The “Pearl of Sinai” — Israel was 6,000 strong — striking water from rock — practical experience in desert life — was the Burning Bush a gas-plant? — the valley of the monks and hermits — the great miracle.
“And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the Lord, and pitched in Rephidim (Ex. 17:1). Then came Amalek and fought with Israel in Rephidim (Ex. 17:8).” Rephidim is now Feiran, extolled by the Arabs as the “Pearl of Sinai.” Protected by the lonely but colourful rock barrier which surrounds it, this miniature paradise has presented the same appearance for thousands of years. A small grove of palm trees provides welcome shade. As they have always done since the days of their remote ancestors, the nomads bring their flocks here to drink and rest on the tiny grass carpet.
From the main camp Flinders Petrie organized parties to investigate the neighbouring territory. By dint of exhausting and difficult journeys he got to know the wadis and mountains right down to the shores of the Red Sea. He established that Feiran is the only oasis in the whole southern part of the massif. For the nomads who lived, and still live here it is essential for existence and is their most precious possession. “The Amalekites must have been trying to defend Wadi Feiran from the foreign invaders” reflected Flinders Petrie. His next thought was: “If the climate has not changed — and the proof of that lies in the fact that the sandstone pillars in Serabit el-Khadem show no sign of erosion despite the thousands of years of their existence — the population must also be numerically the same. Today at a rough estimate 5,000 to 7,000 nomads live with their flocks on the Sinai peninsula. Israel must therefore have been about 6,000 strong since the battle with the Amalekites appears to have been indecisive.” “And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand Amalek prevailed” (Ex. 17:11).
Bitter fighting continued all day “until the going down of the sun,” when at length Joshua won a decisive victory for Israel. Thereafter the way was open to the water supply in the oasis of Rephidim. Before that “there was no water for the people to drink” (Ex. 17:1). In this emergency Moses is said to have taken his rod and produced water by striking a rock (Ex. 17:6), an action which has been regarded, and not only by sceptics, as quite incomprehensible, although the Bible is merely once more recording a perfectly natural occurrence.
Major C. S. Jarvis, who was British Governor of Sinai in the thirties, has seen it happen himself. “Moses striking the rock at Rephidim and the water gushing out sounds like a genuine miracle, but the writer has actually seen this happen. Several men of the Sinai Camel Corps had halted in a dry wadi and were in process of digging about in the rough sand that had accumulated at the foot of a rock-face. They were trying to get at the water that was trickling slowly out of the limestone rock. The men were taking their time about it and Bash Shawish, the coloured sergeant, said: 'Here, give it to me!' He took the spade of one of the men and began digging furiously in the manner of N.C.O.'s the world over who want to show their men how to do things but have no intention of keeping it up for more than a couple of minutes. One of his violent blows hit the rock by mistake. The smooth hard crust which always forms on weathered limestone split open and fell away. The soft stone underneath was thereby exposed and out of its apertures shot a powerful stream of water. The Sudanese, who are well up in the activities of the prophets but do not treat them with a vast amount of respect overwhelmed their sergeant with cries of: 'Look at him! The prophet Moses!' This is a very illuminating explanation of what happened when Moses struck the rock at Rephidim.”
C. S. Jarvis had witnessed a pure coincidence. For the men of the Camel Corps were Sudanese and not in any sense natives of Sinai, who might be expected to be familiar with the technique of producing water in this way. On the journey from Kadesh to Edom Moses employed this method of striking water once more. “And Moses lifted up his hand and with his rod he smote the rock twice,” as we are told in Num. 2011. “And the water came out abundantly and the congregation drank and their beasts also” He had obviously got to know this highly unusual method of finding water during his exile among the Midianites.
At the beginning of the Christian era many monks and hermits settled in Feiran, where Israel had had to cope with its first hostile attack under Moses. In the gullies and on the cliffs they built their tiny cells. A church was founded in Feiran and 25 miles south of the oasis a little chapel was erected at the foot of Jebel Musa.
The barbaric tribes of nomads however gave the hermits and monks of Sinai no peace. Many of them lost their lives in these repeated attacks. St. Helena, eighty year old mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, during a visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 327, learned of the plight of the monks of Sinai and founded a tower of refuge which was erected at the foot of the mountain of Moses.
In A.D. 530 the Byzantine emperor Justinian caused a strong defensive wall to be built round the little chapel at the mountain of Moses. Right up to the Middle Ages this fortified church at Jebel Musa was the goal of devout pilgrims who came to Sinai from every land. A legend tells how this notable spot came to be called “St. Catherine's Monastery,” which is the name it bears still.
Napoleon was instrumental in saving the masonry of this isolated early Christian fortress from collapse.
In 1859 the German theologian Constantine von Tischendorf discovered in the monastery at Sinai in a good state of preservation one of the most precious parchment manuscripts of the Bible, the famous “Codex Sinaijicus.” It dates from the 4th century A.D. and contains the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament.
The Czar accepted it as a gift, giving the monastery 9,000 roubles for it. Then this priceless possession found its way into the library at St. Petersburg. Finally in 1933 the British Museum bought the “Codex Sinaiticus” from the Soviet Government for £100,000.
The little chapel at the foot of Jebel Musa was built on the site where Moses according to the Bible encountered the Burning Bush: 'And he looked and behold the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2).
Different attempts have been made to find a scientific explanation of this remarkable phenomenon. An expert on the botany of the Bible, Dr. Harold N. Moldenke, director and curator of the Botanical Garden in New York, has this to say: ...” Among the commentators who think that a natural explanation can be found, some think that the phenomenon of the bush that burned with fire' and yet 'was not consumed' can be explained as a variety of the gas-plant or Fraxinella, the Dietamnus Albus L. This is a plant with a strong growth about three feet in height with clusters of purple blossom. The whole bush is covered with tiny oil-glands. This oil is so volatile that it is constantly escaping and if approached with a naked light bursts suddenly into flames.... The most logical explanation seems to be that suggested by Smith. He puts forward the theory that the 'flames' may have been the crimson blossoms of mistletoe twigs (Loranthus Acaciae) which grow on various prickly acacia bushes and acacia trees throughout the Holy Land and in Sinai. When this mistletoe is in full bloom the bush becomes a mass of brilliant flaming colour and looks as if it is on fire.”
“For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness: and there Israel camped before the mount. And Moses went up unto God” (Ex. 19:2-3).
“So Moses went down unto the people and spake unto them. And God spake all these words saying, I am the Lord thy God... .Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 19:25; 20:1-3).
At Sinai something happened which is unique in the history of mankind. Here lie both the roots and the greatness of a faith which was strong enough to conquer the globe.
Moses, this child of a world which believed in a host of deities and in gods of all shapes and forms, proclaimed his faith in one God alone. Moses was the herald of monotheism — that is the true greatness of this incomprehensible miracle of Sinai. Moses — this unknown son and grandson of desert nomads, brought up in a foreign land, “went down unto the people and spake unto them.” Nomads in their goatshair tents, camping in the desert under the open sky, are the first to hear this astounding message, to accept it and transmit it. First of all for thirty-nine years, in the solitude of the desert, by gurgling springs, beside the still waters of shady oases, and facing the biting wind which sweeps across the sullen landscape, as they feed their sheep, their goats and their donkeys, they speak among themselves of the one great God, YHWH.
So begins the wonderful story of this world embracing faith. Simple shepherds, inured to hardship, carried the great new idea, the new faith, to their homeland, whence the message was one day to go out into the whole world and to all the peoples of the earth. The great nations and mighty empires of these far off days have long since disappeared into the dark recesses of the past. But the descendants of those shepherds who were the first to pledge their faith in one sole omnipotent God, are still alive today.
“I am the Lord thy God. Thou shall have no other gods before me.” That was a word heard for the first time since man inhabited this planet. There was no pattern for this faith, no hint of it from other nations.
We can make this assertion with confidence thanks to archaeological discoveries in Egypt, the land in which Moses grew up and received his education, as well as in other lands of the ancient East. Both the sun-worship of Akhnaten and the appearance in Mesopotamia of a blending of many deities into one sole god, Ninurta, god of war, are but vague preludes to monotheism. In all these conceptions what is lacking is the concentrated power and redemptive moral purpose rooted in the Ten Commandments, which Moses brought down from the lonely heights of Mt. Sinai into the hearts and minds of men.
It is only among the people of Israel out of the whole of the “Fertile Crescent” that there is this awakening of the new idea of God in all its clarity and purity, untainted by magic, free from a variegated and grotesque imagery, and conceived as something other than a materialistic preparation for perpetuating the self beyond the grave. Without precedent and prototype seems likewise the clear imperative of the Ten Commandments. The Israelites are bidden not to sin because they are under the obedience of Yahweh!
It was certainly possible to be quite convinced that the God-given moral law of Israel was without precedent in the Ancient East until parallels became known which show quite clearly that the Bible is certainly not alone, as seemed to be the case, in one of its most essential passages, the Ten Commandments together with Israel's other statutes. On the contrary, the Bible now proves to be completely penetrated by the spirit of the Ancient East. The Ten Commandments are thus a kind of “treaty of alliance,” the “fundamental constitutional law” between Israel and its God. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, if they are in complete accordance with the treaties made with vassals in the Ancient East defining the relations between a ruler and the vassal kings he appointed to govern the peoples he had subjugated.
Such treaties began with the enumeration of the names, titles and services of the “great king.” “I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Here, too, we have the name (the word “Lord” according to Biblical usage in place of the real name of God, Yahweh, which it was not permitted to pronounce), the title, “God,” and the essential service rendered (“which have brought you out of the land of Egypt”) by the “great king,” except that in this case it was Israel's heavenly “great king,” the God of the Covenant. Vassals were forbidden, moreover, to enter into any relationships with foreign rulers and the commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods but me” (Ex. 20:3) corresponds to this. The imperious “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” continually occur in the treaties with vassals. These words are consequently not by any means restricted to the Biblical Ten Commandments as many scholars have thought. One treaty with a vassal, for example, prescribes that “thou shalt not covet any territory of the land of the Hatti.” Similarly the Bible prescribes that “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house...” (Ex. 20:17).
Other correspondences have also been noted and even include not only the safe-keeping of the tables of the law in the Ark of the Covenant in the same way that treaties with vassals were deposited in holy shrines, but also the sealing of the treaties on the one hand and the pronouncement of blessings and curses on the other. In the words of Moses (Deut. 11:26-28): “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; a blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day: and a curse, if you will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God....”
The well-known Catholic Bible scholar Roland de Vaux, of whom mention has already been made, discovered in a number of Hittite treaties with vassals the injunction that the text of the treaty was to be read out regularly in the presence of the vassal king and his people. And similarly with the Biblical code of laws for we read (Deut. 31:10ff): “And Moses commanded them saying, At the end of every seven years... thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing... that they may hear, and that they may learn,... and observe to do all the words of this law.”
All this concerns merely the outer form of the Ten Commandments. What about the spirit? Again there is no lack of parallels. In Assyria, for example, a priest who was driving the “demons” out of a sick person, had to ask: “Has he (i.e., the sick person) offended a god? Or slighted a goddess?... Has he shown contempt to his father and mother? Or set little store by his elder sister?... Has he said 'It is' instead of 'It is not' (and vice versa)?... Has he given wrong weight? Has he broken into his neighbour's house? Has he approached too near to his neighbour's wife? Has he shed his neighbour's blood?”
Finally, two examples from Ancient Egypt where we find in “the Teachings of Amenemope” the injunction:
Remove not the boundary stone on the boundaries of the fields and displace not the measuring cord, be not covetous of a yard of ploughland and tear not down the widow's boundary.
Be not covetous of the poor man's goods and hunger not for his bread.
Set not the balance wrongly, tamper not with the weights, reduce not the portions of the corn measure.
Bring nobody into misfortune before the judges and warp not justice.
The perfect example customarily quoted nowadays by specialists of Biblical antiquity is, however, what is known as the “negative confession” in the introduction to chapter 125 of the “Book of the Dead.” According to ancient Egyptian belief, deceased persons had to make the following confession before 42 judges of the dead in a “court room’.
I have not made any man sick
I have not made any man weep I have not killed
I have not commanded any man to kill
I have not done harm to any man
I have not diminished the amount of the foodstuffs in the temples
I have not damaged the loaves offered to the gods
I have not stolen the loaves offered to the dead
I have not had any (illicit) sexual relations
I have not engaged in any unnatural lewdness
And so on....
Elsewhere we shall see that according to our most recent knowledge the contrast between sublime monotheism on the one side and a bizarre crowd of gods on the other no longer appears so striking. At one time a “crowd of gods” certainly existed in Israel, at least in the religion of the people during the early period, but the concept of the sublime nature of royal gods was not by any means foreign to the religions of other peoples living near to the “Holy Land.” So we are bound to conclude that restraint was also practiced elsewhere. Responsibility, morality, law, order and ethics were all practiced beyond the frontiers of Israel while the accepted norms of human behavior which in both letter and spirit were in accordance with Israel's divine code of laws were also current elsewhere. Once again the Bible is proved right, that is to say insofar as it transmits in its legal texts, the essence of which consists of the Ten Commandments, a striking piece of cultural and moral history from the Ancient East which can be substantiated by parallels. The consequence of this renders it difficult for us today to maintain the earlier claim that the Biblical code of laws was unique. This fact may well shake the confidence of many people. We cannot remove this feeling of uncertainty. On the other hand, in consequence of confirmation from non-Biblical sources of the relevant Bible texts, Israel's relationship to the cultural and historical world around it as well as to the precepts of its neighbours now appears to us in a much clearer light.