No one knows with certainty where Mount Sinai was. But with a new documentary renewing the debate, here’s why I personally favor the traditional South Sinai location over other proposed locations, including Saudi Arabia.
1. The Biblical Itineraries. Exodus 12-19 and Numbers 33 seem to indicate a relatively short journey (with only three stops) from Goshen/Rameses to the Red Sea, and a longer journey (with eight stops) from the Red Sea to Mount Sinai. A 60-mile three-day journey from Goshen to the western arm of the Red Sea (Gulf of Suez) would be consistent with Jewish tradition and Josephus’ statement that it took three days to reach the Red Sea. By contrast, the eastern arm of the Red Sea (the Gulf of Aqaba) leading to Saudi Arabia is 200-250 miles from Goshen. That’s a long journey with only three stops—and a long way for Pharaoh’s chariots to give chase.
Following the Red Sea crossing, the Bible indicates a longer eight-stop itinerary to Mount Sinai: a southern journey with some extended camps alongside the Red Sea (ruling out the marshy lakes hypothesis) and then an eastern journey into the mountains of Sinai. All told, it took about 50 days for the Israelites to reach Mount Sinai where God spoke the Ten Words—later celebrated by the Feast of Pentecost 50 days after the Feast of Passover. Here’s my best understanding of the biblical itinerary:
Day 0: Passover and Exodus (Friday night/Sabbath)
Day 3: Red Sea crossing (Tuesday)
Days 4-28: Journey and camps alongside Red Sea
Day 28: Arrival at Wilderness of Sin; quail after sunset (Sabbath)
Days 29-34: Manna falls (Sunday-Friday)
Day 35: Sabbath
Day 46: Arrival at Mount Sinai (Wednesday)
Days 47-49: Preparations to Meet God (Thursday through Sabbath)
Day 50: God Speaks (Sunday/Pentecost)
2. The Plague of Locusts. Exodus 10:19 describes the locusts being blown back into the Red Sea. This description makes more sense for the nearby western arm of the Red Sea (60 miles away) than the eastern arm of the Red Sea (200-250 miles away). And with the next mention of the Red Sea just three chapters later (Exodus 13:18), the same body of water would seem to be in mind by the same writer.
3. Midian. Exodus 2-4 relates that Moses fled to Midian, which was likely in modern-day Saudi Arabia, although the Midianites also roamed throughout the Sinai Peninsula. Forty years later, Moses is described in Exodus 3:1 as leading his flocks to the “far side” (Exodus 3:1) of the wilderness (also translated “west side” of the wilderness) where he meets the Lord at Mount Sinai. Interestingly, after Moses returns to his family in Midian and then heads for Egypt, he again passes by Mount Sinai where he’s met by his brother Aaron.
This suggests Mount Sinai is west of Midian. Additionally, in Exodus 18, Jethro visits Moses at Mount Sinai and then returns to his own “own country” (Ex. 18:27). While these verses can be understood different ways, they don’t preclude the Sinai Peninsula from being the location of Mount Sinai. (With regard to the phrase “Mount Sinai in Arabia” in Galatians 4:25, first-century Arabia included the Sinai Peninsula as well.)
4. The Physical Evidence. There simply aren’t any definitive artifacts at any of the proposed Sinai sites. The blackened peak (volcanic basalt) and bovine petroglyphs cited by proponents of Jabal El Lawz in Saudi Arabia are not unique features to that mountain. And think about it: If Moses ground the golden calf of Exodus 32 to powder and made the people drink it, was he going to leave calf petroglyphs all over the place?
On the whole, I believe Mount Sinai is located in the south Sinai Peninsula, either the traditional Jebel Musa peak or, more likely, the adjacent Ras Sasafeh peak overlooking the campsite: a beautiful ridge that I climbed with my daughter last summer. I also believe that the Red Sea crossing site is the western arm of the Red Sea (Gulf of Suez).
But again, the qualifier—I’m not certain about this. Scripture does also refer to the eastern arm (Gulf of Aqaba) as the Red Sea (see Numbers 21:4; 1 Kings 9:26). I also respect filmmaker Tim Mahoney and his “Patterns of Evidence” film series, including his excellent 2014 documentary placing the Exodus about 1450 B.C. But Mahoney’s latest films “Journey to Mount Sinai, Part 1 and 2” favoring Saudi Arabia as the location of Mount Sinai I don’t find as well done or persuasive. And that’s okay. Believers can disagree respectfully, in a spirit of humility and graciousness. Here's what all believers can believe with confidence—at Mount Sinai, the Lord spoke the Ten Words to His people; these Ten Words are for all peoples; and the strongest evidence of the Ten Words is the transformed lives of the people who practice them—God writing His laws on our hearts, just as He said He would. In that sense, we can each claim the location of Mount Sinai and the indwelling presence of the Lord God Yahweh.