By Gordon Franz
The Chronology from Rameses to the Red Sea
Bible geographers who deal with the Exodus take the three encampments from Rameses to the Red Sea, i.e. Succoth, Etham and Migdol, to refer to three days of travel. The Bible does not explicitly say this.
Joel McQuitty made an interesting suggestion back in 1986. He suggested that the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorates the seven days it took to go from Rameses to the Red Sea (1986:103-105; Ex. 13:3,4; 12:33f.; Deut. 16:3; Lev. 23:42-43). Ironically, one of the proponents of Jebel al Lawz does as well. However, he goes one step further and says that the Israelites rested on the Sabbath (Letter from Durham, Sept. 7, 2001, p. 14).
If McQuitty is correct, and I believe he is, then this would fit very nicely with a crossing at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez. As K. A. Kitchen has pointed out, Rameses is located in the area of Khataana / Qantar (1998:77). Others place Rameses at Tell el-Dab’a, another site in the area (Shea 1990:98-111). Kitchen goes on to locate Succoth at Tell el-Maskhuta and Pithom at Tell er-Retaba (1998:78). From the Qantar area to Suez City is approximately 100 miles. If we take that number and divide it by seven days it comes out to about 15 miles per day. Considering the Israelites left Egypt in “haste” (Ex. 12:33; Deut. 16:3) and in “orderly ranks”, a military term for battle array (Ex, 13:18), 15 miles a day would be very reasonable. Robinson observed that “the usual day’s march of the best appointed armies, both in ancient and modern times, is not estimated higher than fourteen English, or twelve geographical miles, and it cannot be supposed that the Israelites with women and children and flocks, would be able to accomplish more” (1977:75).
A near contemporary event to the Exodus would be Thutmose III’s first campaign against the land of Canaan. Aharoni describes the march by Thutmose III and his army to Megiddo this way: “From Sile, the chief frontier post on the Egyptian border, the army covered the 150 miles to Gaza in nine or ten days, a very rapid pace” (1979:153). In this march across the northern Sinai they encountered very sandy conditions, but they would have averaged 15 miles per day. Once they got to Canaan, they slowed down because of resistance along the way by the Canaanites (Aharoni 1979:153).
Problems with the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat Crossings
The proponents of Jebel al-Lawz do not agree on the crossing site of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat. One group, consisting of R. Wyatt, J. Pinkoski and L. Moller suggests that the Israelites crossed at Nuweiba. The other group, consisting of J. Irwin, R. Cornuke, L. Williams, R. Knuteson, K. Kluetz, and K. Durham argues for the Strait of Tiran.
Regarding the Nuweiba crossing, there are several problems. The first problem is the distance it takes to go from Rameses to Nuweiba. Moller, in his video, said their route through the Sinai would take three weeks. This does not meet the Biblical requirements of seven days. The second problem is the topography of the underwater land bridge. From Nuweiba the land bridge slopes down to 850 meters (2,790 feet) but then comes up sharply on the east side as it gets to the shore of Saudi Arabia. This sharp incline would make the ascent extremely difficult, if not impossible for the Israelites to cross in one night. Dr. Roy Knuteson, a retired pastor who has done a considerable amount of research on the Red Sea crossing also points out, “The wadi they claim the Israelites traveled on [to Nuweiba] is much to small for those millions of people” (Letter from Knuteson, June 8, 2001). He goes on to say in the same letter, “…the coral encrusted chariot wheels are interesting, but not convincing. The so-called ‘golden wheel’ is a fabrication.” Russell and Colin Standish have also examined the other claims of Wyatt regarding the so-called chariot wheels that were discovered (1999:164-194).
The second crossing site at the Strait of Tiran has serious problems as well. The first problem is the distance from Rameses to their Red Sea crossing. From Tell el-Dab’a to Ras Nasrani at the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula is approximately 350 miles. The “Geological Photomap of Israel and the Adjacent Areas” shows that most of the way down the west side of the Sinai Peninsula is sand, alluvium, clay, marl and sandstone. Robinson observed and wrote about the sand and gravel as he traveled south to Jebel Musa (1977:89-96). This terrain would be difficult to travel on foot or with carts, especially when making a hasty exodus out of Egypt! This trip would be impossible to do in seven days unless they averaged 50 miles per day for seven days or 58 miles a day if they took Shabbat off. One should remember Thutmose III’s army averaged only 15 miles per day across the sandy northern Sinai. The conditions would be very similar.
The second problem is the topography of their land bridge across the Strait of Tiran. One of the proponents claims that “the distance shore to shore at the Strait of Tiran is no more than two miles – by far the narrowest channel on both sides of the gulf” (Cornuke and Halbrrok 2000:215). If one measures on the nautical maps, the distance from Sinai to Saudi Arabia is eleven miles, not two.
The proponents also seem to imply that the land bridge is relatively flat and can be crossed very quickly. One proponent says, “Due north sat an oddity of Ripley’s Believe it or Not: a five-hundred-yard-wide coral reef, invisible on the surface yet spanning the entire straits like a stealth aircraft carrier” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000:212). He goes on to say, “The coral reef we inspected is sturdy and broad enough – and situated in water shallow enough – to meet this ‘dry land’ criteria. Two million Israelites, columns of cattle, flocks, fleets of carts and wagons – even Egyptian troops and chariots – would have been able to pass quickly over the tightly compacted coral without getting their feet wet” (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000:214-215).
The British Admiralty map 801 and the American NOAA map 62222 show that these statements are not accurate. The shallow reefs do not go all the way across and the land bridge is not flat. In the midst of the Strait of Tiran is the Enterprise Passage [See Map 2, taken from the NOAA map 62222]. This is an underwater passage / channel that goes north south through the Strait. It is approximately ¾ of a mile wide with a depth of 700 feet. The eastern side has a slope with at least a 60% incline. To put this incline number in perspective, in Bergen County, NJ, where I live, roads can not have an incline of more than 10%. The 60% would be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, obstacle for travel. One of the proponents acknowledges this depth, but does not seem to grasp the significance of the problem (Cornuke and Halbrook 2000:214). It would be a near impossible process for 2 million people to go down and up these slopes, along with their carts and wagons. It would be next to impossible for the Egyptian chariots to go down and up unless they were SUV chariots with traction tires! Also, if any of them stumbled going down the slopes they would be cut very badly on the coral. This passage would be next to impossible, if not an impossible obstacle, because it would slow the pace of the Israelites down considerably or even stop it, as well as cause serious problems for the Egyptian chariots.
To illustrate the impossibility of the Strait of Tiran crossing, I would like to issue the following challenge to the proponents of this view.
The Exodus Challenge
Bob Cornuke and Larry Williams are self-proclaimed “Adventurers of History.” This challenge will be the ultimate adventure to validate their claims that Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia.
Two of the three BASE participants (Bob Cornuke, Larry Williams and/or Ken Durham) are to walk from Tel el-Dab’a (Biblical Rameses) to their Red Sea Crossing, northeast of Sharm el-Shiek, in seven days with one day of rest for the Sabbath (either Saturday or Sunday).
They are to wear sandals and walk on the sandy ground, not on the paved road.
They are to take two ten-year-old children. (Please get a parental consent form signed by both parents. I do not want you to be hauled into court for child abuse). Also bring along two sheep and two goats.
They will be permitted to buy bottled water along the way. I do not want to be responsible for their death by dehydration!
In the event that the pillar of cloud/fire does not reappear, they will be permitted to use road maps and their good judgments as to the timing so as to cover the 350 miles, averaging 58 miles per day, in the allotted time.
They will not have to take 2 million men, women or children with them, nor a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep and herd of goats.
They will not have to bring along any nursing mothers with newborn children.
They will not need to bring along senior citizens. Remember, Moses, Aaron and Miriam were all more than 80 years old.
In the unlikely event the challengers are successful, after being observed by a neutral party and documented on video, I (Gordon Franz) will publicly and in print, renounce my articles against the idea that Mt. Sinai is at Jebel al-Lawz and will wholeheartedly endorse their views. I will also donate $1,000 to the BASE Institute.
In the likely event of failure, I will let them decide what their course of action will be.
Ken Durham called this an “intentionally frivolous challenge”! (Letter from Durham, Sept. 7, 2001, p. 7). With all due respect, I am very serious about this challenge because if they walk it, they will abandon the idea because they will know (experientially) that it is impossible. He also objected to placing Rameses at Tell el-Dab’a and would prefer to see it in eastern Goshen. As they say at Burger King, “Have it your way!” I am willing to let you start from the eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat and go the 250 miles you think was the distance.
Durham says, “A steady walking rate of 3.5 miles per hour sustained for 12 hours of navigable daylight results in a ‘days journey’ optimal linear distance of 42 miles. … Therefore, as odd as it may sound to our ears to reckon a ‘day’s journey’ as 42 to 43 miles, it is probably very close to the optimum of the Exodus Hebrews” (Letter from Ken Durham, September 7, 2001, p. 14). He then sets forth his scenario for the distance traveled each day (pp. 13-15). On the first day they traveled 36 miles. The second, 36 miles and camped at Etham, but he does not identify where Etham was located. On the third day they pick up the pace to 16-18 hours per day and travel 45-48 miles. The fourth day they cover 48 miles. The fifth day they cover 40-45 miles, and the sixth day another 45-50 miles. On Shabbat they rested. If they can walk those distances each day, I would be impressed. What really stretches the imagination is his reckoning of the Egyptian forces. Pharaoh had spies following the Israelites for three days. On the third day when they realize the Israelites are not stopping, they return to Pharaoh by the fourth day so he can muster his chariot force and foot soldiers in order to pursue the Israelites. Those spies would have to run back overnight to Pharaoh covering a distance of approximately 120 miles in less than 12-16 hours (running a steady 10 miles per hour!). If Pharaoh were successful in mustering his troops in one day, they would have three days to catch up to the Israelites. They would have to average 83 miles per day, on foot and in chariots, in order to cover the 250 miles in three days! Anybody want to join them? J
Other Problems With This View
It has been said, “The devil is always in the details.” There are other problems with this view. For example, the Israelites camped at Etham at the edge of the wilderness (Ex. 13:20; Num. 33:6). The wilderness that is implied is the Wilderness of Etham. After they cross the Red Sea, they journey in the Wilderness of Etham again (Num. 33:8), also called the Wilderness of Shur (Ex. 15:22; Robinson 1977:80). If the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz were consistent with their views, the Wilderness of Etham would be somewhere on the west side of the Sinai, yet it would also be across the Straits of Tiran in Saudi Arabia. It does not make geographical sense to have one wilderness on the west side of Sinai and the same wilderness across the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat in Saudi Arabia.
Another problem is the Israelites second camp at the Red Sea. According to the Number’s itinerary, the Children of Israel cross the Red Sea, stop at Marah, then moved on to Elim and camped by the Red Sea (Num. 33:8-11). According to the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz, Elim is located at al-Bad’ (Williams 1990:178; Cornuke and Halbrook 2000:96, 97, plate 13,14). If their view were consistent, they would have to give a reasonable explanation as to why the Israelites backtracked to the Red Sea before they proceeded to Jebel al-Lawz. On the other hand, a stop at the Red Sea, at the mouth of Wadi Sudr, on the way to Jebel Sin Bishar makes perfect geographical sense.
A third problem is the motivations of the Amalekites to attack Israel at Rephidim (Ex. 17:8-16). The Biblical records place the territory of the Amalekites around the area of Kadesh Barnea (Gen. 14:7) and the Negev (Num. 13:29). For a discussion of the archaeology and geography of the Analekites, see Mattingly 1992:1:169-171. If Mt. Sinai is at Jebel Sin Bishar than the motive is clear. The Israelites are heading to the Land of Canaan and the most direct route is through Kadesh Barnea and the Negev. The Amalekites were also protecting the abundant water source at Kadesh Barnea. If Mt. Sinai is at Jebel al-Lawz, then there is no motive for the Amalekites to travel all the way down to the site to attack the Israelites. If the Israelites were going to the Land of Canaan, they could go up the Transjordanian Highway and avoid Kadesh Barnea and the Negev all together. Some proponents of Mt. Sinai in Midian place Kadesh Barnea in the area of Petra. I have repeatedly asked the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz where they place Kadesh Barnea and they have yet to give me an answer.
The Conclusion of the Matter
As popular as this idea may be in certain evangelical (and even Jewish) circles, there is no credible historical, geographical, archaeological or Biblical evidence for the thesis that Mt. Sinai is at Jebel al-Lawz in Saudi Arabia.
There are several unsubstantiated claims that the proponents of this site need to substantiate or abandon. First, the Sinai Peninsula was not part of Egypt proper, but “out of Egypt.” Second, Biblically, Mt. Sinai is not in the Land of Midian, yet Jebel al-Lawz is in Midian territory (northwest Saudi Arabia). Third, the Sinai Peninsula was part of “Arabia” in the First Century AD. Paul would be perfectly correct in stating Mt. Sinai is in Arabia if Mt. Sinai was at Jebel Sin Bishar.
The proponents also need to face up to the archaeological evidence at their site. The petroglyphs of bovine existed long before Moses ever lived. The so-called “Cave of Moses” at el-Bad’ were not hewn until long after Moses lived. The so-called “altar of Moses and the 12 columns” dates to the Nabatean period and has nothing to do with the Wilderness Wanderings.
The Red Sea crossings at the Gulf of Akaba / Eilat have serious topographical and Biblical / geographical difficulties that the proponents of the view need to consider.
A more plausible location for Mt. Sinai is at Jebel Sin Bishar in the west central Sinai. If that is the case, the Red Sea crossing would best be located at a natural land bridge that goes east-west across the northern Gulf of Suez to the east of Jebel ‘Ataqa. The Pi Hahiroth, the “mouth of the canal”, would be the remnant of an unfinished canal near the modern day Suez City. The Migdol, “fortress”, would be at or near Clysma. Baal-Zephon would be a temple to the mariner storm god Baal somewhere on Jebel ‘Ataqa.
Had the proponents of Jebel al-Lawz examined the evidence in the libraries in the United States carefully and visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, they would have come to a different conclusion. First of all, they would have discovered that they were looking in the wrong place for the Red Sea Crossing and Mt. Sinai. Second, in the Cairo Museum they would have noticed the chariots of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. With the exception of Pharaoh’s gold plated chariot, all the other chariots were made of wood and rawhide (leather) with a few copper components. The first two items that would have disintegrated quickly underwater (Littauer and Crouwel 1992:1:888.889). Thus there would be nothing left of the chariots to discover with the exception of a few pieces of copper.
Finally, the proponents would have considered the words of Josephus. “On the morrow, the arms of the Egyptians having been carried up to the Hebrews’ camp by the tide and the force of the wind setting in that directions, Moses, surmising that this too was due to the providence of God, to ensure that even in weapons they should not be wanting, collected them and, having accoutred [equipped] the Hebrews therein, led them forward for Mount Sinai, with intent there to sacrifice to God and to render to Him the thanks-offerings of the people for their deliverance, even as he had received commandment” (Antiquities 2:349; LCL 4:317,319). Why look for things that had disintegrated long ago and weapons that were providentially given to the Israelites? It would be better to follow the example of Moses and go and worship the Lord for His great salvation!
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This paper presented at the ETS / NEAS meeting Thursday, November 15, 2001, 9:50-10:30 a.m. session. Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs, CO.