That the Lord spoke with Moses out of a burning bush is true, the Israeli guides tell tourists. But what may be a miracle in its own right, they add with a smile, is that there was a bush to burn!
Looking out over the barren land surrounding them, a group of BYU study abroad students about to climb up Mount Sinai could see the reasoning behind the saying. For miles the flatlands sprouted only the sparsest of vegetation, while hills jumped up in tortuous mounds of twisted rock and sun-bleached boulders.
Even though it was 3:00 A.M. and a cool desert breeze whispered in the shadows, it was easy to anticipate the heat that would wilt even the hardiest hiker come noon. That’s why the trek began so early. The group would be atop the peak at sunrise.
No one knows for sure if the jagged hill called Sinai today is the same mountain Moses toiled up to meet Jehovah, but many authorities agree that the terrain is appropriate and the location is, at least, in the same general region. It was certainly easy to look around and wonder, to recall the scripture study of the past few weeks.
As Moses wandered into Jethro’s camp in Midian, to the east, how sweet the well-water must have tasted to the exiled prince of Egypt! There he defended Jethro’s daughters against bullying shop herds, and there he married Zipporah, the oldest daughter. In Midian Moses received the priesthood from his father-in-law and raised two sons. Mount Sinai, also called Horeb, may have beckoned to the man many times during the years he wandered as a shepherd in its shadow.
“And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush.
“When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight: and as he drew near to behold it, the voice of the Lord came unto him,
“Saying, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and durst not behold.
“Then said the Lord to him, Put of thy shoes from thy feet: for the place where thou standest is holy ground.” (Acts 7:30–33.)
Was this, then, the holy ground where “the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend?” (Ex. 33:11). Was this the place where Moses received his call to lead Israel out of bondage, where he was tempted by and overcame Satan, the place where he “cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it … the inhabitants thereof”? (Moses 1:27–28). Was this the place where God explained that his work and glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man”? (Moses 1:39).
Wendy Gibbs stumbled on a loose rock, but caught herself before she fell. “The moon was almost full,” she explained, “but the mountains blocked its light from our view. So we traveled by the light of the stars, stumbling, falling, and losing the trail at times. It seemed as though we were heading to where heaven and earth met.”
“As we hiked, I couldn’t help but think of how Moses must have felt hiking up to see the Lord,” said David Barrus.
But it was Chari Webster’s comment that recalled another great episode in the history of Sinai. “I kept thinking of what great love the Lord must have for us as his children. He is so patient as he watches us make mistakes while we grow and learn. I found myself relating to the children of Israel and their questioning of the guidelines of the Lord, because we had questioned our situation during the past week—living in close quarters in the sand, sweat, and sunshine, without showers. I thought of our murmuring against our leaders,” Chari said.
It was to Sinai that Moses the prophet returned, having invoked the power of the priesthood to force Pharoah to free his slaves and having commanded the waters of the Red Sea to part. For 40 days and nights Moses tarried on the summit, while below the tribes coerced Aaron into covering the calf idol with gold. It was from the rock of the Mountain of God that the tablets of the law were carved twice, once for an obedient people and the second time after Moses broke the first in anger. It was from Sinai that the children of Israel embarked on 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
It took more than two hours for the BYU students to work their way to the top of the mountain. The large group broke into smaller squadrons, each one searching for the trail.
“It was a pretty difficult mountain to climb, but we all made it,” said Susan Josie. “At times I thought I couldn’t keep going, especially when we reached the stairs near the top (many years ago Christian monks from a nearby monastery carved 3,750 steps in one of the steepest faces).”
“Many times we would lose the path,” said Peggi Ince. “We would call out to those ahead of us so we would know the right direction. We learned a great love for one another as we guided ourselves to the top. But the physical aspect of the climb wasn’t as gratifying as the spiritual. The thought that this might be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments swelled in all of our minds.”
“I felt as if the Lord strengthened me as I climbed to what I considered a sacred spot,” said Janette DeWaal. “The feeling of the Spirit was strong. I was especially glad to be able to be there with my twin sister, Janene.”
“Being so close to nature brings me really close to my Father in Heaven,” added Janet Zarbak. “It gives me a spirit that I can find only when I am in such beautiful surroundings. Even though it took me about three hours to hike up, it didn’t seem that long until I tried to stand up and my feet wouldn’t move!”
“We reached the top under a full moon and a sky full of bright stars,” said Gary Brown. “The silhouette of the jagged peaks of that desert land was beautiful, even though they are so dry and barren.”
“The climb was hard, but the reward was the greatest,” said Janet Brown. “As soon as those first rays spread across the horizon, it made me forget the hurts.”
Somehow, it was impossible not to sing while waiting for the sunrise. The choruses of “High on a Mountaintop” and other hymns built to a fervor even Moses would have admired.
“I thought how blessed we were to be the only ones on Mount Sinai at that moment and to witness that sight,” Susan said. “I was so touched I cried for two hours straight.”
“What feelings and thoughts are stirred in this land where so much history has taken place and where the Lord spent so much time with his covenant people!” Kathy Stillman wrote in a letter.
“I know that I can never read the Bible now without being able to picture it in my mind,” said David Roche Turley. “It’s hard to fully appreciate and understand the trials and hardships that the people of God undertook and accomplished to help God’s plan go on.”
“We sat on the top and watched the sun gradually rise to its fullest,” Janene said. “What a magnificent sight! We were all humbled and pleased to be in such a place. We felt close to heaven.”
A testimony meeting had been planned, and no one was surprised when three hours after it began, testimonies were still being borne.
“I think the Lord must love the tops of mountains as much as I do, because there are so many important events that have occurred on mountaintops,” said Brad Knaphus. “I felt close to my Savior and close to the prophets of old.”
“What a glorious experience we had holding a testimony meeting looking out over that rugged wilderness,” said David Barrus. “What a glorious experience Moses must have had also. How much Moses wanted the children of Israel to have the same experience, yet they would not. How disappointed he must have been for them.”
“My testimony has been strengthened so much by studying the Old Testament in the land where many of its events occurred,” said Sheri Frazier. “The Old Testament people have become real people to me. My heart and soul seem to have formed a deep relationship with these men and women of God, and I appreciate their faithfulness, integrity, loyalty, and love.”
Soon the sun would shine so hot it would blister the rocks themselves. The students knew they must return quickly to the buses below where lunch was waiting. In the bright daylight the path would be easier to follow, and the descent would be simpler than the climb. But like Moses, whose face shone when he returned from conversing with the Lord, the students would come down from Sinai aglow with mission and purpose. Their task: not to liberate the slaves of Egypt, but rather to break the bonds enslaving those without the gospel; not to lead the children of Israel through the wilderness, but to lead their friends to the truth. As Moses did, they would bear testimony that God was and is and will be, for they too had been to the mountain and felt his presence there.