SINAI and SNEH (סיני and סנה)

Guest Post by Dr. Charles David Isbell

The burning bush encounter between Moses and God, chronicled in Exodus 3:1-4:17, includes three miraculous signs offered to Moses initially on “the mountain of God” and then repeated later in the Pentateuchal narratives.[1] Although they fail to produce the desired effect on Egypt promised by YHWH, the miraculous staff-to-snake > snake-to-staff sign is repeated in Egypt (cf. Exod. 4:1-4 and 7:8-10), and the water to blood transformation is duplicated there soon afterward (Exod. 4:9 and 7:19-20). Much later, well after the exit from Egypt, the sudden eruption of leprosy (4:6-7) is repeated in Numbers 12:10, followed by the return from leprosy to normal skin condition in 12:15.

Yet a fourth sign (’ot), framed as the prediction of a miracle, was the divine promise to Moses that once he had led the Israelites safely out of Egypt, they would “worship God near this very mountain” (‘al ha-har ha-zeh in Exod. 3:12).[2]

Unlike the other three, this sign could not be duplicated or ratified while the Israelites were still in Egypt or by happenstance at any of the numerous locations at which they paused in the process of their wilderness wandering outside of Egypt. Instead, it had to be verified only in one specific location, the exact mountain location of the first encounter between God and Moses. Thus, unlike the other three signs, this fourth sign is not mentioned again or explained in the narratives of Exodus or Numbers that follow the flight out of Egypt to freedom. And despite the fact that the Horeb and Sinai locations have proven geographically indistinguishable to interpreters, the specific name of Horeb in 3:1 as the mountain on which Moses had been located when he encountered the burning bush also provides the background for the later story of the giving of the Torah. But by way of introducing the Ten Commandments of the second narrative, the name Horeb has morphed into Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. This is the case even though the two incidents (burning bush and Ten Commandments) are not linked together specifically in the later narrative.[3]

When Exodus 19:1 introduces the picture of the Israelites entering the “wilderness of Sinai” for the first time, the typical narrative way to mark the linking of a new narrative to a preceding one (beginning with va-yehi), is absent.

Following va-yehi in standard narrative, the normal way to link back and make the connection between Sinai and the burning bush on Horeb would have been to state it explicitly at the opening of the new narrative. This would have involved something like “the Israelites … entered the wilderness of Sinai, [*that is, Horeb].” It would not have been surprising for the second narrative to have included notice that the worshipping Israelites near Mount Sinai were about to fulfill the divine promise given to Moses as a central theme of the burning bush episode. Several examples of links of this sort are attested in the context of underscoring up-to-date names that certify the location of an important episode in Israelite life.

1. Genesis 23:2 reports that “Sarah died in Qiryat-‘Arba‘, and notes quickly that the name is “now Hebron.” The significance of the death of the matriarch underscores the necessity of offering a familiar name to the location of her burial site. In Joshua 15:15, the name change is repeated in the context of identifying the land portion given to the faithful Caleb.

2. Bethel replaces the earlier name of Luz in Genesis 28:19, an obvious attempt to attach a familiar name to a seminal event in the life of Jacob (his ladder vision) during his return trip to his birthplace.

3. On the occasion of a separation agreement between Jacob and his father-in-law, each man names the site of the transaction differently—Laban, in Aramaic (Yegar Sahaduta) and Jacob in Hebrew (Gal‘ed). Both words mean “the mound [or heap of stones] of witness” (Gen. 31:47). To ensure that readers will be able to identify the location of such an important transaction, the editor of the narrative in Genesis attaches yet a third, updated name (Mitzpah), a generic noun meaning a watchtower.

4. Both Joshua 15:15 and Judges 1:11 explain that the city known in their day as Debir had earlier carried the name Qiryat Sepher.

5. In Judges 19, a Levite man traveled to Bethlehem in search of his concubine who had run away. When he located her in the house of her father, she welcomed him and her father also “received him warmly (19:3).” When the couple decided to return to their home in the hill country of Ephraim three days later, the first day of their journey took them to “the vicinity of Jebus, that is, Jerusalem” (19:10).

Even though the burning bush experience of Moses surely stands as a high watermark in Israelite salvation history, Exodus 19:1 lacks any specifically stated connection between Horeb and Sinai comparable to the examples above. Instead, this introduction of “The Wilderness of Sinai” as the place where “the mountain” is located, “presents itself in utter newness.”[4]

The earliest known direct linkage between the burning bush and the Ten Commandments episode appears in Acts 7:30, part of a speech attributed to Stephen offering a somewhat detailed survey of several early biblical narratives. Commenting on the encounter between Moses and the burning bush, Stephen made an explicit connection, noting that the original incident itself had taken place “in the wilderness of Mount Sinai” (en te eremo tou orous Sina): “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush.” This connects “the mountain of God” (called Horeb in Exodus 3:1) to the “bush” with which Moses had the dialogue that resulted in his call and commission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. It also explicitly assigns the name “Sinai” to that mountain vicinity. Based on this evidence alone, one would conclude that Horeb and Sinai were two different names of the same mountainous location.

This explicit linkage calls for two observations.

First, while Horeb and Sinai are geographically indistinguishable from the meager information in the biblical text, the location of the bush encounter on Horeb by “J” and the failure to describe the mountain as Sinai breaks the pattern assumed by source critics who assign Horeb to “E” or “D” and Sinai to “J” or editorial “P.” Second, hundreds of years after Stephen’s speech, but long before source critics carved up the text into separate documents via a method somewhat akin to a literary autopsy, the redoubtable Rashi interpreted the phrase similarly, taking “You will worship Me on this mountain” to mean “[the mountain] upon which you will receive the Torah” (שתקבלו התורה עליו); i.e., “Sinai.” Two questions come to the fore. The first is whether or not the linkage is appropriate, and the second is how it arose in the first place. Stated differently, are the connections expressed by two such different commentators as Stephen [i.e., Luke] and Rashi defensible? Internal textual clues might argue in their favor.

The unvowelled/unpointed Hebrew consonants of the English words “bush” and “Sinai” may point to the original source of the linkage.

Consonantly, both words would appear simply as סנ. With matres lectiones only, “bush” becomes סנה, while “Sinai” appears as סיני (as they now appear in an unpointed Torah scroll). In the plene forms of the two words (fully pointed/vowelled), the actual points (Hireq, Seghol, Hireq-Yod) are added. In Exodus 3:1, the mountain to which Moses had led the flock of his father-in-law is cited as the place where the burning bush appeared to Moses and named “Horeb.” By the time of the second narrative (Ten Commandments), Horeb (the initial “mountain of the bush”) has morphed into the later name Sinai, providing a convenient mnemonic link directly by means of the common noun sneh, combining both a descriptive name and a clear recall of the function of the “bush mountain” narrative, the place where Moses first encountered God. An additional link appears when Exodus 19, in the shadow of Mount Sinai, which repeats the choice of fire found on Horeb in Exodus 3 as a symbol of the presence of God. Once the choice of a “bush” as the locus of that fire in chapter 3 is linked with “Sinai," the fire in 19:18 and other natural phenomena (smoke, quaking mountain, and thunder) fit naturally with the magical aura of the original God/Moses encounter.

As such, the prediction from the original divine/human encounter has been ratified, and the cycle is complete—the mountain of the bush (sneh) has officially become the mountain known by the name of Sinai.

Dr. Charles David Isbell is the Jewish Studies professor at Louisiana State University. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and is an original member of the translation committee for The New American Standard Bible. For additional biographic and bibliographic information about Dr. Isbell, see his website: ENDNOTES:

  1. The technical word for a miracle, ’ot, is used twice in 4:8 and the plural form (’otot) a third time in 4:9.

  2. As Exodus 19:12 specifies, the recently freed people are commanded not to climb up on or even touch the mountain. But since Exodus 3:12 has described all the people (ta‘avdun), not just Moses (ta‘avod), as worshipping “‘al ha-har ha-zeh,” to preserve the accuracy of the ’ot in 3:12, the preposition ‘al cannot be translated “upon.” But ‘al often connotes the idea of “near” or even “alongside,” and should be so rendered in 3:12. For a humorous result of translating ‘al slavishly, see Genesis 24:30, where the servant of Abraham in search of a wife for Isaac is located by the brother of the potential bride “‘omed ‘al ha-gemalim ‘al ha-‘ayin.” To translate ‘al here as “upon” would yield the picture of the servant “standing upon the camels [who were] upon the well.”

  3. The standard source critical view is that Sinai is the term found in “J” and “P” narratives, while Horeb is used in “E” and “D.”

  4. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 364.

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