Did the Israelites cross the Red Sea by the Gulf of Suez, or by the Gulf of Aqaba? Or, was it some ‘reed sea’ they went over, as some say? And, where did the forty-year desert sojourn take place?
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The Exodus: The Israelites left Egypt, “with a high hand” as Numbers 33:3 has it. The Scriptures show that it took them one and a half months to reach the desert of Sinai, after their departure from Rameses in Egypt. This makes it clear that the common concept where the biblical desert of Sinai is thought to begin from the Nile delta, is not correct.
So, where was the biblical Mount Sinai actually located? And, where did the Israelites spend the forty desert years, before they entered the Promised Land? Also, exactly what was the route of the Exodus? Did they cross the Red Sea by the Gulf of Suez, or by the Gulf of Aqaba? Or, does for instance Exodus 14:16–30 refer to some “reed sea” or “sea of reeds” in the Bitter Lakes area in Egypt, as some say?
This article takes a closer look at what the Bible really says about these things.
It is because of a Catholic tradition, that the desert of Sinai and Mount Sinai have been placed on maps in the area which is bordered by the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba and the Mediterranean sea. But, the “tradition” which says that a certain mountain in that area supposedly is Mount Sinai, is not based on facts or on the Scriptures. Some say that the source of that “tradition” is the Roman emperor Constantine, in the 300s. One story has it that Constantine sent his mother to look for that mountain, and that she then “found” it, through her “psychic abilities”.
A note: Sites that are mentioned in the Scriptures, are on maps often placed at different locations, depending on who made the map. The reason for this is that the placement of many ancient sites is based on theories, vague “archaeological identifications”, church dogmas, and so on, instead of being based on factual knowledge. Thus, one must not place all too much trust in those maps.
Today, the Jews have no certain knowledge in regard to where Mount Sinai was. They have simply lost the knowledge regarding that matter.
In the allegory regarding the two covenants, old and new, Galatians 4:21–31, verse 25 notes that Mount Sinai was in Arabia. Is it possible to know what part of Arabia Galatians 4:25 refers to? Both yes and no. It is not possible to pinpoint the exact location of Mount Sinai with certainty, but the general area where it lay, and the most likely route of the Exodus, can be deduced from the biblical record through a careful study of the relevant passages. This article takes a closer look at that matter.
Just for clarity: Arabia is the large peninsula with the modern-day states of Saudi-Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Oman and so on. See this map:
The Red Sea is correctly placed on most maps, of course. But, some have claimed that the Israelites did not at all cross the Red Sea but instead some “reed sea” in the Bitter lakes area in Egypt.
The relevant phrase in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament is Yam Suph (24 passages). Did it refer to the Red Sea as most bible-translations have it, or to some small and shallow “reed sea” (“sea of reeds”) as some say?
In the Septuagint version (LXX), the Hebrew phrase Yam Suph is nearly always translated into Greek with the words eruthros and thalassos, “red” and “sea”. It is the same in most English bible-versions – for instance the 1769 edition of king James’ bible always translates Yam Suph as Red Sea.
In more recent times, some have claimed that the second word in that Hebrew phrase means “reed”, and that the Israelites crossed over some shallow and relatively small “reed sea” in Egypt. But, a closer study of this matter shows that that concept is in conflict with several scriptural facts. Also: When the Hebrew text of the Old Testament calls a clearly identifiable geographical place by the name Yam Suph (1 Kings 9:26), that refers to the north-eastern part of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba.
For more on the old Hebrew phrase Yam Suph and that whole matter, see appendix 1 at the end of this article. Even the “reed sea” concept is discussed there.
Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. The Lord only let him see it from a distance, from the top of a mountain in the land of Moab, east of the river Jordan, close to the Dead Sea. (See Deuteronomy 3:27 and 34:1–5.)
It was only after Moses’ death, that the Israelites entered the Promised Land. They did that by crossing the river Jordan from the east, from an area which today belongs to the kingdom of Jordan. The crossing site lay close to the town Jericho, north of the Dead Sea.
(A note: By that time, a part of the Israelites had settled down in an area east of the river Jordan, but the actual Promised Land lay west of that river.)
So, before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were east of the river Jordan, in Arabia. How did they get there?
Many people have been caused to think that the Israelites’ forty-year desert sojourn took place in what modern-day maps call “Sinai”. Some makers of “biblical maps” have actually put various sites on their maps in such places that it seems the Israelites were in the Promised Land, for a part of the forty desert years. But, the Scriptures make it clear that when the people of Israel crossed over the Jordan river (from the east) and entered the Promised Land, that was the first time they set their foot in that land. And then:
There was no overland route from Egypt to the area east of the river Jordan, except by passing through parts of the Promised Land and the land of Edom. And, the biblical record makes it clear that the Israelites did not do that. So, how did they get to that place east of the river Jordan? Well, by crossing the Red Sea over its north-eastern arm, the Gulf of Aqaba. The forty-year desert sojourn took place in Arabia proper, east of the line formed by the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea and the river Jordan. That is why they were there, when the time for entering the Promised Land came (Joshua 3). There is more on this, including scripture quotes and maps, later in this article.
In the Scriptures, the story of the first part of that trek, from Rameses in Egypt to the place where the Israelites then crossed over the Red Sea, is compressed into a short summary, Exodus 12:37–38 and 13:17 through 14:4. That first part of their journey took circa 25 days, but again, the biblical record of it is very short, only a couple of pages in an average printed bible, and so, casual bible-readers might come to think that the Israelites crossed over the Red Sea a short time after they had left Rameses.
On the other hand, some translators have put into Exodus 19:1 wordings which could cause the reader to think that the trek from Rameses to Sinai took two months or even more. – Compare these different translations of that verse:
Exodus 19:1 Exactly two months after the Israelites left Egypt, they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. (NLT04)
Exodus 19:1 In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. (EngRV)
Exodus 19:1 On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. (TNIV)
Which of those translations is correct? The third one: “On the first day of the third month” – but then, one must realise that Exodus 19:1 refers to the first day of that year’s third month, and not to a 61st day of journeying. (Exodus 12 shows that the Israelites’ year and its first month began in the spring, two weeks before the Passover when they departed from Rameses in Egypt.)
This is how it was: The Israelites started their trek on the fifteenth day of that year’s first month, journeyed circa 25 days to the place where they then crossed the Red Sea, and after this some 20 more days until they reached the desert of Sinai on the first day of that year’s third month. Later in this article, there are more details in regard to this matter.
Here is an excerpt from an entry on Exodus 19 in the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary (1871), regarding the fact that the covenant-making by Mount Sinai took place fifty days after the Passover in Egypt:
Ver. 1–25. Arrival at Sinai. 1. In the third month—according to Jewish usage, the first day of that month—“same day.”—It is added, to mark the time more explicitly, i.e., forty-five days after Egypt—one day spent on the mount (v. 3), one returning the people’s answer (v. 7, 8), three days of preparation, making the whole time fifty days from the first passover […]
A note: The making of the covenant by Mount Sinai took several days. What is said below, refers to the day when the Lord spoke the “words of the covenant, the ten words”.
Here is a time-graph of the events of the Exodus-trek from Rameses in Egypt to Mount Sinai in Arabia (the fifty days from the Passover in Egypt to the making of the covenant by Mount Sinai):
Putting that in other words – the timing of certain events during the Israelites’ Exodus-trek, counting days of travelling, starting from the Passover and their departure:
The fact that it took those Israelites a month to reach the desert of Zin and after this two weeks to reach the desert of Sinai – all in all, a circa 45-day trek – makes it clear that the “traditional” placement of those deserts is not correct. – If we take certain clarifying scriptures into consideration, the location of the desert of Sinai becomes more clear. There is more on this, later in this article.
The scriptural record shows that it happened a few days before the 15th day of that year’s second month. That is, circa 25 days after the Israelites’ departure from Rameses. See the graph above, and the clarification which follows here:
The crossing of the Red Sea is mentioned in Exodus 14. That chapter does not give us a timing, but the following ones do. Exodus 16:1 provides a fixed point of time – 15th day of the second month (the second month of that year; there is more on this below). And then, Exodus 15:22–27 mentions a number of things which happened after the crossing but before the event of Exodus 16:1. By figuring out how many days those things took, we can count backward from the date which is given Exodus 16:1, and get an approximate date for the crossing of the Red Sea.
First, Exodus 16 which gives us a fixed point of time. Here are two different translations of that verse:
Exodus 16:1 Then moved they on from Elim, and all the assembly of the sons of Israel entered into the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month, by their coming forth out of the land of Egypt. (EB)
Exodus 16:1 Then the whole community of Israel set out from Elim and journeyed into the wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Mount Sinai. They arrived there on the fifteenth day of the second month, one month after leaving the land of Egypt. (NLT04)
A note: In many bible-versions, that verse is rendered in such ways that the readers might be caused to think that it refers to the 45th day of the Exodus trek. But, the above-quoted paraphrase version NLT04 makes the matter clearer: “One month after leaving the land of Egypt”. In that verse, the words “on the fifteenth day of the second month” refer to the 15th day of that year’s second month, which is to say, one month after the Israelites departure which took place on the 15th day of that year’s first month.
So, how can we get a date for the crossing of the Red Sea? Exodus 16:1 mentions the entry into the desert of Zin. That happened 30 days after the Israelites’ departure from Rameses in Egypt. From the context, we can derive more “timing-info”. After the crossing, but before the entry to the desert of Zin, these things had taken place:
Exodus 15:22 Then Moses led the people of Israel away from the Red Sea, and they moved out into the desert of Shur. They traveled in this desert for three days without finding any water. 23 When they came to the oasis of Marah, the water was too bitter to drink. So they called the place Marah (which means “bitter”). 24 Then the people complained and turned against Moses. “What are we going to drink?” they demanded. 25 So Moses cried out to the Lord for help, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. Moses threw it into the water, and this made the water good to drink. It was there at Marah that the Lord set before them the following decree as a standard to test their faithfulness to him. 26 He said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, obeying his commands and keeping all his decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” 27 After leaving Marah, the Israelites traveled on to the oasis of Elim, where they found twelve springs and seventy palm trees. They camped there beside the water. Exodus 16:1 Then the whole community of Israel set out from Elim and journeyed into the wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Mount Sinai. They arrived there on the fifteenth day of the second month, one month after leaving the land of Egypt. (NLT04)
Verses 22–23 mention a three-day trip from the Red Sea to Marah. And then, as a careful study of the above-quoted passage shows, after this there were around two more days of travel, via Elim, before the arrival to the desert of Zin. All in all, the events between the crossing and the arrival into the desert of Zin, took around five days.
So, the crossing was circa five days before the arrival into the desert of Zin (which was on the fifteenth day of the second month of that year). In other words: The Israelites crossed over the Red Sea around the tenth day of the second month in their year (give or take a day). Which is to say, approximately 25 days after their departure from Rameses.
When the Israelites left Rameses in Egypt, they first journeyed to a place called Succoth, not very far from Rameses (see Exodus 12:37). But then, the Lord had them make a turn south, instead of travelling east towards the Promised Land. We read:
Exodus 13:17 Then it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest perhaps the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt. 18 So God led the people around by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. And the children of Israel went up in orderly ranks out of the land of Egypt. (NKJV, highlighting added)
Verse 18, “by way of the wilderness of the Red Sea” – that is, along the eastern shore of the Gulf of Suez (see the illustration below).
So, the Israelites did not cross the Gulf of Suez. What happened is that first, they travelled eastward, on dry land, past the northern tip of that gulf (see the illustration below), and then they turned towards the south and followed its eastern shore (the “way of the wilderness of the Red Sea”, Exodus 13:18), to the Straits of Tiran by the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. Then, they crossed over that gulf (which is a part of the Red Sea).
(Click on the image for a larger, printable version.)
As was noted earlier, it took the Israelites circa 25 days to reach the place where they then crossed the Red Sea (the Gulf of Aqaba). East of that gulf, in the Midian area in Arabia, were such places as the desert of Shur, Mara and Elim, and then the deserts which the Bible calls Zin and Sinai, and Horeb (Mount Sinai).
Exodus 14:21–22 records that the Lord caused a strong wind to blow all night, pressing down the water level, so that Jacob’s descendants could cross over (probably on a sandbank, see this satellite photo). But, when the pursuing Egyptian troops were crossing the sea, the waters returned to their normal level, and the Egyptians drowned. (See Exodus 14:23–28.)
The Red Sea (as that name is used today): It is around 2300 kilometres long, starting from the Indian Ocean in the south. (See this overview map.) In the north, it is divided into two arms, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. Several things make it clear that it was the latter the Israelites crossed over. Clarification:
We know that the Israelites entered the Promised Land from the east side of the river Jordan. There was no overland route from Egypt to the area east of that river, except by passing through parts of the Promised Land and the land of Edom. And, the Scriptures make it clear that when the Israelites after the forty desert years entered the Promised Land, that was the first time they set their foot in that land. And still, they entered it from the east. This means that they got to the area east of the river Jordan, by crossing the Gulf of Aqaba. (That gulf is a part of the Red Sea.)
Here is a map of the most likely route of the Exodus, the location of Mount Sinai, and also the general area of the Israelites’ 40-year desert sojourn (see also the comments below this map):
(Click on the map for a printable version.)
On that map, the following applies:
Here is a satellite photo of the most likely place for the crossing of the Red Sea, at the Straits of Tiran by the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba (location, see the map above). Note the sandbanks or reefs which are shown in grey-green-blue colours on this photo.
What you see on the satellite photo above, is probably the site which this scripture refers to:
Exodus 14:21 And when Moses’ hand was stretched out over the sea, the Lord with a strong east wind made the sea go back all night, and the waters were parted in two and the sea became dry land. 22 And the children of Israel went through the sea on dry land […] (BBE)
You may have seen illustrations where the Israelites are pictured as walking through a deep “canyon” of water. Many bible-translators have followed that concept, and so, they have put into verse 22 such wordings as “the water was as a wall on their right hand and on their left”.
Now, it is hard to say what exactly happened, but we have verse 21 which says that the Lord let a strong wind blow all night. Obviously, that wind pressed down the water level in those shallow straits so that sea bottom came into sight. (Note the sandbanks on the photo above. Such things formed an “underwater bridge” which came above the surface when the Lord through a wind pressed the water-level down.) – What about that translation “wall” in verse 22? The Hebrew text has chowmah. That word often referred to a wall, but did it do that, in this case? Apparently, the root of the word chowmah had to do with “joining”. It could be that the meaning was something like “and the waters were close to them, right and left”. Point: As they walked on a sandbank which had come above surface when the Lord by a wind pressed the water level down, it is likely that they had water relatively close to them, to their right and to their left. But most probably not high “walls” of it.
A note: The by some presented theory that the Israelites crossed the Gulf of Aqaba at its middle part, by Wadi Watir close to Nuweiba, is considered in appendix 3 at the end of this article.
Mount Sinai was also called Horeb. See Deuteronomy 5:2, 1 Kings 8:9 and so on. Consider even these passages:
Exodus 2:15 Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelled in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well. 16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. 18 And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that you are come so soon to day? (AKJV, highlighting added)
(Reuel = Jethro, see below.)
Exodus 3:1 Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. 2 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the middle of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. (AKJV, highlighting added)
Exodus 4:18 And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said to him, Let me go, I pray you, and return to my brothers which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace. 19 And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought your life. (AKJV, highlighting added)
So, Moses was by Horeb (Mount Sinai), in Midian. In order to flee from the Pharaoh, he had left Egypt and gone to Midian (see Exodus 2:15, quoted above). Midian lay in Arabia proper, east of the Gulf of Aqaba. (See this map.)
It was there in Midian in Arabia, by Horeb, that the Lord called Moses.
Exodus 3:3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. 4 And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the middle of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. […] 10 Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt. 11 And Moses said to God, Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? 12 And he said, Certainly I will be with you; and this shall be a token to you, that I have sent you: When you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain. (AKJV, highlighting added)
Verse 12, “this mountain” = Horeb, see verse 1 which was quoted earlier. Still regarding verse 12: The Lord said that Moses would come back to that mountain, with his people, the Israelites.
The biblical Horeb (Mount Sinai) was situated in the land of Midian in Arabia, east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in an area which lies within the modern-day kingdoms of Saudi-Arabia and Jordan. That is where Moses later returned, together with the other Israelites (Exodus 3:12, and all of Exodus 19).
The illustration below is an on NASA geographical data based computer-generated image from Google Earth, showing the Arabian mountain Jabal al Lawz which may be the same as the biblical Mount Sinai (Horeb). That mountain is at the middle of the picture; the Straits of Tiran are close to the top. The main part of the Red Sea is on the upper left hand, and the Gulf of Aqaba on the upper right hand. (Note the directions sign.)
(Please note that this is a computer-created image and not a photo. Height-proportions have been exaggerated, in order to show the mountain’s form in a clearer way.)
We cannot be certain in regard to which of the mountains in that part of Arabia is the biblical Mount Sinai (Horeb), but it is likely that Jabal al Lawz is the one in question.
The Israelites spent a part of their forty desert years in the area of Kadesh (Kadesh-Barnea). A number of events of weight took place while they were there.
We do not know exactly how large that area was, but consider this: Several bible-passages tell us that the Israelites – more than a million [a] of them, plus cattle – were at times “in Kadesh” (Numbers 20, et cetera). So, it is clear that in this case, the word Kadesh must have referred to a quite large area, and not some specific spot such as a town.
a Exodus 12:37 gives the number of those who departed from Egypt as 600000 – “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children”. It is not clear whether that figure included women. Add to that children (say, those under 20), and the number is much higher.
Several bible-passages place Kadesh in the desert of Zin. Numbers 13:26 places it in the desert of Paran. It appears that Paran was a name for some part of the desert of Zin.
A note: Many map-makers and commentators have placed Paran in what modern-day maps call “Sinai”, or north-east of it. Perhaps they have done this in order to uphold the “traditional” (Catholic) placement of Sinai. In reality, Paran was by Edom’s border, east of the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Kadesh was the place from which Moses sent twelve men to spy out the Promised Land – “And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, Get you up this way by the South, and go up into the mountains” (Numbers 13:17, EngRV). It was in the Kadesh area that the Israelites provoked and angered the Lord so badly that he decided that he would not allow them to enter the Promised Land, see Numbers 14. That is how the 40-year delay came to be. Those who were of mature age at the time of that provocation, died during those 40 years in the Arabian desert. Only their children were allowed to enter the land of promise. (Joshua and Caleb were exceptions, see Numbers 14:30.)
Was Kadesh the same as the desert of Zin? Many bible-versions have in Numbers 33:36 wordings that make it seem so. But, it could be that the meaning is that the Israelites “camped at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin” (NLT04). Anyway, it is clear that Kadesh was relatively close to Ezion-Geber which lay by the desert of Zin. Further:
Numbers 20 makes it quite clear where Kadesh was. That chapter tells us about a time (close to the end of the forty desert years) when the Israelites were in Kadesh. Moses sent a message to the king of Edom (see Numbers 20:14–22), asking him to allow the Israelites to pass through his land. This makes sense only if the land of Edom lay between Kadesh and the Promised Land. In short: Kadesh was south-east of the land of Edom. See this map where the general areas of Kadesh and the land of Edom are indicated.
Moses’ sister Miriam died in Kadesh:
Numbers 20:1 Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people stayed in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. (AKJV)
(Again, that passage refers to an event towards the end of the 40 desert years which followed after the Exodus.)
It was in Kadesh that Moses struck the rock, Numbers 20:7–13. He was so angered by the complaining Israelites that he failed to give the honour to the Lord when he struck the rock so that water came out of it. Instead, he said unto them, “Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10, where “we” refers to Moses and Aaron – as if it would have been they who produced that water.) Because of this, Moses and Aaron were not allowed to enter the Promised Land. (See even Numbers 20:12 and 28, Numbers 27:12–14, Deuteronomy 34:1–5 and Joshua 1:1–2.)
A note: Some map-makers have placed Kadesh inside the Promised Land’s borders. That is a strange concept, because:
Another note: Some have placed Kadesh in Petra. But, the place which today is called Petra (within the state of Jordan) was in those days inside the land of Edom. So, that placement is not correct, either. See the next point, below.
Again, the Israelites spent a part of the forty desert years in the Kadesh area. Numbers 20 describes certain events which happened there, towards the end of those years – that is, in the days when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land.
The shortest route from the Kadesh area to the Promised Land would have been through the southern corner of the land of Edom, only a short distance. (See this map where the general area of the land of Edom, which lay between Kadesh and the Promised Land, is slightly highlighted.) But, the king of Edom did not allow the Israelites to pass through his country. We read:
Numbers 20:14 Moses sent messengers from Israel’s camp near Kadesh with this message for the king of Edom: We are Israelites, your own relatives, and we’re sure you have heard the terrible things that have happened to us. 15 Our ancestors settled in Egypt and lived there a long time. But later the Egyptians were cruel to us, 16 and when we begged our Lord for help, he answered our prayer and brought us out of that land. Now we are camped at the border of your territory, near the town of Kadesh. 17 Please let us go through your country. We won’t go near your fields and vineyards, and we won’t drink any water from your wells. We will stay on the main road until we leave your territory. 18 But the Edomite king answered, “No, I won’t let you go through our country! And if you try, we will attack you.” 19 Moses sent back this message: “We promise to stay on the main road, and if any of us or our livestock drink your water, we will pay for it. We just want to pass through.” 20 But the Edomite king insisted, “You can’t go through our land!” Then Edom sent out its strongest troops 21 to keep Israel from passing through its territory. So the Israelites had to go in another direction. (CEV)
At that time, the Israelites were in the Kadesh area, by the north-eastern corner of the Gulf of Aqaba. In other words: They were almost in the Promised Land. But in order to get there, they would have needed to pass through Edom’s south corner. The king of Edom did not allow this.
Numbers 20:21 […] why Israel turned away from him 22 Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, journeyed from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor. (NKJV)
Numbers 21:4 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, [b] to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. (NKJV, note sign and highlighting added)
b “The Way of the Red Sea” – probably, some route or road which began by the Gulf of Aqaba which was a part of the Red Sea.
This meant that in order to get to the Promised Land, the Israelites had to journey some 400 kilometres extra, around the land of Edom by its eastern side, via a long and demanding desert route, all the way to the land of Moab north of the Dead Sea (see the thick black arrow on this map). No wonder that “the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way”, Numbers 21:4.
Numbers 33 contains a compact description of the whole Exodus trek, including that extra journey, and mentions some of the sites where the Israelites camped during it. (Keep in mind that on most “biblical” maps, many of those sites are not correctly placed.)
A note: Those verses mention Mount Hor. There were two mountains by that name. This one was by Edom’s south-eastern border.
When the forty years had come to their end and those who had provoked the Lord (Numbers 14) had died, their children were taken to the Promised Land. When they entered it, they did that by crossing the river Jordan, from its east site. The Lord caused the water-flow in the river to cease, and so, the Israelites crossed over and thus finally reached their inheritance, the Promised Land, west of the river Jordan. This passage records that occasion:
Joshua 3:14 When the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carried the ark of the covenant ahead of the people. 15 Now the Jordan overflows its banks throughout the harvest season. [c] But as soon as the priests carrying the ark reached the Jordan, their feet touched the water at its edge 16 and the water flowing downstream stood still, rising up in a mass that extended as far as Adam, a city next to Zarethan. The water flowing downstream into the Sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea) was completely cut off, and the people crossed opposite Jericho. 17 The priests carrying the ark of the Lord’s covenant stood firmly on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel crossed on dry ground until the entire nation [d] had finished crossing the Jordan. (HCSB, note signs added)
c Verse 14, “harvest season” – this refers to an early spring harvest of winter grain which had been sowed in the autumn. The crossing of the Jordan river took place shortly before Passover. It may be that the seven-day period when the Israelites marched around Jericho, were the seven Days of Unleavened Bread which followed the Passover.
d Verse 17, “entire nation” – that translation is a bit misleading. By that time, some Israelites had already settled down, east of the Jordan river, outside the actual Promised Land. Some other bible-versions have such wordings as “until all the people were passed clean over Jordan”, which is more correct. Verse 17 refers to those who were crossing, and not the entire nation. (See even Joshua 1:12–14.)
It is perhaps not so important to know where the biblical Mount Sinai was located, even though that is interesting. What is important, is to realise that we humans all too easily accept as “truth”, whatever “theologians” tell us.
The question regarding the location of that mountain and the area of the forty desert years, is only a small example of how “commonly accepted facts” often are opposed to what the Scriptures actually say.
If one sticks to the Bible, one is much safer. But then, one must keep in mind that all bible-translations are produced by erring and biased men. The same applies to “biblical” lexicons of Hebrew and Greek, and dictionaries, commentaries, maps and so on.
The articles nga020.htm, nsa010.htm and nsa020.htm have some notes on keys, helps and tools for deeper study and understanding of the Scriptures.
See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendixes below.
A casual bible-reader who views certain translations along with certain commentaries, might come to think that there could be some basis for the “reed sea” claim. However, a closer study of that matter leads to a different conclusion.
Several things in the biblical record of places and events make it clear that the sea-crossing which is mentioned in Exodus 14:16–30, was over the Gulf of Aqaba which is the north-eastern arm of the Red Sea.
This matter is discussed even in the main part of this article, but again:
A study of 1 Kings 9:26 shows that the land of Edom began by the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. In the Hebrew text of that verse, that gulf is called Yam Suph. (There is more on that phrase, below. See even this map.) And then, other scriptures show that the Promised Land’s southern border-corner was by that gulf (obviously, west of the Edomite area by it). Consider even this: The Israelites entered the Promised Land from an area east of the river Jordan. There was no overland route from Egypt to the area east of that river, other than by passing through parts of the Promised Land and the land of Edom. And: The Scriptures make it clear that the Israelites did not do that. They did not set their foot in the Promised Land before the end of their 40-year sojourn in the Arabian desert. This means that the crossing of the Red Sea was over the Gulf of Aqaba. Into Arabia. That is where they were, still 40 years later when they finally entered the Promised Land.
Exodus 14:26, “Moses stretched his hand over the sea” (Hebrew yam). The Pharaoh’s army drowned in that sea (yam, Exodus 14:27–28). In Exodus 15:4, the Hebrew text calls that sea by the name Yam Suph. And then:
In 1 Kings 9:26, the Hebrew text calls the Gulf of Aqaba Yam Suph. This connects that phrase to a well-defined geographical location.
1 Kings 9:26 King Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-geber, which is near Eloth on the shore of the Red Sea [Hebrew Yam Suph], in the land of Edom. (NRSV, comment added)
Consider this: Solomon built that fleet for the purpose of trade – for sailing on the Red Sea, and not on some small Egyptian “reed sea”. The above-quoted 1 Kings 9:26 mentions Edom, Ezion-Geber and Eloth. The latter two were located by the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, and the western border of the land of Edom began there and went to the Dead Sea. (See this map.)
In short: When the Bible connects the name Yam Suph to a clearly defined place, it points to the Gulf of Aqaba which was and is a part of the Red Sea.
Regarding the Hebrew word suph: Its origin and exact meaning is not known. Some have interpreted it as “reed”, and then they have on that ground assumed that the Israelites did not cross over the Red Sea but instead some “reed sea” in the Bitter Lakes area in Egypt. But, that “reed sea” concept is in conflict with several things in the Scriptures. And again, as was shown above, the Scriptures call the Gulf of Aqaba Yam Suph.
Let us consider a passage which talks about the borders of the Promised Land.
Exodus 23:31 And I will set thy bounds from the Red sea [Hebrew Yam Suph] even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert unto the river: for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee. (KJV1769, comment added)
“From the Red sea even unto the sea of the Philistines” = from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean Sea. (The latter was also called “the Great Sea”, see Numbers 34:6–7 and so on.) And yes, the Red Sea or Yam Suph of the above-quoted Exodus 23:31 is the one which is mentioned also in 1 Kings 9:26, that is, the Gulf of Aqaba.
The practical meaning of the mention of Yam Suph in Exodus 23:31 is that the southern border of the land of Israel began by the Gulf of Aqaba and went north-west, towards the Mediterranean sea. Just as it does even today.
Here is yet another passage where the Hebrew text contains the phrase Yam Suph:
Exodus 10:19 And Jehovah turned a very powerful west wind, which took away the locusts, and drove them into the Red Sea [Hebrew Yam Suph]: there remained not one locust in all the borders of Egypt. (DBY, comment added)
The context shows that the locusts (grasshoppers) were so many that they covered the whole land of Egypt.
Exodus 10:15 And they covered the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened; and they ate every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing on the trees, and in the herbs of the field, throughout the land of Egypt. (DBY)
And again, the Hebrew text of the earlier quoted verse 19 states that that immense mass of grasshoppers was cast (drowned) in the Yam Suph.
Regarding the thought that that old Hebrew phrase would have referred to some lake with reeds in the Bitter Lakes area (located where the Suez canal lies today) – consider this: Could that enormous number of locusts which covered and darkened all of Egypt, be drowned in one of those lakes, so that “not one locust” remained, Exodus 10:19? Those lakes are too small for that. But the main part of the Red Sea, some 2000 kilometres long (see the overview map), is large enough for that.
Point: Even in the case of the above-quoted Exodus 10:19, it is obvious that the phrase Yam Suph refers to the Red Sea, and not some “reed sea”.
The exact meaning of the ancient Hebrew noun suph is not clear. What is clear, is that the word-combination Yam Suph, 24 passages in the OT, always refers to the Red Sea.
In the 1769 KJ version, in the four passages where the word suph is used alone, it is translated three times as “flags” and one as “reeds”, but in the 24 passages where the word suph is accompanied by the word yam (Yam Suph), it is translated as “Red Sea”. It is similar in many other translations, for instance the NASB95, NKJV and NRSV. The Septuagint version (LXX) has τη ερυθρα θαλασση, “the Red Sea”. But, the makers of some “modern” translations have made Yam Suph into a “lake of reeds” or something similar. Perhaps they felt that God was not able to press down the water level, the way this passage describes:
Exodus 14:21 And when Moses’ hand was stretched out over the sea, the Lord with a strong east wind made the sea go back all night, and the waters were parted in two and the sea became dry land. 22 And the children of Israel went through the sea on dry land […] (BBE)
The place which that passage refers to, was in all likelihood the Straits of Tiran where the waters are shallow, see this satellite photo and this map. But yes, it was still a great miracle, an act of God – also in regard to the timings: The Israelites went over safely, but when the Egyptian troops chased after them, the waters flowed back and drowned the Egyptians. As is recorded in the words of a song:
Exodus 15:10 But You blew with Your breath, and the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters. 11 Lord, who is like You among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, revered with praises, performing wonders? (HCSB)
Here are two of the passages in question:
Joshua 15:2 And their south border […] 4 and it passed along to Azmon, and went out at the brook of Egypt. And the goings out of the border were at the sea. This shall be your south border. (ACV)
Numbers 34:5 And the border shall turn about from Azmon to the brook of Egypt, and the goings out of it shall be at the sea. (ACV)
Brook: The Hebrew text has nachal which according to ‘Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament’ “usually refers to a dry river bed or ravine which in the rainy season becomes a raging torrent, and/or the resulting torrent”.
Some have suggested that those passages might refer to the Nile river. But, consider this: Were it so that they referred to the Nile, then the Israelites would have been in the Promised Land directly after their departure from Rameses, or already before it. But, the Scriptures make it clear that it was only forty years later that they entered the Promised Land, for the first time.
In our day, the nachal or wadi in question is called Wadi Al Arish. Its end is by the town Al Arish by the Mediterranean coast (map).
By the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, at the Straits of Tiran, the waters are shallow and there are sandbanks and reefs which form an “under-water bridge” (satellite photo, map). (Cf. Exodus 14:21–22 which records that the Lord caused a strong wind to blow all night, pressing down the water level.)
Apparently, there is even by the middle part of that gulf, by the mouth of Wadi Watir which is on its western shore (close to Nuweiba), a place where the waters are not quite as deep as elsewhere in that gulf. Some have suggested that the Israelites might have crossed the Gulf of Aqaba there, starting from the mouth of Wadi Watir. (Even that route is marked on this map.)
Regarding the suggestion that the Red Sea crossing might have been by the mouth of Wadi Watir: The route from Rameses to Wadi Watir and then through it would have been gruelling and time-consuming, for the more than a million Israelites who left Egypt, with their cattle, wagons, tents and all the rest. First a long trek over rough and mountainous desert-ground, and after that, a long passage through a winding wadi. That is not a likely route of travel for that huge crowd consisting of both young and old.
Also: It appears that the open area by the mouth of Wadi Watir would have been too small for them to camp on. (Exodus 14:2 tells us that they camped by the Red Sea, before crossing over.)
Further: The geography of Wadi Watir, and the limited size of open and plane area by its mouth, are very hard to align with this record of events:
Exodus 14:9 The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his horsemen, and his army—chased after them and caught up with them as they camped by the sea beside Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon. 10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up and saw the Egyptians coming after them. Then the Israelites were terrified and cried out to the Lord for help. (HCSB, highlighting added)
Those passages and the rest of the story indicate that the place where those things happened must have been open, plane, wide and large, so that it was possible for the Israelites to already at a long distance see that the Egyptians were approaching (verse 10, “the Israelites looked up and saw the Egyptians coming after them”).
Wadi Watir is narrow and winding, and the open area by its mouth is relatively small. Thus, it appears that at that location, the Israelites would not have been able to see the approaching Egyptians at such a distance as the in Exodus 14 described situation demands. – Here is more of the context:
Exodus 14:11 They said to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Isn’t this what we told you in Egypt: Leave us alone so that we may serve the Egyptians? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation He will provide for you today; for the Egyptians you see today, you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you must be quiet.” 15 The Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to break camp. (HCSB)
Again, the situation which the earlier quoted verses 9–10 describe, demands that the Israelites could see the approaching Egyptians already at a long distance. The geography of the area by the mouth of Wadi Watir is hard to align with that. By the Straits of Tiran things are different; close to that site there are larger open and plane areas, so that the Israelites could see the Pharaoh’s troops while they were still far away.
For these and several other reasons, the route along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Suez down to the Straits of Tiran and then making the crossing there, is much more likely. (See this illustration and this map.)
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
A computer-created “satellite image” of the route of the Exodus. From Rameses in Egypt, over the Red Sea by the Straits of Tiran, to Mount Sinai (Horeb) in Arabia. → noa061a.htm
The Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea. A satellite photo of the Straits of Tiran at the southern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. → noa061b.htm
An overview map of the Middle East, showing the location of Arabia. → noa061c.htm
A map of the route of the Exodus. → noa061d.htm
A time-graph of the events of the Exodus trek from Rameses in Egypt to Mount Sinai in Arabia. The fifty days from the Passover in Egypt to the making of the covenant by Mount Sinai. → noa061e.htm
Moses – Jesus the Second Moses – parallels between Moses and Jesus – the seat of Moses – Jesus, Moses and Elijah. → noa080.htm
Easy keys to deeper understanding of the Scriptures. → nga020.htm
How to study the Bible in a deeper way. → nsa010.htm
Some notes on computer bibles, bible study software. → nsa020.htm
Table of contents – Key-word index – Search function – On the goal and purpose of this site
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