Can modern ecology and ethnology help to establish the route of the Exodus? I believe they can.
The Bible clearly identifies by name the stops along the Exodus route (Numbers 33-5–37). The area settled by the Israelites in Egypt is consistently identified as Goshen (Genesis 45-10, 47-1, 4), which surely lay in the eastern Nile Delta. The Israelite rallying point for the Exodus was the Raamses, one of the store cities in the eastern Nile Delta that the Israelites had built for Pharaoh (Exodus 12-37; Numbers 33-3, 5); that is where the Exodus began.
Later the Israelites arrived at Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 33-36; Deuteronomy 1-19). There they spent “many days” (Deuteronomy 1-46). From Kadesh-Barnea the Israelites attempted to, and finally did, enter Canaan.
With almost no dissent, scholars are agreed that Kadesh-Barnea is to be identified with the modern site of Ein el-Qudeirat.a Located at the confluence of two, important, ancient desert routes in northeastern Sinai and adjacent to the most abundant spring in northern Sinai, Ein el-Qudeirat also fits the geographical markers for Kadesh-Barnea in the Bible. Indeed, Ein el-Qudeirat has no real competition as the site of Kadesh-Barnea. There is also a tell at Ein el-Qudeirat (formerly Tell el-Qudeirat and now called Telb Kadesh-Barnea), but thus far it has yielded no remains earlier than the tenth century B.C., hundreds of years after the Exodus. And this, of course, remains a problem.
Having located the beginning point and the end point of the Israelites’ wilderness trek, it remains only to determine how the wanderers got from point A to point B. That, however, is easier said than done.
The Bible mentions several sites where the Israelites arrived shortly after leaving Raamses. From Raamses, they went to Succoth (Exodus 12-37; Numbers 33-5). From there, they went to Etham “on the edge of the wilderness” (Numbers 33-6). From Etham, they turned back and camped at Migdol (Numbers 33-7). These and a few other sites mentioned in this passage are no doubt also in the eastern Nile Delta, and scholars have suggested a number of candidates for these sites.
The problems for scholars really begin, however, after the Israelites entered the desert. The Israelites started with a three-day journey into the wilderness of Etham, arriving at Marah. From there, they went to Elim and from there to the Reed Sea by the wilderness of Sin. Next came Dophkah, then Alush and on and on, one site after another (Numbers 33).
And we have no idea where these sites are. They simply cannot be located on the ground with any confidence. That is why we have so many proposed routes for the Israelites’ wilderness wandering.
To have validity at all, any suggested route must follow what I call the tracks of Sinai. Except along the Mediterranean coast, the roads or trackways of Sinai run—and have run from time immemorial—along the dry streambeds called “wadis.” Most ancient settlements were built beside these wadis,1 not only for the obvious reason of ease of communication with other settlements, but also because the available water resources were located mostly in the wadi beds, rather than on the high mountain uplands.
Four principal routes for the Exodus have been suggested by scholars.
The first and shortest is the northern route, along the Mediterranean Sea—the “way of the sea,” first mentioned by that name in Isaiah 9-1 (8-23 in Hebrew). Since the Roman period, this route has been known in Latin as the Via Maris. The ancient Egyptians, at least in the reign of Seti I (1313–1301 B.C.), used it for military campaigns against the northern countries and called it “the way of Horus.” The Bible refers to it also as the “way of the Philistines,” but goes on to state explicitly that this was not the route taken by the Israelites after they left Egypt-
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 13-17–18).
Proceeding from north to south, the next candidate for the Exodus route through Sinai is the Way of Shur. This appears to have been the route taken by the patriarchs on their way to the land of Goshen (Genesis 16-7, 25-18). This route probably led from the area of Kadesh-Barnea via Jebel Halal, Bir Haseneh and Bir Gafgafa to the area of the modern town of Ismailia. The route passed between lakes where the Egyptians had constructed a fortification line called “Shur Mitzrayim,” the Wall of Egypt, to protect the Delta and to control the movement of nomads coming from the other side.
Another possibility is the Way of Seir (Deuteronomy 1-2). This route probably led from the Gulf of Suez, via Eilat, to the mountain of Seir in the land of Edom, in southern Jordan.c Today, this route is known as the “Darb el Haj,” or Way of the Celebrants, because caravans of Moslem pilgrims travel along it on their way to Mecca for the observance of the haj (pilgrimage). In Biblical times it was named after its destination, the Mountain of Seir, or Edom.
The final and most southerly possibility is “the way to the hill country of the Amorites” (Deuteronomy 1-19). This route led from Mount Horeb in the south (wherever that is) to Kadesh-Barnea.
If we accept a southern location for Mt. Sinai, then this way is related to the second half of the Exodus journey—“From Horeb we went through all that great and terrible wilderness” (Deuteronomy 1-19).d This route would proceed (along the Gulf of Eilat) to Ezion-Geber (Numbers 33-16–35) and, via “the way to the hill country of the Amorites,” to Kadesh (-Barnea) (Numbers 33-36). This segment is referred to in the Bible as “the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea” (Exodus 13-18).
At least theoretically, each of these routes is a possibility. How do we decide among them?
Mt. Sinai was of course a critical stop along the route; if we could locate the mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, that could well be determinative of the route through the Sinai.
But, as we all know, the location of Mt. Sinai is in dispute and is a matter of speculation at best. Some scholars locate it deep in southern Sinai. Others go in the other direction and place it in the Negev Highlands. Still others place it in central Sinai; and others in north central Sinai. One scholar (Emmanuel Anati) argues that it is a site in the central Negev; another (Frank Moore Cross) that it is in Arabia. For those who wish to pursue the matter further, I have listed in the sidebar “Proposed Locations of Mt. Sinai” the various mountains that have been proposed, their locations and the scholars who support each location (with citations to their work).
It is interesting that of all the sites proposed for Mt. Sinai, only two have remains of human presence in ancient times.
One, proposed by the Italian scholar Emmanuel Anati, is the site known as Har Karkom, located in the central Negev Highlands, about 70 miles southwest of Beer-Sheva and 50 miles northwest of Eilat. Anati recently published a sumptuously illustrated book titled The Mountain of God, concerning his recent investigation of this massif, and even earlier reported to BAR readers on his findings.e I do not wish to comment at length on Professor Anati’s interpretation of certain structures discovered on this massif, except to note that his interpretation seems to me to strain the limits of my strictly archaeological approach. However, the most important point in connection with the problem we are exploring in this article is that most of the remains at Har Karkom date to the third millennium B.C., far too early for anyone’s (except Anati’s) reckoning of the Exodus. Moreover, those architectural elements at Har Karkom that Anati interprets as “cultic” are found in parallel forms at other mountain sites both in Eastern Sinai and in the Negev itself. At one mountain site in the Negev—Hasham el-Tarif—located some 40 miles southwest of Eilat, the remains of a number of sanctuaries, most of them open-air sanctuaries, were found.2 These have been dated generally (due to a lack of specific finds) to the fifth or fourth millennium B.C. They are contemporary with the sanctuary recently excavated in Bika’at Uvda (on the fringes of the Arava, about 30 miles north of Eilat), also dated to the fifth millennium B.C. The remains discovered on the Har Karkom massif are also from this period, extending to as late as the third millennium B.C. So Har Karkom can hardly be Mt. Sinai and thus affords no assistance in locating the route of the Exodus.
The other site proposed for Mt. Sinai where human remains have been found is Serabit el-Khadem.f At Serabit el-Khadem, turquoise deposits were exploited by the ancient Egyptians during the Middle and New Kingdom periods (c. 1991–1190 B.C.).3 At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, a sanctuary dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Hathor was built here and was continually expanded over the centuries.
A number of very early alphabetic inscriptions (dated to about 1500 B.C.) have been found at Serabit el-Khadem in the mine area, rather than in the sanctuary area. Known as Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, this pictographic-alphabetic script seems to have been used for a Semitic-Canaanite language.4 Other examples of this script from an even earlier time (c. 1600 B.C.) have also been found in Canaan!
In addition, several pictures of what appear to be Semites were engraved on stelae in the Serabit el-Khadem sanctuary, and some of the names written on it in hieroglyphics are also Semitic.
Clearly, Semites were present at this Egyptian mining operation.
Some scholars have suggested that an Egyptian religious tradition sanctified Serabit el-Khadem, and that this religious tradition was somehow passed on to the Israelites. In that way, Serbit el-Khadem provided the model for Mt. Sinai.
Few scholars and fewer laymen are likely to be convinced by this speculation, however. Moreover, at the time of the Exodus, whether in the 13th century B.C. or in the 15th century B.C., Egyptian turquoise mining in the Sinai was at its most intensive. As we are told in the Egyptian dedication stelae of the Serabit el-Khadem sanctuary, Egyptian army escorts guarded the mines and the mining personnel. It is therefore highly unlikely that at this time the Israelites would have experienced a theophany here. Serabit el-Khadem is not Mt. Sinai.
We must admit that we can get no help in locating the Exodus route by trying to locate Mt. Sinai.
Let us therefore look at the ecological and ethnological picture of Sinai to see what guidance we can find.
The entire Sinai peninsula covers over 23,000 square miles. I would like to concentrate, however, on the nearly 2,900 square-mile area of south central Sinai.
Geologically, south central Sinai is part of the Arabian-Nubian massif. The highest peaks reach 8,200 feet above sea level. The mountain landscape is broken and cut by ravines and gullies. Some of these wadis are only a few yards wide; others are 500 feet wide and more.
As noted earlier, these wadis, or at least the wider ones, provide convenient natural passages along which traffic moves; they form the principal routes and arteries of the region and are also the main areas in which human activity was, and still is, concentrated.
South central Sinai has a semi-desert climate. The median low temperature in winter is 23° Fahrenheit; the median high temperature in summer is 105° Fahrenheit. Rainfall is rare and irregular. The average annual rainfall is less than 2.5 inches. However, a small amount of melt water from the snows that cover the mountain peaks in winter adds to the water supply.
Water resources also include rock aquifers (natural, subterranean reservoirs), which are sufficiently close to the surface to be rather easily tapped. Natural open pools along wadis also collect runoff rainwater. The water accumulated in these pools can be drawn on for many months of the year. In a few places, springs fed by high ground-water levels flow into the wadis. It is at these places where oases, such as the Feiran oasis in the west and Ein-Kid oasis in the east, have developed. A fairly dense growth of typically stunted, desert trees and bushes covers the streambeds and the nearby plain areas. This growth is exploited by the local Bedouin for grazing, as well as for fuel.
Today, the area has a population of approximately 10,000 Bedouin, who live in both temporary and permanent settlements. Their dwellings consist mostly of tents, wooden huts and, at the more permanent sites, a few stone structures.
In the 15 years between 1967 and 1982, when Israeli archaeologists had access to Sinai, it was clearly shown that the largest concentration of ancient settlements was in this mountainous region of south central Sinai. Except for the coastal strip, all other areas of Sinai have few economic resources and little water, as a result of which there is almost no regular or settled population. Central Sinai is called in Arabic “Badyat el-Tih,” the Desert of the Wanderers. It is a flat area of limestone and sand, unsuitable for farming of any kind. Even the wild flora struggle to survive because of the lack of water.
Based on this evidence, I believe that the southern route is the one most likely taken by the Israelites on their trek from Raamses to Kadesh-Barnea. As compared with other regions of Sinai, here in south central Sinai they would have found a reasonably adequate water supply and a relatively comfortable climate that makes it possible to maintain a daily lifestyle suitably adapted to the conditions of the desert. Moreover, the high mountains of south central Sinai are geomorphologically adapted to providing plenty of rock shelters; the high cliffs shield settlements established in their lee against the blasts of the cold winter winds.
Compared to other parts of Sinai, this region is ecologically better adapted to the sustenance of life, because it is covered by assorted vegetation consisting of acacia and palm trees and a fairly dense growth of perennial bushes, along with a seasonal cover of grasses and weeds suitable for pasturing sheep and goats.
In a pastoral economy (where ordinary argiculture is not possible) a flock of goats is essential. The Bedouin flocks even today are mostly black goats of a special dwarf breed physiologically adapted to arid conditions. As experiments have shown, this breed of goat can go for as long as 14 days without water. At the end of the two-week period, the goats will have lost 40 percent of their body weight. Although deprived of water for this entire period, however, the goats show no ill effects and continue to carry out their bodily functions normally. Then, when given water, they gulp up enough in two minutes to equal 40 percent of their body weight.
This animal’s ability to endure for weeks without water allows Sinai pastoralists to wander long distances with their flocks. The economic existence of the ancient population of south central Sinai was probably dependent on the domestication of the desert goat, which provided the populace not only with meat and milk, but also with hides and perhaps with wool as well.
In our excavations,g we found numerous animal bones of black, dwarf-breed goats from as early as the third millennium B.C. With flocks of such goats, the pastoralists could range across south central Sinai without having to worry about a nearby water source, such as a pool, a cistern or a well.
The concentration of Bedouin in this area today confirms our analysis of the situation in ancient times. In this respect, things haven’t changed very much.
But there is another reason why I believe that this is the area most likely traversed by the Israelites on their way through Sinai. That relates to the area’s geographic isolation vis-à-vis the regions that surround it. This isolation results from the region’s geomorphological structure, which cuts it off from the mountain ranges to the north and from the Red Sea gulfs on the east and west.
Whether for this or for other, additional reasons, ancient Egyptian hegemony never extended into south central Sinai. As we have seen, the Egyptians did reach the western strip of southern Sinai, where they worked the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem and similar mines at nearby Wadi Maghara. But despite the fact that south central Sinai contains copper deposits that were highly prized in ancient times, there is no evidence to indicate that the Egyptians were active in the exploitation of these copper deposits.
Perhaps they refrained from penetrating into the south central mountain region, because they feared a conflict with the local population, which enjoyed a clear strategic advantage over any foreign invader. This is suggested by an Egyptian rock relief discovered in the Wadi Maghara. This relief, dating to about 2600 B.C., depicts the pharaoh Sekhemkhet, the third king of the third dynasty, smiting an enemy. Whether the depicted act was an actual historical event is irrelevant; the fact remains, the Egyptians perceived the need to invoke magical powers against their enemies in this region.
In any event, for whatever reason, we find no evidence of an Egyptian presence in south central Sinai at any time in the entire history of ancient Egypt.
So south central Sinai was suitable as the wandering ground of the Israelite tribes not only from an economic-ecological viewpoint, but also from the geopolitical viewpoint. It was a region free of any Egyptian presence. Here, in short, the Israelites were safe.
Yet there is a problem. Nowhere have we found any material remains of human occupation at the time (Late Bronze Age—1550–1200 B.C.) when the Exodus is supposed to have occurrred.h Perhaps it will be argued, by those who subscribe to the traditional account in the Bible, that the Israelite material culture was only of the flimsiest kind that left no trace. Presumably the Israelite dwellings and artifacts consisted only of perishable materials.
But it must be pointed out that we did find substantial evidence of human occupation from even earlier periods. We discovered scores of settlements, especially from the so-called pre-pottery Neolithic period (sixth-fifth millennia B.C.) and from the Early Bronze Age II period (first half of the third millennium B.C.). In the EB II period, a Canaanite population established a series of small settlements in south central Sinai. The principal economic activity of these settlements was the production of copper from locally mined ores, which was then transported by caravan to the large population centers in Canaan.
What are we to conclude then from all this evidence? It is clear that no single, consistent picture of the Exodus emerges. But what we can say is that if a large-scale Exodus as described in the Bible, or even a small-scale Exodus, did in fact occur, it probably followed the southern route through the Sinai.
a. See Rudolph Cohen, “Did I Excavate Kadesh-Barnea?” BAR 07:03.
b. A tel or tell is an artificial mound formed by accumulated remains. “Tel” is the spelling used in Hebrew site names; “tell” is the spelling used in Arabic site names.
c. Another view (held by Zvi Ilan and supported by some other scholars) is that the mountain of Seir is not located in Jordan, but in east central Sinai close to the Negev Highlands. According to this view, this route starts in the Temed area and goes north via the Wadi Watir, the Wadi Shaireh and Jebel Shaireh (notice the similarity between the Arabic name Shaireh and the Hebrew name Sinai) to Kadesh-Barnea (see dashed line on map). In this view, Horeb/Sinai should be located in the area of Temed because “there are 11 days’ journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir unto Kadesh-Barnea” (Deuteronomy 1:2).
d. The mountain of God is called both “Horeb” and “Sinai” at different places in the Bible (see, for example, Exodus 3:1 and Deuteronomy 1:6 for “Horeb”; and Exodus 19:20, 34:29 for “Sinai”).
e. See Emmanuel Anati, “Has Mt. Sinai Been Found?” BAR 11:04.
f. From 1971 to 1982 I headed an archaeological expedition, on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, that investigated the archaeology of southern and eastern Sinai.
g. See my article, “Fifteen Years in Sinai,” BAR 10:04.
h. For the earlier date, see John J. Bimson and David Livingston, “Redating the Exodus,” BAR 13:05; for the later date, see Baruch Halpern, “Radical Exodus Redating Fatally Flawed,” BAR 13:06).
1. Itzhaq Beit-Arieh, “A Pattern of Settlement in Southern Sinai and Southern Canaan in the Third Millennium B.C.,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 243 (1981), pp. 31–54.
2. U. Armer, “Ancient Cult Sites in the Negev and Sinai Deserts,” Tel Aviv 11 (1984), pp. 115–131.
3. William M. Flinders Petrie, Researches in Sinai (New York: Dutton 1906); see also Beit-Arieh, “Fifteen Years in Sinai,” BAR 10:04; and Beit-Arieh, “Serabit el-Khadim: New Metallurgical and Chronological Aspects,” Levant 17 (1985), pp. 89–116.
4. William F. Albright, The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and Their Decipherment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969); Frank Moore Cross, “The Evolution of the Alphabet,” Eretz-Israel 8 (1967) p. 12; and Joseph Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet (Jerusalem. Magnes Press, Hebrew Univ., 1982).