Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Bible Contradiction: Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb?

Two different names are used for the same mountain in Exodus 3, 19, and elsewhere. What is its name, and can you trust a book who can't get the name of the mountain correct?


One of the more common illustrations of a contradiction in the Bible is the name of the mountain. Is the mountain named Mount Horeb, or is it Mount Sinai? And the argument is, if the biblical writer can't even get the name of the mountain right, why should we trust what it says? Okay, that's the problem. Well, let's meet this in the text first of all.

In Exodus chapter 3, verse 1, it says, "Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God." Okay, so the location is clearly identified as Horeb. It's a mountain.

In the verses that follow, we have the story of the burning bush. Moses sees this bush on fire that isn't consumed. He goes over, God speaks to him through this bush and says he should go to Egypt and he is to get the children of Israel and bring them up.

And then God makes a promise in verse 12. God said, "I will be with you and this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you." Okay, here's the sign. "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain." Okay, so the location of the burning bush and where the Israelites are supposed to go when they're out of Egypt is Mount Horeb. The problem is, in Exodis 19, when they do get there, the mountain is called Mount Sinai. Okay, it's the same mountain; it's not two different mountains. It's the same mountain, but it has two different names. Okay, so what are we going to do about that?

Well, there are at least four solutions, but certainly one of them is that you have two different names for the same place. This is a very common thing in the ancient world to have multiple names for the same location. Sometimes you can have different names in different languages for a place, but even in the same language you can have different names for the same place. For example, in Deuteronomy 3.9, it identifies Mount Hermon, which is also called Sirion by the Sidonians, and the Amorites call it Senir.

So it's certainly possible that you can have more than one name for the same place. And frankly, that's the easiest explanation there is, and it's easy to believe there's lots of examples in the ancient world, and you go, okay, two different place names for the same location. It's not a big deal.

But there's another solution, and that is you have to differentiate between the mountain itself and the area. Now, I live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and we have Mount Rainier up towards Seattle, which is part of the Cascade range. And I can refer to Mount Rainier as Mount Rainier, or I can refer to it, "Look at those Cascades, aren't they pretty?" And they're almost interchangeable.

Well, it could be the same thing here, that Horeb could be the area, and Sinai could be the specific peak, or Horeb could be the peak, and Sinai could be the area. Now, elsewhere in the text, it refers to the desert of Sinai, so that would be the area, but it also refers to Mount Sinai. And the text also refers to either Horeb or Horeb as the mountain of God.

So you'd have to deal with that kind of flexibility, but it certainly is a possible solution for why you could have two different names for the same place.

There is a third solution, and that is that the word Horeb could have been changed to Sinai. If you think back to the Exodus 3 passage, the Hebrew word behind the English word bush is a very rare word in Hebrew. It's Sinei, Sinei Sinai. We say Sinai, but you pronounce it Sinai. Sinei Sinai.

It's possible that because of the incredible importance of the event of the burning bush, that Mount Horeb was renamed in recognition of what happened with the burning bush of Moses. Certainly a possible thing. Place names get renamed all the time, right?

Solution four is just the flip of that. It could have been Mount Sinai that got changed to Mount Horeb. Now, later on in the story, next is 32, we have the children of Israel that have come to the mountain. Moses has gone up to talk to God. He's taking his time coming down. The Israelites get nervous, and so they have Aaron create the golden calf. And Moses comes down, he sees them. And in chapter 32, verse 27, the text says, ’Then he said to them, this is what the Lord, the God of Israel says, each man strap a sword to his side, go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other and killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ The reason that's an important event is that the Hebrew word for sword is Horeb, Horeb. It could be that the mountain was originally Sinai, but it was renamed in light of this event of this, this bloody event of all these people being killed by the sword.

There's another explanation that I think I tend to prefer as to why Sinai could have been changed to Horeb, and that is that the word Horeb, actually the root of the word, means a devastated or a wasted land. And what the author may be saying is, instead of this being the spiritual pinnacle, I mean, this was a really important event, wasn't it, in the life of the Israelites, is that they have come to this mountain. God has said, I will be your God, you will be my people, I want to live in a relationship with you. Here are the guidelines of what that relationship looks like. So you get the Ten Commandments, the Ten Laws. I mean, this event should have been a spiritual high point. And yet because of their sin with the golden calf, it became a spiritual wasteland. So certainly that could have explained the change of the name of the city.

So there actually is quite a few different explanations that all make sense. You could have different names for the same mountain. You could have the distinction between whether it's the mountain itself or the area. Horeb could have been changed to Sinai because of the bush. Sinai could have been changed to Horeb because it was a spiritual wasteland. The fact of the matter is that any of these four explanations explains the difference in the name.

There's too many explanations to claim that this is a contradiction. It's not a contradiction.