Attention!
Partner with StudyLight.org as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Sinai

Additional Links

(Heb. Sioay', סַינִי , perhaps [if Shemitic] thorny, i.e. cleft with ravines; possibly [if Egyptian or Zabian] devoted to Sin, i.e. the moon; Sept. Σινᾶ [, v.r. in Judges 5:5, Σειναῖ, and in Nehemiah 9:13, Σιναῖ ]; in the New Test. Σινᾶ; Josephus, τὸ Σιναῖον ὄρος, Ant. 2, 12, 1; Vulg. Sinai; A.V. "Sina" [q.v.] in a few passages), a well known mountain in the peninsula formed, by the gulfs of Suez and Akabah. The name appears to be primeval, and its meaning is unknown. It is mentioned thirty-one times in the Pentateuch and only four times in the rest of the Old Test. (Judges 5:5; Nehemiah 9:13; Psalms 68:8; Psalms 68:17) and four, in the New Test. (Acts 7:30; Acts 7:38; Galatians 4:24-25). It would thus appear that the name had, in a great measure, become obsolete at an early period. We here present a summary of the Scriptural and other ancient notices, with the light of modern researches.

I. Biblical Notices and Occurrences. The leading statements made regarding Sinai in the Pentateuch demand special notice, as they constitute the chief evidences in establishing its identity. A small section of the wilderness through which the Israelites passed took its name from the mountain (Exodus 19:1-2). In one direction was Rephidim, only a short day's march distant; while Kibroth-hattaavah lay a day's march in another. The "desert of Sinai," therefore, could only have been a very few miles across.

In the third month of their journey the Israelites "departed from Rephidim, came into the wilderness of, Sinai ... and camped before the mount" (Exodus 19:1-2). The base of the mount in front of the camp appears to have been so sharply defined that barriers were put up to, prevent any of the people from approaching rashly or inadvertently to "touch the mount" (Exodus 19:12). The "top of the mount," was in full view from the camp; so that when the Lord "came down" upon it the thick cloud in which his glory was shrouded was "in sight of all the people" (Exodus 19:11; Exodus 19:16). While Moses was receiving the law on the summit of Sinai, "the thunderings and lightnings, and the voice of the trumpet" were so near the camp that the people, in terror, "removed and stood afar off," yet still remained in sight of the mount, for "the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel" (comp. Exodus 20:18;. Exodus 24:17). Upon that peak the tables of the law were twice given to Moses, with all the details of the rites and ceremonies recorded in the Pentateuch (Exodus 31:18; Exodus 34). Sinai was thus emphatically "the mount of the Lord" (Numbers 10:33). There the Lord spake with Moses "face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend" (Exodus 33:11); and there he revealed himself in such glory and majesty as were never witnessed on earth.

II. Distinction between Sinai and Horeb. Those critics who disintegrate the Pentateuch and assign to it a variety of authors are ready to support their view by pointing to a variety of diction; and one evidence of this they find in the use of Horeb throughout the book of Deuteronomy (except in the song of Moses, 33:2, which they attribute to a still different writer); whereas the person whom they suppose to have been the original composer of the first four books uses Sinai, which is the name always employed except in Exodus 3:1; Exodus 17:6; Exodus 32:6; and these passages they attribute to a supplementary writer. This view is still strongly asserted by Ewald (Geschichte, 2, 57), who pronounces Sinai the older name, therefore occurring in the ancient song of Deborah (Judges 5:5); whereas Horeb is not discoverable till the time of his fourth and fifth narrators, in whose age, however, it had become quite prevalent. His statement is a very fair sample of the precision and confidence with which these critics speak of matters as to which there is no evidence except their own critical sagacity, or their imagination, as others may be apt to consider it who claim no such peculiar insight. For while it is quite possible that the same writer might use two names indiscriminately for the same place, as in the case of Bethel and Luz, Baalah and Kirjath-jearim, the Sea of Galilee and the Lake of Tiberias, yet this last example indicates how readily two names may come to be in use indifferently, though originally the one was more definite than: the other. Accordingly, Gesenius suggested that Sinai might be the more general name, and Horeb a particular peak, and in this conjecture he was followed by Rosenmuller.

Another supposition was made by Hengstenberg (Pentateuch, 2, 325-327) which has gained the assent of almost all the German authorities since his time, as also of Robinson (Bib. Res. 1, 120, 591), apparently after having inclined to the conjecture of Gesenius. Hengstenberg agrees with Gesenius that the one name is more general than the other; but he differs in this respect that he makes Horeb the mountain ridge, and Sinai the individual summit from which the ten commandments were given. The reasons for this, opinion as urged by him and by others, may be arranged under a threefold division:

(1.) The name Sinai is used at the time that the Israelites were upon the very spot of the legislation that is, from Exodus 19:11 and onwards till Numbers 3:1; whereas it is Horeb that is always used in the recapitulation in Deuteronomy; as a writer close beside a particular mountain would naturally single it out when describing his locality, though afterwards, when writing at a distance from it and taking a general retrospect, he might use the more comprehensive name of the entire mass of mountains to which it belonged. The only exception in Deuteronomy is that case in the song of Moses already alluded to (Deuteronomy 33:2), which is universally admitted to be a peculiar composition both by the impugners and by the defenders of the Mosaic authorship. When we take in the additional expression, "the wilderness of Sinai," as denoting the place in which the Israelites encamped, we have Sinai occurring as early as Exodus 19:1-2, and continuing till Numbers 10:12, where the march from Sinai is described. That particular spot would naturally take its name from the mountain peak beside it, whereas the name "wilderness of Horeb" is unknown to Scripture. The name Sinai never occurs in the Pentateuch after the departure from the spot except in three instances. Two of these (Numbers 26:64; Numbers 33:15) refer expressly to events in language already employed upon the spot about the census, and in the list of stations or encampments, and both use that phrase "the wilderness of Sinai," which never occurs with the name Horeb; so that they are no exceptions in reality. The third (Numbers 27:6) is, therefore, the only exception "It is a continual burned offering which was ordained in Mount Sinai;" and this also is explicable on the principle that the phrase had become so common in the legislation. Once, also, Sinai occurs before the Israelites reached it (Exodus 16:1), the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai," and here the precision of this term is thoroughly natural.

(2.) The name Horeb occurs in the earlier books thrice, all in Exodus, but it is in circumstances which best suit the general or comprehensive meaning which we attach to it. Moses, while acting as the shepherd of Jethro (Exodus 3:1), "came to the mountain of God [even] to Horeb," or, more literally, "came to the mountain of God Horeb-ward." Our translators have identified the mountain of God with Horeb, an identification which is at least uncertain; for the original may quite as naturally be interpreted that he came to a particular peak in that mass of mountains which had the name of Horeb, to the sacred peak which is to be sought in the direction of Horeb. Particularly distinct is the second instance (Exodus 17:6), "Behold I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb," etc.; for this miraculous gift of water took place while the Israelites were encamped in Rephidim (Exodus 17:1), the station before the station in the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 19:2). Probably the like should be said of the third instance (Exodus 33:6), "And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the mount Horeb," retiring every family apart, and every individual apart, as in other cases of humiliation and repentance; and the propriety of the use of the general rather than the specific term is the more apparent if those are right who translate the peculiar Hebrew phrase as exactly as they can, "stripped, themselves, etc. [retiring], from Mount Horeb."

(3.) An argument may be drawn from the use of the prepositions connected with these two names. Reverting to Exodus 17:6, we find the Lord saying, "Behold, I will stand upon the rock in Horeb," that is, upon the particular spot, but in the district. Accordingly, it is the preposition in (in the English version needlessly varied into "at" once or twice) which is used with Horeb, not only here, but almost always where the name occurs in Deuteronomy, perhaps always, except "from" (Deuteronomy 1:2; Deuteronomy 1:19). The same is true of all the passages in which Horeb is mentioned in later Scripture (1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10; Psalms 106:19; Malachi 1:4 [Hebrews 3:22]), except 1 Kings 19:8, "unto Horeb the mount of God," or better, "up to the mount of God Horeb [ward]," for it is plainly an expression referring to Exodus 3:1, of which we have already spoken. With Sinai, on the other hand, there, are connected several prepositions, "in" and "from" as in the case of Horeb; also "to," but especially "upon" (Exodus 19:11; Exodus 19:18; Exodus 19:20; Exodus 24:16), which describes the descent of the Lord, or the resting of the symbol of his presence, upon that individual peak from which the law was given, whereas we have no reason to think that it rested upon the whole mass of mountains which are clustered together. The same preposition, "upon," is found in the only passage in later Old Test. Scripture where Sinai occurs with a preposition (Nehemiah 9:13). Indeed, besides this text we find Sinai nowhere but in Judges 5:5; Psalms 68:8; Psalms 68:17 (Hebrews 9:18), in passages which indisputably stand in a very close connection with Deuteronomy 33:2.

Not much can be inferred from the usage of later Scripture in regard to these names; though from what has been mentioned, it may be seen that Horeb is very decidedly the predominant name in the rest of the Old Test, as it is with one exception in Deuteronomy, and probably in both cases for the same reason that at a distance in time and place the more general name was, on the whole, more natural. Yet the distance may become so great that the peculiarities of the two names fall out of view, and mere usage may determine in favor of the one or the other appellation, now that they have become entirely equivalent. Certainly in the New Test. we find only Sinai (Acts 7:30; Acts 7:38; Galatians 4:24-25), though reasons might be, perhaps, alleged for the use of the stricter name; for instance, in the first of these, that it is "the wilderness of Mount Sinai," in which connection we have said that Horeb does not occur. Josephus seems also to confine himself to the name Sinai. In the Apocrypha we have noted Judith 5:14, "to the way of Sinai," or, according to another reading, "to the mount Sinai;" and Eccles. 48:7, where "in Sinai" and "in Horeb" occur in a poetical parallelisma but these determine nothing. Perhaps nothing can be concluded from the fact that Horeb never has the prefix "mount" except in Exodus 33:6, whereas Sinai always has it in both the Old Test. and the New except in Exodus 16:1, and Deuteronomy 33:2, and the passages depending upon this one, Judges 5:5; Psalms 68:8; Psalms 68:17. Once more, it is very doubtful whether etymology can contribute anything to the settlement of the question. Horeb certainly means "dry," or "dried up," a name very descriptive of the region. But the meaning of Sinai is much debated. Gesenius suggests "muddy," but with hesitation, and he appears to have no followers. More probably, Knobel proposes "sharp pointed," "toothed," or "notched." The old derivation of Simonis and Hiller understood סַינִי, Sinai, to be equivalent to סַנְיִי, sinyai, "the bush of Jehovah," with reference to Exodus 3:2. Possibly as simple a meaning as any would be "bushy," or "that which has the bush." If so, the etymologies of the two names, so far as they went, would favor the view given of their respective meanings. Rodiger (additions to Gesenius, Thesaur.) makes it "sacred to the God of the moon." Ewald and Ebers regard it as equivalent to "belonging to [the Desert of] Sin."

Understanding Horeb to be the more general name, there might still be differences of opinion how wide a circuit should be included under it; though the common opinion seems to be that there is no necessity for taking it wider than that range (some three miles long from north to south) which is called by the modern Arabs Jebel Tur, or Jebel et-Tur, sometimes with the addition of Sina, though Robinson says extremely rarely.

III. Identification of the Particular Mountain. In the Biblical notices there are implied three specifications, which must all be present in any spot answering to the true Sinai: 1. A mountain summit overlooking the place where the people stood. 2. Space sufficient, adjacent to the mountain, for so large a multitude to stand and behold the phenomena on the summit; and even, when afraid, to remove afar off and still be in sight. The relation between this space where the people stood and the base of the mountain must be such that they could approach and stand at the nether part of the mount;' that they could also touch it; and that bounds could be set round the mount" (Biblioth. Sac. May, 1849, p. 382). There are three claimants for the name Sinai, and it will be necessary to examine them successively.;

1. Jebel Serbal. Its claims were suggested by Burckhardt (Travels, p. 609), and are advocated by Lepsius (Letters from Egypt [Lond. 1853]), Bartlett (Forty Days in the Desert), Stewart (The Tent and the Khan), and others. The arguments in its favor may be thus summed up: It was the most conspicuous mountain in the peninsula, and therefore the best known to the Egyptian colonists. Near its northern base was the oasis of Feiran, which was probably the center of the primeval Sinaitic population; and the summit of Serbal would form their natural sanctuary. Moses, knowing such a fertile and well-watered spot as Feiran, would never have led the Israelites past it, but would naturally select it as the place of the permanent camp (Lepsius, p. 356-363). Besides, it is supposed to be more in accordance with the narration of the wilderness journey than any other mountain; and it is alleged that early historical tradition is wholly in its favor. The last two arguments are the only ones of any weight; and neither of them stands the test of critical examination. The basis of Lepsius's argument is that Rephidim is identical with Feiran, and that Moses selected this spot as the site of a permanent camp because it was well watered and fertile; but the sacred writer tells us that in Rephidim "there was no water for the people to drink" (Exodus 17:1). With strange inconsistency Lepsius affirms that the "wonderful fountain of Feiran" was opened by the miracle recorded in ch. 15. If so, then how could the place have been well watered previously? But further, Rephidim was a day's march probably a short one from the permanent camp before Sinai (Exodus 19:1). These facts totally overthrow the alleged argument from Scripture.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Sinai'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/sinai.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W Y Z
Prev Entry
Sina