Locating the Burning Bush

St. Catherine’s Monastery

St. Catherine’s Monastery

Visitors to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula can explore one of the world’s oldest monasteries, housing what is claimed to be the burning bush in which God first appeared to Moses. They can then ride a camel up nearby Mt. Sinai to see where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. But both the bush and the mountain may be in the wrong country.

Exactly where God met Moses has never been clear. One passage in the Hebrew Scriptures locates the site on Mt. Horeb. Such uncertainty over Biblical places was unsettling to Roman Emperor Constantine, who accepted Christianity in about 312 A.D. So he sent his mother, Helena, to the Middle East to determine where events in the Bible occurred.

 Helena returned claiming to have found the cave in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, the spot in Jerusalem where he was crucified and the still living bush in Egypt where Moses met God. Constantine ordered a chapel built around Helena’s bush and sixth century Emperor Justinian surrounded the chapel and its famous bush with St. Catherine’s Monastery, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Over the years, at least three mountains near St. Catherine’s have been designated Mt. Sinai. The current bearer of the name was selected in the sixteenth century based on a tradition of the local Bedouins, who now run the camel rides. Muslims, who also believe that God delivered his laws to Moses on Mt. Sinai, call this mountain Jebel Mūsa, the mountain of Moses.

Skeptical scholars say Helena made a big mistake. They note the Bible locates Mt. Sinai in an area called Midian, which, unlike the Sinai Peninsula, was never part of Egypt. They claim that Mt. Sinai, if it exists, is probably a volcano in Saudi Arabia.

For visitors to Sinai, whether the mountain called “Mt. Sinai” has anything to do with Moses may not be that important. Following the narrow path toward the summit on the back of a camel is a unique and exhilarating experience in its own right. St. Catherine’s, in addition to its bush, holds some of the oldest existing manuscripts of the New Testament.