Mount Horeb, Sinai by Francis Frith

Francis Frith

Mount Horeb, Sinai, 1858, Albumen silver print, 379 x 484 mm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 84.XM.633.15, Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out

Sinai Still

Commentary by

Today, Mount Sinai is still. The theophany that made her famous ceased long ago, yet the rumbling of Yahweh’s voice still moves in the interior worlds of those who trust the divine words shared that day.

The atmosphere in English photographer Francis Frith’s photograph conveys the essence of Sinai as it appeared in the mid-nineteenth century; as both an ordinary mountain and a sacred space that—along with the people of Israel—once trembled in the presence of Yahweh (Exodus 19:16, 18). While silent, she stands as a testimony to Yahweh’s eternal promise that, because the earth is his, those who obey his voice and keep his covenant will be his ‘treasured possession out of all the peoples’ (v.5).

The solitary figure in the foreground reminds us how much has changed since the Israelites set up camp at the foot of the mountain (v.2)—the original 600,000 men plus women, children, a ‘mixed multitude’, and ‘very much livestock’ (12:37–38) are gone. This person, like many travellers and pilgrims since the exodus, has come to the mountain on his own.

He seems to be maintaining his distance from the place so holy that to touch it once resulted in death (19:12–13). This is in contrast to Moses, who ascends the mountain no less than three times in the course of this one chapter—activity which speaks volumes to his physical and spiritual suitability for the unique challenges ahead (vv.3, 8, 20).

The theophany of Exodus 19 is only one reason for Sinai’s significance in the religious imagination. It is also widely identified with Horeb, where Moses first encounters Yahweh in the burning bush (Exodus 3–4). The Mount Sinai Monastery, situated in the valley just left of Frith’s mountain, is built around the traditional location of that bush. The monastery dates back to the third century CE and guards the spiritual inheritance that Sinai has bestowed on humanity through various Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Renowned for its icons, manuscript collection, and deep spiritual history, the monastery symbolizes the continuous power of theophany to change our individual and collective worlds long after the spectacle ceases. Whether mountain or homo sapiens, one is never the same after an encounter with the divine.

 

References

Silvia, Adam M. n.d. ‘Holy Land Photography: Mid-19th Century Photos of the Middle East by Francis Frith’, www.loc.gov [accessed 22 September 2020]