‘Now Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire.’ Exodus 19:18
It’s not every millennium that God descends onto a mountain for a chat with one of his creations.
In fact, according to Jewish tradition, it’s only happened once, about 3,250 years ago, on a modest mountain sometimes called Sinai.
But the exact location of that cosmic event, a meeting between Moses, the reluctant leader of the Hebrews, and the creative force self-described as “I am that I am,” has remained one of the enduring mysteries of the world.
Or so argues “The Gold of Exodus” (Simon & Schuster), a book being launched this week with a publicity push rivaling last year’s hype of “The Bible Codes,” another Simon & Schuster product that purported to uncover hidden prophecies buried in the Torah text.
Likewise, “The Gold of Exodus” claims new evidence to identify “arguably the holiest spot on earth, the true Mount Sinai.”
The book also claims to have discovered the cave where Moses lived; the stone altar where the Israelites worshiped the Golden Calf; and the scorched spot on the mountaintop where God beamed down to meet with Moses.
Not a bad catch for a short trip taken by two amateur explorers nine years ago who brought back not a single shred of verifiable evidence.
Most Bible scholars interviewed by The Jewish Week are dismissing the historic findings as nonsense. They note that the Bible itself purposely obscures Sinai’s location and Judaism places little religious significance on the site.
And none other than Harvard University Professor Frank Moore Cross, perhaps the pre-eminent Bible scholar in the country, said that his words are being misrepresented to hawk the book.
“What do I have to do with this? Virtually nothing,” Cross said in an interview Tuesday, responding to press releases that invoke his name.
But it appears the facts won’t slow down the oncoming million-dollar publicity machine. “The Gold of Exodus,” with an initial printing of 100,000 copies, already has been sold to Hollywood for a major motion picture by Castle Rock Entertainment, to be written by acclaimed director John Sayles. “60 Minutes” is also preparing a report.
“The Gold of Exodus” recounts the adventures of Larry Williams, a millionaire California commodities trader and two-time unsuccessful Republican U.S. Senate candidate, and his sidekick Bob Cornuke, a former cop who has become a born-again Christian after climbing the mountain.
In 1988 the duo forged diplomatic papers to sneak into the restricted desert in northwestern Saudi Arabia. They trespassed under barbed-wire fences to reach Jabal al Lawz, the mountain they now claim is “the true Mount Sinai.” They found stones that they claim Moses placed at the site. They found a large rock with a petroglyph (picture) of a man holding a cow that they claim is the altar of the Golden Calf, before narrowly escaping Saudi soldiers.
The thriller is written by Bronx-born Howard Blum, a former New York Times reporter and author of several sensational nonfiction works such as “Wanted: The Search for Nazis in America,” and “Out There,” about the search for UFOs.
In “The Gold of Exodus,” Blum reveals that the “true Mount Sinai” has been turned into a billion-dollar secret Saudi nuclear military installation that, in perhaps the ultimate irony, can actually be used to destroy Israel.
“It’s one of 17 sites in the ‘Peace Shield,’ a joint U.S.-Saudi defensive system, he explains.
But Blum claims that the Saudis secretly purchased 30 intermediate-range missiles from China — which the Mount Sinai base can help coordinate in targeting Israel.
“It’s Israel’s worst nightmare,” said Blum, who calls himself a cultural Jew who was bar mitzvah at the Riverdale Jewish Center. “If there is an Islamic war against Israel, it will be coordinated in part from Mount Sinai. Israel will have no choice but to destroy the mountain. That’s what makes this scary.”
Thus, Blum says, in their search to solve an ancient mystery, Williams and Cornuke stumbled onto a modern-day political ticking bomb. For the movie Blum, the executive producer, is suggesting Tom Cruise and Sean Penn.
In the book, Williams said he set off to find ancient riches he believed were buried by the Israelites at the foot of the Mount Sinai known as “The Gold of Exodus.” It is one of several claims made by the book that is being hotly disputed by several Bible scholars contacted by The Jewish Week.
For example, Blum writes: “The ancient treasure was left, according to both tradition and biblical interpretation, at the foot of Mount Sinai as penance for building the false idol of the Golden Calf.”
But Rabbi Robert Harris, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, called the claim of buried treasure “almost a willful misreading of the biblical text.”
“I know of no biblical tradition which talks about the gold of Exodus. I think it is purely exploitative,” he said.
While the adventurers came up empty in the treasure department, they claim they found something even more valuable: relics of the Israelites’ stay at the foot of Mount Sinai while God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
Their claim disputes the traditional Christian view held since before the fourth century CE — that Mount Sinai is really Jebel Musa, a mountain in the south-central Sinai Desert, a popular tourist stop.
The book’s conclusion also shunts aside dozens of other theories about the true location of Mount Sinai — from the Negev to Africa.
Blum told The Jewish Week he believes the claim that Jabal al Lawz is the real Mount Sinai and is hoping that scientific study, should the Saudis allow it, will prove him correct.
“What I think this goes to show is there was a Mount Sinai, and this Jabal al Lawz was this Mount Sinai, where a slave nation was transformed into a free people,” Blum said.
He learned about Williams’ journey from reading a small item in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review.
Blum cautions, however, “until you apply the methodology of modern science to Jabal al Lawz, all you can do is say this is the best candidate we have” for Mount Sinai.
But Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, said that while it may be the best candidate, “that doesn’t mean it’s a very good one.” Shanks said the book “brings no light to the issue. Their methods are not scholarly.”
But Shanks said he is “delighted” that the book is getting attention “if only to educate the public about how scholars do think about these things and hopefully to encourage the Saudis to allow archeologists to survey and perhaps excavate the area.”
Some Bible scholars dismiss both the book’s claims and the significance of finding Mount Sinai for Judaism — which they say has never been an essential holy place, even in biblical days.
“The notion of the geographical place of God’s holy mountain is suppressed, unlike other sites in the Bible,” said Rabbi Harris.
He said that is because the authors of the Torah are more focused on the centrality of Jerusalem and the holiness of another mountain — Zion, where the Temple was built.
Professor Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department at New York University, said the book neither made the attempt to make a case based on historical evidence, “nor have they [Williams and Cornuke] admitted they can’t know. They also have the advantage to say this is a place you can’t visit. It’s not verifiable.”
And Cross, one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls scholars, said those connected with the book are misrepresenting his theory about the possible location of Mount Sinai.
“I have proposed seriously something we cannot prove — that Sinai lay in [biblical] Midian [which today comprises parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Jordan],” Cross said during a telephone interview from his Cambridge, Mass., home Tuesday. “That’s as far as I went.”
Cross said some confusion occurred after he gave an interview several years ago when he answered a question about whether any mountains in biblical Midian would be appropriate to be identified as Mount Sinai today. He mentioned Jabal al Lawz as a possibility because it is the highest peak.
“I made a mistake. I should not have mentioned it,” he told The Jewish Week. “We have no reason to think it [Mount Sinai] is a particular mountain. I immediately added that the height of a mountain doesn’t make a difference in making it holy.”
But the qualifying part of his statement apparently was lost. Cross said he tried to correct the mistake in a conversation with Blum.
“I had a talk with the author. I think he is a rather naive guy who sort of believes you can take the Bible and use it as a map,” he said. “I think he thinks these guys [Williams and Cornuke] have something. I did my best to discourage him.”
Advocates of other theories about Mount Sinai are also not taking “The Gold of Exodus” lying down.
“It is sheer nonsense,” declares Yisroel Eph’al, a respected historical geographer at Hebrew University in Israel. Eph’al insisted that the true Mount Sinai is in the vicinity of Kadesh Barnea in northern Sinai. “All the biblical stories point to that location.”
David Faiman, a professor of theoretical physics and head of the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center at Sde Boker in the Negev, said that after 15 years of study, he has concluded that Mount Sinai is Jebel Sinn Bishr, an unimposing mountain about 25 miles southeast of the Suez Canal.
Faiman stresses he merely believes this location is the most plausible site.
“I’m just an intelligent reader frustrated by the contradictions put forward by reputable scholars,” he said.