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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Route of the Exodus

The geography of the Exodus offers another potentially promising area for the Bible to function as a primary historical source. The biblical text provides detailed itineraries for the Exodus trek, most completely in Numbers 33.1–49 , fragments in Numbers 21.10–20 and Deuteronomy 10.6–7 , and further parallels elsewhere. These itineraries list, by name, all of the stopping points or stages on the Exodus journey. Theoretically, it should be possible to reconstruct the route the Israelites took out of Egypt. Unfortunately, it is not.

The wilderness itineraries form a distinct genre within the Pentateuch and belong to a literary form widely attested in the ancient world. The primary function of this genre, which survives mostly in official documents, is to describe routes. Nonbiblical examples confirm that these ancient itineraries customarily provided a complete and reasonably reliable record of the routes described. The geographical itineraries associated with the Exodus saga thus probably preserve details of one or more ancient routes.

As a structured literary genre, however, the itineraries most likely were incorporated into the biblical narrative during the process of literary composition and redaction that resulted in the final biblical text. We cannot date precisely this secondary merging of wilderness itineraries with the Exodus account, except to say that it occurred long after the original events. Moreover, the literary itineraries preserved within the Exodus saga derive from more than one source. As a consequence, some scholars have challenged the integrity of these geographical lists. On the other hand, the itineraries might reflect geographical sources much earlier than the time of their redaction into the biblical narrative. Recent efforts to relate the Exodus itineraries to Egyptian prototypes found in Ramesside geographical lists are intriguing, although far from decisive, and the large number of Asiatic sites in the Egyptian lists that cannot be identified convincingly is instructive.

Already in ancient times the locations of many of the places in the Exodus itineraries appear to have been lost. Of the approximately three dozen or more localities mentioned, few can be pinpointed on the ground, and none of the places listed in Egypt or the Sinai Peninsula can be situated with confidence. Thus, as we have seen, Rameses, the starting point of the Exodus, is customarily identified with the Ramesside delta capital of Per-Rameses. Succoth is taken by some as a Hebraization of Egyptian Tjeku, a district designation employed for the Wadi Tumilat that first occurs in the New Kingdom. Kadesh-barnea is now generally placed at Ain el-Qudeirat, the most fertile oasis in northern Sinai, located at the junction of two major routes across the peninsula. Tell el-Qudeirat, the ancient mound associated with the oasis, has recently been renamed Tel Kadesh-barnea by its excavators, despite a tenth-century BCE date for the earliest finds from the tell. But beyond these and a very few other tentative identifications, most sites in Egypt and Sinai listed in the Exodus itineraries remain unknown.

The sacred “mountain of God” also cannot be placed on a map. The biblical narrative refers to the mountain, when it is given a name, by two different appellations, Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai. Scholars do not agree whether the traditions refer to one or two mountains (although the weight of current opinion favors one mountain), let alone where one or the other mountain might be located. Suggestions for locating the mountain of God range from the southern Sinai Peninsula, to the Negeb, and even to the Arabian peninsula.

The crossing of the Red Sea has also touched off much discussion. Hebrew yam suf has been translated both as Red Sea and as Reed Sea; cogent grounds exist in support of both translations. There are biblical passages where yam suf is clearly unrelated to the Exodus and unquestionably refers to the Red Sea (such as 1 Kings 9.26 ). Moreover, both the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate versions of the Bible render yam suf as “Red Sea,” reflecting traditions current at the time these two translations were made (third century BCE and fourth century CE, respectively). But there are also philological grounds for translating yam suf as “Reed Sea,” and in light of this interpretation scholars have sought to localize the destruction of Pharaoh's army in reed beds located in the northeastern Nile Delta. Such reed beds have in fact existed at various points along the northeastern Egyptian border in locations ranging from the Bitter Lakes in the south to Sabkhat el-Bardawil (classical Lake Sirbonis) adjacent to the Mediterranean coast in the north. A plausible case, for which there is no real support other than its plausibility, can be made for Bardawil as the location of the crossing of the Red Sea. The lake is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by only a thin strip of land, and violent storms have been known to lash the sea and cause sudden and intense flooding of the region. There are even historical parallels where ancient troops were trapped and partially destroyed by just such a storm.

Traditionally, two routes have been proposed for the Exodus: a southern route through southern Sinai and a northern one along the Mediterranean coast (although Exod. 13.17–18 expressly states that the latter, anachronistically called “the way of the land of the Philistines,” was not taken by the Israelites). Recent studies emphasizing both the modern and the past ecology and ethnography of the Sinai Peninsula suggest, however, that four major east-west routes ran through Sinai in antiquity. The northernmost hugs the Mediterranean coast; the other three follow desert wadis, the main channels for water and communication through the huge, barren peninsula. Apart from the north coastal strip, the remainder of the approximately 36,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles) that make up the Sinai Peninsula has few economic resources and little water, and its population has always been minimal. The largest concentration of ancient settlements occurs in mountainous and geographically isolated south-central Sinai. Here are found both an adequate water supply and a comfortable climate. The difficult terrain, the physical isolation, and the relatively hospitable living conditions all combine to make this area a prime candidate for the location of the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness. Equally important, the region was apparently never of any interest to Egypt: none of the ancient settlements in the area appear to be Egyptian, and there are no indications of ancient Egyptian suzerainty. At the same time, however, none of the ancient settlements in the area date to a period that might relate to an Israelite Exodus from Egypt: they are too early (Early Bronze Age) or too late (Iron Age). The localization of the wilderness sojourn in south-central Sinai therefore is an attractive but unproven hypothesis.

Research into the monastic settlements in south-central Sinai suggests that it was the establishment of the monastic population in this area during the Byzantine period (fourth to seventh centuries CE) that resulted in the identification of southern Sinai sites with various biblical locations. Most likely, the monks themselves generated the traditions of the southern Exodus route; the traditions arose along with the monasteries. At the same time as the monastic movement established itself in southern Sinai, Christian pilgrimages also were becoming popular. These pilgrimages further stimulated the development of monastic traditions both by encouraging the local placement of Exodus sites and, once made, by reinforcing those localizations. Pilgrimage practice thus helped preserve and perpetuate the very geographical identifications that it had helped create. As time passed the site correlations moved into popular lore and became sanctified tradition. Such a process is not unparalleled. Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, traveled throughout the Near East dreaming of the locations of various events in the life of Jesus. Over the years her identifications, some no doubt based on prior popular belief, became accepted as indigenous local traditions. This mechanism for creating and reinforcing popular tradition is not confined to antiquity: the renaming of Tell el-Qudeirat as Tel Kadesh-barnea is a modern example.

Thus, despite decades of research, we cannot reconstruct a reliable Exodus route based on information in the biblical account. Nor, despite intensive survey and exploration by archaeologists, are there remains on the Sinai Peninsula or in Egypt that can be linked specifically to the Israelite Exodus. Barring some future momentous discovery, we shall never be able to establish exactly the route of the Exodus.

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