Exodus - Red Sea Crossing

5: What if… the Bible reveals a discoverable path?

The traditional Exodus story says Moses and the Israelites ran away from the Egyptians and escaped by crossing the Red Sea. But where did they cross, and to what purpose? And where did they go next? What does the Bible really say about the journey?

Compare Numbers 33:1-8, and Exodus 12:37a, 13:17, 13:20-14:2, 15:22-23

The accounts don’t agree precisely so they’re probably not copies. But they agree most of the time, so they’re probably not fiction. The points of agreement and difference can be used to shed light on the geography of the journey.

Where is Rameses? Numbers 33:1-3
Historians have found evidence of huge storage chambers built at Pi-Rameses (house of Rameses) during the Egyptian “New Kingdom” period (1540-1069BC). The city was probably at Qantir on the Nile Delta (though it was once thought to be Tamis).

Where is Succoth? Exodus 12:37, Numbers 33:5
Succoth is probably Egyptian Tjeku, Arabic Maskuta (place of Skuta – the name could have the same root as Succoth). An Egyptian papyrus details 2 runaway slaves being chased for 1 day from Rameses to a border fort at Succoth. It would be a good place to organize the people before crossing the Sinai desert.

Which road did they follow? Exodus 13:17-18
The Northern “Way of Horus.” was heavily fortified. It ran by the Mediterranean and would be the shortest route to Canaan (but not to Mount Sinai, whether it’s on the Sinai Peninsula or in Arabia). The desert road, which the Bible says the Israelites took instead, might well be the same road Moses used to escape Egypt and flee to Midian. After all, he’s heading to the same mountain as the where he grazed Jethro’s flocks. This suggest the Israelites could be headed straight across the Sinai peninsula.

What were the pillar of cloud and fire? Exodus 13:20-22
Volcanic gasses can be visible from 500 miles away during an eruption, appearing as a smoky column during the day but glowing red at night. The pillars of cloud and fire described in the Bible could be miraculously moving (and changing) pillars, or the Israelites could have been marching towards an erupting volcano. The burning bush that Moses saw might have been a precursor to eruption.

Where is Etham? Exodus 13:20, Numbers 33:5-6
Etham is mentioned both before and after Red Sea crossing (Exodus 15:22 and Numbers 33:8). This suggests a region on both sides of the sea. The desert of Etham and desert of Shur could be alternate names for the same place, since many locations have more than one name. Mount Yitm (El Ithm, Etham) is at the north end of Gulf of Aqaba, with Wadi Ithm nearby, so Etham might be the name for a region near the mountain around the top of the Gulf of Aqaba. Also, shur means “wall”, and there are rift (wall) mountains which might have lent their name to the region.

Where is Pi-Hahiroth? Exodus 14:1-9
The Bible says the Israelites “turned back” to camp at Pi-Hahiroth. If Etham is at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba, the Israelites would follow the desert road east down a narrow canyon to the gulf and then turn north to march to the top of the gulf. Turning north would mean they were temporarily marching “away” from their destination, so the pillars of cloud and fire would be behind them, which indeed they were soon afterwards. Exodus 14:19

How did the Egyptian army get behind and in front? Exodus 14:9
Moses asked for 7 days freedom for his people, so Pharaoh would have been expecting them back just about when they reached the Gulf of Aqabe. He may have learned earlier from visitors that they were escaping, and sent an army after them. Egyptian chariots and horses couldn’t go down the narrow pass to the gulf so they would have taken a longer, flatter route. Meanwhile the foot-soldiers marched towards the Israelites from behind. When the chariots reached the top of the gulf they would turn south and meet the Israelite column from in front, trapping them between two forces.

Where is the Red/Reed Sea: Exodus 13:31
Yam suph actually means “sea of reeds,” but was translated, by early Hebrew scholars, into Red Sea in the Septuagint (the Greek Bible used by Greek-speaking Jews since long before the time of Jesus). Some argue that this was a mistranslation, and the Red Sea crossing must have taken place at a reedy lake in Egypt. But there are freshwater reeds on the (saltwater) Gulf of Aqaba, and the water does look red because of coral formations. What the Hebrews called “Reed Sea” may equally have been called “Red Sea” in Greek.

If Mount Sinai is on the Sinai peninsula, a Red Sea crossing would have to take place at the Gulf of Suez, but there were no roads south there, and there’s no tradition of Midianites grazing animals on the disputed peninsula. If Mount Sinai is in Arabia, where Moses is more likely to have taken his flocks, the crossing might take place at the Gulf of Aqaba.

In fact, the Bible does describe the Gulf of Aqaba as the Red Sea in other places. 1 Kings 9:26 describes Solomon building his ships on the shores of the Red Sea, which must have been near the Gulf of Aqaba, since Suez was never under Israelite control. Deuteronomy 2:1 mentions Seir near the Red Sea, and Seir is near the Gulf of Aqaba. Numbers 33 lists the Israelites who camped by the Red Sea, five days after crossing the Red Sea, consistent with crossing at the Gulf of Aqaba and marching south afterwards.

How did they cross the Sea? Exodus 14:10-30
Imagine Pharaoh’s chariots coming south from the north end of the gulf, while his soldiers rush down the pass behind the Israelites. The people are trapped, and the only possible escape is to cross the water.

God uses a strong east wind (which can mean “from the northeast”) to drive the sea back. A wind blowing down the Gulf (so, in the case of the Gulf of Aqaba, from the northeast, across the direction that the people want to walk) might cause a “wind set-down” – like a river bore, or like blowing across the top of a glass of water. An 80 mph wind (not unlikely) could push the water 800 yards or more. Water on the right would appear as a wall. Walls of water to the left are harder to explain, but might be a natural assumption as the people rush across and see sunlight reflecting off water downstream of them.

Clay soil would clog the hooves and wheels of Pharaoh’s chariots and horses. The wind drops and the army drowns (very quickly), but Pharaoh was probably not killed or the Bible would say so. Since Egyptian texts don’t normally describe defeats unless Pharaohs die, it’s not surprising they don’t corroborate this event.


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