Moses, Paul, Sinai, Midian and Arabia

Many amateur archaeology enthusiasts now believe that the “true” Mt. Sinai is the volcanic peak Jebel al Lawz, in northwest Saudi Arabia. This view was popularized by another amateur, Ron Wyatt, who left his day job as a nurse anesthetist in Tennessee, traveled to the Middle East, and fraudulently proclaimed himself to be an “archaeologist”. Most of the “proofs” for this location are in the nature of superficial visual appearance, not scientific investigation and analysis. But that’s a story for another day.

Sinai in Arabia?

In this post, I want to concentrate on Biblical statements regarding Arabia and Midian that Wyatt enthusiasts, and even some doubters, regard as indisputable proof. The most common that I’ve heard, one that is supposed to quash all dissent, is

Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.
—Galatians 4:25 ESV (emphasis added)

The theological context of this verse is beyond my scope here, but we have to ask what Paul meant by “Arabia” in that verse, and in Gal 1:17, where he speaks of going away to Arabia. If you think he meant “Saudi Arabia” then think again, because that country was not born until the 20th Century. Nor do I think that the concepts of “Arabian Peninsula” or “Arabian sub-continent” were known until much, much later. Mentions of Arabia and Arabian Kings in the Old Testament and contemporary writings refer to scattered independent petty sheikdoms and bands of nomads inhabiting the desert areas shown in brown on the map below. No borders are shown on the map because neither Arabia nor Midian, which I’ll discuss below, were unified political entities.

Arabia in the Ancient Near East. ©Accordance Software

What originally made the region Arabia was not a political, or even a geographical connection, but rather the fact that it was populated predominantly by Arabs. The Arabs are a genealogically diverse mixture of largely Ishmaelite tribes. Some historians tie the term “Ishmaelite” specifically to Arabs that lived around the Hijaz, or western coast of the subcontinent, but I use it here to refer to all descendants of Abraham’s son, Ishmael. The term, “Arab“, is derived from a Hebrew root ערב (‘arab), meaning “to crisscross or traverse”, referring probably to their nomadic movement from place to place. As herdsmen and traders, they ranged throughout regions encompassing today’s western Arabia, certainly, and up into modern Jordan, Syria, eastern and southern Sinai and the Negev in Israel.

in the context of the New Testament, the most likely meaning of “Arabia”, is the area then known as the Nabataean Kingdom, shown below roughly outlined in orange, consisting of the modern northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, most of modern Jordan, and all of the Sinai Peninsula east of the present Suez Canal. Note that this area contains both Jebel Musa (the traditional site in Sinai) and Jebel al Lawz (Wyatt’s site east of the Gulf of Aqaba).

The Nabatean Kingdom circa AD 85, ©Villeneuve Nehme.

Nabataea became a formal kingdom at around the middle of the 3rd Century BC. In general, it was friendly to Hasmonean Judea. Nabataean independence ended when they were finally conquered by Rome, under Trajan, in AD 106. Under Roman administration, they were split into two districts, Arabia Petraea in the west And Arabes Nabataei in the East (see next map, below). Both Jebel Musa and Jebel al Laws are located in Arabia Petraea.

Detail from Wikipedia map of the Roman Empire, circa 125 AD, ©Andrein
Paul in Arabia?

After Paul’s “road to Damascus” encounter, he went to Arabia for some unstated reason and duration. Perhaps he “camped out” in the Wilderness to pray and commune with God. Perhaps he lived for a while with Bedouins to learn the tent-making skills that provided his financial support during his missionary journeys.

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,
was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;
nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
—Galatians 1:15–17 ESV (emphasis added)

The wording of the passage quoted above implies to me that he purposely avoided the apostles for the time being. My assumption is that he wanted his instructions to come directly from God, since God had chosen him to reveal the mysteries of the new Church. Some commentators suggest that he traveled to Petra for some type of religious or geographic training, but I think his knowledge in those areas needed no further enhancement. If he spent time in any city during this period, I think that Philadelphia (ancient Rabbath Ammon and modern Amman, Jordan) was more likely.

Philadelphia in the time of the Apostle, Paul. By Nichalp – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
Moses in Midian?

The Midianites were a nomadic tribe descended from Midian, a son of Abraham by his wife Keturah. They were a warlike people who engaged in herding, trade, and banditry. Like Arabia, Midian is a region, not a formal geographic or political entity. Most maps of Midian will show it as in the map below—east of the Gulf of Aqaba, but with no borders. Archaeology has little to say about the location. There is some sparse artifactual evidence, mainly pottery, in the area shown and north of that region, in the southern Lavant. Some literary evidence indicates a Midianite presence also in eastern and southern Sinai. This “rural spread” makes perfect sense. The entire region was arid. Nomadic herders tended to establish temporary homes that could be moved from place to place as pastures become depleted by overgrazing. There were also caravan routes connecting the furthest extents of the region (see the first map, above), an obvious enhancement to both trade and banditry.

Sinai and Midian, per Atlas of the Bible Lands

Many of Wyatt’s supporters will say that the Sinai Peninsula could not have been used by Midianite herdsmen because it was part of Egypt. Once again, borders were fluid in ancient times, where they existed at all. Egypt’s interests were primarily along the Nile. Their interest in the Sinai was limited. The roads in and out, especially the Way of the Sea, were fortified and patrolled for defensive purposes. Otherwise, only the mining areas along the Gulf of Suez coast were of significant value to them.

Author: Ron Thompson

Retired President of R. L Thompson Engineering, Inc.

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