Excavating Sinai: An Archaeological Approach to Exodus 24:1-11

It is not enough to simply unearth an artifact, compare it to a textual description, and arrive at a date. Nor is it acceptable to use archaeological evidence to uncritically confirm the historicity of a text. Excavating a text – much like excavating a tell – requires additional controls.

See also: The Ten Commandments: Monuments of Memory, Belief, and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023).

By Timothy Hogue
Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israelite Culture and History
University of Pennsylvania
February 2024

Relating archaeological discoveries to the biblical text remains a hotly debated topic in both scholarly and popular circles. A somewhat unfair caricature of early biblical archaeologists imagines them with a Bible in one hand and a trowel in the other, determined to uncover physical evidence that will confirm the historicity of a biblical text. Admittedly, there remain some in the field who more or less take this approach. However, the 20th century witnessed the transformation of archaeology into a scientific discipline with rigorous methodological controls. Certain strands within biblical studies have been approaching a similar transformation, and I would suggest that – with careful methodological constraints in place – archaeological data can provide a more scientific means for analyzing some portions of the Bible, both in regards to textual dating and literary analysis.

            I want to be clear from the outset of this essay that applying modern archaeological approaches to biblical texts requires a rethinking of the relationship between the two. Most importantly, I argue that material culture has the potential to tell us much about the world behind the biblical text. That is, good matches between material culture that is depicted in the biblical text and attested in the archaeological record provides us with a window into the social and historical settings in which those texts were written. Material culture can tell us much less about the world within the text. So the method I outline below aims to better understand the sociohistorical motivations for writing and editing texts. However, the intent of such an approach is not to address questions of historicity, and I would maintain that it is ill-suited to do so.

The Bible and Material Culture

            How should we make sense of depictions of material culture in a text? I have taken up this broad methodological question in a number of studies, most extensively in my book The Ten Commandments: Monuments of Memory, Belief, and Interpretation (2023). At the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest we have roughly three options for how to understand material culture depicted in a text:

  1. Some might suspect that depicted material culture is entirely fabricated as part of a fictional narrative. If it happens to line up with real material culture attested in the archaeological record, that is accidental and has no bearing on the date of the text. This option is largely precluded by recent work on the nature of creativity. Rather than conceptualizing creativity as a limitless capacity of an individual, this research now recognizes that creativity is co-constituted by individuals and their social and material contexts (cf. Glăveanu 2014). In other words, even novel things are always made from what is already available. Literary creativity is constrained by the material culture surrounding the writer.
  2. Another option is that the depicted material culture matches the historical setting of the text. Thus, while it can tell us about the date of the narrated events, it cannot necessarily tell us when a text was written. This option ignores the literature on cultural memory, which generally argues that the past is always reimagined in terms of the present (cf. Assmann 2011). Apart from careful art historical records or archaeological excavations, a depiction of material culture that significantly predates the scribe responsible is simply impossible. An Iron Age scribe, for instance, could not have accurately depicted the material culture of the Bronze Age. They could, however, depict the Bronze Age in terms of the material culture of the Iron Age.
  3. If we take work on cultural memory and creativity seriously, then the material culture depicted in a text should line up with the contemporary material culture of the scribe producing it. In other words, the production of the text is contingent upon the social and physical context of its producer. Depictions of material culture are thus always based upon the contemporary material culture of the writer, and therefore they have a direct bearing on the date of the text.

So can we date a biblical text archaeologically? The answer is a qualified yes. This approach is founded on the observation that textual practices and literary production are aspects of material culture. Furthermore, textual practices and even literary creativity are entangled with and inextricable from material culture. However limitless creativity might seem, a scribe is ultimately constrained by his social and material context. He might imagine something new, but only by combining what is familiar in novel ways. As Qohelet so famously put it, “there is nothing new under the sun.” As such, with some necessary modifications, texts and literature can be analyzed using techniques derived from the study of material culture.

          Archaeological approaches to the Bible come with several caveats, however. First, only certain passages will benefit from this approach; not every text depicts material culture in high enough detail for an archaeological approach to be useful. Secondly, in using archaeological data to date a text, we will generally end up with a broad period rather than a specific reign or set of years as sometimes preferred by biblical scholars. Finally, we need to take great care in our methodology. It is not enough to simply unearth an artifact, compare it to a textual description, and arrive at a date. Nor is it acceptable to use archaeological evidence to uncritically confirm the historicity of a text. Excavating a text – much like excavating a tell – requires additional controls. In the following paragraphs, I outline my approach in brief.

          First, we need to establish the stratigraphy of the text. This can be accomplished using various critical methods. Source criticism and redaction history, for example, may be reanalyzed as well-established methods of textual stratigraphy. In my own work, I combine the insights of such methods with those of innerbiblical discourse. This last method approaches the history of a text based on the presence of known editorial markers. Writing and editing texts was a part of material culture, thus if we find known markers of editorial activity, we are well-situated to identify textual strata in a way that is grounded in material culture (Schniedewind 2010). Bernard Levinson’s work is especially notable in this regard, because he has identified a number of editorial markers in biblical texts based on the use of similar strategies in cuneiform literature (Levinson 2005, 2020).

          Textual stratigraphy differs from archaeological stratigraphy in one essential respect. Strata at tells are generally deposited one atop another. There might be some contamination between layers, but generally deeper layers are older than shallower ones. The same is not true of texts. Texts can be edited through brief glosses and insertions, through replacements, through the addition of new introductions or conclusions, or in combination with other texts. The result is a composite in which the layers freely flow one into another, and so textual stratigraphy is significantly more complicated than one layer on top of another. Once a text has been stratified, however, we may have a general idea of the relative dating of each layer. Insertions will generally be younger than the texts they are inserted into, for example (unless, of course, those insertions are drawn from pre-existing texts).

          After we establish a text’s stratigraphy, our next step is to analyze depictions of material culture within each layer. Most obviously, we should look for depicted artifacts, but we must also pay attention to depicted interactions with those artifacts. Furthermore, we should be attentive to embodied practices more generally. Such practices are also a part of material culture. Both aspects of material culture – artifacts and practices – need to be carefully compared with finds from elsewhere that have been securely dated. Material culture changed over time, so the depiction of attested artifacts and practices may give us an indication of a text’s date. This works best if we have a broad range of comparanda that have been carefully dated. On that basis, we may begin periodizing the strata within a text. I will flesh this method out with an example – the ritual installation at Sinai depicted in Exodus 24.

Excavating Sinai in Exodus 24:1-11

            We begin excavating Sinai in Exodus 24:1-11 by establishing the stratigraphy of the text. Commentators are generally agreed that vv. 1-2, 9-11 and vv. 3-8 represent separate layers, both of which show signs of further transformation (Childs 1974, 499–502). Joel Baden argues that the last two words of v. 11 belong to the same layer as vv. 3-8, and I am inclined to agree given the fit between the practice depicted in v. 11 and material culture in vv. 3-8 (Baden 2012, 117). Within this layer, a repetitive resumption – “he sprinkled the blood” – brackets v. 7 as a later insertion, which Schniedewind argues is a Deuteronomistic addition. The repetitive resumption is a typical scribal marker of editorial activity, in which a key phrase is repeated to bracket newly inserted material (Schniedewind 2004, 125–26). The other layer also contains a repetitive resumption – “and they saw God” – bracketing most of vv. 10-11a, which Simeon Chavel identifies as a later interpolation (Chavel 2012, 44). We thus have at least four strata within this short passage that we may now relatively date based on aspects of material culture.

            We can work out the relative date of each stratum based initially on the scribal practices on display in each. First, the repetitive resumptions mark later insertions, so we can conclude that v. 7 and vv. 10-11a are later than the layers enclosing them. Second, Childs suggests that vv. 1-2, 9-11 were added as a bracket to surround vv. 3-8, and such a technique would be consistent with what Sara Milstein calls revision by introduction and conclusion – a technique often appearing in both biblical and Cuneiform literature (Milstein 2016). Verses 3-6, 8, 11b are thus the oldest portion of the text, so, following archaeological convention in which the deepest, oldest strata are numbered higher, I label this Stratum IV. Verse 7 is a later insertion into that, so I will label it Stratum III. Verses 1-2, 9 are a later frame around vv. 3-8, so I label that Stratum II. And finally, vv. 10-11a are a later insertion into Stratum II, so I label it Stratum I. To proceed with more specific dating and analysis of these, however, we must gather what bits of material culture we can from each of these strata. For the purposes of this essay, I will be drawing attention to three interrelated aspects of material culture in particular: cultic artifacts, their ritual manipulation, and the personnel manipulating them. Then, we must compare the finds in each stratum to securely dated finds from elsewhere.

            In Exodus 24:3-6, 8, 11b, we encounter a variety of cultic artifacts: maṣṣebot, an altar, and bowls. Of these, the maṣṣebot are the most important. These standing stones – which were utilized in rituals to generate divine presence – were in use as early as the Iron Age I (1200 – 1000 BCE) in Israel and perhaps even quite earlier. However, they were disavowed in the late 8th century and were no longer considered a legitimate support for Israelite ritual. The most important parallels to Sinai’s maṣṣebot come from Tel Dan, which attests more maṣṣebot than any other site. It is the only location approaching and then surpassing the number in Exodus 24 (Bloch-Smith 2015). These maṣṣebot led pilgrims through the city to its temple precinct, where we find another parallel to the Sinai installation: a large Israelite altar. In the same context, a bowl was discovered that Jonathan Greer theorizes was used to collect and manipulate blood (Greer 2010).

            The personnel manipulating these artifacts include Moses and ne‘arim (נערים, “youths”), here apparently referring to non-specialist ritual practitioners. The presence of non-specialist cultic personnel seems to line up with what we know of Tel Dan before the 8th century (Greer 2013, 120–22). The first engagement with these artifacts is Moses’ inscribing of them. At least one 9th century inscription was incorporated into Tel Dan’s installation, but we should also note that the Judahite temple at Tel Arad attested two maṣṣebot alongside altars and one of them shows signs of having been inscribed. It is also worth noting that Exodus 24:4 in its present context strongly implies that what Moses wrote down was the Ten Commandments and the Covenant Code from the preceding chapters. As I argue extensively in my book, the Ten Commandments were modeled on Levantine monumental inscriptions such as would be found in Iron Age ritual installations. David Wright has argued similarly that the Covenant Code was modeled on Mesopotamian law codes, which were displayed on stelae – artifacts akin to the maṣṣebot (Wright 2009). Apart from the act of inscription, the youths offer sacrifices on the altar before the stelae, and these sacrifices are later used in a ceremonial feast (v. 11b). Moses collects the blood from the sacrifices in the bowls, sprinkles some of it on the altar and the rest on the people, and directs the people in formulaic verbal performances – perhaps like those known to be performed in similar monumental installations at Zincirli and Carchemish in the 9th and 8th centuries. Taken together, these features point towards a 10th to 8th century date for Stratum IV, but other factors (most importantly the lack of Hebrew inscriptions before the 8th century) suggest that we should lean closer to the later end of that spectrum.

            In Exodus 24:7, the only cultic artifact present is the sefer habberit (ספר הברית, “Inscription of the Covenant”) which Moses reads aloud for the people. Exactly the same artifact is mentioned in the account of Josiah’s reform in 2 Kings 23 and nowhere else. Accordingly, Schniedewind argues that the insertion into Exodus 24 was contemporary with the composition of 2 Kings 23. There are some additional complexities here, but I will therefore propose a Josianic date for v. 7. As has been repeatedly argued, Josiah’s “Inscription of the Covenant” likely reflects the 7th century Assyrian practice of establishing covenants with their vassals by means of inscribed tablets (Frankena 1965; Levinson and Stackert 2012). The people respond to this artifact in v. 7 using a verbal performance modeled on – but not identical to – the performances in the previous stratum. Such formulaic verbal responses are attested in earlier periods, but Melissa Ramos has recently demonstrated that the 7th century may have been an important period for the revision of such ritual scripts in ancient Judah based on Assyrian models (Ramos 2021).

            In Exodus 24:1-2, 9-10a, we find no cultic artifacts to be manipulated, but we do meet some ritual specialists. These include Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel. Moreover, this stratum makes clear that these personnel form an elite class separate from the people at large, and that access to sacred space is dependent upon one’s position in this social hierarchy. Moses alone has access to God, but other elites may come up the mountain. The people, however, are forbidden from approaching. Such ritual stratification is attested at Tel Dan possibly as early as the 8th century (but not earlier). This stratification is attested at other Levantine sites – like Zincirli and Carchemish – beginning in the late 8th century and seems to represent a regional shift in ritual practice (Gilibert 2011, 128–31). The late 8th century is thus the terminus ante quem for this stratum. This stratum may thus overlap with Stratum III, because their depicted material culture suggests a simultaneous range in date (though stratum III is more specific). Other methods have almost universally differentiated these strata, so I will maintain that distinction. However, strictly speaking, my method cannot neatly distinguish these. Perhaps they come from different hands working in the same historical period. In any case, we need to compare Stratum II to the insertion in vv. 10b-11a to determine its terminus post quem.

            In Exodus 24:10b-11a, we meet a new set of ritual personnel – the ’aṣile bene yisra’el (אצילי בני ישראל, “the Israelite nobles”). These figures gaze at – and this gazing should be construed as a ritual act – a pavement of lapis lazuli beneath God’s feet. This stratum certainly postdates vv. 1-2, 9-10a, based on its insertion into that stratum. Dating this stratum more specifically requires recourse to multiple lines of evidence. Most importantly, the word for “nobles” here has been identified as a loanword from Imperial Aramaic. Contact between Imperial Aramaic and Hebrew was most intense during the Persian period. The lapis lazuli pavement might suggest experience with Mesopotamian monumental complexes – like the Ishtar Gate in Babylon – which similarly intensified in the Persian period and preceding Neo-Babylonian period. This image shares most in common with the vision of a lapis lazuli throne in Ezekiel 1, suggesting a Neo-Babylonian date or later for the stratum in question (Chavel 2012, 44). Apparently, the communities of the Neo-Babylonian and/or Persian periods felt the need to introduce their own elites to the ritual on Sinai, and thus added this insertion.

We thus arrive at the following stratigraphy for Exodus 24:1-11:

Hogue table Exodus 24.1-11

Essentially, the passage presents an account of a ritual complex designed to constitute a community through sacrifice, engagement with monuments, and feasting. This was initially depicted in vv. 3-6, 8, 11b according to the normative practices of political formation in the late 10th to the 8th century BCE. This text was subsequently edited by multiple hands to keep up with changing ritual practices in the surrounding region. Sometime from the late 8th to the early 6th century BCE, an editor stratified the ritual practitioners in the text to better match what was currently being practiced in Israel and Judah. During this same period, Josiah’s “Inscription of the Covenant” was introduced to the account to reflect the new media associated with covenant-making at the time. Finally, postmonarchic editors introduced their elites to this hierarchy as well as a new understanding of the encounter with God at Sinai based on their experience of such monumental installations in Mesopotamia.

            As a result of applying archaeological data and methods to Exodus 24:1-11 – a famously convoluted passage – we discover that it is in fact much more coherent than it first appeared. It fundamentally represents a monumental complex aimed at constituting the Israelite community. Like monumental complexes in the surrounding region, new artifacts and practices were attached to the Sinai Installation over time in response to various social and historical circumstances (Hogue 2022). Each of those shifts left its mark on our passage, which was strategically edited to match the ritual discourse of each editor’s contemporary time, layering on a new set of artifacts, practices, and traces of people. Thus, like the strata in a tell, these textual strata tell us a story – the history of the text. The material culture in each stratum reveals the world behind the text – the social settings of the different scribes who wrote it. While the discovery of archaeological parallels to the Sinai Installation of course cannot confirm the historicity of the passage, they serve as a potent reminder that the writing of biblical literature happened in specific historical contexts. Those contexts can inform our understanding of that literature and its original motivations.


Assmann, Jan. 2011. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baden, Joel S. 2012. The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. 2015. “Massebot Standing for Yhwh: The Fall of a Yhwistic Cult Symbol.” In Worship, Women and War: Essays in Honor of Susan Niditch, edited by John J. Collins, T. M. Lemos, and Saul M. Olyan, 99–115. Brown Judaic Studies 357. Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University.

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———. 2013. “Dinner at Dan: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sacred Feasts at Iron Age II Tel Dan and Their Significance.” In Dinner at Dan. Brill.

Hogue, Timothy. 2022. “In the Midst of Great Kings: The Monumentalization of Text in the Iron Age Levant.” Manuscript and Text Cultures (MTC) 1 (May): 13–54.

———. 2023. The Ten Commandments: Monuments of Memory, Belief, and Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, Bernard M. 2005. “The Birth of the Lemma: The Restrictive Reinterpretation of the Covenant Code’s Manumission Law by the Holiness Code (Leviticus 25:44-46).” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (4): 617–39.

———. 2020. “At the Intersection of Scribal Training and Theological Profundity: Chiasm as an Editorial Technique in the Primeval History and Deuteronomy.” BYU Studies Quarterly 59: 85–106.

Levinson, Bernard M., and Jeffrey Stackert. 2012. “Between the Covenant Code and Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty: Deuteronomy 13 and the Composition of Deuteronomy.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 3 (2): 123–40.

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———. 2010. “Excavating the Text of 1 Kings 9: In Search of the Gates of Solomon.” In Historical Biblical Archaeology and the Future: The New Pragmatism, edited by Thomas E. Levy, 241–49. London: Equinox.

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