Crossing the Red Sea
By Vern Crisler
Note: the following selections are from essays written for the New Courville website. Their importance is that they present evidence that the Middle Bronze I people were on both sides of the Red Sea (Gulf of Suez), thus providing another match with the biblical narrative of the Exodus.
From “Egyptian Chronology and the Liberation of the Hebrews”
The journey of the Israelites from Egypt started at the city of Raamses (Tanis) and a month later had reached the Wilderness of Sin (Ex. 12:37-15:27; Num. 33:3-9). The following is a list of the stations along the way, with possible archaeological sites:
3. Etham (turned back here)
4. Pi Hahiroth (Pi-Hathor; camp at Migdol)
5. Red Sea (crossing at Gulf of Suez)
6. Desert of Shur (also called Wilderness of Etham)
7. Marah (3 days from Red Sea crossing)
8. Elim (12 wells, 70 palm trees; Abu Awgeila?)
9. Red Sea (Num. 33:10; Gulf of al-‘Aqaba?; after about 4 weeks of travel)
10. Wilderness of Sin (a month after leaving Egypt; cf., Num. 33:3, Ex: 16:1)
The site locations for these stations depends on where one locates Mt. Sinai. Gordon Wenham says, “Opinions differ as to the route followed after the Red Sea crossing. It all depends where Sinai is to be located.” (Numbers: An Introduction & Commentary, 1981, p. 224.) Since conventional chronologists by and large accept the southern portion of the peninsula between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba as the location of Mt. Sinai, site identifications are sought from within this region. Thus Marah is identified with Ain Hawarah, Elim with Wadi Gharandel, the Red Sea camp with the plain of el-Marhah or Wadi Tayiba, and Mt. Sinai is identified with Jebel Musa (“mountain of Moses”). (Cf., Wenham, pp. 224; 225.)
Not all scholars agree, however, that Jebel Musa is Mt. Sinai. Some prefer Jebel Sin Bisher, which is about 30 miles from the Suez (too short of a distance it seems). Others think Marah is Bir el-Murr, or that Elim is Ayun Musa. (Ibid., p. 226.) Obviously, if Mt. Sinai is to be located in a more northern area, the traditional site identifications will have to be changed. If we are right in seeing Mt. Sinai in a more northern location, then the second mention of the Red Sea does not have to refer back to the Gulf of Suez, but would be referring to the Gulf of Aqaba. The fact that it took almost a month for the Israelites to arrive at the Wilderness of Sin (near Aqaba in our view) indicates a greater distance that any proposed Suez location would allow. The following stations should also be seen as on the route north of the Gulf of Aqaba:
11. Dophkah (Num. 33:12)
12. Alush (Num. 33:13)
13. Rephidim (Ex. 17:1; Num. 33:14)
The narrative is somewhat sketchy after the arrival at Rephidim. This is because the report of the Amalekite attack is not in chronological order. Once the Israelites arrived at Rephidim, Moses and some elders go to Horeb (or Mt. Sinai; Ex. 17:5, 6). This means most of the people stayed at Rephidim, while the elders brought the water back from Horeb. While Moses and the elders were at Mt. Sinai, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, came to meet him at the “mountain of God” (Ex. 18:5). From this point, Jethro returns with Moses and the elders to Rephidim, and disturbed by the judicial burdens Moses has placed upon himself, Jethro advises Moses to delegate his judicial authority (Ex. 18). Sometime after this, the Amalekites attack. As we’ve mentioned, the report of the attack is in Ex. 17:8ff. while Jethro’s visit is recorded in the next chapter, so it seems the placement of the report of the war against the Amalekites does not imply chronological order. There is really no time between the visit of Moses to Mt. Sinai and Jethro’s judicial advice for the Amalekite attack to have taken place. It seems more probable that it happened some days after Jethro’s arrival in the camp. The attack might even have happened after Jethro’s departure (Ex. 18:27). In any case, once the Amalekites were defeated, the Israelites were ready to depart Rephidim and go to the mountain of God, and there they set up camp before the mountain. (Ex. 19:2.) Speaking of the Exodus stations, Anati says:
“Having explored the Negev and the Sinai for forty years, the present writer does not share the idea of those that, studying the itinerary at a desk, consider that the biblical stations are not identifiable or that they are canonic litanies without geographical significance. On the contrary, we consider that the biblical itinerary of exodus, from the land of Goshen to Mount Sinai, and from there to Kadesh-Barnea, and from there to Jericho, can be reconstructed. The text, when it was compiled, was aimed at a public who knew the territory and knew where Elim, or Alush, or Refidim, were located, as well as the Shur desert, the deserts of Sin, Zin and Paran, and the territory of the Edomites, Midianites, Amalekites, Horites and Amorites.” (“Har Karkom and Mount Sinai: Exegesis and Topography,” Har Karkom website.)
In addition, Anati says, “There is a good trail between Har Karkom and Ain Kudeirat [Kadesh-barnea], by the way of Jebel Arif el-Naqa [Mt. Seir]. Along this way there are 10 groups of wells at a distance that varies from 7 to 15 km from one to another. If Har Karkom is Mount Sinai, for a group that walks on foot, 11 days are indeed needed from Horeb, by the way of Mount Seir, to reach Kadesh Barnea….” (Ibid.) Anati’s estimates are indirectly supported by Bible critic Walter Mattfeld, who points out, based on the researches of scholars, that the normal distance traveled by herders in a day is not much more than 10 miles a day, even as low as 6 days if the herds are large. (Citing., B. J. Beitzel, The Moody Bible Atlas of Bible Lands, 1988, p. 91; and M. Har-El, The Sinai Journeys, The Route of the Exodus, 1983, p. 167; cf., W.R.W Mattfeld, “The Route of the Exodus,” Bible Origins website.) Thus, the relation of Har Karkom to Kadesh-barnea tracks with the average speed of large herds moving through the desert.
If Mt. Sinai is in a northern location, then the stations of Marah and Elim can be identified with El Murra and Abu Awgeila, while Rephidim can be located at Beer Karkom (thus, Anati). It is possible that the Israelites traveled along what today is known as the Darb esh-Shawi, which goes from the Gulf of Suez to the Gulf of Aqaba, without winding down to the southern portion of the peninsula and the Jebal Musa range. Another possibility would be the Darb el-Hajj (or Hagg), though it would really depend upon the MB1 pottery trail (on our theory).
According to Beno Rothenberg, MB1 pottery (which he calls Early Bronze Age IV) has been found near the Suez and also near the Dar el Hajj road. He believes (following Glueck and Albright) that the MB1 people were Amorites who swept down from the north:
“The first traces of this historically significant nomadic invasion of the Sinai region were discovered by the author in 1956 in the area of Ruweiset el Akheider, east of the Mittla Pass, at the crossing of the Suez-Elat and the Bir Hasana-El ‘Arish roads, and subsequently also along the desert road from Suez to El Qusaima and, with a relatively high density, in the oasis region of El Qusaima—‘Ain el Gedeirat—‘Ain Qadeis, including Gebel Halal.” (Beno Rothenberg & Helfied Weyer, Sinai, 1979, p. 120.)
There are a couple of things to note: (a) Ruweiset el Akheider is located slightly north of the Parker Memorial, east of Mittla Pass, which is east of the Gulf of Suez. It is located at the crossroads of the Seuz-Elat road (which goes east and west, i.e., the Darb el-Hajj, the Pilgrim’s Way for Muslims going to Mecca), and the Bir Hasana-El ‘Arish road (which goes from north to southwest). (b) El Qusaima and ‘Ain el Gedeirat, etc. are in the region of Kadesh-barnea. Rothenberg continues:
“The area of distribution of the occupation wave of Early Bronze Age IV comprises the border region of the Negev all the way down to the Red Sea and thence towards the west into the deserts of the Tih plateau, past Ruweiset el Akheider in the direction of Egypt and then again on the western side of Sinai through the great Wadi Sudr to the Gulf of Suez, as well as the wadi systems of the Wadi Gharandal and the Wadi el Shallala. Considerable remains of that period were, astonishingly, found also on the Mittla and Giddi Passes, as far as the banks of the Suez Canal between Port Taufiq [at the eastern tip of the Gulf of Suez] and the Small Bitter Lake [north of the Gulf]—and across the Suez Canal to Gebel Atika in Lower Egypt.. The majority of these sites, dated by pottery as belonging to the Early Bronze Age IV, were no more than rather simple enclosures, round huts or corrals for herds of sheep or goats.” (Sinai, p. 121.)
For Rothenberg, in terms of his Amorite theory, “The settlement of Sinai during the Early Bronze IV had the character of a purely temporary occupation of the land by nomadic groups, to whom Sinai was purely a transit country on their way to Egypt [sic].” (Idem.) Obviously, on our theory, these nomadic groups were the Israelites during their Wandering phase, in which the peninsula really was a “transit country” on their way to the Promised Land. (For a critique of the Amorite theory, see R. Cohen, “The Mysterious MB1 People,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 9:04, Jul/Aug, 1983.)
Gebel Atika (or Ataqah) is on the west side of the Gulf of Suez, about 10 miles or so below the town of Suez, which is on the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez. Atika faces somewhat laterally the site of Ayun Musa on the eastern side of the Gulf (about 13 miles across the Gulf). It is possible that these sites are the approximate stations where the crossing of the Red Sea took place, between Atika and Ayun Musa. If the MB1 people are the Israelites, and we find MB1 on both sides of the Gulf of Suez, this bears a striking resemblance to the history recorded in Exodus, where the Israelites were in fact on both sides of the Red Sea. It also provides a fairly strong basis for an archaeological research program in these areas. One difficulty is that since most archaeologists do not recognize the MB1 people as the Israelites, they do not distinguish early from later phases of MB1. If the MB1 people are the Israelites, however, further analysis may be able to distinguish between three phases, the Exodus phase, the Wandering phase, and the Conquest phase. Presently, all MB1 finds are lumped together except those near Kadesh-barnea, which show some stratification. Since MB1 material is so similar, perhaps the size or concentration of MB1 finds in a particular area would give some clue as to its proper phase. Cohen does point out that MB1 is classed into different sized groups, but he only discusses those in the Kadesh-barnea region.
The finds in the wadi systems (on the east side of the Gulf of Suez) appear to have been tombs located at central burial grounds. On our view, some of these MB1 finds could be part of the Wandering phase since they were few in number and seem isolated from any larger encampments. Rothenberg describes the MB1 sites as follows (with our locations in brackets):
“A few tombs of this type are in the burial ground of the Wadi el Shallala and others were discovered by the author further north in the Wadi Sudr, on the Mittla Pass, and also in the neighbourhood of Gebel el Maghara and Gebel Halal [both northwest of Kadesh-barnea], and near Themed [on the Darb el Hajj]. In Sinai this type of tomb has been found exclusively on the Tih plateau and does not occur in southern Sinai.” (Sinai, p. 126.)
On the MB1 theory, after the crossing, the Israelites perhaps headed north to the Mittla Pass, turned east on the Darb el-Hajj to Ruweiset el Akheider, then across the Sinai peninsula to the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, the other “Red Sea.” This is a plausible route for the Exodus, given that the “Pilgrims’ Way” is a natural route between Egypt and the northern Gulf of Aqaba, and may be why it was chosen as the traditional route from Egypt to Mecca by Muslim pilgrims. The mountain at Ruweiset el Akheider that intersects the Darb el-Hajj road is the southernmost peak of a large range, and there is “a complete system of wells on the western side of this mountain range.” (Rothenberg, God’s Wilderness, p. 60.) The MB1 pottery there was “indistinguishable” from the MB1 pottery found at Kadesh-barnea. (Ibid., p. 61.) Since this had a large concentration of MB1 pottery—i.e., was not just a burial site—we would tentatively identify it as the site of Marah. Since some MB1 was found near Themed, this lends support to the hypothesis that the Israelites used a proto-Darb el-Hajj to make it to the Red Sea of Aqaba. (However, we provide an alternative interpretation of Ruweiset el Akheider in the next chapter, “Wandering & Conquest”.)
The location of the route of the Exodus might depend on where the large concentrations of MB1 pottery are located. Aside from some MB1 material found at Themed, not much is known about the Pilgrims’ Way, prior to the Nabataean or later Muslim periods. However, roads are usually constructed or enlarged along ancient thoroughfares, which in turn are also usually chosen for their access to water. Thus, along the Hajj road, there are a number of halts with cisterns, pools, and dams, developed during the Muslim period for pilgrims, but likely enough following ancient paths and sources of water. The main station on the Hajj is Nekhel, which is known for its wells and water reservoirs. (Sinai, p. 167.) Our guess is that this may once have been Elim, which was also known for its numerous wells and oasis like conditions (Ex. 15:27).
Obviously, the above theory about the route of the Exodus, and the identifications of the stations along the way, is based on guesswork. Given that until Mt. Sinai was reached, the Israelites were merely passing through—only pitching their tents, so to speak—it might be the case that very little material would be left behind along the way on the initial route. The large concentrations of MB1 pottery at various points in the Negev and further south may then represent the Wandering state of the history of Israel, rather than their initial Exodus from Egypt.
From “Wandering & Conquest”
Here we wish to discuss in detail the archaeology of the Middle Bronze 1 settlements across the Negev and northern Sinai. In terms of both Classic and New Courville, the MB1 people are the Israelites, so it is not surprising that the MB1 distribution in the Kadesh-barnea region would seem to track well with the history of the Israelites. In a previous chapter, it was pointed out that the MB1 distribution is on both sides of the Red Sea (Gulf of Suez), so that there is a significant correlation with the history of the Israelites at the time of the Exodus. To cite Rothenberg again:
“The area of distribution of the occupation wave of Early Bronze Age IV comprises the border region of the Negev all the way down to the Red Sea….Considerable remains of that period were, astonishingly, found also on the Mittla and Giddi Passes, as far as the banks of the Suez Canal between Port Taufiq [at the eastern tip of the Gulf of Suez] and the Small Bitter Lake [north of the Gulf]—and across the Suez Canal to Gebel Atika in Lower Egypt.” (Sinai, p. 121.)
The site of Gebel Atika is on the western side of the Gulf of Suez, in Lower Egypt proper, while all other EB4 (i.e., MB1) sites are on the eastern side of the Gulf of Suez, or up around the Bitter Lakes area. This matches what the Bible says, in that the Israelites turned away from the Wilderness and went back over to the western side of the Red Sea (thus allowing the Exodus pharaoh to catch them with their backs against the sea). While we cannot prove on the basis of the MB1 distribution that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea by miraculous intervention, the situation on the ground is at least consistent with the biblical narrative, and certainly calls for an intensive archaeological research program in the area.
Between the initial Exodus from Egypt and the Conquest of the Holy Land, there was a long period of Wandering. It is our opinion that many of the large MB1 sites reflect this period in Israel’s history. As pointed out previously, Rothenberg surveyed many of these MB1 settlements, noted the types of pottery found in the Negev, and described the presence of MB1 sites in the areas he visited. A closer look at the major MB1 sites in the Negev will be of value in the study of the relation between the MB1 people and the Israelites during the Wandering era.