🔼The name Sinai, Sinite, Sinim, Sin and Sivan: Summary
- Thorn Bush, Storage Facility
- From the noun סנה (seneh), thorn bush, which associates to the verb אסם ('asam), to gather or store.
🔼The names Sinai, Sinite, Sinim, Sin and Sivan in the Bible
These six entities...:
- Sinai (סיני), a mountain also known as Mount Horeb (Exodus 19:1) and a desert where Israel spent much of the wandering years (Exodus 19:11);
- The Sinite (סיני), a Canaanite people (Genesis 10:17);
- The Sinim (סינים), a Far Eastern people, quite possibly the same as the Chinese (Isaiah 49:12);
- Sin (סין), a city which Ezekiel calls the stronghold of Egypt (Ezekiel 30:15), and which was possibly named after a prominent Mesopotamian lunar deity named Sin;
- Sin (סין), a wilderness between Elim and Sinai (Exodus 16:1);
- Sivan (סיון), the name of the third month (Esther 8:9 only).
...are named similar, or at least out of or into the same root, and are troublesome in all kinds of ways.
Even though today Sinai denotes the entire triangular peninsula between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, in the Bible it appears that Sinai is a single mountain that sits in a desert that's fittingly named the Wilderness Of Sinai (Exodus 19:1). The peninsula now known as Sinai is mountainous in the south but it's impossible to determine which of the mountains is the Mount Sinai of the Bible (and this in spite of a myriad of tourist agencies that beg to differ).
But wherever it was located, on it Moses convened with YHWH and received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:3). And for some reason, Mount Sinai also became known as Mount Horeb (or perhaps vice versa, since the name Horeb is introduced in Exodus 3:1 and Sinai follows in Exodus 16:1). Mount Horeb isn't mentioned in the New Testament but Mount Sinai is referred to in Acts 7:30 and 7:38 and Galatians 4:24 and 4:25 (spelled Σινα, Sina; see full New Testament concordance).
Some enthusiastically, most more or less reluctant, relate the name סינים (Sinim) to China. Klein's Etymological dictionary of the Hebrew Language reports that the contemporary name for Chinese is spelled the same as Sinite. But in the Bible the name occurs only in Isaiah 49:12 during an intriguing promise of, what seems, a global restoration in an unspecified time. What's most intriguing is that only the land of Sinim is specifically mentioned. What remains is speculation which is as difficult to prove as to disprove.
Europe became the cradle of the Western culture that is presently taking over the world, and which is the most successful culture to date. It emerged from its darkest period, partly due to the rush for the Far East that commenced after Marco Polo returned from China. In more contemporary times many note the rapid growth of China as an economical power.
🔼Etymology of the names Sinai, Sinite, Sinim, Sin and Sivan
The second reason why these names are troublesome is that the etymology of most is irretrievably lost.
The wilderness of Sin has probably to do with the city of Sin. And the wilderness of Sinai maybe has to do with the wilderness of Sin. And the mountain Sinai is of course named after the wilderness in which it sits. The tribe of the Sinite had its habitat probably somewhat more north, but perhaps the name had its origin in the same word as where Sin and Sinai came from.
In his treatment of the name סיני (Sinai), Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names points at the peculiar and highly reserved word that is used to indicate the burning bush of Exodus 3:2, namely סנה (seneh):
Verb אסם ('asam) means to gather or store. Noun אסם ('asam) means storehouse. A close cognate equivalent of the latter is אסנא ('asna'), which also means thorn bush (see next).
Possibly related to the previous, the noun סנה (seneh) describes a kind of thorn bush, particularly the one which famously burned.
Much of the Biblical narrative is devoted to the history of information technology, from the rise of nominal reason to the invention of script and the alphabet, and ultimately to the development of the literary tradition within which the Word of God could be received in human form.
And note that the name of the other famous wilderness, the wilderness of Zin — which was actually the same wilderness but from a different perspective, or a sub-region of it — is spelled the same as the noun צן (sen), meaning thorn or barb (Proverbs 22:5, Job 5:5).
The name of סין (Sin, a.k.a. Sina and probably the same as the Egyptian city Pelusium, and presently Tell Farama) is according to BDB Theological Dictionary a transliteration of the Egyptian word for dirt or clay. The Aramaic word for clay is just that: סין. Other scholars insist that the city's name Sin came from the Akkadian deity named Sin (as, for instance, preserved in the compound name Sennacherib).
Dealing with סין (Sin) and סיני (Sinite), Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names suggests a relationship with an hitherto unknown Hebrew root סין, which would mean to be muddy or clayey, and quotes Gesenius (who cites Champollion) by stating that the afore-mentioned Egyptian word for clay also occurs in Arabic.
BDB Theological Dictionary states that the name of the month Sivan is an Assyrian slash Babylonian loan-word of unclear meaning. Easton's Bible Dictionary decrees that Sivan is a Persian word, which comes from the Assyrian word sivanu, meaning bricks (which places it not far apart from the Semitic word for clay, mentioned above). Others say that this name comes from an Akkadian word simanu, meaning season or time.
See our article on the Hebrew Calendar for a deep dive into the mysteries of the Biblical agricultural year.
🔼Sinai, Sinite, Sinim, Sin and Sivan meaning
Whether a Hebrew audience would link these names to the burning bush, the Egyptian/Arabic/Aramaic word for mud, or an Akkadian deity, or even leave these names in a self-defining category of their own is impossible to estimate.
The various sources come up with the following meanings of our names:
- Neither BDB Theological Dictionary nor NOBSE Study Bible Name List attempts an interpretation of the name Sinai. Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names goes with the bush and explains the final letter י (yod) to be a remnant of the name יהוה (YHWH). Hence Jones reads a dapper Bush Of The Lord. A Hebrew audience might also have figured the name Sinai to mean Muddy.
- NOBSE commits what seems a remarkably silly mistake and relates the Semitic name Sin to the English word sin (which probably comes from the Latin sons, sontis meaning guilty). Hence NOBSE translates this name with Wrongdoing; Transgression, which is daft beyond the merit of further comment. BDB goes with the Egyptian/Arabic/Aramaic words for clay or mud and reads Clay for the city, but does not connect the city Sin to the wilderness of Sin. Jones, as said above, makes a logical but not immediately necessary leap into proposing that the wide-spread Semitic root that gave us the name Sin also existed as a Hebrew verb סין, meaning to be muddy, but can also not wholeheartedly depart from the enticing noun סנה (seneh), which denotes the burning bush. Hence Jones reads Clay, Bush. Jones also squeezes the word Woad into his translation (a woad is a plant which yields a blue dye) but submits no motivation or reference.
- NOBSE's entry for Sinite coincides with that for Sinim, which is probably incorrect. The joint entry does not contain a translation, merely the statement that both denote a "people in the far east," (which is erroneous because the Sinites were a people in the near east). Jones seems to believe that the Sinites originally came from Sin, or Pelusium, and calls them Pelusiots or Dwellers In A Marshy Land. BDB does not interpret our name and notes only that the Sinite were a people in the north, possibly connected to a city called Sianu, meaning On Shore Of Sea.
- NOBSE figures that the Sinim and the Sinites are both "a people in the far east". Jones admits that the derivation of the name Sinim is unknown but refers to the onomasticon of Simonis, who surmised that the Sinites were, like the Sinim, named after the city of Sin, and were Pelusiots. But Jones also mentions Gesenius who thought that the Sinim were the Chinese. BDB refers to Gesenius, but also refers to a man named Van Richthoven who refuted Gesenius, and some others with even more theories.
- None of the credible sources translate the name Sivan.