Locating the site of the covenant

Can Paul’s Arabian sojourn help us locate the true Mount Sinai? Many modern archeologists believe so.

Mount Sinai 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mount Sinai 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The principal New Testament author, the Apostle Paul, experienced some of his deepest revelations during a three-year sabbatical in Arabia. Did he visit Mount Sinai? Did he give us a clue in the New Testament to its real location?
Prior to his Damascus Road experience, Saul of Tarsus was a “zealous” Pharisee in the tradition of righteous avengers of the Old Testament who meted out divinely prescribed punishment to idolaters and traitors.
Theologians suggest that Saul’s zeal emulated Phinehas of Torah fame (Numbers 25) as well as the great prophet Elijah. Phinehas and Elijah were Paul’s main role models in his zealous persecution of the Church. But when Saul had a vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road, he followed in the footsteps of his role model Elijah on a soul-searching pilgrimage to the desert of Sinai: “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia” (Galatians 1:17).
And just as Elijah was commissioned by God at Sinai to anoint an Israelite king, Saul was sent back from Arabia to be an apostle of the newly anointed Messiah.
In the Journal of Biblical Literature, “Paul, Arabia and Elijah,” N.T. Wright describes Paul’s “Elijah motif” in Galatians and Romans like this: “I did not learn my gospel from other human beings but from the one true God, through the revelation of His son...I stood in the tradition of ‘zeal’ going back to Phinehas and Elijah, the tradition that the Maccabean martyrs so nobly exemplified. Indeed my persecution of the church was inspired by exactly this tradition. But the God of Israel called me, like Elijah, to step back from this zeal and to listen to him afresh. When I listened, I heard a voice telling me that the messianic victory over evil had already been won... I therefore had to renounce my former zeal and announce the true Messiah to the world.”
Interestingly in Paul’s great exposition concerning Israel, he quotes from 1 Kings 19:10, “Lord, they have killed your prophets and thrown down your altar: I alone am left...”
Paul felt himself a solitary figure like Elijah, but he also learned that God reserves for himself thousands who have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18; Romans 11:4).
Furthermore, “Saul,” as the newly commissioned “Paul,” discusses Mount Sinai as an allegory: “Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem because she is in slavery with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:25-26).
Can Paul’s Arabian sojourn help us locate the true Mount Sinai? After all, Paul was highly educated under the celebrated Rabbi Gamliel. If the Jewish people of his day had any certainty of Mount Sinai’s location, it’s likely that he would have gone there during his Arabian wanderings. In light of the vast extent of Arabia in Paul’s day, his notation that “Mount Sinai is in Arabia” doesn’t pinpoint the mountain’s location, although it does affirm a general location to the south of Israel.
But Author Glen Fritz has written a fascinating study entitled Mount Sinai and the Apostle Paul in which he points out that Paul’s reference in Galatians to Sinai employs a geographical term in Greek, suggesting that Jerusalem was directly north of Sinai and on the same longitude. Fritz observed that a composite of Paul’s geographical phrases yields this statement: “…mount Sinai in Arabia… answereth to Jerusalem… which is above…” (Galatians 4:25-26, KJV). “Answereth,” is translated from sustoicheo and carries the geographical sense of “corresponding.”
Thus Fritz – and many modern archeologists for other reasons – asserts that the Jabal al Lawz mountain in northwest Saudi Arabia is most likely the real Mount Sinai.
Christine Darg is a Christian author and broadcaster who can be contacted at christine@jerusalem.com