By Gordon Franz
Where was the Red Sea Crossing?
The location of the Red Sea Crossing is a hotly debated topic and I would like to throw my two cents worth into the debate. There are two studies that I have found to be very helpful and would highly recommend them. The first is Dr. James Hoffmeier’s book, Israel in Egypt (1997). While I do not agree with some of his conclusions, it is well documented and sets forth all the different views. The second study is a ThM thesis by Joel McQuitty done at Capital Bible Seminary in 1986. It is entitled “The Location and Nature of the Red Sea Crossing.” Ironically, McQuitty wrote it at the time the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz were carrying out their adventures in Saudi Arabia! He does not interact with this view because the proponents’ view was not yet in print.
Is the location of the Red Sea Crossing important for Bible believers? One commentary on the book of Exodus observes, “The exact place of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea has no direct theological importance” (Cole 1973:44). McQuitty points out, “In the form of the statement Mr. Cole is correct, geography normally impinges very little upon theology. However, how one determines the geography of the Bible may speak volumes concerning one’s theology” (1986:2).
In the literature, I have been able to discern five general areas that have been proposed for the Red Sea Crossing. Within each area there are several variations. I was intrigued to see in the book of one of the proponents, and it is also in their advertisement in BAR, five “proposed traditional Red Sea Crossing sites”. I have not been able to document four of these anywhere in the literature and he does not have the three usual sites above the Gulf of Suez marked (Williams 1990: map following page 128).
The five areas that I have been able to discern, from north to south, are;
- The Mediterranean Sea sites. Usually the crossing is placed at Lake Sirbonis. This identification is based on placing the Baal-Zephon with a sanctuary of Zeus Casios nearby. The leading proponents of this view are O. Eissfeldt, M. Noth, H. Cazelles, Y. Aharoni and M. Avi-Yonah.
- The northern sites. Several lakes north of the Bitter Lakes have been proposed. They are Lake Timsah, Lake Balah or the southern extension of Lake Menzaleh. The proponents of this area are E. Naville, M. F. Unger, K. A. Kitchen and J. Hoffmeier.
- The central site. The proponents of this view place the crossing at the Bitter Lakes. Some would suggest that the Gulf of Suez actually came up to the Bitter Lakes in antiquity. The proponents of this view are J. Simons, C. Condor, U. Cassuto, John J. David.
- The southern view. The proponents place the crossing at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez. Within this view there are two areas. One view places it just off shore from the modern day Suez City. The other places it at a land bridge 4 miles south of Suez City between Ras el-‘Adabiya and Birket Misallat. The proponents of this view are E. Robinson, A. Smith, E. H. Palmer (1977:35-37), Keil and Delitzsch, James Murphy, John Rea, J. McQuitty and G. Franz.
- The southeastern view. This view places the crossing in the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat. Within the gulf there are two proposed crossings. One crossing, proposed by R. Wyatt and L. Moller, is a land bridge to the east of Nuweiba. The second crossing that was proposed is at a land bridge at the Strait of Tiran. R. Knuteson, J. Irwin, B. Cornuke and L. Williams hold this view.
Within the debate on the location of the Red Sea crossing there is a sub-debate on the meaning of the name Yam Suph. The common interpretation of these words today is “Reed Sea”. The first to suggest Yam Suph means “reedy swamp” appears to be Rabbi Shelomoh Yetzhaki (Rashi) in the 11th century AD. Personally I am not comfortable with that etymology. I will leave that discussion for another paper. I think the meaning of Yam Suph is Red Sea.
The word Yam Suph is used 24 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex. 10:19; 13:18; 15:4,22; 23:31; Num. 14:25; 21:4; 33:10,11; Deut. 1:40; 2:1; 11:4; Josh. 2:10; 4:23; 24:6; Judges 11:16; I Kings 9:26; Neh. 9:9; Ps. 106:7,9,22; 136:13,15; Jer. 49:21). The Greek words, Erythra Thalassa, is used two times in the New Testament (Acts 7:36; Heb. 11:29). These are the Greek words used to translate the Hebrew Yam Suph in the Greek Septuagint.
In the Greco-Roman world the term Erythra Thalassa covered “all eastern waters, including the Indian Ocean; it specifically referred to the modern Red Sea and Persian Gulf” (Warmington and Salles 1996:1296,7). Strabo, writing his Geography at the beginning of the First Century AD, said, “There is another canal which empties into the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf near the city Arsinoe, a city which some call Cleopatris [modern day Suez City – GF]. It flows through the Bitter Lakes, as they are called” (17:25; LCL 8:77). Strabo makes a distinction between the Red Sea, also called the Arabian Gulf, and the Bitter Lakes. The Bitter Lakes is never called the Red Sea.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Yam Suph could refers to either the Gulf of Suez or the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat. The context determines the location. For example, Exodus 10:19 says, “And the LORD turned a very strong west wind, which took the locusts away and blew them into the Red Sea. There remained not one locust in all the territory of Egypt.” As J. Rea points out, the “strong west wind” should be translated “sea wind”. In Egypt, the sea winds are from north-northwest to the south (1975:1:572). Since the locusts covered “the face of the whole earth [land of Egypt]” (10:15), there would need to be a large body of water to destroy the locusts. The Gulf of Suez is what is in view. Exodus 13:18 and 15:4,22; Num. 33:10 refer to the Gulf of Suez. On the other hand, I Kings 9:26 says “King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom.” This is clearly referring to the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat. Judges 11:16 and Jer. 49:20, 21 are most likely referring to this gulf as well.
What are the Biblical criteria for the Red Sea Crossing? There are three passages that deal with the topography of the Red Sea crossing. Exodus 14:2 gives Moses perspective. It states, “Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you shall camp before it by the sea.” Exodus 14:9 gives Pharaoh’s perspective. It states, “So the Egyptians pursued them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, his horsemen and his army, and overtook them camping by the sea beside Pi Hahiroth, before Baal Zephon.” In the itinerary of sites where the Israelites traveled in Numbers 33:7, 8 it is stated: “They moved from Etham and turned back to Pi Hahiroth, which is east of Baal Zephon; and they camped near Migdol. They departed from before Pi Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness.” Three topographical sites must be identified from these passages. They are the Pi Hahiroth, the Migdol and Baal Zephon [See Map 1].
Scholars have debated the meaning of Pi Hahiroth but the consensus seems to be that it is a Hebraized form of Akkadian origin meaning “mouth of the canal” (Kitchen 1998:78; Hoffmeier 1997: 169-172, 182-183, 188-189, 211, 214; Currid 1997:134; Redford 1992:5:371; Sneh, Weissbrod and Perath 1975: 547; Albright 1948:16; Skipwith 1913:94, 95). If that is the case, what canal is being referred to? I would like to propose that there was a canal from the Bitter Lakes to the Gulf of Suez, or at least the remnants of a canal that was started and abandoned by the time of the Exodus, but the toponym was still known.
Strabo writes of such a canal. He says, “There is another canal which empties into the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf near the city Arsinoe, a city which some call Cleopatris. … The canal was first cut by Sesostris before the Trojan War – though some say by the son of Psammitichus, who only began the work and then died – and later by Dareius the First, who succeeded to the next work done upon it. But he, too, having been persuaded by a false notion, abandoned the work when it was already near completion; for he was persuaded that the Red Sea was higher than Aegypt, and that if the intervening isthmus were cut all the way through, Aegypt would be inundated by the sea. The Ptolemaic kings, however, cut through it…” (Geography 17:1:25; LCL 8:77).
Aristotle, in his Meteorologica, states, “One of the kings tried to dig a canal to it [the Red Sea]. (For it would be of no little advantage to them if this whole region was accessible to navigation: Sesostris is said to be the first of the ancient kings to have attempted the work.) It was, however, found that the sea was higher than the land: and so Sesostris first and Dareius after him gave up digging the canal for fear the water of the river should be ruined by an admixture of sea-water” (1:15:25-30; LCL 117).
Pliny describes the planned canal between the Nile River and the Red Sea in these terms, “This project was originally conceived by Sesostris King of Egypt, and later by the Persian King Darius and then again by Ptolemy the Second, who did actually carry a trench 100 ft. broad and 30 ft. deep for a distance of 34 ½ miles, as far as the Bitter Lakes” (Natural History 6:33:165; LCL 2:461, 463).
Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, describes the building of this canal into the Red Sea. It was begun by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II and finished by the Persian King Darius (The Persian Wars 2:158; LCL 1:471,473). He does not, however, mention the attempt by Sesostris.
James Breasted, a noted Egyptologist, believes that Queen Hatshepaut’s expedition to Punt went down the Nile River to a canal through the Wadi Tumilat to a canal connecting to the Red Sea (1912:188, 274-276). If he were correct, that would demonstrate that there was a canal in existence right before the Exodus from Egypt. However, several other Egyptologists have disputed this idea (Kitchen 1971: 184-207).
As Dr. Hoffmeier points out, “The possibility remains that a genuine memory of the canal-excavating accomplishments of one or more of the Sesotrises or Senuserts from Dynasty 12 may be preserved in these classical writers. The late George Posener thought these references might be connected with the work of Senusert I or III. Currently, no contemporary Egyptian texts support or deny this tradition” (1997:169).
The classical sources seem to indicate that a canal was started by Sesostris in the 12th Dynasty [ca. 1900 BC] but not completed. If that is the case, he might have begun part of the project at the Red Sea but later abandoned it. This would have been called the Pi Hahiroth, the “mouth of the canal.” The toponym would have been preserved even at the time of the Exodus. I would propose that the Pi Hahiroth would be located somewhere near today’s Suez City at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez.
The next toponym to consider is the Migdol. K. A. Kitchen says that “the term migdol is simply a common noun from Northwest Semitic, for a fort or watchtower, and we do not know how many such migdols existed in the East Delta region” (1998:78). There was a fortress at Clysma-Qolzoum (modern day Suez City) that dates to the Late Bronze Age (Bruyere 1966). The question is, was there an occupational level at the time of the Exodus, or was there another fortress in the area? This fortress would have guarded the northern end of the Gulf of Suez and the canal, if it existed, as well as the road coming up from the Sinai.
The next toponym to be considered is Baal-Zephon. The identification is problematic. Dr. Hoffmeier has pointed out that the “expression literally means ‘lord of the north’ and is a deity in the Ugaritic pantheon associated with Mount Casius just north of Ugarit” (1997:190). Eissfeldt suggested it was located at Ras Qasrun based on the account of Herodotus (Persian Wars 2:6, LCL 1:281; 3:5, LCL 2:9). Baal-zephon was worshipped at Memphis and Tell Defeneh and a cylinder seal depicting Baal-Zephon as the “protector of sailors” was found at Tell el-Dab’a (Hoffmeier 1997:190). W. F. Albright states that, “Baal-saphon was the marine storm-god par excellence, like Greek Poseiden. As such, he was also the protector of mariners against storms. In his honour temples were built and ports were named along the Mediterranean litoral as far as Egypt, where we find Baal-zephon worshipped at Tahpanhes (Daphne) and Memphis” (1968:127.128). Quite possibly there would have been a temple on Jebel ‘Ataqa over looking the northern end of the Gulf of Suez. The sailors could petition him on their way out to sea for a safe trip and thank him when they arrive safely to port.
More than likely, when the Israelites camped by the sea, it would have been on the plains at the north shore of the Gulf of Suez between Suez City and the impressive mountain to the west, Jebel ‘Ataqa. Robinson describes this area as a “desert plain … composed for the most part of hard gravel” (1977:70). There is adequate space for the tribes of Israel.
Where would the crossing have been? Edward Robinson, in 1838, placed the crossing along the northern shore of the Gulf of Suez. He seems to favor a somewhat naturalistic explanation for a miraculous event (1977:81-86).
Topographically, the most suitable site for the crossing is a natural land bridge that lies 4 miles south of the northern shore of the Gulf of Suez that averages 6 meters (ca. 20 feet) below the surface. This land bridge is ½ mile wide and four miles across.
With Jebel ‘Ataqa on their right and the sea on their left and the wilderness closing in to a point at Ras el-‘Adabiya, Pharaoh’s statement in Exodus 14:3 makes sense. “For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, ‘They are bewildered by the land; the wilderness has closed them in.”
When the Israelites saw Pharaoh and his army approaching they were terrified and complained to Moses. Moses responded, “Do not be afraid. Stand still and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today” (Ex.14:13). Moses lifted up his rod and the LORD divided the sea with a wall on one side and on the other as well (Ex. 14:16, 21, 22, 29) and they went through on dry land. When the made it to the other side, the waters returned and covered the Egyptians (14:28; 15:4, 5, 19). There is no naturalistic explanation for this occurrence; it was a first class miracle.
This location is also where the early Christian pilgrims place the Red Sea Crossing (Wilkinson 1981: 100,101,205-207).
Once on the other side, where Birket Nisallat is today, the Israelites were in no rush to go anywhere. There was nobody chasing them anymore. The Egyptians had drowned. The Israelites probably spent the next day worshiping the Lord for His great salvation. We know that Moses composed a song and Miriam and the women danced and sang (Ex. 15:1-21).
When they began their journey again, they went into the Wilderness of Shur (Ex. 15:22). Edward Palmer, a 19th century explorer, best described this scene. He said, “The word Shur in Hebrew signifies ‘a wall;’ and as we stand at ‘Ayin Musa and glance over the desert at the Jebels er Rahah and et-Tih which border the gleaming plain, we at once appreciate the fact that these long wall-like escarpments are the chief if not the only prominent characteristics of this portion of the wilderness, and we need not wonder that the Israelites should have named this memorable spot, after its most salient feature, the wilderness of Shur or the wall” (1872:44). When I stayed in Suez City last May, I had dinner in a hotel over looking the Suez Canal. As the sun was setting, I noticed this prominent line of escarpment as well.
The waters of Marah are three days journey from the Red Sea (Ex. 15:22). Where these are located, I do not know for sure. The Numbers account places it in the wilderness of Etham (33:8). The Wilderness of Etham appears to be the larger area with the Wilderness of Shur the southern part if this wilderness. The Israelites headed north to Marah. E. Robinson identifies a “fountain Naba’, three hours distance across the Gulf and so brackish as to be scarcely drinkable (1977:69). The local Arabs called it el-Ghurkudeh. This was the source of the drinking water for Suez. Robinson’s Arab guide described it as “a basin eight or ten feet in diameter and six or eight feet deep, with stone steps to go down into it. In this basin the water, which is quite brackish, boils up continually and stands two or three feet deep, without any outlet; furnishing enough to supply two hundred camel-loads at once” (1977:89). Moses cast a tree into the bitter water and it was made sweet (Ex. 15:25).
Apparently after this incident, the Israelites turned south to Elim with its twelve springs and 70 palm trees (Ex. 15:27; Num. 33:9). A good candidate for this site is one of the most prominent springs in the Sinai Peninsula, ‘Ayun Musa. Two geologists observed that “there are twelve springs, from two which good drinking water may be obtained” (Moon and Sadek 1921:2). In their geological report, they have pictures of this spring with palm trees in the area. When Robinson visited in 1838 he observed only seven springs (1977:90).
The Numbers account says that they camped by the Red Sea after their time in Elim (Num. 33:10,11). Somewhere at the entrance to the Wadi Sudr would be a good candidate for this campsite. After, they headed up Wadi Sudr to Jebel Sin Bishar, the Biblical (and real) Mt. Sinai (Har-el 1983; Faiman 2000:115-118).
Menashe Har-el makes a solid case for Jebel Sin Bishar being the real Mt. Sinai. He points out that Jebel Sin Bishar is the only mountain in the Sinai Peninsula that preserves the toponym “Sinai” in the word “Sin” (Har-el 1983:421). He states that “the meaning of Sin Bisher is the reporting of the Law, or Laws of man. This name hints at the “Giving of the Law” (ibid). Josephus says that Mt. Sinai is the highest mountain in that area (Antiquities 2:264, 3:75,76; LCL 4:279, 355). While “Jebel sin Bishar is only 618 meters above sea level, it is the most prominent of its surrounding” (ibid). Remember, Moses at 80 years old, had to climb that mountain several times!