Exodus - Road to the Mountain

6: What if… rocks drip water and trees drip dew?

The Exodus story is retold in Numbers, again with those small variations that help confirm and shed light on what happened. Colin Humphreys has researched the descriptions and locations and provides a fascinating account of the most likely journey in his book.

Numbers 33:8-15 lists the Israelites as stopping at the Desert of Etham, Marah, Elim, the Red Sea, the Desert of Sin, Dophkah, Alush, Rephidim, and the Desert of Sinai. Combining this list with the account in Exodus helps us come up with a possible map.

What if… there really was no water on the road through the Desert of Shur?
Exodus 15:22-25. The word Shur means wall, suggesting a rift wall or rift valley.
The Bible says the Israelites found no water for 3 days as they walked in this desert. (Note, they are on days 8, 9 and 10 of their journey here, and Arabian tradition says Moses took 9 days to reach Madian.) The trade route south from the Gulf of Aqaba fits the description fairly well. The 1st stopping place is Hakl, where the brackish water is okay for flocks but not suitable for people. The 2nd stop is as-Saraf where a 1917 report says there was “no water”. And the 3rd stop is at the “Caves of Jethro,” part of Madian (al Bad) where Moses might have lived with his father-in-law. Exodus 18:2 records Moses leaving his wife and children with Jethro, which may have happened at this time.

What if… Marah is Madian?
The Israelites were unlikely to complain of finding bitter water at a place called Marah, since Marah means bitter. But we can easily imagine how Moses might have encouraged them in the desert with the promise of sweet water at Madian.
Why was the water bitter? The wells at Madian are at the foot of some cliffs. If the east wind that dried up the Red Sea was caused by a severe storm, water polluted by mineral runoff could have come over the cliffs and made the sweet water foul.
Can a piece of wood make bitter water sweet? Yes. Colin Humphreys points out that Moses may have used one of the first ever charcoal filters. Perhaps an acacia bush, burned by lightening in the storm, was what he threw into the water.

What if… Elim is a beautiful oasis?
Exodus 15:26-27. Elim means big trees. This is probably the name the Israelites gave to the next place where they stopped. The 4th stopping place on the trade route south from the gulf is at Ainuna. There is a huge oasis there, about a mile wide, which could feed thousands of people, and which probably would have held many big trees.

What if… the Israelites walked down the Eastern side of the Red Sea?
Exodus 16:1. Exodus describes the Israelites marching between Elim and Sinai while Numbers says they camped at the Red Sea. If Mount Sinai is to the east in Arabia, this would suggest they walked back to the coast along the desert road until some suitable point where they turned off inland.
Is there a route inland from the old trade road? Colin Humphrey’s identifies a canyon, Wadi Tiryam, 20 miles south east of Ainuna. A road east appears to have existed here, joining the coast road with another, inland, road. Wadi Sadr runs into Wadi Tiryam and offers good supplies of water and food, which agrees with the Exodus record: The Israelites made no further complaint until they left the wadis and entered the high desert ground to the east.

What if… dew and quail can be found in the desert?
Exodus 16:2-36
Can there be dew in a desert? In 1845-48, George Wallin was in the Al-Hisma desert in Arabia and wrote about an amazing, heavy dewfall, caused by partial humidity and the high altitude. If the Israelites had marched up the Wadi Sadr, this is precisely where they would have been.
Can there be quail in the desert? The Al-Hisma desert is on the migration route for quail which head for Europe in the spring. If the Israelites were there in April, huge flocks of quail might have flown overhead, appearing as clouds. The birds would have been plump and heavy after their winter’s feeding; with the Mediterranean crossing ahead, they would have needed to settle and rest. Records show flocks were big enough to sink a ship, so there might well have been enough birds to feed the tribe.
Can there be manna in the desert? There are trees in the Al-Hisma desert which produce a sticky sap when bitten by insects. The sap drips into small beads on the ground which look like seeds and taste like honey. Bedouin tribes-people gather the beads in the morning, before the ground warms up and the ants eat them. The Bible says the manna melted away if left on the ground, which might be how it would appear as ants carried the beads under the sand. The Israelites kept a sample in a jar, and the high sugar content would prevent its going moldy. While tradition has the Israelites eating manna throughout their journey, the Bible only records them eating it briefly.
Why is the Desert called Sin? Sin, in this context, is probably a reference to the moon god and not to disobedience. The Al-Hisma desert might have been named for the god Sin because the sand is yellow, like the color of the moon.

What if… water flows from a Rock?
Exodus 17:1-7
Where did they go next? Numbers lists Dophkah and Alush before Rephidim. Dophkah is like the Hebrew word for strike and might mean could be a mining town which would be likely in the region.
Where is the Rock at Horeb? Mount Sinai is also called Mount Horeb. If the mountain stands on top of a rocky base, as Mount Bedr does, the “table” or base might be called “The rock.”
Can water come from a rock? Porous rocks absorbs water and can become sealed, perhaps by blowing sand forming a sandstone surface. It the surface is broken, water pours out. If the rock is large and is broken near the bottom, the outflow can be very spectacular.
Where are Massah and Meribah? We are told that Moses created these names to record what happened there, so maybe the Israelites created the name Marah for Madian similarly (Exodus 15:23).

What if… the Amalekites were fighting for their god?
In Exodus 17:8-15 the Amalekites, a nomadic people who usually traveled in small groups, are described as a large attacking army. Several groups may have come to the mountain, to see why it was erupting. Finding foreign worshippers there they may have combined to fight for their god.

What if… human government is important too?
In Exodus 18:2 we’re told that Moses sent his wife and sons to Jethro. Since Jethro lived in Madian, this suggests the Exodus route must have at least passed near Madian. There was probably a shorter route from there to Mount Sinai that a small group of people and flocks could take, rather than traveling by road. Jethro would have known where the Israelites were going, since Moses had taken his flocks there earlier, and he probably arranged to reunite the family at the Mountain of God. There he agreed with Moses that the Israelite God is powerful, and joined him in worship (18:7-12), even though he wasn’t a Jew. Then, as a leader in his own right, he advised Moses on how to govern the secular lives of the Israelites (18:13-26). Soon God would advise him on how their religious lives should be ordered.


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