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The author took the above photo in northwest Saudi Arabia, in a desolate part of Wadi Rayt, about 50 km (32 mi.) southeast of Jabal Maqla, a peak in the Jabal al Lawz range that has been named as a possible site for Mount Sinai. If such is the case, this area would be part of the biblical Wilderness of Sinai, which lies in the region called Horeb (meaning parched or dry in Hebrew).
If you look closely, there is a lone man near a large acacia tree. The temperature was near 100 degrees. We stopped to ask if he needed help. He looked to be about 70 years old and had no water. He calmly explained that he was an Ethiopian, that his destination was about five miles away, and that he didn’t need any help. We gave him a liter of water anyway, and bid him farewell.
The Major Geographical Questions of the Exodus
The popular curiosities include the locations of Mount Sinai, the sea that parted, Kadesh (or Kadeshbarnea), Mount Hor (the mountain at which Moses’ brother Aaron was buried), and of the rocks that miraculously gave water.
For almost 2000 years, tradition has held that Mount Sinai was one of several peaks in the southern Sinai peninsula (see Figure 1). However, in the last century, and particularly in the last 30 years, attention has been turned to northwest Saudi Arabia, the ancient location of the land of Midian (right side of Figure 1). Moses spent 40 years in exile in Midian, during which time, he visited the “Mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1), also called Mount Sinai. In this general region, about 30 miles east of the Gulf of Aqaba, the lofty Jabal al Lawz mountain range has been proposed as the possible site of Mount Sinai.
The sea of the Exodus, which Bible translations have traditionally called the “Red Sea,” has long been associated with the Gulf of Suez near Egypt. The biblical Hebrew name for this sea is Yam Suph. Since the late 1800s, some Egyptologists have argued that Yam Suph was really a “Sea of Reeds” or “Reed Sea,” located just east of the Nile Delta. The Exodus map in Figure 1 illustrates one version of this theory. More recently, a case has been made for a Yam Suph location at the Gulf of Aqaba, which separates the Sinai Peninsula from Saudi Arabia (see The Lost Sea of the Exodus book).
The Hebrews reached Mount Sinai two months after leaving Egypt and spent 11 months and 5 days there. They reached Kadesh or Kadesh-barnea in the early summer of the second year of their journey. It was located in the northern part of the modern Negev (Negeb) desert of Israel, on the southern border of the Land of Canaan. After failing to begin their conquest of Canaan, the Hebrews spent much of the next 38 years in and around Kadesh (Deut. 1:46) and in the Arava (Arabah) valley that runs between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.
Investigations in the late 19th and early 20th century popularized a location for Kadesh at Ain Qadeis (Ain Kadis) on the crude basis of pronunciation similarity. Ain Qadeis is in the Egyptian Sinai, just west of the central Negev border of modern Israel (Figure 2). However, a more likely location is in the watershed of Nakhal Zin or Wadi Fikreh, which extends to the southwest below the Dead Sea (Figure 2). Although Arab tradition places Mount Hor at Petra in Jordan, it is likely in this same region.
The first rock that gave water for the thirsting Hebrews was in Horeb, the same region that hosted Mount Sinai. The event occurred in the second month of the Exodus, just before reaching the Wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 17:6). The second rock that gave water was at Kadesh (Numbers 20:8) at the beginning of the 40th year of the journey (Numbers 20:1). The Bible uses two different Hebrew names for these rocks, tzur and selah. The Hebrew meaning of tzur suggests a hard rock (e.g., igneous), while that of sela suggests a soft rock (e.g., sedimentary). These terms indeed agree with the geology of their respective regions.
One pressing non-geographical question concerns the dating of the Exodus. The biblical date, calculated from the building of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 6:1), suggests about 1446 B.C. However, this time frame does not mesh well with the traditional chronology of the Egyptian dynasties. Other popular questions involve the size of the Hebrew multitude, which has been estimated to range from a few thousand to several million, and their ability to survive in such an arid region for forty years.