The Route of the Exodus

Exodus 13-19; Numbers 33

Like several other events recorded in Scripture, the Bible’s account of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai includes an abundance of geographical references, yet it remains one of the most hotly debated topics among scholars, and numerous theories have been offered. The vast majority of geographical references provided in the story are disputed, including the place where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the location of Mount Sinai (see Proposed Locations for Mount Sinai map), and the various stops along the Israelites’ journey. A few locations have been established with some degree of scholarly consensus, but even these are not without opposing viewpoints. Amidst this incredible diversity of opinion, however, a single verse provides one of the most helpful clues for weighing the merits of one viewpoint over another: “By the way of Mount Seir it takes eleven days to reach Kadesh-barnea from Horeb” (Deuteronomy 1:2). For those who assume the Bible’s account to be trustworthy, this verse appears to require the following for any theory to be considered viable: 1) Kadesh-barnea and Mount Sinai must have been located at a distance from each other that could reasonably have been expected to take eleven days for an entire nation of people with small children, equipment, and perhaps even elderly members to travel on foot; and 2) the pace established by this distance over eleven days should most likely be considered the typical pace for the Israelites as they traveled from place to place along the other parts of the journey. This two-pronged test clearly strains many of the theories put forth to this point, especially when one factors in the time references given for the start of the journey (Exodus 12:6; Numbers 33:3), the middle of the journey (Exodus 16:1; Numbers 33:8), and the end of the journey (Exodus 19:1). In short, the journey from Rameses to the Wilderness of Sin took 31 days, since it included the 15th day of the second month, and the rest of the journey took another 16 days, assuming they arrived at Mount Sinai on the first day of the third month. Along with these criteria, a theory’s overall congruence with other established geographical and archeological data should bolster its credibility over other proposals. Another consideration is the extreme similarity between the events at Rephidim (Exodus 17) and the events at Kadesh-barnea (Numbers 20:1-13; 27:12-14; Deuteronomy 32:51; Ezekiel 47:19; 48:28), raising the question of whether Rephidim (meaning “refreshments”) is in fact Kadesh-barnea. With these things in mind, the map below proposes a route for the exodus that meets virtually all of these criteria. A careful analysis and explanation of all the elements of the map is far beyond the scope of this article, but a few key points should be noted. The term Red Sea, in addition to referring to what we now regard it, must have also applied to the interconnected lakes and marshlands that lay along what is now the Suez Canal. Also, Marah and Elim must have been locations along (and not after) the three day journey into the Wilderness of Shur/Etham (Numbers 33:8). Most notably, Mount Sinai is placed on this map at Gebel Khashm et-Tarif, which is appropriately located near, but not in, Midian (Exodus 3:1; 18:5; Numbers 10:29-30). It is also located 89 miles from Kadesh-barnea (assuming Kadesh is at Tall al-Quderat), which establishes a reasonable pace of 8 miles per day to travel between them in 11 days. This general pace then synchronizes very well with the timetable and distances required by this map for the other parts of the journey. The distance from Rameses to the Wilderness of Sin (where it is located here) could be completed in under 29 days, based on a pace of about 8 miles per day. And if the entire journey took about 47 days and Rephidim is indeed Kadesh-barnea, as shown here, that leaves an acceptable buffer of time to complete the rest of the journey–that is, the journey to Rephidim/Kadesh (about 5 days at 8 miles per day), plus the 11 day journey to Mount Sinai for a total of 16 days. It should be noted that this timetable generally assumes that travel continued on sabbath days, but Scripture does not make clear whether travel was prohibited as work prior to the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.

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