#86. Is the mount of revelation Horeb OR Sinai? (Ex 3:1, 17:6; Deut 1:6, 4:10, etc. vs Ex 19:11, 19:18, etc.; Lev 7:38, 26:46, etc.)


Variant textual traditions now preserved side-by-side in the Bible reference two different places or place-names where Yahweh revealed himself and his commandments to Moses—neither of which has been archeologically identified.1

Both the Elohist and the later Deuteronomist consistently refer to the place of revelation as Horeb or “the mountain of the god.” Contrary to the Elohist however, the Deuteronomist does not present the giving of the laws as happening at Horeb, as we will see when we get to the book of Deuteronomy. (Some of my favorite contradictions here!)

Conversely, the Yahwist and the Priestly sources consistently refer to it as Sinai. However, there is no revelation of the divine name in the Yahwist tradition. The name Yahweh, the Yahwist claims, was known right from the earliest generations of man (contradiction #11 is a nice review as we move toward P’s revelation scene in Exodus 6:2-8). What the Yahwist tradition does preserve, however, is a different version of the Ten Commandments (see forthcoming #123).

The Sinai tradition might in fact be later than the Horeb tradition. One of the reasons for this assessment is the scarcity, even absence, of references to the Sinai tradition in biblical texts that date from before the exile. There are only two passages outside of the Pentateuch where Sinai is mentioned (Judg 5:5; Ps 68) and surprisingly there is no mention of Moses nor the giving of the law in these passages! Additionally, the mention of Sinai is absent in passages that summarize the story of Israel’s origins and its conquest of Canaan, such as in Judges 11:14-18.

Furthermore, commentators have often noticed the close linguistic connection between E’s burning bush, whose Hebrew word is seneh, and Sinai with its fiery theophany, as if the tradition of Sinai was grafted onto the earlier tradition of the burning seneh. All this leads one to conclude that the Sinai tradition, or more specifically its association with Moses and the giving of the law, was a later exilic creation, and reflects the significance this tradition had on its exilic community. This is no coincidence since it is in the exilic period that “the torah of Moses which Yahweh had commanded to Israel” (Neh 8:1) was established.

At any rate, the Bible itself bears witness to two competing traditions.

I often do not have occasion to talk about the convergences within the sources themselves, which as far as I’m concerned are some of the strongest arguments in support of the Documentary Hypothesis. So, in our present example, everywhere the text mentions the mountain of revelation as Horeb, it also uses Jethro, and the neuter Hebrew elohim for God, etc.—all features of E. And conversely whenever the text speaks of Sinai, it also speaks of Jethro, and unfailingly uses Yahweh, etc.—features of J. This study is not designed to bring these out unfortunately.

If interested, Richard Friedman in his The Bible with Sources Revealed (pp. 7-31) outlines 7 main arguments that support seeing these sources as independent and coherent compositions: 1) linguistic data; 2) terminology; 3) consistent content within each source; 4) continuity of the narrative when the source is reconstructed (e.g., #14-18, #24-25, #46-47, #72-73); 5) inter-biblical connections; 6) relationship to historical context; and 7) points of repeated convergences within each source. All together they make a convincing demonstration.


  1. See Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 326-328.

4 thoughts on “#86. Is the mount of revelation Horeb OR Sinai? (Ex 3:1, 17:6; Deut 1:6, 4:10, etc. vs Ex 19:11, 19:18, etc.; Lev 7:38, 26:46, etc.)

  1. Dr. DiMattei,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this exhaustive (read: exhausting :-) reading list!

    I’ve ordered R. Friedman’s book, and I certainly noticed your many citations of Carr. I see he also wrote a book titled, “An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts of the Hebrew Bible.” Looks really interesting. Have you read it?

    I look forward to reading your book. Where else to plug your book but your site? For all you give your readers, you deserve it!

  2. “And conversely whenever the text speaks of Sinai, it also speaks of Jethro, and unfailingly uses Yahweh, etc.—features of J.”

    I think you meant “Reuel” here.

    While I’m writing, I wanted to thank you immensely for your work. It’s one thing to talk “about” the Documentary Hypothesis, but to actually demonstrate it, show it in action, time and time again – that’s a pretty powerful argument!

    I’ve been printing out your posts according to the weekly Torah reading, and it’s been incredibly eye-opening (and humbling) to see all that I’ve missed in my years looking at this material!

    What reading would you recommend for someone like me who’d like to drill down to an even finer level of detail on each of the individual textual splices, which gets into all the convergence of evidence – linguistic nuances, vocabulary, historical context, etc.? You’ve officially whetted my appetite. :-)

    1. David,

      Thanks for the correction, and thanks too for the kind words.

      Without digging through scholarly journals, surprisingly there’s really a paucity of material where one could locate all the textual data (Hebrew stylistics, language,, thematic and ideological emphases, historical and literary contexts, etc.) to corroborate and show the inner connections in these once separate traditions now cut-and-pasted throughout the Torah. You sort of have to piece-meal it together from a variety of sources. Here are some that readily come to mind:

      The Anchor Bible series on the books of the Torah has been invaluable to my work here. Its commentaries are intensely attuned to the Hebrew of the texts and dating it comparatively with other better known biblical compositions, to the compositional history of the texts, thus source-critical and historical-critical scholarship. In particular see Propp’s Exodus volumes, Milgrom’s Leviticus (although he argues for a pre-exilic P), and especially Levine’s Numbers commentaries.

      Other good scholarly reads that pay meticulous attention to textual nuances, the “seams and fractures” of the composite text, and explaining how these textual traditions developed are:
      • Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School. Nice work done in this book anchoring Deuteronomy clearly in the 7th century and modeled on Assyrian vassal treaties! (Weinfeld only finished the first 11 chapters of the Anchor Bible’s Deuteronomy before passing; it’s a shame).
      • De Pury, Romer, ed., Le Pentateuque en question — a nice collection of earlier scholarship, if your French is up to snuff ☺
      • Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible — still a good Introduction even if its organization is difficult to follow at times
      • Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches — still the best book on Genesis! Carr pays meticulous attention to much of P’s repeated vocabulary and style. Nice use of tables and maps to illustrate these as well. Carr is particularly interested in the processes of textual production in the ancient Near East.
      • Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation — Love this little gem too. Levinson is also a meticulous reader of the Hebrew and shows his readers how the Deuteronomist copied phrases from the earlier ELohist code to, in the end, subvert the whole Elohist tradition while at the same time presenting his crafted Moses’ speeches with their ideological and religious innovations as this very older tradition which the text of Deuteronomy subverts. In short, this is exactly the same textual subversion done by the later Priestly text on the earlier Sinai traditions, done by the Chronicler on Kings, and done by NT writers on the OT. A must read.
      • Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, and King — although not dealing with the Torah, Baruch Halpern’s scholarship is paralleled. In this massive work, Halpern shows the reader how variant traditions were stitched together in Samuel and spends much time discussing the role of a scribe in the service of his monarch — to write the best and most favorable narrative about his overlord! Halpern also talks about literary tropes that Israelite scribes borrowed from Assyrian literary examples.
      • Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View into the Five Books of Moses. Although more of a trade book than those cited above, this book’s real merit, I think, is in its Introduction where Friedman tries to synthesis the textual material that over and over corroborate the DH, even if presented in general terms.
      • And then there’s Baden’s recent book, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis

      And finally I might shamefully make a plug for my forthcoming, Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate. Chapter 1 puts forward the textual and thematic data that convincingly I’m going to claim show the hand of two scribes for Genesis’ opening creation accounts, each of whom held competing ideas, beliefs, and messages. And a section of Chapter 2, which deals with the Priestly source, puts forward all the vocabulary and Hebrew stylistics that one finds in Genesis 1 and only in other places in the P source and/or only in other biblical traditions dated to the 6th century — and never in the Yahwist source! One of the things I attempt to show through the analysis of the Hebrew is that the Hebrew of each creation account displays the hand of different social groups — Genesis 1’s Hebrew was written by an educated scribe; Genesis 2’s Hebrew by a secular storyteller who followed more poetic diction, syntax, and made use of puns and etiologies.

      Well that should get you started.


  3. Steven,

    As you know, there are some Evangelical apologists who will attempt to reconcile these passages. They will argue that Sinai is a mountain complex and Horeb was an individual mountain within that complex or that Horeb was the Semitic name for the mountain while Sinai is, perhaps, a Coptic name for the mountain and therefore Moses was addressing the same mountain in two different languages. Or maybe both are two different mountains and that God used each one for his own purpose just like the U.S. President will sometimes address the nation before Congress and sometimes from the Oval Office. I don’t agree with any of these but I am only pointing out that it’s necessary that we tackle these explanations (actually, better, “rationalizations”) if we are going to do appropriate justice to the texts when we educate people about their origins and meaning.

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