The Gold of Exodus: The Discovery of the True Mount Sinai
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998) 364 pp., $25.00 (hardback)
The Search for the Real Mt. Sinai
(Monument, CO: Reel Productions, 1998) $24.95
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones defeats the evil Nazis, wins the girl and discovers the Ark of the Covenant. Adventure, religion and sex swirl together to create a marvelously entertaining movie. But, as I tell my children, it never really happened. It is important, as you grow up, to be able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. This distinction sometimes escapes my children, and it certainly escaped the two grown-ups who set out to discover “the Real Mt. Sinai” and who are the subjects of this book and video.
In the mildly engaging book, journalist Howard Blum details how a Wall Street millionaire (Larry Williams) and a former cop (Robert Cornuke), both apparently with too much time on their hands, decided to sneak into Saudi Arabia and discover Mt. Sinai. (The video tells the same story, with some footage of Cornuke and Williams on location.)
Their motives were a mix of the spiritual and the material, for they wanted to find not only the place of God’s revelation to Moses, but also the treasure of gold that (they think) the Israelites must have buried there after despoiling the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35–36).
How did the millionaire and the ex-cop determine the original site of Mt. Sinai? According to Blum, a mysterious unnamed professor shared the secret with them by reading to them a passage from an article in the August 1992 issue of BAR’s sister magazine Bible Review! (see “Frank Moore Cross–An Interview, Part 1: Israelite Origins,” Bible Review, August 1992) In Hershel Shanks’s interview with Harvard professor Frank Moore Cross, Cross notes that Midian, the land of Mt. Sinai, is located in northwestern Saudi Arabia, not in the Sinai peninsula. So Mt. Sinai should be in Saudi Arabia. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
“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 mountain 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.”
The mysterious professor cites this passage as proof that Jebel el-Lawz is the true Mt. Sinai. Here’s how the scene unfolds:
“There you have it,” the professor announced. “From the mouth of one of the world’s foremost scholars.”
“He’s not saying Jabal al Lawz is Sinai,” Williams pointed out.
“No,” Cornuke shot back. “It’s just the one place on earth he happened to mention.”
So the millionaire and the ex-cop go to Saudi Arabia in the summer of 1988 to discover Mt. Sinai. (At least that’s how Blum tells it. He fails to explain how in 1988 the “mysterious professor” managed to obtain a copy of Bible Review’s interview with Cross, which would not appear for another four years!)
The story of how they get there is quite amusing, for they apparently become pawns of the Israeli secret service, which is looking for someone to spy on Saudi military installations (there’s a big one at Jebel el-Lawz). So taxi drivers mysteriously appear in London with tourist visas to Saudi Arabia, gorgeous 056femmes fatales ply them with drinks to learn their secrets, and—once in Saudi Arabia—Bedouin appear from nowhere to take them to the mountain and to interrogate them afterwards.
What did these Indiana Joneses discover? That Jebel el-Lawz is indeed a mountain in Saudi Arabia with a large military installation. At its base are some large rock piles and some petroglyphs (rock carvings) depicting bovines. They think this is proof that the Israelites worshiped the golden calf. Near the summit of the mountain, they find a cave and some interesting rock formations. This must be the site of God’s revelation to Moses. The Saudis have guardhouses and are undertaking construction at various places. This proves that the Saudis have discovered the gold of Exodus and are excavating it in secret. And so on.
Does it occur to these guys that the petroglyphs could have been made anytime during the last 50,000 years? Or that caves and rock piles are common features of mountains? No. To these intrepid adventurers, these discoveries are proof that the Bible is literally and historically true down to the last jot and tittle, and that they are about to change the course of human history.
As I ponder their story and the promise of spiritual certainty—and gold—that it offers, my mind returns to the idyllic scene in which the millionaire first glimpses his quest: “[He] lingered for some time in the yard. The stars were just beginning to shine, and he could hear the Pacific rolling in on some unseen beach. Alone, he thought about Frank Moore Cross and the Bible and the gold. When he joined the others, his mind was set.” And all at once, Indiana Jones knew that he must find the lost treasure.
Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, Vol. XXIV, Wadi Daliyeh—I: The Wadi Daliyeh Seal Impressions
Mary Joan Winn Leith
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) 249 pp., 24 b&w plates, $120.00 (hardback)
Antiquities collectors and dealers have long argued that precious artifacts are sometimes safer and more accessible in private hands than in a museum or university. The argument is even stronger, they say, in the age of the computer, when it is relatively easy to keep track of items in private hands.
Supporting evidence for this contention comes from the extraordinary fourth-century B.C.E. materials from the Wadi Daliyeh, in the West Bank. As they say in the trade, gold is involved.
In 332 B.C.E. Alexander the Great conquered Tyre. With it fell much of Samaria, then a Persian province. Alexander promptly left for Egypt, leaving his prefect in Syria in charge. Rebellious Samarians took advantage of Alexander’s absence and burned his prefect alive. Alexander soon took vengeance on the Samarian rebels, eventually destroying the capital city of Samaria and resettling it with Macedonian Greeks. A number of members of the Samarian elite fled the city before it was destroyed, taking with them their families and their precious documents. They followed the wadis (dried riverbeds) down into the wilderness by the Jordan Valley and found temporary refuge in a cave in the Wadi Daliyeh.
Alas, they were discovered—whether by Macedonians making a thorough search or by fellow countrymen who betrayed them, we will never know. But found they were. A fire was lit at the mouth of the cave, drawing out the oxygen and suffocating the crowded families hiding inside.
There they lay for almost 2,300 years, until the winter of 1961–1962. The Ta‘amireh Bedouin, fresh from their triumphs in finding Dead Sea Scrolls in cave after cave, now ventured further north, near Jericho. Five miles west of Jericho, a few of them pitched their tents in the Wadi Daliyeh. There they once again hit pay dirt: In one cave, amid the foul bat dung and debris, one of the searchers spotted a gold signet ring!
Before they were through, the Bedouin had emptied the cave of a pile of fragmentary papyrus documents, a hoard of clay bullae impressed with seals (some still attached to the documents they sealed), two gold signet rings and considerable amounts of jewelry and coins.
By the fall of 1962, the material was on the antiquities market, and Frank Cross of Harvard was designated to negotiate for the purchase of the Wadi Daliyeh collection with his long-time adversary and negotiating partner Khalil Iskander Shahin, more familiarly known as Kando, through whose hands had passed most of the Dead Sea Scrolls. With a fund supplied by California philanthropist Elizabeth Hay Bechtel, Cross crossed swords with his Arab interlocutor and did—well, not bad. He managed to get the papyrus documents, the bullae and the gold rings. For lack of funds, he was unable to ransom most of the jewelry and coins. The coins were later sold to a Jerusalem collector. Where the jewelry went remains a mystery.
As part of the deal, Cross required that the Bedouin name the cave from which the materials had come. Later excavations 058confirmed that they had accurately identified the cave: More fragments of the same documents were recovered. So, unlike so much of what is acquired on the antiquities market, the provenance of the materials is known.
The materials Cross purchased were assigned to him for publication. He was successful in isolating 18 discrete papyrus documents, plus fragments of perhaps as many as 9 others. Of the 18, 17 were records of slave sales. Date formulas provide extraordinarily precise dating of many of the documents—for example, the latest of the documents may be dated to March 19, 335 B.C.E., just three years before Alexander’s conquest of the area. The earliest dates to 375 B.C.E.
The excavation of the cave, by Paul Lapp, uncovered 47 human skulls (31 male and 16 female), the remains of the no-doubt wealthy (slave-owning) families who fled there. The Bedouin claimed, however, that they had seen about 300 skeletons in the cave.
Eventually Cross turned over the publication of the bullae (all except one with an important inscription on it) and the gold signet rings to his then-graduate student, Mary Joan Winn Leith. They are published here by Oxford in the DJD series (Discoveries in the Judaean Desert), the official Dead Sea Scroll publication series.
But, unfortunately, the volume is somewhat incomplete. The gold signet rings are now lost—or rather (let’s call a spade a spade) stolen. They disappeared from the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem sometime before 1967, when east Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan. But this “disappearance” is hardly unusual. Items on museum display are usually safe, but only a small percentage of a museum’s holdings are on display. The rest is kept in over-bulging storerooms. Records of what is there are often fragmentary and incomplete. Finding items for later study often proves impossible. And small, precious items like gold signet rings easily get “lost.” As a result, in this case, all Leith had to work with were soft black-and-white photographs. She is unable to give even the customary detailed description of these rings. As she says, “Data such as size, colour, detail of the back of the bezel, the join of the hoop to the bezel, etc. is unavailable.” One of the rings features an eagle; the other, flanking griffins.
What of the bullae? Some of these, too, could not be located when she was in Jerusalem. Most of them were in the Rockefeller, but some were in the Israel Museum. The latter, says Leith, “could not be examined.” Of others she says, “Unlocated” or “Examination of this bulla has not been possible; the only available photographs are extremely difficult to read.” She found one group stored in a cardboard cigarette box.
Seals were used for far more than assuring that documents had not been tampered with. Seals constituted legal signatures. Documents were often sealed by government officials to signify their legality. Witnesses often made their mark with seals; indeed, it appears that professional witnesses were available who witnessed by their seals. The vast majority of the seals in this collection appear to have been witness seals. Thus, a single document might have a number of seal impressions attached to it. In one case, seven bullae still adhered to a single document. Seals were also used as property markers on moveable objects. Seals were symbols of political and religious office. They also had a magico-religious significance when worn as a kind of amulet, protecting the wearer against evil fortune.
The bullae from Wadi Daliyeh themselves are ugly little lumps of dark clay about a half-inch on the long side, impressed with a practically invisible seal. Only a couple of them have any writing on them. Despite the difficulty, Leith was able to make line drawings of most of them. Surprisingly, the most common image is of nude males portrayed in a Greek style. A number of them display the so-called Persian Hero, a bearded figure grasping a lion or a winged bull. Other impressions display horses, griffins, sphinxes, boars, a dancing satyr, a winged Eros, the mighty Hercules and Greek gods like Aphrodite and Zeus—128 bullae in all. Leith classifies the iconography on a few of the other seals as Phoenician and Near Eastern.
The odd thing is that despite the variety of cultural affinities, especially Greek, of the glyptic (seal) art, the names in the surviving papyri indicate that the people were worshipers of the Israelite God Yahweh, as shown by some names that incorporate this theophoric element. Moreover, the documents themselves are Hebrew, and the handful of letters found on the few seals with inscriptions are also Hebrew. More specifically, the letters are in paleo-Hebrew, an archaizing script meant to duplicate the old Hebrew script used before the Babylonian Exile, even though in the fourth century B.C.E. Hebrew was typically written in the square Aramaic script still used today. The use of paleo-Hebrew script reflects a strong nationalistic feeling, invoked by the old script, which was used during the Israelite monarchy.
Another oddity: If these are Jewish seals, what about the Second Commandment’s prohibition against images—and nude humans at that? Leith speculates that seals (and coins) fell outside the Second Commandment’s prohibition as interpreted at this time. Later generations of Jews, especially in 059the Herodian period, subscribed to a much stricter interpretation.
The author concludes with the obvious: “[The Samarians] in the mid-fourth century seem to have been attracted to Greek culture.” And, “If citizens of an inland provincial hill-country town like Samaria were comfortable using Greek images on their seals, how much stronger must have been the Greek cultural influence among Phoenicians [on the coast].”
This is a surprisingly well-written scholarly book, even enjoyable to read. But at $120, few will be able to buy it just for pleasure.
The Gold of Exodus: The Discovery of the True Mount Sinai