THE SINNERS OF MOUNT SINAI
I was on AWOL (Away Without Official Leave) on this page in the last two weeks. My apologies. What caper was I up to? I had quietly slipped out of the country on a 12-day pilgrimage to holy sites in Israel. The trip took me to Jerusalem, Jericho, Galilee, Bethlehem, and then Egypt. Yes, the same Egypt, for that is home to Mount Sinai, the place where God handed out the Ten Commandments to Moses. Every Christian knows (or rather, should know) something about those ten laws, as they are quite fundamental to the faith.
A full account of the spiritual odyssey will come, but let me isolate what happened on the sixth day, as topic for discussion today.
On Tuesday last week, we had crossed the Taba land border from Israel to Egypt, after a rigorous and scrupulous security check. One knew the no love lost relationship between the two countries, and so it was not quite surprising. In Bible times, Egypt had held Israel in bondage for over 400 years, and in modern times, they've fought at least three bitter wars. So, naturally, there should be high level of distrust and suspicion between the two countries.
From the Taba border to the Sonesta Beach Resort, which was to house us for the next two days, took about 45 minutes drive on a sneaky, serpentine and twisting road that ran by the banks of the Red Sea. Yes, the same sea that parted into two, after Moses stretched his rod over it, and the children of Israel walked across on dry ground. When a contumacious and obdurate Pharaoh and his soldiers attempted the same thing, the sea swooped on them, and they were sent to a watery eternity. But is that sea really red? Not actually. Why is it then called the Red Sea? The water is actually bluish, as in any other sea, but the surrounding mountains are brown in colour, something like the hue that is called ox blood. So, in the afternoon hours, when the sun is at its peak, the mountains cast a reflection on the waters. The incandescence turns the waters almost red, and this stretches as far as the eyes can see. So what better name for the sea? The Red Sea.
By 5p.m, we checked into the Sonesta Beach Resort, with an instruction from our minders that we should take an early dinner, and go to bed. By midnight, we would be woken up for the two hours drive to Mount Sinai, in the Sinai Peninsula area of Egypt. The place also houses the Saint Catherine Monastery, built around the area where God had appeared to Moses in the burning bush that was not consumed.
We were going on a spiritual exercise, which would see us climb to the peak of Mount Sinai, the place where God had met with Moses, and according to the Holy Bible, 'Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, for the Lord descended upon it in fire, its smoke ascended like that of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.' (Exodus 19:18).
Though I was part of the expedition, I'd made up my mind I was not really going to climb the mountain. The reasons were many, but physical fitness (or the lack of it) was not one of them. For a person of my age (knocking hard at senior citizenship), I think I'm still fit enough. Yes, I need to work more on my mid-region, which for a non-beer drinker, is rather corpulent. But like I jocularly tell my friend and colleague, Shola Oshunkeye, (our Editor, Magazines), my tummy still trails his own by a wide margin in terms of size. Oshunkeye's is like a tank, and I tell him it reminds me of a 50-litre keg. We usually have a good laugh over it, but nowhere is the middle age spread more evident in me than in the waistline. I work on it, but maybe not hard enough.
Why was I not going to climb Sinai, since I was fit? We had been told that the mountain would take about three hours to subdue, and another two hours to descend. Holy Moses! And it was a steep and treacherous terrain, one foot wrong, and you could hurtle to the ground, and get your limbs or skull smashed. Why then should anyone embark on such gambol to see God? It's a dangerous gamble, surely.
Exertion should be in the necessary proportion, and for the right ends. That is one principle I hold onto firmly. If I would need five hours to climb and descend from Mount Sinai, to what purpose? Does God live on the mountain? Yes, He met Moses there to hand out the Ten Commandments, but thereafter, we do not have a record that God met anyone else on that rocky steep. Does God have a countryhome there, to which He retreats from time to time? The Holy Bible does not say so. Rather, what the Good Book tells us is that heaven is His home, and the earth is His footstool. We were not told He lives on Sinai, and that we could meet Him there after three hours exertion.
Again, I asked myself whether it was so hard to get God to intervene in our affairs, so much so that we have to climb Sinai. In the Old Testament, God made occasional appearances to speak to His people, but in the new and current dispensation, He speaks, leads and guides us by His spirit, which now dwells in us. That is why Jesus is called Emmanuel, 'God with us.' And in us. In other words, God is not necessarily on Mount Sinai again, so, climbing may just be an adventure, a potentially perilous audacity.
In my group (Group 15), there were three other media people. Israel Ogunlade was of Radio Lagos/Eko F.M, while Sunday Omoniyi and Dupe Olaoye-Osinkolu, were of The Nation Newspaper. If my own mind was already made up not to climb, the others were not really decided yet. For me, before we reached Sinai, I knew the mountain was magun, (don't climb) a mountain that if you were not careful can send you into three somersaults, and then you crow like a cock into eternity. So, I was not going to climb. But my colleagues were yet in the valley of decision.
Another fact I anchored my rocklike conviction on, was the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman as recorded in John Chapter 4. By the well of Sychar, the woman had asked Jesus: 'Our forefathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say Jerusalem is the place to worship.'
And Jesus answered:
'Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… A time is coming, and is already here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father is seeking to worship Him.'
I guess this is one of the reasons pilgrimage to the holy land is not mandatory for Christians. If you have the grace to go, fine, it reinforces and strengthens your faith, but it is not a pre-requisite for acceptable worship, or for entry to heaven. Worship in spirit and truth does not necessarily require backbreaking venturesome to physical mountains. Wherever you choose to worship or pray becomes your mountain - your bedroom, kitchen, office at breaktime, even if you are driving, you can worship and pray in your spirit. Let us see the road safety marshal who will arrest you for it. What will he charge you with? Dangerous driving? He'll sure need evidences to get a prosecution through.
After two hours, we got to Sinai. It was the beginning of winter in that region of the world, and it was freezing cold. The temperature gauge in the bus that conveyed us dropped gradually from 25, till it reached 14 degrees. Considering that Lagos was around 32 degrees at that time, 14 was extremely cold.
Decked in sweaters, gloves, mufflers, thick socks, and such like, most of us were still shivering. And that was what led Omoniyi to the point of decision. You could see that he and cold were no friends at all. With his hands stuck inside his windcheater, he was shaking like a leaf. He opted out of the mountaineering party.
Fifty-four of us were in my group. At the foot of Mount Sinai, about 30 went forth, while the others stayed back in the bus, trying to keep warm in the very unfriendly weather. The foot of the mountain is a bustling market, where all sorts of souvenirs and memorabilia are sold. The Arabs who ran the shops handed out cups of steaming tea to everyone, climbers and non-climbers alike. Good souls.
As the expeditioners set out around 4a.m, each armed with a torchlight, I sincerely wished them luck in my heart. Since we were from a country that runs on good luck than on anything else, I prayed that God would keep them, and roll away whatever burden that was sending them scampering up the mountain. At the peak, they would praise God, worship, and present their supplications. May He answer them. Amen. For me, I'll rather give moral and spiritual support from the bus.
They were to be gone for about five hours, but two hours later, we got the first feedback. Dupe Olaoye-Osinkolu walked (or rather, wobbled) back to the bus, telling stories of woe and torture. It was the most hazardous terrain she had ever seen in her life. You had to climb over traitorous rocks and boulders in the first hour, till you got to where there were footholds, more like steps that had been hewn in the rock. There were 750 of them to aid the climb. Two hours after setting out, Olaoye-Osinkolu had not sighted the first step. At a point, her head began to spin, her eyes turned like that of someone doing a pirouette, and she felt like throwing up. Ahead of her, and also behind, she could see many people, both old and young in various stages of collapse. She then held a dialogue with herself. Discretion was the better part of valour. She aborted the trip.
The next feedback was about an hour later. A woman we called Iya Ijebu, who had joined the pilgrims from Epe area of Lagos, returned (or rather, crawled) to the bus. In her 50s, she was as valiant as any other mountaineer, but when you are that age, and have gone through the strain of childbearing many times, you are not as strong and agile as you would wish to be, The way Iya Ijebu told her story made me laugh so much that my ribs ached, and the cold promptly vanished. Yoruba people say oro buruku to'hun t'erin. There is often mirth in negative occurrences. And you know the Ijebu dialect is naturally like music to the ears, so as the woman told her story, we sympathized, but also could not help laughing uproariously.
According to Iya Ijebu, 'I saw the younger brother of death.' I did not need to ask her what the younger sibling of the grim reaper looked like. It was written all over her face. Two hours after the exercise had begun, Iya Ijebu said she was still meandering her way across the initial rocks that lead to the steps. While others had gone far ahead, Iya Ijebu was panting like a hog at the bottom. And at a stage, she said her eyes began to turn, her breathing changed, 'and the saliva in my mouth changed taste, and dried up.' She said she felt life gradually ebbing out of her.
When it seemed she had finally overreached herself, she saw a bottle of water that someone had dropped. She picked it, dabbed water on her eyes, and then drank a little bit. Like a shot in the arm, life flowed back into her. It was then she noticed that vomits dotted the path leading upwards. Most of those before her had thrown up in the process of climbing. She noticed that she was perched precariously between two rocks, and if her legs slipped, it was goodbye to Epe land forever.
Iya Ijebu is of the Cherubim and Seraphim Movement, and you know in that denomination, they often 'get seized by the spirit.' During such encounters, they go into gyrations and other paroxysms, and they prophesy and see visions. As she hung in that delicate space in the rocks, Iya Ijebu said she began to feel as it happens whenever the spirit was about to 'seize' her.
'Mo so wipe iku re e,' the woman told us in her dialect, which sent us into more side-splitting laughter. She said it was death staring her in the face. 'If I allow the spirit to seize me here, then it's sure death. I would just be smashed against the rocks, and it is bye to the world.' Iya Ijebu obviously does not have much education. But she has enough commonsense, which in some circumstances may be better than formal education. So she pleaded with the sprit not to 'seize' her, and as soon as she felt settled, she aborted the trip. You would think a stand-up comedian was regaling us, as the woman recounted her experiences. In the next hour, about half of those who had set out for the climb returned, not having accomplished their missions. They had different tales to recount. They had set out at 4a.m, and 9a.m was the expected time of return. But we did not see the last mountaineer till well past 1.00p.m. Israel Ogunlade was the only media person that made it to the top, and he sure had stories to tell. Men and women fainting and collapsing on the way, and some had to be evacuated back on camels operated by Bedouin Arabs, at highly inflated costs in dollars.
Bedouin Arabs. They are the natural inhabitants of Mount Sinai and environs. All along to the top of the mountain, they reportedly have camps, where they live. Some others live right on top of Mount Sinai, where there is also a church. Every people have their own criminal elements. So do the Bedouin. Along the path to the top of Sinai, some of them rob, harass and fleece the pilgrims of money and property. There is this story - whether true or apocryphal, I can't say. The Bedouin camel riders, a couple of years back, had been hired by two women for the climb to the top. It was not yet daylight, and somewhere along the line, the camel riders disappeared into the rocky crags with their passengers. They raped them brutally, and then robbed them. Shocking!
Fortunately, the Bedouins did not rob or violate anybody in our group. But those they evacuated with camels paid through their noses. However, two other incidences point to the fact that there are, indeed, sinners on Mount Sinai. As those who successfully climbed worshiped God and prayed, there was one Bedouin who felt they were taking too long a time. So he came, and started shouting: 'Go! Go!! Go!!!' Probably, that was the only English word he knew. It took Israel Ogunlade effort to pacify the man. How did he do it? He had a bar of chocolate in his pocket, and a can of soft drink. He handed them to the man, who then broke into a grin, exposing grimy teeth. He disappeared into his hut.
The second sin. A large number of the Bedouin Arabs were smoking Indian hemp, right on top of Mount Sinai. In God's house? Why didn't God strike them down? Or could it be that God does not live on the mountain after all? You answer. Three to four days after we had returned to Israel to continue with the pilgrimage, most of those who climbed Mount Sinai bore the tell-tale signs. They either limped, consumed analgesics like food, or suffered aching muscles and bones. It was a heavy price to pay for whatever miracle they had sought on the mountain. Was it worth it? You also answer.
In the case of Moses, it was God who called him to climb up to Mount Sinai. Does God still call us to do same today? I don't have the answer. Maybe you do.
The climbers had a good adventure, which they can recount to their friends, colleagues and family members for years to come. But did it have spiritual value? I can't say. Maybe you can. But the whole development reminds me of what the Syrians said of Israel in Bible times. Each time they went to war, Israel would whip Syria silly, so the servants of the King of Syria said to him: 'Israel's gods are gods of the hills, that is why they are stronger. Let us fight against them in the valley, and surely, we shall be stronger than they.' (I Kings Chapter 20).
And so, Syria attacked Israel through the valleys. And you know what? Israel clobbered them till they saw stars. At least 100,000 Syrian soldiers were slain in one day, and the rest, and their king, Benhadad, fled. The lesson? The God of mountain is also God of the valley. He answers prayers everywhere, both on Mount Sinai and off it.
Magun. Don't climb. I didn't climb Sinai. Was I wrong? Was I right? What do you think?
•Watch out for full travelogue in Saturday Sun next week.