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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Edom and Libnah Revolt

2 Kings 8:16-24; 2 Chronicles 21:1-11

Throughout history–from ancient times to modern–the death of a powerful leader has often initiated a cascade of political changes within the leader’s former sphere of influence, and the death of King Jehoshaphat of Judah was no different. The nation of Edom had been subjugated by King David of Israel (2 Samuel 8:13-14), and after the northern tribes of Israel broke away from the rule of David’s descendants in 930 B.C., Edom remained under the rule of Judah. By the end of the reign of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, however, the political landscape had changed significantly. Edom’s neighbor Moab had already declared independence from Israel after the death of King Ahab just a few years earlier in 853 B.C. (2 Kings 1:1; 3:5), and they had even survived an attempt by King Jehoram of Israel to bring them back under his rule (2 Kings 3; see map). Their success may have emboldened Edom to seize upon a new window of opportunity to reestablish their own sovereignty when King Jehoshaphat died in 848 B.C. Edom, too, would survive an attempt by another King Jehoram–King Jehoram (or sometimes Joram) of Judah–to bring them back under his rule, and this apparently led the Levitical city of Libnah to revolt from Judah as well. After Edom declared their independence, Jehoram set out with his chariots and his army to attack Edom at Zair (probably the same as Zoar), but the Edomites and their chariot commanders surrounded his forces, and Jehoram’s army fled home.

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Israel and Judah Attack Moab

2 Kings 3

Soon after King Jehoram ascended to the throne of Israel in 852 B.C., he invited King Jehoshaphat of Judah to go with him to attack Moab. The nation of Moab had revolted against Israel’s rule after King Ahab died in 853 B.C. (2 Kings 1:1), and then Moab immediately formed an alliance and attacked Judah (1 Chronicles 20; see map). King Jehoram’s intent in attacking Moab was no doubt to bring them back under Israel’s rule. Jehoshaphat agreed to help Jehoram, and apparently King Mesha of Edom joined them as well, since Edom was still subject to Judah at this time. They chose to approach Moab from the south instead of the north, perhaps to avoid both the nation of Ammon and also the tribal territory of Reuben, which Moab had been striving to recapture for many years (see map). Though the passage mentions that the king of Edom set out on the journey with the other two kings, it is likely that Edom’s full army met up with the other armies further south. After marching for seven days, the armies were running out of water, so they consulted the prophet Elisha, who must have been in the area at the time. Elisha foretold that a nearby stream would be soon be filled with pools of water even though it would not rain there, and the armies of Israel would conquer every fortified city of Moab and ruin the land. The next day water flowed into the area from the direction of Edom. This must have occurred near the border of Moab, because the Moabites saw the pools of water as well. The Moabites mistook the water in the morning sunlight for blood from the armies fighting each other, and they attacked them, expecting to seize the plunder. Instead, the armies of the Israelite alliance rose up and attacked them, and the Moabites fled. The forces of the Israelite alliance pressed on to Moab itself and conquered all the fortified cities and ruined the land, as Elisha had foretold. Only the fortified city of Kir-hareseth withstood their attack. King Mesha of Moab attempted to break through the Edomite line of the Israelite alliance, but his plan failed. So he sacrificed his firstborn son and offered him as a burnt offering on top of the wall, causing great wrath to come upon Israel, and the armies of the Israelite alliance withdrew to their own land.

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Israel Battles Benjamin

Judges 20

[Author’s note: The ideas presented in this article about Israel’s battle with Benjamin are openly recognized as uncertain, but the author’s intent is that they would lead to further study and discussion by others, which may in turn lead to greater clarity and refinement of understanding regarding the geographical details of this story.]

The battle between the tribe of Benjamin and the other Israelite tribes during the time of the Judges was precipitated by horrific acts committed by the men of Gibeah as well as by a Levite passing through the town. The story is a candid account of the brutality and chaos that ruled much of Israel before the time of the kings (Judges 21:25). In the story, the Levite calls for the other tribes to address the deeds committed by the men of Gibeah. After gathering at Mizpah, the tribes demand that the Benjaminites hand over the men, but the Benjaminites refuse, leading to a war with the other tribes. Before the battle begins, the Israelites consult the Lord at Bethel, where the Ark of the Covenant is located (Judges 20:27). Then they travel down the Central Ridge Route, which ran north-south along the watershed of Israel, and attack Benjamin, but they suffer a huge defeat and return to Bethel. The same thing happens the second day. In preparation for a third attack, the Israelites set up an ambush near Gibeah, likely west of Gibeah (rather than Geba, as sometimes translated; Gibeah, Geba, and Gibeon–all forms of the word “hill”–were sometimes confused by copyists of Scripture). The main army then attacks from the north as before, and the Benjaminites meet them in battle, but the main army falls back to Baal-tamar, possibly the same as the palm (tamar) of Deborah mentioned in Judges 4:5, and this draws the Benjaminites further away from the city. Then those waiting in ambush rush upon Gibeah and destroy it. Smoke rising from the city signals the main Israelite army to turn again and press the attack against the Benjaminites. The Benjaminites, knowing disaster is upon them, turn “away from the Israelites in the direction of the wilderness” and take refuge at the rock of Rimmon. The nearly universal assumption by scholars is that the Benjaminites fled east, no doubt because of two assumptions about the text: 1) that the term wilderness in Israel only referred to areas east of the watershed, and 2) that verse 43 makes it clear that the Benjaminites were chased “east of Gibeah” (or perhaps Geba). It may well be that the Benjaminites fled east, but this author believes there is adequate evidence to support the possibility that they fled west instead. As noted in the article regarding the battle at the pool of Gibeon (see here), the term wilderness (midbar) in Scripture is almost always used to refer to locations east of the watershed of Israel, but the patriarch Reuben also used the term to refer to the sparsely populated area near Dothan west of the watershed (Genesis 37:22; see map here). Likewise, the term wilderness in this passage may refer to the sparsely populated region west of Gibeon. Additionally, the phrase typically translated “east of Gibeah” in verse 43 may have actually meant “east of Gibeon” (see a similar example in 2 Samuel 21:6). Also, in verse 45 the term Gidom, meaning “a cutting down,” is typically translated as a place name, but instead it may mean that they continued to cut them down as far as they chased them (see NEB and The Message). Finally, this author has found a viable candidate for the rock of Rimmon at Khirbat Rummana (31.8415 N, 35.1039 E), located on a hill in the heart of the sparsely populated area labeled here as the wilderness of Gibeon.

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Elijah Is Taken to Heaven

2 Kings 2

The famous story of the prophet Elijah being carried to heaven in a whirlwind begins with Elijah and Elisha at a place called Gilgal. The term Gilgal, meaning “circle of stones,” is used to reference at least three locations throughout Scripture (see Joshua 4:19; 15:7; 2 Kings 2:1) and perhaps a fourth location (Deuteronomy 11:30). It is unlikely that the Gilgal mentioned in this story was the one in the immediate vicinity of Jericho, where the Israelites first camped after entering the Promised Land, nor is it likely that it was the one mentioned in Joshua 15:7, which marked part of the border of Benjamin’s territory. It is possible that the Gilgal of the Elijah and Elisha stories was the same Gilgal mentioned in Deuteronomy 11:30, which must have been opposite Shechem, but it is more likely that it was located instead at modern Gilgilia in the hill country of Ephraim, as shown on this map. The story then recounts that Elijah and Elisha traveled to Bethel, where a group of prophets asked Elisha if he realized the Lord was going to take his master away that day. Then Elijah and Elisha continued on to Jericho, where another group of prophets asked Elisha the same thing. Finally, Elijah and Elisha went to the Jordan River, and Elijah rolled up his mantle and struck the water with it. The river parted, just as it did for the Israelites when they first entered the Promised Land (Joshua 3), and the two prophets crossed to the other side on dry ground. There Elijah asked Elisha what he could do for him before he was taken away from him, and Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. As they were walking and talking, a chariot of fire appeared and parted them, and Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha then picked up Elijah’s mantle and began his own ministry by striking the Jordan River with it again and parting the waters for him to cross.

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