|An Interview with Frank Moore Cross, Israelite Origins, Bible Review, Aug 1992
HS: Where is Midian?
FMC: Midian proper bordered Edom on the south and probably occupied part of the area that became southern Edom in what is now southern Transjordan. It also included the northwestern corner of the Hejaz; it is a land of formidable mountains as well as desert.
HS: In Saudi Arabia?
FMC: Yes. It is in the northwestern border area of what is now Saudi Arabia. I prefer to refer to it by the biblical term “Midian.” Incidentally the Saudis will not permit excavation in this area despite efforts that Peter Parr and I conducted some years ago on behalf of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the British School of Archaeology.
HS: Isn’t Midian traditionally placed in Sinai?
FMC: I should say rather that Sinai is placed in Midian.
HS: Are you saying that all scholars agree that Midian is south of the Jordanian-Saudi border?
FMC: I cannot say categorically all, but the consensus is that ancient Midian was south of Eilat on the Saudi side. Note too that tradition holds that the Midianites controlled routes north through Edom and Moab very much like the later Nabateans, and that Midian in Israel’s earliest poetry is associated with Edom, Mt. Seir and Teman.
The notion that the “mountain of God” called Sinai and Horeb was located in what we now call the Sinai Peninsula has no older tradition supporting it than Byzantine times. It is one of the many holy places created for pilgrims in the Byzantine period.
HS: In the fourth century?
HS: So you would place Sinai in what is today Saudi Arabia?
FMC: You haven’t forgotten your skills in cross- (or Cross-) examination. Yes, in the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia, ancient Midian. There is new evidence favoring this identification. In the late 1960s and 1970s when Israel controlled the Sinai Peninsula, especially in the period shortly before it was returned to Egypt, the peninsula was explored systematically and intensely by archaeologists. What they found for the 13th to 12th centuries B.C.E.,b the era of Moses and Israel’s entry into Canaan, was an archaeological blank save for Egyptian mining sites at Serabit el-Khadem and Timna (see photos of artifacts from Serabit el-Khadem and Timna) near Eilat. There was no evidence of settled occupation to be found. This proved true even at the site generally identified with Kadesh-Barnea (‘Ein Qudeirat). It was not occupied until the tenth century B.C.E at the earliest, and its fortress was constructed only in the ninth century.c
On the other hand, recent surveys of Midian have produced surprising discoveries of a developed civilization in precisely the period in question, the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, the 13th to 12th centuries.3 At Qurayyah archaeologists discovered a major fortified citadel, a walled village and extensive irrigation works (see photo of citadel at Qurayyah). Characteristic pottery called Midianite ware—usually called Hejaz ware in Saudi journals—radiates out from the northern Hejaz into southern Transjordan and sites near Eilat, notably Timna. Extraordinarily enough, it is absent from the Sinai. In short we have a blank Sinai and a thriving culture in Midian in this era.
HS: Do you have any guess as to what mountain might be Mt. Sinai?
FMC: I really don’t. There are several enormous mountains in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia. Jebel el-Lawz is the highest of the mountains in Midian—8,465 feet—higher than any mountain in the Sinai Peninsula; but biblical Mt. Sinai need not be the highest of mountains. There is some reason to search for it in southern Edom, which was Midianite terrain before the expansion of the Edomites south. Archaic poetry in the Bible describes Yahweh as coming from Edom. For example, in Judges 5:1-31, the oldest of the biblical narrative songs (late 12th century B.C.E.), we read:
“When Thou Yahweh went forth from Seir, When Thou didst march forth from the highlands of Edom, Earth shook, mountains shuddered; Before Yahweh, Lord of Sinai, Before Yahweh God of Israel” (Judges 4-5).
And in the Blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2-29), which is also very old, we read:
“Yahweh from Sinai came, He beamed forth from Seir upon us, He shone from Mount Paran” (Deuteronomy 33:2).
The name “Seir” refers of course to a mountainous district of Edom. The following verses are found in Habakkuk 3:3-7 (one of the oldest and most primitive hymns in the Hebrew Bible):12
“Eloah (God) came from Teman,
The Holy One from Mount Paran.
His majesty covered heaven,
His praise filled the earth,
He shone like a destroying fire…
He stood and he shook earth,
He looked and startled nations.
Ancient mountains were shattered,
Eternal hills collapsed,
Eternal orbits were destroyed.
The tents of Kushan shook,
Tent curtains of the land of Midian.”
I would argue that these archaic songs that locate Yahweh’s movements in the southeast—in Edom/Seir/Teman/Midian/Cushan—are our most reliable evidence for locating Sinai/Horeb, the mountain of God. The search for origins, and reconstruction of history from material that arises in oral tradition, is always a precarious task. The singers of narrative poems—I speak of them as Epic sources—follow certain traditional patterns that include mythological elements. They do not contain what we would call history in the modern sense of that term. We are dealing with epic, which does not fit easily into either the genres of fiction or of history.
How can the historian ferret out valid historical memory in such traditional narrative? Perhaps he cannot. I am inclined to think, however, that when we can isolate old traditions that have no social function in later Israel, or actually flout later orthodoxy, that such traditions may preserve authentic historical memories, memories too fixed in archaic poetry to be revised out or suppressed.
(Israelite Origins, An Interview with Frank Moore Cross, Bible Review, Aug 1992)