Sunday, April 5, 2015

Church of the Holy Trinity - Mount Sinai

          This post follows my account of hiking up Jebel Musa, also known as Mount Sinai.

           “…[A]fter the Israelites left Egypt…[under the direction of Moses] they came to the Desert of Sinai…and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God [his first ascent of Mt. Sinai], and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “…Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…you will be for me a… holy nation.” (Exodus 19:3-6)
            Moses came back down the mountain and “summoned the elders” and told them the words “the Lord had commanded him to speak” and the people said they would “do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses ascended Mount Sinai the second time to give the Lord the people’s answer. The Lord told Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you….Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.  Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it….Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.” Moses went back down the mountain to the people and consecrated them and they washed their clothes. (Exodus 19:7-14)

            “The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.” So Moses climbed Sinai for the third time and the Lord told him to “warn the people” not to try and come up to see him or they would perish. “Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves”. Then the Lord told Moses to go back down “and bring Aaron up with” him.  (Exodus 19:20-25)

            In Exodus 20 to 23 the Lord speaks to the Israelites from a distance. He identifies himself as “the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” and he gives them the Ten Commandments. There was “thunder and lightning” and they “saw the mountain in smoke…They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’” So “Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” while the “people remained at a distance…” Then, apparently out of earshot of the Israelites, but not on the top of the mountain, the Lord speaks to Moses and gives him more instructions for the Israelites, including the law of the sabbath, the three annual festivals they are to celebrate and that he will send an angel ahead of them to guard them and to take them “to the place I have prepared.” Their borders will be “from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River.” They are to drive out the Canaanites and others because “they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.”

            Then the Lord told Moses to bring Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel to “Come up to the Lord…[and to] worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the Lord…” Moses told the people all of the Lord’s words and they responded that they would do everything the Lord had asked them to do. Then Moses “wrote down everything the Lord had said.” (Exodus 24:1-4)

            The next morning Moses “built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel.” Then he “offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord.” Moses also “took the Book of the Covenant,” that he had just written, and “read it to the people.” The people responded that they would obey. Then in response to the earlier request, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders went up to worship at a distance “and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.”  Then at the Lord’s request, Moses went up on the mountain to get “the tablets of stone with the law and commandments” he had “written for their instruction.” This was the fourth ascent by Moses. The cloud covered the mountain and “the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai.” Moses stayed on the mountain 40 days and nights and to the Israelites below it “looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.” (Exodus 24:5-18)

            The Lord told Moses to make a tabernacle as a sanctuary for him to dwell in. He was given detailed instructions concerning the ark, a table, a lampstand, the tabernacle, the altar, the courtyard, oil for the lampstand, the altar of incense, a bronze basin for washing, anointing oil, and incense.  Aaron and his sons were to serve God as priests and to wear garments that were described, such as an ephod and a breast piece. Instruction was given as to their consecration and the sacrifices they were to offer. (Exodus 25 to 31)

            Moses was on the mountain so long that the Israelites wondered what had happened to him. They asked Aaron to make them gods to go before them. Aaron had them take off their gold earrings which he used to put into a cast in the shape of a calf. Then he “built an altar in front of the calf” and they offered burnt offerings to it and “indulge[d[in revelry.” The Lord told Moses what was happening and that he intended to “destroy them.” Moses contended for the people and “the Lord relented…” Moses “went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back…the work of god; …the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.” When Moses “approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces…” He took the calf, burned it, ground it to powder and sprinkled it in water which he made the people drink. Then he asked the people who were “for the Lord” to come to him, and it was the Levites who responded. They were told to go through the camp killing with swords and 3,000 were killed that day. (Exodus 32)

            Moses made a tent outside the camp and called it the “tent of meeting.” When Moses “went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses…The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Then Moses asked the Lord to show him his “glory” and in what appears to be a contradiction, the Lord told him, “thou cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” But the Lord told him, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33)

            Then the Lord told Moses to “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain.” So Moses did as he was directed and “went up Mount Sinai early in the morning,” his fifth ascent, and the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord.” Moses bowed and worshipped the Lord. Then much of the prior discussions were repeated, the Lord “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments” and Moses was “there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water.” Moses “came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands” and his “face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord” and the Israelites were “afraid to come near him.”

            Moses ascended Mount Sinai at least five times and some pretty spectacular events took place there. A chapel was built on the summit of Jebel Musa in 363. A fourth century Spanish pilgrim named Etheria mentioned a “church, not great in size, for the place itself, that is the summit of the mountain, is not very great; nevertheless, the church itself is great in grace.” It was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in about 530 or 532 and it was variously known as the Chapel of Moses, Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, and Chapel of the Latins. The church was rebuilt again in 1934 and called the Church of the Holy Trinity. It was built using some of the same pink granite from Justinian’s church, quarried in Elijah’s Basin, some of them marked with a circular cross. The church is run by the Greek Orthodox Church, which also owns Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Jebel Musa. It is apparently decorated with frescoes of the life of Moses, but is usually closed to the public. I got a picture of the inside iconostasis through the keyhole and found a better keyhole picture on the internet and a picture of the back of the iconostasis (by the same person), taken from a window on the backside. The Church of the Holy Trinity is said to be built over the rock from which God made the tablets for the Ten Commandments.   
The Church of the Holy Trinity in the early morning. Pilgrims and hikers still huddled in blankets.

A different angle reveals a bell tower.

Another angle. Note that the windows are shaped like the Ten Commandments.
The locked front door through which I got a picture through the keyhole.
My picture through the keyhole.
A much better picture taken from here
Back of the iconostasis.
Pink granite with the circular cross dating from the sixth century. 
            Next to the western wall of the church is a large rock upon which God stood when he gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. Underneath the rock is the “cleft in the rock” in which Moses hid himself as God’s glory passed by. In the 1630s, a pilgrim named “Felix Fabri wrote: “Under the west side of this rock is a cavity, in which one may conveniently lie, and from it there is a crack in the rock to the east, thro’ which one may see the light. This is said to be the place from whence Moses saw the back parts of the Lord…The common people say the rock inclined forward, that Moses might not see, and that lifting himself up to look, he left the impression of his back in the top of the cell.”
The rock on which God stood to give the Ten Commandments and the cleft underneath where Moses hid. My reading of Exodus would lead me to believe this event happened near the base of Sinai, rather than on the summit.
A closer look at the cleft.
The imprint of Moses' back in the cleft of the rock.
            Because of the sacredness of the summit, monks have never lived there. But they do traditionally visit the summit briefly and as often as they can. It is said most of the monks try to visit the summit once a month.
We saw this monk on his way up to the summit as we were coming down. 

            Most of the information on the Church of the Holy Trinity came from the book, Mount Sinai, from the University of Texas Press, by Joseph J. Hobbs.         


  1. Beautiful (and creative) photos, especially the one through the keyhole, which seems symbolic of the "mysteries" of the events that occurred in this general location.

  2. It's always a little disappointing to find churches closed. I like the idea that monks don't live in this sacred (to them) place, but visit it often. Good for the spirit and the heart!

  3. Amazing how the images of people in the pictures in the temple on the wall are of dark basically black people. Yet in present day especially American culture Christ as well as the saints are represented as white.

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  5. You have no idea how much these pictures are appreciated. There is no place else on the web where images of the rock and the cleft, and images of the inside of the chapel appear. These are great pictures!