Judaism and Christianity regard Mount Sinai (also called Mount Horeb) as the place where their common spiritual ancestors entered into a unique and exclusive relationship with the supreme deity.
The name of the ancestral group was "the children of Israel"; the name of the deity was given as yhwh, not pronounced by religious Jews and often transliterated as Yahweh or Jehovah in versions of the Jewish Bible. (Traditionally, the term used for the deity’s name is the Lord.) The relationship between the two parties, the Lord and Israel, was formalized into an abiding covenant with 10 main planks, called the Ten Commandments.
The Jewish Bible tells the story of Moses first encountering the Lord on Mt. Sinai in the form of a burning bush. Years later Moses returned with a throng of refugees who had escaped from Egypt. They stayed for a year or so, during which time the Lord appeared on the mount in an awesome way, revealed the terms of the covenant, and inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets.
The Ark of the Covenant was then carefully built as a portable shrine to transport the stone tablets. Sinai also served as the place where Israel raised up institutional community leaders, both priests and judges.
From these various literary contexts, especially in the Torah, scholars have been able to sketch out how Mt. Sinai functioned for early Israel. Sinai served as a place that symbolized the people’s remarkable solidarity and focused on their religious obligations. Sinai also symbolizes the place where the Lord lived or came from and thus perhaps was a destination for pilgrimage in the early days of Israel.
However, as Israel became more ensconced in Canaan and in political stability, pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai became rare. "Mt. Zion" (Jerusalem) replaced Mt. Sinai as the center of cultic attention.
Where is Mount Sinai? Today Sinai refers to the whole peninsula or triangle of desert land between Israel and Egypt, surrounded by the waters of the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Mediterranean Sea. In the south of this region is Jebel Musa, "the mountain of Moses" (7,497 feet), the place popularly associated with Mt. Sinai.
In the shadow of this mountain is the ancient monastery of St. Catherine, which Justinian I built because he considered that this was the location of the burning bush. Many ancient pilgrims, such as Egeria, testify to Jebel Musa as the site of Mt. Sinai.
However, alternative sites have been proposed, with varying degrees of persuasiveness. Among them is Har Karkom—also in the Sinai region—and various hills in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Har Karkom comes closest to the geographical location described in the Jewish Bible, but archaeological excavations there show that it was venerated as a religious center only in the third millennium b.c.e., long before Moses is thought to have lived.
The heights of Saudi Arabia and Jordan have some indirect support from early Jewish scriptures and inconclusive references in the writings of Philo, Paul, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome, as well as archaeological remains that date to the time of Moses.