The book of Exodus reports that Moses fled Egypt to Midian, which would be mostly or entirely the northwest portion of modern day Saudi Arabia and southern Jordan, with some arguing that it could include the southern part of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, was the high priest of Midian.
Midian most certainly encompassed the territory we believe contains Biblical Mount Sinai. According to Biblical Scholar Frank Moore Cross, even the oldest of Hebrew hymns and records indicate that the Jewish people went into the land of Midian after fleeing Egypt. These writings include Scriptures such as Judges 4-5, Deuteronomy 33:2-29, and Habakkuk 3:3-7.
In an interview with the Bible Review in August 1992, he stated:
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.
Dr. Cross did not specify which mountain he believed was Mount Sinai, but he did clearly favor an Arabian location, which would be ancient Midian.
In his study of ancient Hebraic poetry in the Old Testament, he also finds that the Scriptures point to an Arabian location for Mount Sinai.
The archaic hymns of Israel are of one voice. Yahweh came from Teman, Mt. Paran, Midian and Cushan (the song of Habakkuk); the song of Deborah sings of Yahweh going from Seir, marching forth from Edom; the Blessing of Moses states that Yahweh came from Sinai, beamed forth from Seir, shone from Mount Paran. These geographical designations cannot be moved west into the peninsula now called Sinai.
Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon, (John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 66.
The descriptions given to us do not describe God’s presence zig-zagging across the map, but rather a nearly straight line from Mount Sinai northward to Jerusalem. Indeed, Jerusalem is almost directly north of Jabal Maqla.
In Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, he recounts that Moses came to Midian after fleeing Egypt, and fought off other shepherds who took more than their share of water from Jethro’s well. For his noble deed, Moses was adopted into Jethro’s family, and Jethro gave Moses one of his daughters in marriage.
Josephus then writes that Moses took to herding Jethro’s flocks in Midian, and did so in close proximity to Mount Sinai, where he encounters God at the Burning Bush.
NOW Moses, when he had obtained the favor of Jethro, for that was one of the names of Raguel, staid there and fed his flock; but some time afterward, taking his station at the mountain called Sinai, he drove his flocks thither to feed them. Now this is the highest of all the mountains thereabout, and the best for pasturage, the herbage being there good; and it had not been before fed upon, because of the opinion men had that God dwelt there, the shepherds not daring to ascend up to it; and here it was that a wonderful prodigy happened to Moses; for a fire fed upon a thorn bush, yet did the green leaves and the flowers continue untouched, and the fire did not at all consume the fruit branches, although the flame was great and fierce.
Several chapters later in the Antiquities, Josephus states that Moses came to Midian after three months’ travel from Egypt. In that time period, the Israelites would certainly be able to make the trip from Egypt to Sinai.
And going gradually on [after the battle at Rephidim], he came to Mount Sinai, in three months’ time after they were removed out of Egypt; at which mountain, as we have before related, the vision of the bush, and the other wonderful appearances, had happened.
When Moses comes back to Sinai after leading the Israelites out of Egypt, based on Josephus’ account, and Biblical accounts, one may reasonably believe that Mount Sinai was in Midian and that Midian was Jethro’s land. However, there has been some debate over this interpretation, with the objection being that Jethro lived some distance away from Mount Sinai.
Was Jethro’s Land Really In Midian, or Somewhere Else?
It is sometimes argued that Exodus 18:27 indicates that Jethro’s home was not in Midian because it states that he returned to his home after meeting with Moses. However, another (and arguably more accurate) source indicates that Jethro returned to his specific home within Midian.
In Charles Whittaker’s 2003 dissertation, which discussed the idea of Mount Sinai being in Saudi Arabia, he examined the linguistic components of this verse and concluded that the words do not indicate a separate region. The Hebrew word “eretz” is more accurately translated as one’s own district or plot of land, such as a tract of land that a person owns.[i] This particular form of the word is used over 30 times in the Old Testament and, in each case, it refers to a specific tract of land owned by a person, not a broader regional or political designation.
While Moses was in Midian, Jethro met him in the wilderness near Mount Sinai. Jethro then returned to his own tract of land within Midian, according to this interpretation. It is reasonable to conclude that Mount Sinai was therefore in Midian, making northwestern Saudi Arabia the likeliest location of Jethro’s home and Mount Sinai.
Al-Bad: The Land of Jethro Near Mount Sinai
There is a long tradition that the land of Jethro was in and around an ancient city named Madyan (also spelled as Madian), which was essentially the capital of Midian. These traditions identify the modern city of Al-Bad, also known as Al-Bid, as the location of that city. There is also a very strong tradition at Al-Bad that it was the land of Jethro and Moses lived there.
A scholarly study by Dr. Allen Kerkeslager concluded that the oldest and most credible sources and traditions equate the city of Al-Bad (also known as Al-Bid) with the city of Madyan, the capital of Midian. His study found that these sources report that Mount Sinai/Horeb is near this city, making Jabal al-Lawz/Jabal Maqla the strongest candidate by far.[iii]
The tradition that Mount Sinai is near the city of Madyan, current day Al-Bad, dates back as late as 250 B.C. and is referred to in Septuagint Old Testament Old Greek (LXX/OG), the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Dr. Kerkeslager writes:
The Jewish tradition of locating Mt. Sinai in northwestern Arabia near the city of Madyan persisted long after competing Christian traditions of pilgrimage to the southern Sinai Peninsula developed…
No other site identified with Mt. Sinai in modern scholarship can claim to possess a tradition of such antiquity or of such indisputably Jewish origin. If one seeks the ‘Mt. Sinai of Jewish tradition,’ one will henceforth have to seek a mountain near Al-Bad.
In 2002, the Saudi government commissioned six archaeologists to briefly examine the Jabal al-Maqla area and respond to the tradition linking northwestern Arabia to Moses, Jethro, and the Israelites. The publication, titled Al-Bid History and Archaeology, rejected the theory.
However, the authors acknowledge that credible historians identified this area as the place where Moses went. They also give credit to the local tradition in Al-Bad, which they concede is “unbroken” through the generations and very strong among the population.
One of the archaeologists, Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Tayyib al-Ansari, oddly ridicules “those who try to distort our history and culture by false and fictitious accounts” after substantiating the premise behind the theory.
Dr. al-Ansari writes:
“The civilization in the northwest of Saudi Arabia began before prehistory, the area witnessed the civilizations of ‘Aad and Thamud at about the 3rd millennium BC; then appeared the civilization of Midian, it was the civilization mentioned in the Holy Quran which tells us the story of Prophet Shu’iab, who lived in culture in which the powerful destroyed and command the poor.”[ii]
Dr. Al-Ansari confirms that northwest Saudi Arabia corresponds to Midian and that Islamic scripture teaches that Prophet Shu’aib lived in the city of Madyan. According to the Quran, Shu’aib was very close to Moses, thus substantiating the theory that Moses was in this area. It is commonly believed that Shu’aib and Jethro refer to the same person due to the strong similarities in their stories.
The Well of Moses
According to the book of Exodus, Moses saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave. He sneaked up on the Egyptian, killed him, and buried the body in the sand. His attempt to cover-up his crime failed and the Pharoah’s government learned of what he had done. Moses then fled Egypt and arrived in Midian.
In Midian, he came to the assistance of Jethro’s seven daughters when they were going to a local well for water and were being harassed by local shepherds. After driving them off, he drew water from the well for the women and watered their flock. Moses then met Jethro and later married one of his daughters named Zipporah.
In Al-Bad and near other Midianite ruins, there is an ancient well that is fenced in as an archaeological site. It is believed throughout the Muslim world that this is the Well of Moses where he met Jethro’s daughters. In fact, if you visit this site, you are likely to come across Muslim tourists excitedly visiting it.
Dr. Kerkeslager writes in his groundbreaking study:
“Islamic sources from at least as early as ca. 900 state that the city of Madyan [Al-Bad] contained the well from which Moses watered the flocks of Shuy’ab [Jethro]. These traditions seem to have persisted with unbroken continuity into the early modern period. Associated with these traditions is a persistent Islamic tradition locating Mt. Sinai near Madyan.”[iv]
Even one of the Saudi archaeologists who contributed to the 2002 rebuttal acknowledged that trusted Islamic and Arab historical sources identified the site as the Well of Moses. One early Arabic biographer is quoted as saying: “[A]t the coast of the Qulzum Sea [the Gulf of Aqaba], lies the city of Midian, which is larger than Tabuk. Inside the town was the well from which Moses (Peace be upon him) extracted water for the livestock of Shu’aib [Jethro].”
Locals refer to this site as the Well of Moses and have done so for many generations. The Saudi archaeological study of the region found:
Magharat al-Bid’ [the well of al-Bad] had always been a site of importance and was renovated and restored by Muslim rulers and governors, during all periods of Islamic history. The reason for the renovation, maintenance and special attention given to this well was its importance as a main water source for al-Bid oasis and for the pilgrim caravans.
Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Tayyib al-Ansary, Al-Bid’ History and Archeology (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Education, 2002), 33.
This well is only a short distance from al-Bad, the capital of ancient Midian, as well as a collection of caves referred to by locals as the Caves of Jethro, or the Caves of Moses.
The Caves of Jethro/Caves of Moses
In addition to the well, there is also a strong local tradition that a group of caves just south of Al-Bad are “Jethro’s Caves.” They are also sometimes referred to as the “Caves of Moses.”
The caves are fenced-off as an archaeological site and open to the public, but there is one section that tourists are forbidden to visit. There is a museum at the location and, like the Well of Moses, Muslims from all around the world come to the site and believe they are walking in the footsteps of Moses and Jethro.
However, the carvings on the cave are Nabatean and dated to the 1st Century AD. Czech explorer and theologist Alois Musil (1868-1944) wrote that he explored each tomb and did not find a single inscription, except for five tombs with Nabatean writings.
When Bob Cornuke and Larry Williams visited the site in the late 1980s, they saw workers at the site and were told that at least some of them were Saudi archaeologists. One of the workers said that there were writings discovered inside the caves indicating that “Prophet Musa” (Moses) and his Hebrew followers had come through the area.[v] Williams wrote in his book that a nearby local resident claimed that Jethro and Moses’ wife Zipporah were buried in tombs in the hillside.[vi]
It is possible that the workers and residents who spoke to Cornuke and Williams were referring to the section of the caves where entry is forbidden. From a distance, these caves do not appear to have the same Nabatean artwork that the other caves have. To date, there has been no explanation from the Saudis as to why this section is fenced-off and why the caves differ stylistically.
Objection: The Caves Are Nabataean
One of the common objections to the tradition that these caves belonged to Jethro and/or Moses is that the Nabataeans were the ones who carved them out. However, there is evidence from local traditions and from Saudi archaeologists that these caves were from the time of the Exodus, and not a later period.
How can [Gordon] Franz make such assertions? In discounting any potential biblical significance to these caves, Franz doesn’t even so much as acknowledge the ancient Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions that connect al-Bad to Mount Sinai, Moses, and Jethro. Likewise, Franz doesn’t address the topographical realities. (We’ve already established that the oasis of al-Bad is by far the most natural and thus best candidate to have been the heartland of ancient Midian.)
Joel Richardson, Mount Sinai in Arabia: The True Location Revealed (WinePress Media, 2019), 137.
Indeed, as Richardson notes, the traditions that identify these caves as Jethro’s and Moses’ are actually older than the Nabataean kingdom itself.
The caves do have Nabataean inscriptions, but this is hardly evidence that they were the ones who originally created or inhabited the caves. The fact that a person lives in their current residence does not mean there was not a previous resident living there.
To further drive home this point, Richardson also emphasizes the fact that archaeologists widely acknowledge the fact that the Nabataean capital city of Petra was built on the ruins of the ancient Edomite city of Sela. Taking up residence in previously inhabited locations appears to have been a standard practice for the Nabataeans.
There are four possibilities regarding the “Caves of Jethro,” also known as the “Caves of Moses:”
- The old tradition may simply be wrong and the workers and residents were just repeating false rumors. If this is the case, then there is no current explanation for why the tradition began and why it has maintained such strength.
- The tradition could be generally correct but misappropriated. It is theoretically possible that there is a nearby group of caves linked to Jethro and/or Moses, but the tradition incorrectly identified these caves because of the artwork.
- The tradition is accurate, but the Caves of Jethro/Moses are not all of the caves within the fenced-in area. The forbidden section is the extent of the actual caves linked to the Exodus.
- The entirety of the caves are actually the Caves of Jethro/Moses, but the Nabateans carved their own artwork into them when they took power and inhabited the area long after the events of the Exodus.
“Circles of Jethro”
The British explorer John Philby (1885-1960) explored northwest Saudi Arabia when he was alive and published a book, The Land of Midian discussing what he found.
Philby described climbing up to a site in or near Al-Bad that was known as the “Circles of Jethro,” where Jethro/Prophet Shuy’ab is said to have prayed. He wrote:
“From here my guide and I climbed up the cliff to visit the ‘circles of Jethro’ on the summit of Musalla ridge, from which we climbed down quite easily to our camp on the far side…A cairn marked the spot where Jethro is supposed to have prayed, and all round it are numerous circles…. From here, I had a magnificent view of the whole of the Midian mountain range, with Lauz [Jabal al-Lawz] and its sister peaks in the northeast and Maqla’a [Jabal Maqla] very little north of east.”
We have not yet located this site and there are no known pictures of what it may look like.
Other Midianite Remains
There are various ruins in northwestern Saudi Arabia, including the specific area of Al-Bad, that are fenced-in and identified as archaeological sites.
Below are pictures of some of the ruins that are believed to be Midianite:
It is important to remember that the Saudi government only very recently loosened restrictions on archaeological excavation. The country only held its first archaeology conference in October 2017, where the speakers emphasized that little digging has ever been done and that massive amounts of artifacts are expected to lie beneath the surface. They did not even discuss the time period of the Exodus.
[i] Charles Whittaker, “The Biblical Significance of Jabal Al Lawz” (Ph.D. diss., Louisiana Baptist University, 2003), 12-13.
[ii] Al-Bid: History and Archaeology. (2002). Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Deputy Ministry of Antiquities and Museums. First noted by Charles Whittaker, The Biblical Significance of Jabal al Lawz. (2003).
[iii] Kerkeslager, Allen. “Jewish Pilgrimage and Jewish Identity.” Pilgrimage and Holy Space in Late Antique Egypt. Edited by David Frankfurter. Bill, NV, Leiden, The Netherlands. (1998).
[iv] Ibid., 200.
[v] “Mt. Sinai.” BASE Institute. http://www.baseinstitute.org/pages/mt_sinai/18
[vi] Williams, Larry. (1990). The Mountain of Moses: The Discovery of the Real Mount Sinai. Wyndwood Pr.
Last updated April 17, 2019.