on top of the grave? There would be no reason to mark the grave because they were heading to the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan, and not returning back to visit the graves of their ancestors as Bedouin in Sinai, the Negev, Jordan and Saudi Arabia do today, thus the markers on their graves so they can visit their ancestors!
Fourth, how do we know that most of the Israelites were even buried in Sinai? The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers that: “But with most of them God was not pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” (I Cor. 10:5 NKJV). “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert” (NIV). One gets the distinct impression from this passage that most of the bodies were just left in the Wilderness, exposed to the elements … and the vultures, hyenas and jackals! If that is the case, there will be very few graves at all, thus “no gravesites in Sinai” would be a dead objection.
Fifth, another possibility that should be pursued is the Hebrew practice of secondary burial. In this practice, the dead would be buried in a cave for a year and then the bones would be gathered for “secondary burial.” In the case of the First Temple period, the bones would be placed into a repository in the cave. During the Second Temple period, the bones would be placed in an ossuary. The phrase in the Bible that is connected with this practice is: “and he slept with his fathers,” or more literally, “he was gathered to his fathers.”
This practice began with the Patriarch Abraham when he bought a cave near Hebron and buried his wife Sarah in it (Gen. 23). He was later interned there, as was his son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. Jacob and one of his wives, Leah, were buried there as well (Gen. 49:28-33; 50:5, 13). When Jacob died in Egypt, he wanted to be gathered to his fathers in the Promised Land.
Abraham, and later Jacob, bought plots of ground near Shechem and this was later used as a burial plot for others of their descendents, including Joseph (Gen. 33:19; cf. Acts 7:15-16). Joseph clearly instructs the Children of Israel to rebury his bones in the Promised Land (Gen. 50:24-25; cf. Heb. 11:22; Ex. 13:19; Josh. 24:32).
The Bible places the burial of Rachel in the tribal territory of Benjamin (Gen. 48:7; I Sam. 10:2; cf. Jer. 31:15; Neh. 7:26). Interestingly, in the territory of Benjamin, there are six or seven megalithic structures clustered together and preserve the Arabic name Qubur Bani Israil, translated “tombs of the sons of Israel” (Finkelstein and Magen 1993: 63*, 371-372, site 479; Hareuveni 1991: 64-71).
When the Wilderness Wandering narratives are examined, there are only three accounts of burials recorded. The first is those who died of the plague at Kibroth Hattaavah [“the graves of craving”] after the LORD sent quail to their camp (Num. 11:31-34). The second burial that is recorded is that of Miriam, the sister of Moses, at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 20:1). The final burial is at the death of Aaron, the brother of Moses, on Mount Hor that is on the border with Edom (probably Mount Rimon, Har-el 1983:273-274). Interestingly, in the account of Aaron’s death, there is no mention of his burial (Num. 20:23-29), but there is mention of him being “gathered to his fathers” (20:24, 26). In the book of Deuteronomy, however, his burial is mentioned (10:6).
The fact that Aaron would be “gathered to his fathers” indicates secondary burial was practiced, at least with him, during the Wilderness Wanderings. As was noted with the Patriarchs, their desire was to be buried in the Land of Israel (“Eretz Yisrael”). It is a distinct possibility that the Israelites gathered the bones of their relatives who died in the Wilderness and carried them to the Promised Land and buried them in the Land of Israel (Gonen 1985: 53 [sidebar], 54 [map]). If that is the case, there would be no graves of the Israelites in the Wilderness because they would be in Israel!
Finally, the tables should be turned on those who reject Mount Sinai and the Wilderness Wanderings in the Sinai Peninsula. What is the nature of their “evidence” for graves at their theorized sites? Again, the questions that need to be answered are these: (1) Where are these “Israelite” graves outside of the Sinai Peninsula? (2) How does one know they are Israelites burials and not recent Bedouin burials? (3) What archaeological period are you looking for the Wilderness Wanderings? (4) What archaeological remains (if any) were excavated at these graves and are they from the period of the Wilderness Wanderings? (5) Were these human remains carbon dated to determine the possible dates of the bones? If so, are these dates consistent with the Biblical date for the Wilderness Wanderings? (6) Were DNA tests done on the bones to determine the ethnic origin of those buried in these graves? Were the DNA tests results compared to the local Bedouin in the area to see if it matched their DNA?
I think we should pursue other avenues of inquiries before we allow archaeology to interpret the Bible, thus abandoning the clear statements of Scripture and removing Mount Sinai from the Sinai Peninsula and placing it in Saudi Arabia or somewhere else. Mount Sinai belongs in the Sinai Peninsula, right where the Bible places it!
1983 The Mysterious MB I People. Does the Exodus Tradition in the Bible Preserve the Memory of Their Entry into Canaan? Biblical Archaeology Review 9/4: 16-29.
Finkelstein, Israel; and Magen, Yitzhak, eds.
1993 Archaeological Survey of the Hill Country of Benjamin. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority.
1985 Was the Site of the Jerusalem Temple Originally a Cemetery? Biblical Archaeology Review 9/3: 44-55.
1983 The Sinai Journeys. The Route of the Exodus. San Diego, CA: Ridgefield Publishing Company.
1991 Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage. Trans. by Helen Frenkley. Kiryat Ono: Neot Kedumim.
2000 Sinai. Excavations and Studies. Oxford: BAR International Series 876.
1989 Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.