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Oxford Bible Atlas Contextualizes the stories and lands of the Bible through user-friendly maps and illustrations.

The Exodus and Wilderness Traditions

Adrian Curtis

Out of Egypt

The biblical narrative tells of how the Hebrews lived in the Goshen area, in the Nile Delta region in Egypt, and worked as slaves on the store cities of Pithom and Rameses (Exod. 1: 1–11 ). Since the latter was named after Pharaoh Rameses II, those who have sought a historical context for these events have suggested that Rameses II was the pharaoh of the oppression. According to the biblical account, Moses was found floating in a basket by the daughter of the pharaoh (a similar tale is told about the Mesopotamian king Sargon) and brought up in Egypt, but when he had grown up he fled to the land of Midian (Exod. 2 ). (The Midianites were a nomadic people so their ‘land’ is difficult to locate on a map.) While looking after the sheep of his father‐in‐law Jethro, a Midianite priest, he is described as having his encounter with God who called him to return to Egypt to rescue his people (Exod. 3 ). After a series of plagues which afflicted Egypt (Exod. 7–12 ), Moses led the people via Succoth and Etham ‘on the edge of the wilderness’ (Exod. 13: 20 ) until they encamped ‘in front of Pi‐hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea’ (Exod. 14: 2 ). This was the setting of the remarkable deliverance described in Exodus 14: 15–30 .

Attempts have been made to pinpoint geographically the place of the crossing of the sea as envisaged in the story, but the places mentioned cannot be located with certainty. The stretch of water has traditionally been referred to as the Red Sea, but the Hebrew phrase yam sûp_ is perhaps more accurately translated Reed Sea (though the word sûp_ also seems to refer to underwater vegetation in Jonah 2: 5 ). A suggested location for the Reed Sea has been Lake Sirbonis on the shore of the Mediterranean, but the biblical account stresses that ‘God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines’ (Exod. 13: 17 ), a route which would have passed close to Lake Sirbonis. In 1 Kings 9: 26 , the term clearly refers to the eastern arm of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba, but it is highly unlikely that this location is envisaged in the Exodus story which sees the crossing of the sea as the precursor of the entry into the wilderness. It is perhaps more likely that the story presupposes a location in the vicinity of the Bitter Lakes, north of the Gulf of Suez. But in any event it is the theological significance which matters to the biblical writer more than the geography, a point often overlooked by those who seek to find natural explanations for the phenomena described in the story.

Sonia Halliday Photographs (Jane Taylor)

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