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In his book The Miracles of Exodus (2003), chapter 6, physicist Colin Humphreys argues that the description of Mt. Sinai in the book of Exodus is characteristic of volcanic activity (and identifies Mt. Sinai with contemporary Mt. Bedr, which has a volcanic cone atop a table).

In particular, Exodus 19:16-19 describes Mount Sinai as follows.

On the third day, when morning came, there was thunder and lightning. A thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the ram’s horn went out, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.

18 Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because the LORD had descended on it in fire. And the smoke rose like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently. 19 And as the sound of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him in the thunder.

All the elements that are bolded are associated with volcanic activity.

Are there any criticisms in the literature of the idea, as argued for by Humphreys and others, that Mt. Sinai was a volcanic mountain, either scriptural or scientific?

Note: this question is similar.

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  • How is Moses supposed to have survived climbing an actively erupting volcano and living for days in the ash cloud produced by the eruption?
    – jaredad7
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 19:24
  • @jaredad7 Right, see Ken's answer which includes this objection. Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 23:56

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What are some of the critiques of the theory that Mt. Sinai was volcanic?

Let us first start with the volcanic theory of Jean Koenig (1971), and then Colin Humphreys (2003).

The Volcanic Theory in the 21st Century

In recent decades, Jean Koenig (1971), and then Colin Humphreys (2003), also advocated Hala-l-Bedr as the site for Mount Sinai. Humphreys went into great detail to explain his idea, summarizing that

The Old Testament description of Mount Sinai fits perfectly an eyewitness description of an erupting volcano, even down to the details like the loud trumpet sound produced by gases escaping through cracks in the rocks (ibid. 310-312).

His location for Mount Sinai was based on two basic criteria: 1) a volcano that was active in the last 10,000 years, 2) located within 11 days’ travel from Kadesh. The evidence for the historical eruption activity of Hala-l-Bedr chiefly stems from the report of Musil (1926), cited above. Although Humphreys found three volcanos that met his distance criterion, he chose Hala-l-Bedr because it had the highest explosive index, which gave it a potential three-mile-high eruption column.

Given that serious scholars are not in agreement of the actual location of the Mountain of God, anyone claiming this or that mountain is the one, and that it was volcanic, is on shaky ground!

Surely there are biblical clues that "the Lord descended on it in fire" (Ex.19:18) caused the smoking, shaking, thunder/lightning, means it need not have been events arising from underground we should consider, but the awesome glory of God descending from above? Psalm 104:32 says God just looks at the earth, and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke.”

The volcanic theory has serious flaws in its approachable explications.

The biblical mentions of the pillar infer both proximity and motion, not a static phenomenon emanating hundreds of miles in the distance. For instance, when the Hebrews left Egypt,

The LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people (Exod. 13:21-22).

As a practical matter, a volcanic eruption in the Arabian Peninsula would not likely illuminate the night path for travelers 350-550 km (220-350 mi.) distant in the Sinai Peninsula. If its eruption was of that great magnitude, no multitude would have been able to assemble at its base, and Moses would not be able to ascend its peak.

Furthermore, when the Hebrews were encamped at the sea, the pillar was locally manifest and moved between them and the Egyptians (Exod. 14:19). At later times, the cloud stood above the tabernacle, entirely separate from the mountain (Exod. 43:9; 40:34; Num. 12:5). As the Hebrews traveled beyond Mount Sinai, “the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys” (Exod. 40:38). This phenomenon was still occurring near the close of the Exodus (Deut. 31:15). A careful reading of the pertinent scriptures argues against a volcanic basis for a moving pillar of light and cloud.

The volcanic theories reviewed above all seem to ignore the potentially noxious environments associated with active volcanoes. The “elephant in the room,” the obvious element missing from the arguments, concerns the incompatibility between human activity and volcanic eruptions.

As mentioned above, Humphreys (2003) selected Hala-l-Bedr because it had the potential for a three-mile-high eruption column. The products of this sort of eruption would include ejecta or tephra, steam, gasses, and molten lava flows. Tephra denotes pyroclastic materials of all sizes: ash, blocks, and semi-solid or molten bombs. Ash refers to particles less than 2 mm in diameter, composed of various minerals, pulverized rock, and volcanic glass. Gasses include water vapor, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen, and hydrogen sulphide.

The tephra fallout from volcanic plumes is very hazardous, easily deadly to man, animals, and vegetation. Surface accumulation of ash prior to the arrival of the Hebrews would inhibit, if not preclude, pastoral and habitation activity. In the least, ash is a significant respiratory and eye irritant. It has been observed that sheep that survive volcanic ash falls may become immobilized by its weight in their wool.

Was Mount Sinai a Volcano?

The following may be of interest to some:

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    Your point, that nobody today knows the exact location of Mount Sinai, should be in bold itlics (which is not a criticism!) Just a suggested layout improvement.
    – Anne
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 17:22
  • I feel bad for those sheep.
    – jaredad7
    Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 17:11

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