The Exodus Decoded: Exhibit O

About twenty minutes (excluding commercials) from the end of The Exodus Decoded, Jacobovici turns his attention to Israel’s wilderness experience and the location of Mount Sinai. He starts this segment by claiming that the seismic activity behind the ten plagues also led to oil and gas fires in the Sinai peninsula, and that these fires produced “just as the Bible says … a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, beckoning them into the desert.” (The ellipses represent the removal of the single word “is,” just to make the syntax flow well in the previous sentence.) Curiously, the footage over which this claim appears shows multiple fires—how would Moses and the Israelites have known which one to “follow,” especially since a “pillar of fire” above an active gas vent or something like that would not be moving through the desert “just as the Bible says”? Moreover, in Jacobovici’s footage, the fires are clearly visible in the daytime, not obscured by smoke. Furthermore, the Bible does not say that the Israelites were led by a pillar of smoke (עשׁן, ashan) but of cloud (ענן, anan). Here, as in other parts of the film, Jacobovici has will-nilly altered the Bible’s claims, “explained” the modified claims “scientifically,” and then claimed that his explanation is “just as the Bible says.”

Jacobovici attempts to locate Mount Sinai on a map by, to speak rather loosely, triangulating its position based on distances given in the Bible. Before he gets to the actual data, Jacobovici states, “Many would argue that identifying Mount Sinai would be tantamount to corroborating the biblical tale.” I’m not sure who these “many” are, or why this should be believed to be true. If we could reach certainty that a particular mountain was indeed the mountain that the biblical writers had in mind when they wrote of Mount Sinai, all that locating this mountain would prove is that the mountain itself is not imaginary or, to use Jacobovici’s term, merely “legendary.” It would not prove that Moses actually got ten commandments from God there or anything of that sort. Overstating claims and putting more weight on the evidence than it can bear is no way to “support” the Bible.

With a flourish typical of The Exodus Decoded‘s “we were there first!” rhetoric (although quite often the connections proposed have been around for many years), Jacobovici tells viewers that “adventurers” have been seeking Mount Sinai for “thousands of years,” but have always ended up in the wrong place. Of course, the real test is not whether the rhetoric is annoying, but whether the data hold up. Jacobovici first takes viewers to Jebel Musa, the site of St. Catherine’s monastery, a mountain identified in Christian tradition as Mount Sinai since the third century AD. Jacobovici’s objections to Jebel Musa have all been heard before, and they are all quite reasonable. On a beautiful CGI relief map of the Sinai peninsula, Jacobovici traces the proposed “northern,” two “middle,” and “southern” routes of the Israelites through the Sinai peninsula. Jacobovici rightly rejects the northern route, since the biblical narrative explicitly says that the Israelites did not go by a coastal route (although Jacobovici seems not to realize that this wreaks havoc with his notion that some of those who followed Moses out of Egypt and to Mt. Sinai then sailed “back” to Greece). Since Jacobovici has already (and, as I said, quite reasonably, though not in much detail) ruled out Jebel Musa, this also rules out the southern route.

CGI relief map of the Sinai peninsula, from The Exodus Decoded

CGI relief map of the Sinai peninsula, from The Exodus Decoded

Jacobovici uses three biblical data to try to locate Mt. Sinai. First, according to Jacobovici, Mount Sinai is a fourteen-day journey from a place in Egypt called Elim, which Jacobovici says is “easily identified” just south of Lake Ballah. There are at least a couple of significant problems with Jacobovici’s treatment of this biblical “coordinate.” First, note that Jacobovici places Elim fourteen days from Mount Sinai, and “just south” of Lake Ballah. According to Exodus 15:22 says that the Israelites went a three days’ journey into the wilderness of Shur after crossing the sea, then went to Elim, and then on into the wilderness of Sin. The idea that Elim would represent a backtracking toward Egypt seems bizarre to me, and the book of Exodus does not hint at any connection between Elim and the sea, but the book of Numbers does indicate a stop by the Yam Suf in between leaving Elim and reaching the wilderness of Sin (Numbers 33:10). The usual identification of Elim, by the way, is much farther south than Jacobovici indicates, but then the usual identification of Elim is largely guesswork; curiously, Jacobovici’s map places Elim closer to the traditional location than to the site the voiceover describes. The real problem is not Jacobovici’s identification of Elim—about which the most that can be said is “maybe so, maybe no”—but with Jacobovici’s mathematics. As far as I can tell, the only way to derive Jacobovici’s elapsed time of fourteen days’ journey from Elim to Mount Sinai is to take the date given for the Israelites’ arrival at Sinai, “the third new moon” (the first of the month), and subtract the date given in Exodus 16:1, “the fifteenth day of the second month.” The elapsed time between the fifteenth day of the second month and the first day of the third month would be two weeks, Jacobovici’s fourteen days. So far, so good, but the problem is that this fourteen-day trip does not start at Elim. Read Exodus 16:1 carefully: “The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt” (NRSV). Elim is some unspecified distance from “the wilderness of Sin,” and it is from this wilderness that it takes the Israelites fourteen days to enter “the wilderness of Sinai” per Exodus 19:1. Thus we have two problems with using Elim as a coordinate for trying to find Mount Sinai: the identification of Elim itself is ambiguous, and its distance from Mount Sinai (taking the biblical narrative at face value) is ambiguous. These ambiguities make Elim practically useless as a coordinate for triangulating Mount Sinai’s location. (I don’t know whether Jacobovici’s estimate of how far the entire group of Israelites could have traveled in one day is realistic or not, or whether he has adequately taken into account terrain variances for the trip; Bryant Wood [see below] claims that Jacobovici has vastly overestimated the distance a large group could travel in one day.)

Jacobovici’s second biblical datum is the claim that Moses first encountered God at the burning bush on Mount Sinai itself (see Exodus 3:1 and, perhaps more importantly though overlooked in The Exodus Decoded, Exodus 3:12). Therefore, Jacobovici infers, Mount Sinai must be “within flock-grazing distance of Midianite territory.” It is worth noting that Exodus 3 calls the mountain of God “Horeb,” not “Sinai,” and we should reckon with the possibility that the different names stem from different Israelite traditions, and that these distinct traditions might not cohere with one another on the location of Sinai itself. Jacobovici’s assumption that data from different streams of biblical tradition will cohere with one another may not be well-founded. If not, this would introduce a serious problem with Jacobovici’s procedure, but a problem owing more to the nature of the source material than to Jacobovici’s reasoning. Within the framework of Exodus 3 and its larger source tradition, Jacobovici’s inference is entirely reasonable. Midian, of course, is in Arabia, not the Sinai Peninsula, which is one of the arguments advanced by proponents of identifying Mount Sinai with Jebel el-Lawz in western Arabia. Jacobovici, though, claims that Midianite remains have been identified at Timnah, which is deep in the southern Arabah, perhaps 27.5 km or so north of the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqabah. I do not know much about the excavations and discoveries at Timnah, but Jacobovici’s claim is consistent with the very little I’ve read about the site. Jacobovici’s scenario is certainly more plausible than those offered by proponents of Jebel el-Lawz.

Possible routes of the exodus as shown in the Accordance atlas

Possible routes of the exodus as shown in the Accordance atlas

Jacobovici’s third biblical datum comes from Deuteronomy 1:2, “By the way of Mount Seir it takes eleven days to reach Kadesh-barnea from Horeb.” As an aside, although the specific identification of Mount Seir is uncertain, it would seem to be in Edomite territory, in a ridge that runs down east of the Dead Sea all the way down to Timnah and its environs. If Mount Sinai is not Jebel el-Lawz in Arabia (and I don’t think it is), I have no idea why anyone would want to go from Kadesh-barnea to Mount Horeb by way of Mount Seir. It seems like a strange route to me, and the circuity of the route should be taken into account while trying to measure the “eleven days.” Jacobovici, however, doesn’t take the phrase “by the way of Mount Seir” into account; he simply draws an arc showing an eleven-day journey from Kadesh-barnea. Also, 1 Kings 19:4–9 throws a monkey wrench into the machinery by saying that it took Elijah—one man traveling alone—41 days to reach Horeb from Beersheba. Beersheba is nowhere near a thirty-day journey from Kadesh-barnea. Using Jacobovici’s figure of 15 km per day (which, remember, is for a large group of people traveling with children, senior citizens, and flocks), Elijah should have been able to get from Beersheba to Kadesh-barnea in just 5 days. Elijah’s journey is, in fact, one of the data that supporters of Jebel Musa cite in its favor. While the circuity of the route is a problem in Jacobovici’s own reasoning and lack of scrupulous attention to the actual details of the text, the Elijah problem points up the ambiguity of the source material itself. The biblical traditions about the location of Mount Sinai/Horeb may simply be too confused to provide the kind of firm geographical data that Jacobovici wants.

In any event, using these three data points leads Jacobovici to a relatively small area in the Sinai peninsula, highlighted in blue on the CGI map. Based on the presence of “sanctuaries,” Jacobovici narrows his search down to a specific mountain, which he calls “Jebel Hashem el-Tarif,” more frequently found labeled as “Jebel ash-Sha’ira.” Bryant Wood, a (very) conservative interpreter, writes this about Jacobovici’s triangulation:

Jacobovici’s methodology in attempting to locate Mt. Sinai is admirable in that he utilizes Biblical data. Unfortunately, some of his information is incorrect. He bases the location on the distances the Israelites could travel within the Biblical timeframe. He begins by saying it took the Israelites 14 days to travel from Elim to Mt. Sinai. Elim, he suggests, is located at Ayun Musa on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Suez, which is no doubt correct, but his timeline is off. According to Exodus 16:1, after the Israelites left Elim, they “came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the 15th day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.” They then arrived at the Desert of Sinai a month later (Ex 19:1; Nu 33:3). So, the travel time from Elim to the Desert of Sinai was more than 30 days, not 14 days. The daily rate of travel Jacobovici assumes, 15 km (9 mi) is also incorrect. Pastoralists traveling with their flocks can go no more than 10 km (6 mi) per day (Wood 2000). In addition, one cannot simply multiply a rate of travel times the number of days traveled and draw a straight line on a map to locate Mt. Sinai. The ancient routes and the zigs and zags and ups and downs of traveling by foot in a rugged terrain must be taken into account. Although Hashem el-Tarif may be a valid candidate for Mt. Sinai, one cannot arrive at that identification using Jacobovici’s calculations.

Color-coded Sinai peninsula CGI relief map, from The Exodus Decoded

Color-coded Sinai peninsula CGI relief map, from The Exodus Decoded

But what of Jacobovici’s other “evidence” for the identification of Hashem el-Tarif as Mount Sinai? First, Jacobovici claims, the mountain is surrounded by a “plateau” that could have held “hundreds of thousands” of Israelites. Of course, if the biblical numbers are not exaggerated, you don’t just need room for “hundreds of thousands” of Israelites, but for over two million Israelites. The figure of approximately 600,000 exodus-ing Israelites, given in the book of Numbers, applies only to males 20+ years old who are physically fit for war. It doesn’t count any women, aged men, infirm men, or boys age 19 and under. I don’t actually know whether the plateau could hold that many people—but then, I do think the numbers have been inflated, so I’m not really worried about the size of the plateau. (By the way, there’s an interesting tension in Jacobovici’s narrative here; on the one hand, he acts like the mountain is hidden away in a military zone, but three minutes later he says the mountain is easily accessible, right on the main highway.)

Second, according to Uzi Avner of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, who appears on-screen in The Exodus Decoded, this particular mountain is surrounded by a high concentration of “open-air sanctuaries.” As it turns out, the Bible says nothing about any such sanctuaries, so the connection with the exodus is tenuous. Jacobovici’s reasoning seems to be that the Bible refers to Sinai as a “holy mountain”—though in fact the Bible uses this designation overwhelmingly for Zion, not Sinai—and therefore, there must have been sanctuaries there. Certainly the Bible narrates some worship activities going on there, but Jacobovici doesn’t present anything that would link these sanctuaries specifically to an Israelite presence. If Hashem el-Tarif is really the biblical Mount Sinai, and if the various “sanctuaries” around the mountain are ancient (nobody in the film speaks to this point), then we would expect to find among them Moses’s twelve pillars (Exodus 24:4). But nothing like this is introduced by Jacobovici, nor have I found any indication of such at Hashem el-Tarif in any other mention of the mountain.

Third, Jacobovici shows footage of a “cleft in the rock” atop Hashem el-Tarif, but such a feature is hardly unique to this mountain.

Fourth, Jacobovici says that a holy mountain should have grave sites of “holy men,” but this criterion is patently not drawn from the Bible, as the Bible says nothing about Sinai having any such grave sites. Rather, this criterion is drawn from Jacobovici’s own thinking about what a “holy mountain” must have—and undoubtedly from the fact that Hashem el-Tarif does have such grave sites. Surely the presence of grave sites that the Bible does not mention cannot serve as a strong criterion for identifying Mt. Sinai!

Finally, Uzi Avner shows Jacobovici some calcification that he says is evidence of an ancient natural spring, which Jacobovici claims the Bible says should be found at the top of Mount Sinai. In fact, the book of Exodus says nothing about any such spring, nor does Deuteronomy, nor does 1 Kings 19 (Elijah’s visit to Horeb). The closest thing I can find to such a claim comes from Exodus 17, set at Massah/Meribah. The text reads in part as follows:

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:5–6, NRSV)

The text does not refer to a natural spring, but a miraculous provision of water. It also does not place this issue of water on top of Mount Sinai—in fact, the later narrative is emphatic about the people not going up on Mount Sinai, and not even touching the mountain. If the small, ancient spring on the top of Hashem el-Tarif reflects this “miracle” (no miracle at all, according to Jacobovici—like everything else in the story), then we must conclude either that the people really did swarm all over the mountain to get the water, or that Moses carted enough water for “several hundred thousand Israelites” (Jacobovici’s phrase from earlier in the program) down the mountain. Or maybe he had magically animated broomsticks that helped him. It’s entirely possible, of course, that some such natural spring lies behind the biblical text, and that it supplied water for a much smaller group, and that the mountain and the Israelite group have been magnified in the retelling over hundreds of years—but that’s not what Jacobovici keeps claiming throughout The Exodus Decoded. He keeps claiming that his reconstruction matches the biblical story, when in fact, it does not.

The “fit” between Hashem el-Tarif, as described in The Exodus Decoded (everything I know about the mountain comes from the program itself), and the biblical Mount Sinai is thus, as you can see, somewhat “loose.” Jacobovici’s identification is marred by the distance problems described above, and the entire procedure is limited by our inability to show that the source materials from which Jacobovici draws actually cohere in their own “understandings” of where Mount Sinai lies. Thus, it cannot be said that Jacobovici is certainly right. But it also cannot be said that Jacobovici is certainly wrong about the identification of Hashem el-Tarif as Mount Sinai. He might be right. He might be wrong. The case is not closed—and the data and arguments that Jacobovici presents in The Exodus Decoded cannot answer the question.