The Exodus Puzzle
This article examines a very complex topic: the ancient route of Exodus of the Israelites from their departure in Egypt to their arrival in the Promised Land. The most puzzling aspects of Exodus are:
- The site of Red Sea Crossing where Pharaoh’s army drowned
- The location of Mt. Sinai where Yahweh spoke to Moses and gave the Law
- The details of the last 38 years of wilderness wandering
- The Pharaoh of Exodus who followed the Israelites but drowned in the Red Sea
If you inspect the Exodus route maps in Bible atlases you will be surprised how many versions are out there. Just about all the versions choose a Red Sea crossing in the border of Egypt, either through some lakes in the border area or through the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez. Mt. Sinai is marked in southern Sinai as Jebel Musa. This location is famous also for the St. Catherine’s monastery established in the 6th century AD.
The above maps have been drawn many years apart, yet both show the traditional route. The Holman map has added an alternate route which passes through Sin Bishar, another proposed Mt. Sinai site.
In the 1990s the Exodus route and the location of Mt. Sinai underwent a drastic revision due to the explorations of Ron Wyatt (1978, 1985), Bob Cornuke and Larry Williams (1988-89) who introduced the Jabal al Lawz site in NW Saudi Arabia (others had suggested this site before but had been forgotten). Several books and videos have been published based on their findings. The Mt. Sinai location in NW Saudi Arabia is a mountain peak called Jabal Al Lawz. The crossing site in Wyatt’s version is Nuweiba, halfway down the Gulf of Aqaba Sinai coast; in the Cornuke-Williams version it is near the tip of the Sinai peninsula, again crossing the Gulf of Aqaba. Both groups claim they have found land bridges at the crossing site all the way across. The Cornuke-Williams team had heard about Wyatt’s secret exploration of the Jabal al Lawz site in 1988, and they conducted their own secret exploration. The crossing site and ‘Mt. Sinai’ are shown in the maps below.
The more recently proposed locations for Mt. Sinai place it in the Negev (Israel) central and SE Sinai (Ref: ‘Biblical Mount Sinai’, Wikipedia). The map below shows a number of the proposed locations.
With such confusion over the locations, is it possible to decide which one to choose? Are there still other locations to consider?
This article will show you that the correct location for Mt. Sinai and the Exodus route can be determined from a careful study of the Exodus account in the Bible, mostly found in the Book of Numbers. The Mt. Sinai location and the Exodus route will surprise you because you don’t find it anywhere published except as indicated below. I owe great indebtedness to the Bible explorer and Hebrew scholar David Deal from Vista, California for introducing me to the research on the findings described in my article. The Exodus explorers who researched and explored the Red Sea Crossing and Mt. Sinai locations since the mid-1980s have not published their findings yet. David used his Hebrew knowledge and insight to identify the special features at the crossing site. David is renowned for his independent exploration of the Noah’s Ark site (‘Mesha’) as you can read on his web site, www.noahsark-naxuan.com. He has added on this site an article on the Exodus findings. The explorers carried out their successful search in 1987. This author interviewed one of the explorers in April 2007 to obtain some details of the trip and findings, especially on Mt. Sinai.
Examining the Red Sea Crossing Sites
As the maps show, we have two main choices: near the border of Egypt, (i) crossing some lakes or shallow end of the Gulf of Suez, (ii) crossing the Gulf of Aqaba on the east side of Sinai.
What evidence is given for each location?
1. Crossing at the Egyptian Border
The map below shows the variety of crossing patterns found in the literature.
The reason why lakes were chosen by many experts is perhaps because ‘Red Sea’ is Yam Suph in Hebrew, and was translated ‘sea of reeds(weeds)’ The Egyptian delta region had an abundant growth of papyrus plants and reeds The problem is that Yam Suph’ is used to describe also the Gulf of Aqaba (Num 21:4; 1 Ki. 9:26) and this gulf is the eastern branch of the Red Sea where no reeds grow. Hebrew scholar David Deal points out that Yam Suph should be translated properly as ‘sea of termination’. A ‘sea of termination’ is what we call a ‘bay’ or ‘gulf’. Both branches of the Red Sea are gulfs.
If the pharaoh’s army had drowned in any of the lakes, the water had to be deep enough. But since there were no connecting canals(the Suez canal was built in modern times), all the bodies and chariots would be left in the lake. It should be possible to verify the tragedy, and many of the chariots could be retrieved. But none has been found. Josephus says that there was an additional 50,000 horsemen and 200,000 infantry (Antiquities 2:324, LCL 4: 307) were destroyed when the Red Sea collapsed on them (Ex. 14:23-30; 15:4,5). This would be an awfully high number of bodies to be drowned in a lake, and think of the lake practically stuffed with floating bodies!
We may conclude that the Red Sea crossing did not happen through any lakes on the Egyptian border.
Others have chosen the uppermost end of the Gulf of Suez as the crossing site,.. They assumed that a strong northeast wind would lift the waters in this shallow region. Tidal action would cause the water level to rise and fall. However, such shallow water level created cannot drown an army when the water returns. In the map on the left are marked ancient roads out of Egypt through the border such as the Way of Philistines, each between the lakes. There were fortresses at the border with watch towers at each of the passes. When Israel crossed through the waters these fortresses did not matter. See map below (from Sinai Journeys, 1980)
One possible route marked diagonally through the Gulf of Suez merits our attention, and is based on an Arab tradition, just like some of the others are. This will be discussed later.
2. Crossing at the Gulf of Aqaba
Ron Wyatt considered the large beach at Nuweiba was the ideal place for the Israelites to gather on the shores of the Red Sea. A winding road that comes all across the Sinai ends there (Wadi Watir). Ron identified an underwater land bridge nearby all the way to the Saudi side in the Gulf of Aqaba. It was only a few hundred feet deep at the most, while the Gulf of Aqaba was much deeper, almost 4,000 ft. He and his team did some scuba diving at a short distance on the ‘land bridge’, and they have claimed to have recovered a few items of interest trapped in corals. The most spectacular of these were chariot wheels and some human bones. These chariots, he claimed, belonged to the 18th dynasty. Some seemed to have gold rims which implied these were royal chariots. Later on, others such as Lennart Moller (The Exodus Case, 2000) also found some items particularly humans bones. See below pictures provided by Ron Wyatt (from Ron Wyatt Newsletters and videos):
The crossing site itself was impressive : the vast sandy beach of Nuweiba, see picture: This author has been to the location with Ron Wyatt in December 1998. A stone pillar was standing near the beach, and Ron reported a similar one on the Saudi side(no longer seen), and claimed King Solomon had placed these to commemorate the Exodus event and Red Sea crossing.
Cornuke and Williams found a long land bridge at the straight of Tiran. They have not reported any human or chariot remains.
Are these crossing sites as genuine as they appear? Everything looked impressive. However, where is Baal Zephon and PiHa Horeth at the crossing site? There was a mountain ridge at the southern side reaching to the Sea. The northern side had accessible roads. One could argue the Pharaoh’s soldiers were there. How about water supply? There was one well in a walled compound, perhaps an army station (could be of much later origin). Is that enough for the sustenance of two million people? The land bridge is not as even or equally shallow as we were made to believe. It becomes deeper as we proceed to the Saudi coast. The nine mile stretch would be too lengthy for the entire Israeli group to cross in a reasonable time since the line would be so long, and each row would be moving not more than six miles per hour. How many can march in each row? Fifty? Hundred? Work out the math of the entire two to three million people, and how long the line would be and how long it would take to cross.. Similar comments could be made of the Strait of Tiran crossing.
As for the artifacts found, the chariots need not have come from the pharaoh’s army. It is possible that a barge carrying chariots across the Gulf capsized in the region. Armies took chariots across impassable areas by various means.
These crossing sites at the Gulf of Aqaba were too far away from Egyptian border. The Israelites reached the crossing site in about seven days, and there is no way the group could have traveled the nearly 170 miles to these sites considering how slow they would have to travel with women, children and animals. Typical moving speed would be six miles per day for such a large group. However, the first week the Israelites traveled without stopping except at Succoth for Sabbath, day and night, to escape from the Pharaoh, so they reached the Red Sea crossing site on the Egyptian border which was perhaps 50 to 60 miles away.
Where was the Red Sea Crossing Site?
I shall show that the proper crossing site was through the Gulf of Suez (choice #5 in the map above). I have already given the reasons for rejecting the crossing sites (1) thru (4). These sites were chosen perhaps from the mistaken interpretation of Yam Suph translated ‘Reed Sea’ because the lake area would be marshy places with reeds. But this translation is wrong; the correct translation should be ‘sea of termination’. In other words, Yam Suph would in modern usage would be a Gulf.
The Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez. But they crossed it at its narrowest part at the northern end, yet deep enough for an army to be drowned. The Red Sea in the wider area is too wide to cross. The crossing site (5) is only about four miles wide; it is 50-100 ft deep with a smooth, perhaps sloping sandy floor. When the waters were parted the Israelites walked on this smooth floor. When the Egyptian army tried to cross it their chariot wheels began to get trapped perhaps because the floor was not hard enough.
If the Israelites walked on the sea floor not as a narrow band but as much spread out with several dozen in a row, they could cross it in a few hours.
Special Landmarks at or near the Crossing Site
The Israelites who fled Egypt had left from Succoth and arrived at Etham at the edge of wilderness, Exod. 13:20, probably at the northern end of the bay of Suez. Exodus 14:2 says “Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you will camp before it by the sea”. Pi Hahiroth means the place of crossing. Migdol means tower or high place. An old German map drawn before the Suez canal was built (provided by David Deal) shows the topography of the places mentioned.
Baal Zephon (‘hidden Baal’)is a mountain range to the southwest. Israel was actually trapped from three sides: Baal Zephon, the Egyptian army behind them, and the sea in front of them. There may have been additional Egyptian military presence to the south. For a photograph of Baal Zephon and some interesting findings on its features, visit David Deal’s article dated Jan 11, 2007, ‘Red Sea Crossing and the Eagles Wings’.(www.noahsark-naxuan.com)
Israel’s One Week Trip from Goshen to the Crossing Site
Bible explorer David Deal has prepared the following map showing how the israel left Goshen and reached Pi Hahiroth (Pi Ha kHirioth). No one knows for sure exactly where Goshen was, but it was in the fertile delta region (shown in green), and it appears it was not too far from Egypt’s capital. The capital itself had to be close by in Moses’ time, and ancient records say it was called Hresh-On or just On(Heliopolis), mistakenly called by the translators as “Rameses”, We know that Memphis nearby was definitely another capital site(often flooded). The Israelites left Goshen on the night of 14th of Abib after taking Passover meal and they arrived Succoth on the third day where they camped. Moses went to gather Joseph’s bones.
Succoth is believed to be on the east bank of the Nile, not near the Egyptian border as many maps show. Its ancient name was Babylon as Josephus states. . At Succoth Israel rested for the Sabbath. From Succoth they traveled day and night under the pillar of fire by night and the sheltering cloud by day until they reached Etham on the sixth day. On the seventh day which is the end of the Passover period, the ‘High Sabbath’, they reached Pi Hahiroth and camped there. They ate the last meal of the unleavened bread there. That night God brought them out through the Sea.
You can see Israel’s departure route shown in the map is quite different from the maps you have seen, where they depart from the northern Delta region, and move south. Further study may be needed to ascertain the starting point.
Examining the Mt. Sinai Locations
The main sites to be examined are the traditional Jebel Musa site, the Midian site Jabal al Lawz; other sites such as those marked in the map above will be examined only briefly.
The Traditional Site: Jebel Musa
Emperor Constantine is credited with identifying this site through his visions. He sent his mother Helena to the holy sites he had identified in his visions such as Jebel Musa and the holy places in Jerusalem. The mountain is 7497 ft (2285 m) m) high. To the southwest of it is Jebel Katherina, 7852 (2393 m) ft high in remembrance of St Catherine, a martyr in Alexandria whose remains are believed to be interred in the vicinity. At the foot of Jebel Musa is the St. Catherine’s monastery built in AD 527 by the emperor Justinian (this has been rebuilt a few times). In one of the rooms in the monastery was discovered the famous and invaluable Codex Sinaiticus, the Greek manuscript of the Bible.
Why is this location not right?
- Mt. Sinai is said to be just three days distance from the Egyptian border according to Exod 3:12 (see also Exod. 3:18, 5:3 and 8:27) The distance scale on the basis of days was used in ancient times; a day’s distance was typically 20-25 miles by caravan. The Israelites could not have moved more than six miles per day, but this should not be used as a distance scale. In reality they wandered up and down and it took 45 days for them to reach Mt. Sinai after the crossing. The Jebel Musa location is some 150 miles away from the border, or six to seven days distance from the border.
- The Jebel Musa area is uninhabitable for people and animals. The Israelites were a large crowd of adult men plus their families and live stock. They stayed at Mt. Sinai for 11 months, and this location would not have sustained them for that long. There is some level ground and some ground water, though. The mountain itself is precipitous, and Moses had to climb this mountain to the presence of God.
- Although Sinai was not true Egyptian territory, there were Egyptian copper mines in south central Sinai, hence there would be military presence there.
- The Amaleks who fought with the Israelites near Mt. Sinai were actually in northern Sinai (more like the Negev)
- The places before and after Jebel Musa marked on the route map have no real significance; they are arbitrarily chosen locations.
- It is in the wrong direction. We know the Israelites later on reached Kadesh in the north. It was from Kadesh the spies were sent out. This Kadesh was in Paran.
Jabal al Lawz site in NW Saudi Arabia
This site was promoted by Ron Wyatt and the Cornuke-Williams teams. A number of Bible scholars seem to have embraced this choice due to many attractive features and its location near ancient Midian. Jabal al Lawz is even higher than Jebel Musa, 8465 ft(2580 m) high.
In favor of this site the following arguments are given:
- It is in the ancient land of Midian where Moses lived for 40 years; it was when he was feeding the sheep of Jethro, his father-in-law that he had the Burning Bush experience at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 3:1-2).
- The mountain top has a burnt appearance, reminiscent of God having descended on it in fire as the Bible says (Exod. 19:18). There is perhaps no other mountain with this unique feature in the whole area.
- The explorers found boundary stones, altars and petroglyphs of Egyptian calf in the vicinity.
- Jabal al Lawz is completely out of the Egyptian territory. Israelites had to cross Sinai to be completely out of Egypt.
- St. Paul says Mt. Sinai is in Arabia (Galatians 4:25). Sinai cannot be Arabia.
- Not too far from the mountain is a large split rock reminiscent of Moses striking the rock at Rephidim.
Objections to the Jabal al Lawz Site:
Several scholars have put together a set of arguments. Among these are Gordon Franz (www.ldolphin.org/franz-sinai.html), Brad C. Sparks, ‘Problems with Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia’ (www.ldolphin.org/sinai), David Deal mentioned above (see his web site, www.noahsark-naxuan.com, check for new items), and Menashe Har El (in his book, Sinai Journeys, 1980), Their arguments are summarized below.
- Sinai was not really part of Egypt: The Bible says that when Israelites left Succoth they were ‘out of Egypt’ (Ex. 13:18-20). Egypt had some mining activity in the southwestern part of Sinai; it also protected the ‘Way of Philistines’ (or ;’Way of Horus’) in the north for military advantage. Most of Sinai was free of Egyptian presence. Supporting evidence can be found from many leading Egyptologists. Josephus also states Mt. Sinai was in between Egypt and Midian.
- Sinai is Not in the Land of Midian: Exodus 3:1 is read mistakenly. Moses had fled to Midian, and wad tending Jethro’s sheep, but he was in Horeb at the time of the Burning Bush experience. In Ex;18:27, Jethro visited Moses at Mt. Sinai and departed to his own country. It was not unusual for Bedouins to move far away from home to pitch tents. Moses happened to travel as far as Horeb to tend Jethro’s sheep.
- Another verse that places Mt. Sinai outside the Land of Midian is found in Numbers 10. In the context, the Children of Israel were getting ready to depart from Mt. Sinai and Moses invited his brother-in-law, Hobab, to join them in going to the Promised Land (Num. 10:29). Hobab responds, “I will not go, but I will depart [from Mt. Sinai] to my own land [Midian] and to my kinsmen” (Num. 10:30).
- We need to remember also that when Moses was returning to Egypt, Aaron came to meet him at Horeb which had to be an in-between place in Sinai.
- Arabia is not Saudi Arabia in the Bible. Moses never used the word Arabia. Paul did (Gal. 4:25 when he speaks of Mt. Sinai and Hagar). In ancient times, Arabia extended from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Egypt.
- The ‘burnt’ rock of the mountain: Samples brought by Cornuke and Willams have not been analyzed, or the results on it are not known
- The petroglyphs showing bovine art are most likely of other origin. The stones on which these are drawn are large, and appear to have been piled up by skilled laborers. The petroglyphs ascribed to the Israelites who drew Egyptian Apis bull etc. are not true either. A Saudi archaeologist ascribes these to the Neolithic period much earlier; it is possible Saudi Arabia had more rain fall and cattle may have grazed the land.
- The so-called Caves of Moses’ south of al-Bad, Jethro’s city, are really Nabatean tombs of the 1st century AD.
- The ‘altar’ of Moses and the 12 stone pillars at the foot of the mountain are also not related to Exodus and the Mt. Sinai camp. They are large stone arrangements for ceremonial purposes installed earlier than the time of Moses.
- The ‘Split Rock of Horeb’ The photograph of the split rock was taken at some distance from the mountain, and Wyatt assumed this was at Rephidim. However, when the people cried for water, Yahweh commanded to strike the rock at Horeb, not Rephidim. No one knows how this large rock cracked and when this area had torrential rain and flooding.
- The ‘gold of Exodus’ claimed by Fasold , Blum and Williams has nothing to do with the golden calf ground down and poured in to the streams. The Midian area had gold mines.
- The Saudi fencing around the mountain has nothing to do with it being holy;it was for mere protection of Saudi property which began to attract so much attention.What about the other locations proposed? The map given previously is shown again below.
Wikipedia mentions several locations except Jebel Yelleq and Mt. Yeroham. .Sin Bishar is mentioned in Gordon Franz’s article mentioned above, citing Prof. Menashe Har-El’s book ‘Sinai Journey: The Route of the Exodus’ (1980). Har Karkom is Prof. Emmanuel Anati’s favorite (web article). At this site he has seen shrines, 12 stone pillars, a rock-shelter and so on. Dr. Aardsma, according to his article in Bible Chronologist (web article) thinks Mt. Yeroham in upper Negev is a better choice. This place had pottery shard and adequate water supply(there is even a large water reservoir at the base). Furthermore, the area around is about 3,000 acres. The minimum area required for the large crowd of Israelites is estimated at 1377 acres. Hashem el-Tariff is James Cameron’s choice (as elaborated in his History Channel special, The Exodus Decoded) and this location is claimed to have a cleft that overlooks a natural amphitheater, an ancient spring, and a large plateau below. Moses could have easily arrived at this location from Midian, it is stated. The Wikipedia article mentions other locations too such as Mt Helal, Mt. Serbal in Sinai; places in Saudi Arabia suggested include Jabal al Lawz, al-Manifa, Hala’l Bedr and Baggir; places in Jordan: Nabatea, al-Madhabah. I shall not attempt a detailed examination of these sites and their merits. However, I can show you that these sites do not meet some critical criteria regarding the true Mt. Sinai, except, perhaps, Sin Bishar. Jebel Yelleq, not given much publicity, will receive special attention below.
Basic Criteria for the True Location of Mt. Sinai/Horeb
Interestingly enough, much of the criteria used in the search for Mt. Sinai may not be valid. In our minds we visualize a very tall mountain peak, preferably with a burnt look, with easy-to-identify rock cleft, boundary stones, altars and stone pillars. The true Mt. Sinai had many of these features but after millennia can we expect these features to be preserved? There is nowhere the hint of a very tall mountain. Remember, Moses had to climb up and down this mountain to meet Yahweh. While Jebel Musa and Jabal al Lawz are impressive mountains, they do not meet the critical requirements. The presence of water supply, plenty of land, pottery shards etc., is common to many locations. The stone pillars, altars and so on could be from settlements at later dates.
The basic criteria given below must be satisfied for any location chosen.
1. The Distance Test
Mt. Sinai was three days journey distance from the borders of Egypt. This is somewhat obvious from Exodus 3:18, “…let us go three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God” Please note that the Hebrew text uses ‘Yahweh’ in place of LORD, and ‘Eloyhym’ in place of God. The Hebrew names are to be preferred when referring to the Almighty. Until Israel crossed the Red Sea there was no mention of any wilderness. Once they crossed they came to the wilderness of Shur, then to the wilderness of Sinai where Yahweh’s holy mountain was. ‘Three days journey’ is a distance scale, known to the ancients, and typically it was the distance a caravan would move. This would be around sixty to seventy miles, assuming twenty to twenty-five miles per day. The Israelites themselves with women. children and livestock could not have moved at this rate; it would be more like six miles per day, and they would not be traveling every day. This is why they took some fifty days to reach Mt. Sinai after they had started from Egypt.
Another distance marker is the distance from Horeb(Mt.Sinai) via. Mt. Seir to Kadesh Barnea (their last lengthy stop before moving to Moab and beyond) – see Deut. 1:2. However it has not been easy to understand this description. There will be some discussion on this later.
One mountain that seems to meet the distance requirement is Jebel Yelleq the tallest mountain in NW Sinai, though it is much shorter than Jebel Musa (it is only 3,527 ft high). It is just over sixty miles from the Egyptian border. Sin Bishar mountain would also satisfy the distance test.
2. The Direction Test
The Israelites were forbidden to travel the Way of the Philistines which would have bee the direct route to Canaan. This is one reason why they were turned to a southerly direction to the Red Sea crossing. Once they crossed, they moved up and down for a while, but finally they moved towards Kadesh. Mt. Sinai is in between. So the direction is somewhat NE. Jebel Yelleq is in the direction of Kadesh. Sin Bishar and Jebel Musa, on the other hand, are in a southerly direction. Jebel Musa is much farther away than the ‘three day’ distance from the border.
When Moses was returning from Midian after 40 years, Aaron came to meet him halfway in Horeb by Yawheh’s command (Exod. 4:27). The Midian where Moses had lived was most likely the region around Ezion Geber, and not east of the Gulf of Aqaba in present day Saudi Arabia where the major part of Midian had been. So it was natural for Moses to take his sheep deep in Sinai which had a Midian presence. Aaron would have crossed the Egyptian border towards Midian to meet Moses at Mt. Sinai which should be on a direct path.
3. Amalek Test
It was while Israel was in Rephidim (close to Mt. Sinai) the Amaleks attacked them. Where did they come from? From south-western Negev. This shows Mt. Sinai could not have been in southern Sinai.
The Yelleq Mountains – the Proposed Mt. Sinai
Jebel Yelleq is part of a series of mountain peaks in NW Sinai in close proximity, whose heights range from ca. 3500 ft to 2300 ft. While these peaks have individual names, we may collectively call it the Yelleq mountain range. See drawing below based on aerial photo.
As mentioned above, in 1987 two American explorers searched the mountains to locate Mt. Sinai which they believed was in the region. Their identification is marked in the map as a rectangle. However these explorers have not announced publicly their findings, and no photographs have been published, though this author has seen a few of them. Hopefully these will be released in the near future. Jebel Yelleq, the tallest peak in the range, is 3527 ft (1075 m) high. Mt. Sinai is not named, and is only just over 2300 ft (700 m) high (no precise estimate available). However, unlike the other peaks, it stands alone majestically giving the impression of the most conspicuous of all the Yelleq mountains. The real Mt. Sinai was supposed to be an isolated mountain with prohibition not to approach it from any side. Other would-be candidates fail this test.
A close-up view of Mt. Sinai from the air is shown below:
The mountain, seen as a trapezoid with a long ‘tail’ appears inverted due to an optical inversion; it should actually be a raised area. It is a few hundred feet wide. The sides slope down steeply, so it is not possible to climb up to the top from the ground. The mountain resembles Masada near the Dead Sea in appearance. The ‘tail’ part slopes down gently for some distance so it should be possible to walk that way to the top. However, there is a big vertical crack before the ‘tail’ meets the main top part. No one knows how long this crack has been there, but if this is Yahweh’s holy mountain, He has made it difficult to trespass ‘holy ground’. The ground level is a few hundred feet below where the elevation is about 1900 ft. Further east the ground gets lower and lower, and only some ten miles away it reaches 900 ft elevation, and one can see dried up river beds. The eastern side of Mt. Sinai was fertile ground and pasture land during biblical times.
The whole Yelleq region is under military surveillance, so it is virtually impossible for any tourist to visit the mountains. Even passing by the area is prohibited.
Where Was Rephidim?
Before the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai, also called (k)Horeb, they camped at Rephidim, but there was no water. So Moses was commanded to go to Horeb and strike the rock there. When he did, water gushed out. Obviously Rephidim was close enough, yet it did not have natural water supply. Its precise location is not known, though a recent aeronautical WAC chart marks it several miles NW of Jebel Yelleq (no real basis for this choice), and is a military airport now.
‘Rephidim’ means ‘balustrade’ , and using this clue David Deal searched the region west of the Yelleq mountains (using Google Earth), and located a structure resembling a balustrade, somewhat S shaped, about 50 ft high and possibly half a mile span not too far from the edge of the Yelleq mountains, and yet at low elevation. The aerial picture is shown below with some explanatory titles.
The location of Rephidim relative to Jebel Yelleq and Mt. Sinaia are shown below. It appears the name (k)Horeb was applied to the whole mountain range, so it is easy to understand that Moses could just walk to the edge of the mountain range and strike the rock there to produce water. There is no need to assume Moses had to go to Mt. Sinai for this purpose.
From Rephidim the Children of Israel moved near Mt. Sinai, and they must have moved south and then east to avoid the mountains. It may be pointed out that from the foot of Mt. Sinai the ground slopes down, but to reach plain camping ground they had to be about two miles away to the east.
Elijah and Paul at Mt. Sinai?
Elijah ran away from queen Jezebel and reached Horeb in 40 days. The Yelleq location would be almost directly in his path. It is possible St. Paul also may have visited here and stayed to meditate and learn from God as Gal. 1:17 suggests. The ‘Arabia’ in biblical times extended from Egypt to Persian Gulf. Gal. 4:25 suggests Mt. Sinai was in Arabia, though some commentators interpret this passage differently.
From the Crossing Site to Kadesh in Paran
We have now come to the next two stages in Exodus: the travel from the crossing site to Mt. Sinai and then to Kadesh in Paran. Numbers 33:8-18 gives a list of camps which include well known names such as Rephidim and Horeb(Mt. Sinai) and Paran. Rithmah of verse 18 is considered Kadesh (‘holy’) after the tabernacle arrived there (Ungers Bible Dictionary). That this Kadesh is in Paran is evident from Num, 13:26. The spies had been sent out from Kadesh and they returned there with the report. Almost two years had passed since their start from Goshen in Egypt.
Rebellion was there from the start, and the people grumbled about food and water constantly. In response God provided them manna for forty years, drinking water from rocks and quail for meat. Due to their negative reaction to the spies’ report, God turned them south and then east for 38 years of wandering.
As mentioned before the Israelites after crossing the Suph Sea had to pass through the wilderness of Shur and the wilderness of Sinai. Before reaching Mt. Sinai they camped at Rephidim, and when the people cried for water Moses struck the rock at Horeb and produced water. It was while at Rephidim the Amaleks came and attacked Israel, but were defeated.
Israel had arrived at Mt. Sinai after 49 days of wandering. On the 52nd day Yahweh met with Israel, on Pentecost Day (First Fruits) Of course, these special days were instituted at Mt. Sinai, but we know that Passover and Sabbath were observed throughout Exodus. We should remember that it was at Mt. Sinai that Yahweh manifested Himself to Israel, gave the Ten Commandments and the plans for the Tabernacle. The rebellion against Yahweh by the worship of the golden calf was a grave sin committed at this holy site. During the nearly one year stay there the Tabernacle was built and used for worship. The Tabernacle had an outside court, and inside were the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place(where the Ark of the Covenant was). Every part of the Tabernacle had some representation to Christ and his sacrifice (read more of it in other web articles on this site).
The camping place at Kadesh (Kadesh Barnea) is believed to be the springs of Ain el-Quaderait(a little SE of it is a smaller spring Ain Qedeis, perhaps the Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin). Kadesh Barnea is mentioned several times in the Old Testament where well known biblical people passed through on their way from Canaan to Egypt.
The Last 38 Years of Wilderness Wandering
The Exodus account spends only a limited time to cover the long 38 year period of wilderness wandering. This was a period of judgment, and we do not read of any blessings. All the leaders except Moses died before reaching the final departure point of Pisgah First we read of Miriam, Moses’ sister, dying while in Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. However there is a 37 year gap between the Kadesh of the spies incident and this Kadesh. Moses disobeyed God at this Kadesh (Numb. 20:8-12).After that Israel moved to Mt. Hor where Aaron died. Moses made an attempt to pass through Edom but was refused, so he had to lead the people around Edom.
There are two instances of Israel visiting Mt. Hor. The first time it was during their wanderings after the first Kadesh (Kadesh Barea). Then they went to Ezion Geber on the Red Sea (Num. 33:35). From there they moved to the wilderness of Zin and to Kadesh. The second Kadesh was on the edge of Edom according to Num. 20:16. Could this be another Kadesh east of the first Kadesh, or was it the same? The wilderness of Paran and the wilderness of Zin were adjacent. The King’s Highway passed through Edom north-south, and using the Highway Israel could easily go towards Moab But the king of Edom refused passage. So from there they went to Mt. Hor again where Aaron died at the age of 123, the 40th year of Exodus. It was while at Mt. Hor the Canaanite king of Arad attacked Israel, but was defeated in Hormah. We read then that Israel kept moving south, then around Edom to north, reaching the border of Moab.
Some scholars consider the Kadesh of Zin to be the same as Kadesh Barnea in Deut. 1:2) which was 11 days journey from Mt. Sinai via Mt. Seir. Based on this statement they place this Kadesh east of Edom, somewhere near Petra. But most scholars reject this proposal. The Seir in Deut. 1:2 could stand or the Amelek country which was in the region of Mt. Sinai (the Amaleks moved from the Mt. Seir region, but still were identified with Seir). There is clear indication that the traditional Kadesh Barnea was one of the markers in the southern edge of Israel. The eleven days journey could be a time period rather than distance scale.
By combining the camping sites in Numbers 20 and 33 we can get a ‘full’ list (which may not be full). Such a list is shown below.
The Exodus route map shown is somewhat speculative for the last 38 years of wandering, and for the final path.
One of the saddest event in Exodus was that Moses the leader could not enter the Promised Land because he had sinned at Kadesh Barnea by disobeying God. All the adults that had started out from Egypt perished in the wilderness. Moses, however, was allowed to look at Canaan from Pisgah mountains. Moses died in the fifth month of the 40th year of Exodus after bringing his people to the next crossing point. It was left to Joshua to lead the people to the Promised Land after crossing the Jordan.
Other Exodus Issues
The Question of Numbers
Exod. 12:37 states that about 600,000 men above the age 20 set out from Succoth (along with women, children and the livestock). A conservative estimate would give 2-3 million people in the Exodus group. The logistics of moving such a large group through unfriendly terrain is mind boggling. Someone has estimated that based on a row that consisted of 50 people separated from the next row by proper distance, the line of the whole group would stretch 20 miles or more. Imagine crossing the Red Sea, moving through the wilderness and so on. Such a large crowd is unimaginable. Even when they camped at various places the camping site had to be a few square miles and what about communication? We know that Moses had appointed tribal leaders and sub leaders even to manage people in groups of fifty. Messages had to be sent by message carriers. There had to be plenty of water and food. Sanitation would be a concern too. With their sheep and goats the Israelites had the ability to sustain themselves, even carry out some trade. God provide manna and the quail so they did not have to labor for their meals. They had tents to stay in. We are told their sandals stayed on without wear. They could manage with the pots and pans they had brought from Egypt. There were craftsmen who could fashion ornaments and metallic tools, even swords (they had a lot of Egyptian swords).
Some scholars who have been overwhelmed by the numbers think the six figure number cannot be correct. They think the Hebrew translation of the word ‘thousand’, ‘lp’ (eleph) could also mean ‘family’, ‘unit’ etc. and nobody knows how many in each unit.
How long were Israel in Egypt? There are two or three views: Exod. 12:40 says 430 years. The ancient Greek OT (Septuagint) says this was the period spent in Canaan and Egypt, so it would seem Israel spent only 215 years in Egypt (perhaps 210 years, see later). We are told the Israelites multiplied rapidly in Egypt. Assuming that the 68 children and grand children of Jacob multiplied to this number in 190 years (after subtracting 20 years from the total 210 years – see later) A computer calculation (cited by Ted Stewart, see later) on population growth rates has given the following figures:
Ancient Israel 4.9%
Unites States 0.9%
Saudi Arabia 4.0%
So there is nothing extraordinary about the population growth of the Israelites in Egypt. There is no need to question the large numbers in the Exodus account. When Israelites conquered Canaan they faced enemy troops of very large numbers. Yet, the last word on the number question is not yet given.
Who Was the Pharaoh of Exodus?
It is not an easy task to answer this question. There are certain clues to identifying the Egyptian dynasty or dynasties associated with Exodus.
The Egyptian dynasty at the time of Exodus must match with the Exodus date and also with a northern location for its capital.
The last pharaoh loses his life in the Red Sea
The last pharaoh has no first-born male heir
We should expect a collapse of the dynasty soon after due to sudden loss of military strength.
The pharaoh before Exodus must have ruled at least 40 years (this is because Moses had to stay away for at least 40 years in Midian).
It is also desirable to identify the dynasty or dynasties that ruled when Joseph came down to Egypt and ruled.
The Date of Exodus
The most direct means of arriving at the Exodus date is using the clue in 1 Kings 6:1: Solomon started construction of the Temple in the 480th year after Exodus, but it was his fourth year of reign Bible scholars have determined that Solomon’s fourth year to be 966 BC. Adding 480 to it we get 1446 BC as the date of Exodus (the Greek Septuagint text give a slightly different date).
Now we go to Egyptian chronology to find out which Pharaoh ruled in 1446 BC. Here we get a surprise. The dynasty that matches with this date is the 18th which ruled from Thebes, some 450 miles south from the Nile delta.
The Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty according to accepted chronology are:
Ahmose 1550-1525 BC
Amenophis I 1525-1504
Thutmosis I 1504-1492
Thutmosis II 1492-1479
Thutmosis III 1479-1425
Amenophis II 1427-1401
Thutmosis IV 1401-1391
Amenophis III 1391-1353
Amenophis IV 1353-1335
(Ref. Atlas of Ancient Egypt – by John Baines and Jaromir Malik, 1980)
The Pharaoh that matches the 1446 time frame is Thutmosis III the ‘Napoleon’ of ancient Egypt. However, his reign did not end in 1446 BC, and he did not die catastrophically. He ruled 450 mile south of Goshen. His successor did not die in a plague. His predecessor ruled only for seven years.
The movie ‘Ten Commandments’ portray Rameses II as the Exodus Pharaoh. This also is unacceptable because he ruled in the 19th dynasty (1290-1214 BC).
The problem we are facing is that Egyptian chronology does not synchronize with biblical chronology. Some scholars have pointed out that several of the dynasties, esp. between the 12th and the 18th were not true dynasties. They were unstable and consisted of short lived kingdoms that existed in parallel, hence the time scale has been artificially enlarged. Before the 18th dynasty the stable dynasty going back in history is the 12th. Ted Stewart, author of ‘The Exodus Mystery Solved’ (Biblemart.com, 1999) suggested that the Pharaohs of this dynasty fit well with those during Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. The last male Pharaoh ruled only for nine years and had no male heir. His queen ruled for a short while but the dynasty collapsed due to attack from invaders. The Pharaoh before the last one ruled more than 40 years. See the 12th dynasty Pharaohs list below. Stewart moved down the dynasty by over 300 years so that the last Pharaoh, Amenemhet IV’s last year would coincide with the year of Exodus, 1446 BC. The 12th dynasty had a time span of only 232 years from the time Joseph entered Egypt to the death of last male Pharaoh But if we count the years after Jacob entered Egypt it would be only 210 years. Secular chronology assigns dates for the pharaohs of this dynasty which are earlier by over 300 years.
Given below are Stewart’s dates for the pharaohs of the 12th dynasty and for prominent happenings to Israel.
After Amenemhet IV’s death in the Red Sea his queen/sister Nefrusobek attempted to rule for six years but the dynasty collapsed. Stewart found justification in the chronology shift by checking with carbon-14 dates.
Another recent book, ‘Unwrapping the Pharaohs’ (by John Ashton and David Down, Master Books, October 2006) gives dates somewhat shifted from Stewart’s but agrees with the major time shift as Stewart has done. It may be pointed out that different versions of the 12th dynasty chronologies assign a total time varying from 215 to 245 years.
Some other scholars have chosen a 400 year slavery in Egypt. David Deal whom I have referred to supplied me with a chronology chart, according to which Israel’s sojourn in Egypt spanned dynasties III to VI. Traditional chronology places these dynasties from 2649 BC to 2152 BC, but these scholars think that Egyptian chronology is grossly exaggerated, and they attempted to synchronize Egyptian chronology with biblical chronology. However, they arrived at a very different time adjustment, though their Exodus date came close to the 1446 BC date.(actually, 1439 BC). To them, Joseph’s viziership in Egypt must have taken place during the reign of Djoser (Pepy I), and Joseph is equated with the famous vizier/architect/physician Imhotep. Moses’s birth take place 303 years after Jacob’s death. Exodus took place after the reign of the 6th dynasty Pharaoh Pepy II who ruled for 94 years. I cannot pin point the 400 year period of servitude from this scheme. Unlike Stewart’s time adjustment of 300 plus years, this chronology would demand chopping off some 700 years from Egyptian chronology. One problem I see is that Josephus admits the pyramids (built mainly in the 4th dynasty) were already there for a thousand years when the Israelites lived in Egypt. There is no indication that the Israelites were involved in pyramid building.
It must be pointed out that a stone inscription in Greek found in the island of Elephantine in southern Egypt mentioned a seven year famine during the reign of Djoser, but this monument dates to the Ptolemy period (2nd cent. BC), so its authenticity is suspect. If we examine the achievements of Sesostris I of the12th dynasty, we find evidence of the years of plenty and famine, efforts to store the grains and so on. Joseph’s role as vizier during his reign s easily understood. Sesostris I had another vizier, Mentuhotep, after Joseph who was equally able, and some have mistaken him for Joseph. Mentuhotep was an Egyptian, unlike Joseph. More information is given in Stewart’s book.
Stewart considers the Septuagint rendering of Exod. 12:40 to include both the sojourn in Canaan and Egypt to total 430 years is supported by Paul’s statement in Gal. 3:16-17, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed … The law, introduced 430 years later.” Josephus quotes Exod. 12:40 breaking the 430 years into two periods of 215 years each (critics accuse this is an alteration).
Gen.15:13 seemed to predict Israel would be in Egypt for 400 years. But actually Abraham’s descendants are mentioned with no reference to Egypt. The 400 years started with the birth of Isaac.
You can see these time issues are complex and scholars continue to disagree with each other.
The Capital of Egypt
The Egyptian capital changed its location during the dynastic periods. During early dynastic period and the Old Kingdom it was Memphis which is located a little south of Cairo, with only limited remains of monuments. During the Middle Kingdom the capital was Thebes in the south for the 11th dynasty, and El-Lisht(Fayum) during the 12th dynasty. The capital moved to the Delta region during the reign of the Hyskos (16th dynasty?). The capital moved to the south to Thebes during the 18th dynasty, and was moved to north to Avaris in the Delta during the 19th and 20th dynasties. During the 21st and 22nd dynasties the capital was in Tanis in the Delta. The important centers of ancient Egypt are shown below in the map(Ref. www.aldokkan.com)
If the 12th dynasty is the one related to Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, its capital should be in the north. It should be close to where the Israelites had lived. Based on the biblical reference to Rameses and Succoth many scholars have placed the capital at Tanis, but if the locations of Rameses and Succoth are near the Cairo area, the capital could have been at On(Heliopolis). Fayum could still be part of the capital where administrative offices were present. It was mentioned earlier that Succoth was near the city of Babylon, and was near the area where the Nile delta branched off.
© T. V. Oommen, Revised and Updated May 2007