A mountain, or mountain range, in Arabia Petraea, in the peninsula formed by the two arms of the Red Sea, and rendered memorable as the spot where the law was given to Israel through Moses, Exodus 19:1-Nu 10:33. As this mountain has been almost unknown in modern times, until recently, and is of such importance in Scripture history, we shall enter into some details respecting it.
The upper region of Sinai forms an irregular circle of thirty or forty miles in diameter, possessing numerous sources of water, a temperate climate, and a soil capable of supporting animal and vegetable life; for which reason it is the refuge of all the Bedaweens when the low country is parched up. This, therefore, was the part of the peninsula best adapted to the residence of nearly a year, during which the Israelites were numbered, and received their laws from the Most High. In the highest and central part of this region, seven thousand feet above the level of the sea, rises the sacred summit of Horeb or Sinai. The two names are used almost indiscriminately in the Bible, the former predominating in Deuteronomy. Some have thought there were two adjacent summits, called, in the time of Moses, Horeb and Sinai; and indeed the monks give these names to the northern and southern heights of the same ridge, three miles long. But the comparison of all the Scripture passages rather shows that HOREB was the general name for the group, and SINAI the name of the sacred summit.
In approaching this elevated region from the northwest, Burckhardt writes, "We now approached the central summits of Mount Sinai, which we had had in view for several days. Abrupt cliffs of granite, from six to eight hundred feet in height, whose surface is blackened by the sun, surround the avenues leading to the elevated region to which the name of Sinai is specifically applied. These cliffs inclose the holy mountain on three sides, leaving the east and northeast sides only, towards the Gulf of Akaba, more open to the view. At the end of three hours, we entered these cliffs by a narrow defile about forty feet in breadth, with perpendicular granite rocks on both sides. The ground is covered with sand and pebbles, brought down by the torrent which rushes from the upper region in the winter time."
The general approach to Sinai from the same quarter is thus described by Mr. Carne: "A few hours more, and we got sight of the mountains round Sinai. Their appearance was magnificent. When we drew near, and emerged out of a deep pass, the scenery was infinitely striking; and on the right extended a vast range of mountains, as far as the eye could reach, from the vicinity of Sinai down to Tor, on the Gulf of Suez. They were perfectly bar, but of grand and singular form. We had hoped to reach the convent by daylight; but the moon had risen some time when we entered the mouth of a narrow pass, where our conductors advised us to dismount. A gentle yet perpetual ascent led on, mile after mile, up this mournful valley, whose aspect was terrific, yet ever varying. It was not above two hundred yards in width, and the mountains rose to an immense height on each side. The road wound at their feet along the edge of a precipice, and amid masses of rock that had fallen from above. It was a toilsome path, generally over stones place like steps, probably by the Arabs; and the moonlight was of little service to us in this deep valley, as it only rested on the frowning summits above. Where is Mount Sinai? Was the inquiry of everyone."
"The Arabs pointed before to Jebel Moosa, the Mount of Moses, as it is called; but we could not distinguish it. Again and again point after point was turned, and we saw but the same stern scenery. But what had the beauty and softness of nature to do here? Mount Sinai required an approach like this, where all seemed to proclaim the land of miracles, and to have been visited by the terrors of the Lord. The scenes, as you gazed around, had an unearthly character, suited to the sound of the fearful trumpet that was heard there. We entered at last on the more open valley, about half a mile wide, and drew near this famous mountain."
The elevated valley or plain Er-Rahah, here and above referred to, is now generally believed to be the place where the Hebrews assembled to witness the giving of the law. Its is two miles long from northwest to southeast, and on an average half a mile wide. The square mile thus afforded is nearly doubled by the addition of those portions of side valleys, particularly Esh-Sheikh towards the northnortheast, from which the summit Tas-Sufsafeh can be seen. This summit, which Dr. Robinson takes to be the true Sinai, rises abruptly on the south side of the plain some fifteen hundred feet. It is the termination of a ridge running three miles southeast, the southern and highest point of which is called by the Arabs Jebel Musa, or Moses’ Mount. Separated from this ridge by deep and steep ravines, are two parallel ridges, of which the eastern is called the Mountain of the Cross, and the western, Jebel Humr. The convent of St. Catharine lies in the ravine east of the true Sinai; while Mount Catharine is the south peak of the western ridge, lying southwest of Jebel Musa and rising more than one thousand feet higher. From the convent, Dr. Robinson ascended the central and sacred mountain, and the steep peak Ras-Sufsafeh. "The extreme difficulty," he says, "and even danger of the ascent, was well rewarded by the prospect that now opened before us. The whole plain Er-Rahah lay spread out beneath our feet; while Wady Esh Sheikh on the right and a recess on the left, both connected with the opening broadly from Er-Rahah, presented an area which serves nearly to double that of the plain. Our conviction was strengthened that here, or on some one of the adjacent cliffs, was the spot where the Lord descended in fire and proclaimed the law. Here lay the plain where the whole congregation might be assembled; here was the mount which might be approached and touched; and here the mountain brow where alone the lightnings and the thick cloud would be visible, and the thunders and the voice of the trump be heard, when the Lord came down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. We gave ourselves up to the impressions of the awful scene; and read with a feeling which will never be forgotten the sublime account of the transaction and the commandments there promulgated, in the original words as recorded by the great Hebrew legislator."
The plain Er-Rahah is supposed to have been reached by the Hebrews from the shore of the Red Sea, south of the desert of Sin, by a series of wadys or broad ravines winding up among the mountains in an easterly direction, chiefly Wady Feiran and Wady Ehs-Sheikh. The former commences near the Red Sea, and opens into the latter, which making a circuit to the north of Sinai enters the plain at its foot from the north-northeast. For several miles from its termination here, this valley is half a mile wide. By the same northern entrance most travellers have approached the sacred mountain. Its south side is less known. To the spectator on Jebel Musa, it presents to trace of any plain, valley, or level ground to be compared with that on the north; yet some writers maintain that the Hebrews received the law at the southern foot of Sinai. See map, in the article EXODUS.
In many of the western Sinaite valleys, and most of all in ElMukatteb, which enters Wady Feiran from the northwest, the more accessible parts of the rocky sides are covered by thousands of inscriptions, usually short, and rudely carved in spots where travellers would naturally stop to rest at noon; frequently accompanied by a cross and mingled with representations of animals. The inscriptions are in an unknown character, but were at first ascribed to the ancient Israelites on their way from Egypt to Sinai; and afterwards to Christian pilgrims of the fourth century. Recently, however, many of them have been deciphered by Prof. Beer of Leipzig, who regards them as the only known remains of the language and characters once peculiar to the Nabathaeans of Arabia Petraea. Those thus far deciphered are simply proper names, neither Jewish nor Christian, preceded by some such words as "peace," "blessed," "in memory of."
The giving of the law upon Mount Sinai made it one of the most memorable spots on the globe. Here, moreover, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Exodus 3:1-22 and Exodus 4:1-31; and six centuries later, sublimely revealed himself to the prophet Elijah when fleeing from the fury of Jezebel, 1 Kings 19:1-21. There are frequent allusions in Scripture to the glorious and awful delivery of the Law, Judges 5:5 Psalms 68:8,17 Habakkuk 3:3. In the New Testament, the dispensation proclaimed on Sinai is contrasted with the gospel of the grace of God, Galatians 4:24,25 Hebrews 12:18-29.