Solving the Mysteries of the Exodus: Scientific and Historical Analyses Provide Solutions to the Problems of the Biblical Story of the Exodus
This article is a summary of Colin J. Humphreys’ book, “The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories”. I will add a few observations that entail minor adjustments to a few of Humphreys’ arguments. Overall, Humphreys’ work results in a powerful argument to revise the traditional understanding of numerous details of the Exodus. The story as portrayed in many Bible commentaries, as well as in Hollywood movies, has many aspects that are internally inconsistent. The evidence Humphreys presents recasts the narrative into a consistent story that not only preserves the miraculous nature of God’s orchestration of the events, but does so in a way that makes sense. I highly recommend this book, as it contains fascinating side-stories and numerous details that I will not be touching on in this overview. (available at: Amazon)
First of all, let’s list the major issues that are problematic in the traditional view. 1) Location of Mt. Sinai: The biblical Mt. Sinai is traditionally associated with the mountain Jebel Musa (which, in fact, means “Mountain of Moses”) in the lower Sinai Peninsula. This, however, is a poor fit with the biblical description of the mountain and the events associated with it. Is there a more likely candidate? 2) Route of the Exodus: As their initial destination was Mt. Sinai, the route taken by the Israelites is closely related to the location of Sinai. Where was the crossing of the Red Sea? Again, the traditional understandings of what the “Red Sea” referred to, and where the climactic crossing took place, do not match the descriptions given in the Bible. Can we determine the actual route with any confidence over 3000 years after the fact? 3) Date of the Exodus: 1 Kings 6:1 states that King Solomon began to build his temple 480 years after the Exodus, and various biblical and archaeological data yield a consistent date for that event of 966 B.C. Counting back a literal 480 years yields a date for the Exodus of 1446 B.C. The preponderance of evidence, however, points to a date some 150 - 200 years later, during the reign of the great pharaoh Ramesses II, and this is the time period generally accepted by scholars. How can these disparate dates be reconciled? 4) Number of people involved: Numbers 1:46 states that the total number of men 20 years of age and over was 603,550, which implies a total population of well over 2 million people. Such a number of “biblical proportions” is one aspect of the story that causes most people to consider the entire story as at least highly exaggerated if not simply myth. Other details in the biblical account are not consistent with such huge numbers. So, how can these numbers be understood to make the entire account internally consistent?
Numerous other details need to be looked at in order to piece together a coherent picture of this pivotal event, and so we will take those up as we work our way through the story one step at a time.
First, let’s take a look at the nature of miracles in general. We can divide miracles into 2 distinct categories – those in which God uses natural processes to bring about a result with miraculous timing and effect, and those in which God works outside of the natural processes he created to bring about a miracle that is wholly supernatural. The prime example to the latter is the resurrection of Christ (as well as those who Jesus brought back to life). Clearly, no supernatural guidance of natural processes alone (within the fixed laws of nature God created) can accomplish that.
When it comes to the miracles of the Exodus, however, almost all, if not all, can be understood to be in the first category — namely God manipulating the timing and intensity of natural processes to accomplish his goals. With the possible exception of the last plague, the 10 plagues of Egypt can easily be shown to fit neatly into this category.
Humphreys sets the stage for his narrative by jumping ahead to an event that happens at the very end of the Exodus—the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land (Joshua 3-4). The river was at flood stage, and yet it suddenly stopped flowing entirely, so that the people could walk across. Do we understand this in terms of angels holding up the flow so that the water stopped obeying the law of gravity and just sat there in place? The text doesn’t imply any such thing, and in fact, it says that the water “piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan” (Joshua 3:16). Various clues indicate that this was about 30 km north of where they were trying to cross, and it is an area where landslides have been known to temporarily block the Jordan. In fact, one such landslide in 1927 blocked the Jordan for over 20 hours.
The text doesn’t directly tell us which type of miracle this would have been, but the fact that the blockage was so far away (as opposed to being a visible “wall of water” as in the crossing of the Red Sea) strongly implies that it was due to a physical phenomenon, such as a landslide. The probability of such a blockage upstream naturally happening at just the right time so that the flow of the river stopped the instant the priests "set foot in the Jordan" is so small, that it’s perfectly reasonable to ascribe this to the miraculous work of God. This is especially so since the text tells us that the Lord had told Joshua that the river would be “cut off and stand up in a heap” (3:13).
The numerous other miracles in the Exodus narrative can likewise, for the most part, be easily attributed to similar acts of God’s control over the timing and magnitude of natural processes in a way that appears utterly miraculous (as indeed they were!). The description in the text is one of natural phenomena under God’s control, and as we shall see with the series of plagues God brought upon the Egyptians, these miracles are integrally related to each other.
The Location of Mount Sinai
So, let’s take up the issues one by one and begin putting together a more consistent story. First on the agenda is the location of Mt. Sinai. Exodus states that after Moses killed the Egyptian, he escaped across the desert to Midian, the region across the Gulf of Aqaba from the Sinai Peninsula, which is present-day western Saudi Arabia. There, he settled down and married, tending his father-in-law’s flocks.
It was the practice of Midian shepherds to take their flocks up in the mountains “on the far side of the desert” (Ex 3:1), and since a strong tradition had built up among early scholars that Mt. Sinai was located on what was later called the Sinai Peninsula, the assumption has typically been that Moses took his flock around the Gulf of Aqaba to Sinai. Now, if the text had said “the far side of the sea” (with respect to his location in Midian on the eastern side of the gulf), then that would make sense. But it doesn’t say that, and when one considers the purpose a shepherd would take his flocks away to “the far side of the desert” (which would have been to find pasture), then leading them around the gulf to the even drier deserts of the Sinai simply doesn’t make sense.
So, where was this “far side of the desert” that Exodus speaks of? If it were not for the long tradition that puts Mt. Sinai on the Sinai Peninsula, the logical assumption would be that the “far side of the desert” would refer to the opposite side of the desert area in Midian were Moses lived. And where was that? We don’t know the precise location, of course, but we can deduce from Moses’ life with Jethro (the “priest of Midian” (Ex 3:1)) and his family that they were in an area on the edge of a desert called “Hisma” (see map 1). The most likely spot is 3 days travel to the south of Aqaba in or near a place called Madian, which has a relative abundance of water.
The “far side of the desert” from there would be to the southeast, up into some volcanic mountains, and it is here that Humphreys identifies a particular active volcano (Mount Bedr) that matches the biblical description of Mt. Sinai extremely well. He has likewise deduced from the biblical description a route that leads to this unusual mountain that fits the facts very well. Before we take up the numerous evidences in support of this conclusion, however, let’s first deal with issues 3 and 4 as listed above — the timing of the Exodus and number of people involved.
The Date of the Exodus
As mentioned above, 1 Kings 6:1 states that King Solomon began to build his temple 480 years after the Exodus, which would seem to yield a rather definite date for this event. The main issue here, however, is how the original writers of these accounts, along with the original readers, would have understood this and other numbers. Did the ancient Israelites use numbers in the same way we do today? The answer is clearly no. Recent scholarship throws at least some light on the significantly different ways people in the ancient near-east used numbers.
For one thing, some ancient middle-eastern cultures used a “base-6” numbering system instead of the “base-10” system we are familiar with. In this system, there were no single digit equivalents for 7, 8 and 9. Also, zero was a later invention, and so early systems could not utilize that. Thus, after reaching 6 in this numbering system, the next number would be “11”, but that is equivalent to 7 in a base-10 system. 480 years in a base-10 system (our normal way of thinking) would be only 288 actual years if the numbering system were base-6.
Clearly, later biblical writers used the same base-10 system we use today, but it is possible that some of the problems we find with numbers in the earliest accounts may be related to such a change in numbering systems over time. While the stories themselves were accurately passed down either orally or in some sort of written form that were later incorporated into the biblical books we have today, it is quite possible that the appropriate adjustments were not made to the specific numbers involved.
Humphreys offers a different suggestion for resolving the “480 years” versus the approximately 300 years that all of the other evidence points to. A “generation” in biblical usage is generally thought of as representing 40 years. Thus, 480 years would represent 12 generations if each generation averaged exactly 40 years. In reality, however, generations typically average a good bit less than 40 years. If, however, the original author used the number “480” to mean 12 generations of a nominal 40 years each, then the actual number in terms of real years would be more like 300. It is significant that the genealogy of the high priests beginning with Moses’ brother Aaron up to the high priest at the time of the building of Solomon’s Temple yields 14 generations. Since Aaron was essentially 2 generations old at the time of the Exodus, this yields 12 generations between the two events.
Perhaps there is even a different, as yet undiscovered ancient concept of numbers that explains it. Either way, however, since the preponderance of other evidence points towards the later date, it seems clear that the “480 years” of I Kings 6:1 should not be interpreted as a literal time span according to our present-day numbering system. Exodus 1:11 specifically states that the Israelite slaves “built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” Archaeology has revealed that the magnificent city of Rameses was built during the 66-year long reign of the pharaoh Ramesses II during the 13th Century B.C. Thus, the most likely timing of the Exodus was sometime between 1300 and 1250 B.C.
How Many People Were Involved?
A somewhat different problem is encountered with the figures given in the text for the numbers of Israelites coming out of Egypt in the Exodus. Not only do the literal numbers seem impossibly large, if understood as representative of the actual population of the Israelites, they lead to internal inconsistencies with other statements made in the text. The 603,550 fighting men, as stated in Numbers 1:46, would imply a total population of between 2 and 3 million people. And yet, according to Exodus 23:29-30, God would take his time in driving out the people already in the Promised Land because the Israelites were too few. He would do it little by little until they were numerous enough. Likewise, Deuteronomy 7:1 says that the Lord would be driving out of the Promised Land seven nations that were “larger and stronger” than the Israelites, who, according to Deuteronomy 7:7, were “the fewest of all peoples.” If the figures are to be taken literally, then the population of the region Israel took over would be something like 20 million or more — far more than there is even today. The population of the entire earth in 1000 BC is estimated to have been only about 50 million! (http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/worldhis.html)
Likewise, the events of the Exodus, as described in the text, imply numbers far smaller than this to become feasible. For instance, the crossing of the Red Sea at night during extremely windy conditions takes place in only a few hours. The width of the dry land available to them would determine how many people with their animals could get across in that short time, and so unless one presupposes the sea being driven back for many kilometers in width, it would simply be impossible for that many people with animals to cross in that short of time. On top of this, the resources that would be available in the desert could not reasonably be expected to support such a huge population for such a long period of time — unless, of course, one appeals to constant, transcendent miracles. God’s supernatural guidance of natural forces, which the text implies, would not be anywhere close to being enough to do the job if more than 2 million people were to be supported for many years in the wilderness.
Humphreys’ solution to this conundrum is to reinterpret the meaning of the numerical figures based on the way these numbers were written in Hebrew. The main point is that the Hebrew word (‘eleph) that is translated “thousand” also has the meaning of “group” or “clan,” depending on the context. For instance, in Numbers 1:21, as it begins the listing of the census of the various tribes, it says concerning the numbering of the tribe of Reuben that there were “forty (and) six ‘’eleph’ (and) five hundred.” This is referring to the number of men of fighting age (twenty and over). The Arabic numerals we are familiar with did not yet exist, and numbers were written out in this cumbersome fashion.
If this is interpreted to mean 500 men divided up into 46 groups (and similarly for the other 11 tribes), then the total number of the 12 tribes is 5550 men, which would imply a total population of only about 20,000. Such a number would seem to be a far more “reasonable” figure, but it does raise other issues that need to be dealt with. Clearly, the numbers are rounded off, as all of the numbers are approximated to the nearest hundred, except for Gad, which is 45 “’eleph” and 650 men, but even that would seem to be a number rounded off to the midpoint of 50. It does, however, seem a bit odd that the numbers of total men in each tribe would be rounded off while the number of groupings would be so exact. Likewise, the average size of each group would be 9.3, but would vary from 5.1 for Simeon to 14.4 for Gad.
In his analysis, Humphreys introduces several lines of textual evidence to support his interpretation. Among these is the observation that Numbers 3:46 lists the number of first-born Israelites as being only 273 more than the number of Levites. Since we can presume that the Levite tribe would have been approximately the same size as the other 12, this figure makes sense only if the tribes each had several hundred men (and not several 10’s of thousands). Likewise, the probability that all 12 tribes would have numbers ending between 200 and 700 (with no 000, 100, 800 or 900) is extremely small (.6<12>=.00218). This is especially so since the census some 40 years later (Numbers 26) fits the exact same pattern.
With respect to the first census, adding up the “’eleph” of each tribe gives a figure of 598, with a total of 5550 men in the other column. Numbers 1:46, however, records the total number as being 600 “’eleph” and 3550 men. This means that in order for Humphreys’ reinterpretation to be valid, two “’eleph” (thousand) of the total number of men in the second column must have been shifted over to the first during some sort of editing process. Similarly, for the second census in Numbers 26, there were 596 “’eleph” and 5730 men, and in this case, 4 of the “’eleph” meaning “thousand” would have had to be transferred over to the other column to make the total be 600 “’eleph” and 1730 men, as it reads in the present text.
It is possible that the original source Moses would have recorded for the first census and passed down read something like “five hundred and ninety and eight ’eleph and five ’eleph and five hundred and fifty” (with the first ’eleph meaning “groups” and the second meaning “thousands”). It is clear that at least some editorial work was done by later scribes (such as the recording of Moses’ death, which he obviously could not have done), and since the form in which we have the 5 books of Moses appears to date from considerably later than Moses himself, it is at least possible that such an awkward number was edited to say “six hundred ’eleph and three ’eleph and five hundred and fifty” (the literal reading of it in the Hebrew as we have it now). It is quite possible that the original readers would have understood the different usages of the same word in the sentence, but that hundreds of years later, when the numbering system had changed, they didn’t understand that difference anymore and made this kind of error.
Whether this particular suggestion for resolving the numbers problem is correct or not, it does seem apparent that “something has been lost in translation” between the intended meaning of the original report and the way it has been transmitted into the Old Testament accounts. While it has its own weaknesses, Humphreys’ suggestion is at least plausible, and his figure of 20,000 people in the Exodus is consistent with the details of the journey as described in biblical accounts as well as with what archaeology can tell us concerning population figures for that time frame.
The Plagues of Egypt
Before returning to the two remaining issues of the location of Mount Sinai and the route of the Exodus, I want to introduce a very interesting proposal Colin Humphreys makes for demonstrating the integral relationship between each of the succeeding plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians to force them to “let my people go.” The last plague of the death of the first-born is, of course, the most difficult to figure out with respect to a possible natural mechanism, but even here Humphreys makes a very plausible suggestion.
The various details given in the biblical descriptions, together with what scientists now know about the various natural processes that are possible agents for the various plagues, all come together very nicely to form a consistent picture of natural phenomena being orchestrated by God to bring about his purposes.
The process begins with the Nile “turning to blood” and huge numbers of fish dying as a result. We can infer the location of this event because the text tells us that the Israelites were building Pithom and Rameses, which have been identified as near the modern city of Qantir on the Nile Delta about 30 km inland from the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, the area affected would have been along one of the 7 main divisions of the river as it spread out across the broad delta. The annual flooding of the Nile occurs in the late summer to early fall months, and large amounts of reddish soil are brought down from the Ethiopian highlands. Some have suggested that an unusual amount of such red silt could have made the water appear like blood.
While that might account for the red color, it would not account for the fish kill, which would require some sort of algal bloom that either took the oxygen out of the water or introduced toxins (and likely both). “Red tide” refers to such an event, when favorable conditions lead to a huge bloom of algae that turns the water red. While the algae responsible for such tides do not grow in flowing fresh water rivers, it can grow in stagnant fresh water and is particularly common in tidal estuaries where ocean tides can mix with river water. All it needs is a nutrient-rich environment with warm temperatures and lots of sunlight — something not hard to imagine in a place such as the Nile Delta. The most likely time for such an occurrence would have been September, and this fits nicely with the cascade of events that would lead to the Exodus occurring in late March or early April, just when the Bible says it began.
About a week after the “red tide” began, the fish would have been dying and rotting away, making a very unpleasant situation for the frogs that normally abound in the Delta that time of year. This would have forced them ashore, and as they naturally gravitate towards the light and heat sources that attract insects, they would be crawling into people’s houses, just like Exodus describes for the second plague.
What would naturally follow from piles of rotting fish and a sudden collapse of the frog population? Just what the Exodus says were the third and fourth plagues — gnats and flies. While the text isn’t specific enough to directly identify the species involved, these two plagues can very neatly explain the following two plagues, if specific gnats and flies endemic to the area where the cause.
Specifically, “Culicoides midges” would fit into the “gnat” category, and this species can transmit the viruses that cause both the “African horse sickness” and “bluetongue,” fatal diseases that affect just the type of animals listed in the text as having died — namely hoofed mammals such as horses and cattle. The text indicates that the spread of the disease was limited, as it did not affect the livestock of the Israelites who lived a considerable distance away from the river. Likewise, since Pharaoh obviously had plenty of horses a few months later for his chariots, it is clear that other sections of his kingdom were spared. Specifically, we would expect that upstream, where the algal blooms that apparently set this whole cascade in motion would not have grown, this plague would not have occurred.
The sixth plague was some sort of skin disease that affected both humans and animals. Deuteronomy 28:27-35 describes this disease, “the boils of Egypt,” as affecting the legs first and spreading to other parts of the body. A likely candidate for the agent involved is a bacterium that causes such a skin disease in both humans and animals, which is transmitted by a fly known as “stable fly,” common to the region. Both the explosion of first gnats and then flies in the third and fourth plagues would, according to this hypothesis, lead directly into the fifth and sixth plagues as described.
The timing suggested by Humphreys for each of these plagues begins in September, when the Nile would be in flood stage, and progress through each stage, with the sixth plague occurring in December or January. Given the incubation times involved for the proposed agents, I would think the cascade would proceed even faster than that, but it is not an unreasonable timescale, and it clearly matches both the descriptions of the plagues in the text and what would be expected from natural processes — especially under the control of God for his purposes. Another possibility is that the “red tide” began somewhat later, after the flood stage had subsided somewhat, which would shorten the times between the succeeding plagues.
The final four plagues do not naturally follow from the first six, but are instead instigated by an unrelated weather phenomenon — the seventh plague of the hailstorm. The text states that the hail destroyed the earlier developing flax and barley crops, but that the later developing wheat and spelt were able to recover. This would place the storm sometime in the late February, early March period. And since such storms are normally local in scope, it is not hard to imagine the Israelites a few kilometers away escaping the destruction.
The eighth plague of locusts is described as being brought in by a strong east wind that blew all that day and night, coming in a huge horde the next day. The soil would still have been wet from the storm, and this is an important attraction to the adult insects looking for an appropriate place to lay their eggs. The text says that it hailed everywhere but the land of Goshen where the Israelites were, but expressions such as “throughout Egypt” (9:25) and “in all the land of Egypt” (10:15) are not to be taken in modern geographical terms. Instead, these refer to the regions the people involved lived in — in this case, the Egyptians. Thus, while widespread, the storm would still have been fairly local, so that if other areas outside of the population centers of the Egyptians were not wet, the locust would have concentrated in huge numbers where the sandy soil was wet (which are the ideal conditions they seek). Thus, while the connection between the seventh and eighth plagues is not as clear as the cascade of the first six, this somewhat more indirect connection is quite plausible.
The ninth plague is described as “a darkness that can be felt,” which is descriptive of a phenomenon that is not at all uncommon in Egypt — namely a severe dust storm. The first dust storm of the season in Egypt is normally the most severe (as the amount of the dust available to stir up decreases dramatically after the first storm), and it normally occurs in March, which fits nicely into the sequence of events leading up to the Exodus (which the text describes as taking place in what corresponds to late March or early April in the modern calendar).
What was different about this dust storm, however, was its intensity; it enveloped the area in darkness for 3 days. As to why this particular year the dust storm would be so intense, in addition to having particularly strong winds (orchestrated by God), the fact that the land had been denuded by the locusts, combined with a particularly heavy layer of fine soil brought down with the Nile flood the previous September, could easily explain the storm’s usual intensity.
Now, we come to the final plague, which is the most difficult to invoke some sort of natural process to explain. After all, what could possibly be limited to only the first-born males, both human and animal? Indeed, this may very well be a case where God (through “the angel of death”) orchestrated events on an individual level, instead of on a societal level. However, Humphreys does suggest a plausible explanation that involves the special significance the Egyptians held within in their religious worldview for their firstborn sons as well as for their firstborn animals. This later point concerning the animals lacks definitive archaeological evidence, but it is likely the case, and it clearly was the case for the Israelites themselves, as is apparent in Exodus 13:2 and numerous other Old Testament passages. Referring to the death of the firstborn male animals indicates that they were distinguished from other animals in some clear way. Otherwise, there would be no need to mention it in the narrative.
The plausible scenario Humphreys suggests that could possibly result in the death of only the firstborn is as follows. The Egyptians would have been desperately low on food, and they likely would have tried to salvage what barley grains they could from their flattened fields after the hailstorm. Needless to say, the grains would have been damp and liable to mold. Fungi that produce powerful poisons called “mycotoxins” would, if the conditions were right, grow from spores that surely would have been present in the environment. It is easy to conceive of the desperate Egyptians putting damp grain in their empty storerooms, and then shortly afterwards being forced to stay indoors for three days due to the severe dust storm. In the meantime, mold forming on the damp grain could have produced a powerful mycotoxin that could easily kill a person who consumed it. Examples of large numbers of people quickly dying from eating contaminated grain have been documented in modern times as well.
The reason for the tenth plague only affecting the firstborn would then be, if this hypothesis is correct, that only they were fed the grain. Firstborn sons were highly privileged, typically being fed first and given a “double portion.” Thus, in this desperate situation, it’s not hard to imagine that after being stuck indoors without food for 3 days, the Egyptians would have gathered what little grain they could and would have given priority to their firstborn for the first meal. If God used this particular natural cause to bring about his stated goal, it would involve both orchestrating the overall flow of events together with utilizing the human culture of that day so that it followed its natural course.
The issue of the death of firstborn animals is, however, a bit more tenuous. First of all, they would have had to bring in animals to replace those that were wiped out in the fifth plague. There would have been time for that, however, and so that is not a significant issue. The scenario Humphreys suggests is that like the Hebrews, the Egyptians viewed the firstborn male animals as specially set aside for sacrifices to their gods. The powerful priests would likely have been demanding the best animals to sacrifice to their gods in order to placate them and cause them to act in their behalf to rid them of these plagues. Emaciated animals simply wouldn’t do, and so it is quite plausible that the firstborn of the animals would also have been unwittingly fed the poisoned grain and be doomed together with the firstborn sons. Both events would have cut to the very heart of Egyptian society and their religious practice in a far more dramatic way than the previous plagues. Pharaoh was finally forced to let the Israelites go, and so the Exodus begins.
The Route to the Crossing of the Red Sea
The main reason scholars many centuries later have had trouble putting together a coherent picture of the Exodus is not because the events were not carefully recorded by Moses to be later compiled into the records we have in the Old Testament. Numerous details of the route of the Exodus and the events that happened along the way are listed in the book of Exodus as well as in Numbers and elsewhere. The problem is that the specific place names listed were for the most part unknown by later scholars. Because the association of a mountain in the lower Sinai Peninsula with the biblical Mt. Sinai became firmly implanted in biblical scholars’ minds, the various speculations as to the actual route were forced into that mold.
Perhaps the biggest issue to be solved in putting together a coherent picture is the crossing of the Red Sea. Since the original Hebrew used the words “yam suph,” which literally means “Sea of Reeds,” how is it that the tradition arose of the crossing of the “Red Sea?” The Old Testament was first translated into Greek in the 3rd Century B.C. by 70 Jewish scholars living in Alexandria, Egypt. They would have certainly known that the word “suph” meant “reed,” and yet they translated it into Greek as “eruthra thalassa,” literally, “Sea Red.” There must have been a good reason. (The fact that in English: “reed” and “red” are so similar is pure coincidence.)
Humphreys spends a considerable portion of his book describing his quest to figure out how both “reed” and “red” would be applicable to the crossing and how the various clues in the text all come together in one location — the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. First of all, why is the body of water between Africa and Arabia called the “Red Sea?” Humphreys describes his experience in seeing the normally deep blue sea having large splotches of bright red at low tide, when the water level drops down to the tops of the brilliantly colored coral reefs. As soon as the rising tide deepens the water just a bit, this fleeting yet striking effect quickly disappears. This red coral grows extensively along the coasts of the Red Sea, and so he speculates that this is the reason this body of water was given that name.
What about reeds, which do not grow in salt water? Scholars who have taken the position that “Red Sea” was the “most famous mistranslation in history” gravitate towards the theory that the Israelites crossed a shallow, reed-filled inland lake. These did exist along what is now the Suez Canal, but the location of possible sites would seem to be too early in the Exodus march. They would have reached these locations shortly after leaving Succoth on the 2nd day. We must keep in mind that Pharaoh had grudgingly authorized a trip of 3 days into the desert, a day of offerings, and then supposedly 3 days to come back, for a total of a week. How long it was before he realized they were marching much too fast and far for them to be intending to return is not clear, but certainly they would have had a head start of at least a couple of days if not more. While Pharaoh’s army would be able to move at a considerably faster pace, it would have taken a few days to catch up, as the Israelites pushed on as fast as they could possibly go.
Thus, the clear implication is that the crossing of the Red Sea must have been something like a week or so after they left Egypt. This time span would put the journeying Israelites well beyond any possible inland lakes. Humphreys, however, points out that at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, where desert wadis drain into the sea, there are, even today, large areas covered with reeds almost to the very shoreline. Presumably, this would have been even more so in ancient times prior to land development. If it were at this point that the Israelites crossed the sea, it would have been appropriate to call it both the “Sea of Reeds” and the “Red Sea.”
Almost all biblical references to “Yam Suph” (Red Sea) in the Old Testament are in direct reference to the Exodus, but one reference in 1 Kings 9:26 tells us that King Solomon had a ship-building facility “at Ezion Geber, which is near Elath in Edom, on the shore of the Red Sea.” This text places the shipyard at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, precisely the place Humphreys proposes for the Red Sea crossing. The other references in the Exodus story to “Yam Suph,” other than at the actual crossing, also support the same conclusion. Numbers 21:4, referring to a time later on in the wilderness experience, tells us that the Israelites “traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom.” Edom is the region directly north of the Gulf of Aqaba. Likewise, in the listing of campsites in Numbers 33, it says that at least 5 days after the crossing, they were again camping alongside the “Yam Suph,” which only makes sense if they were proceeding southward along the east side of the Gulf of Aqaba. After proceeding south along the plateau to the east of the gulf, the trade route drops back down to the coast at the Red Sea proper. (See map 2)
Perhaps the most difficult piece of textual data to explain for this proposal is list of campsites prior to the crossing, as it lists only Succoth, Etham and then Migdol. Immediately after the crossing, however, it specifically states that they “traveled for three days in the Desert of Etham,” and so it’s clear that listed campsites did not automatically mean a day’s travel between them. It makes sense that Moses would plan an ordinary first day’s travel with an overnight stop at the Egyptian outpost of Succoth, so as not to raise undue suspicions. After that, however, he would push ahead at maximum speed. It’s likely they would have traveled along the well-established trade route (which would have water available at several oases) straight across the Sinai to the tip of Aqaba. Since they began the journey at full moon, a bright moon would have been up most of the night for that first week. This would have enabled them to safely travel during considerably more than the 12 hours of daylight they would have had at that time of year. They probably would not have even set up formal campsites as long as they feared Pharaoh might be in hot pursuit. The net result of this is that they could have journeyed to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba in 6 or 7 days, well ahead of Pharaoh’s army.
Humphreys brings together numerous lines of evidence that point towards Etham being the region surrounding the northern Gulf of Aqaba. The lists of place names along the route as describe in both Exodus and Numbers are identical, except that Exodus names the area immediately after the crossing of the Red Sea as the “Desert of Shur,” while Numbers calls it the “Desert of Etham” (which took 3 days to cross). “Shur” means “wall” in Hebrew, while “Etham” means the same thing in Egyptian. While these usually refer to manmade walls, they could easily be applied to the cliffs running along either side of the gulf and on up to the north to the Dead Sea. This region is, in fact, a section of the Great Rift Valley, where tectonic plates are pulling apart from each other, extending some 9000 km. from Mozambique to Syria. The ancient trade route the Israelites would likely have taken drops precipitously down from the plateau some 750 m above sea level and along a streambed to the sea just a few km south of the head of the gulf. A similar line of cliffs runs along the other side of the gulf and up the Arabah Valley to the north. Humphreys even located a map in a book entitled “The Land of Midian” published in 1879 that lists “Etham” as the alternative name of the highest peak in the “grand wall that forms the right bank of the Wadi Yitm [Etham]” just north of the end of the gulf. (See Map 2)
Exodus 14:2 states that after making camp at Etham, God told Moses to “turn back” and “encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea.” The clear implication is that they were already past the end of the Gulf of Aqaba, and could have simply proceeded south from there without any need for a crossing. The following verses, however, tell us that God had them turn back in order to set the stage for God’s final victory over the Egyptians so that they would know he is “the Lord.” The locations of Pi Hahiroth and Migdol are unknown, but according to this scenario, they would be on the west side of the gulf between where the trade route drops down from the plateau and the head of the gulf.
Pharaoh would have known that the trail leading down the cliffs was too steep and narrow for his chariots, and so Humphreys proposes that the Egyptian force would have split up, with the foot soldiers pushing ahead along the main trail while Pharaoh and his chariots took the long way around along a gentle slope into the Arabah Valley to the north. (See map 3.) From a tactical standpoint, this would seem to be a brilliant move, as the Israelites would be caught between the foot soldiers coming up the road from the southwest, while the chariots roared down from the northeast. They would likewise be hemmed in between the cliffs to the west or northwest and the sea to the east or southeast, depending on their exact location.
The text indicates that it was getting dark when the Egyptians arrived, and so they would no doubt have wanted to wait until daybreak to move in and recapture the Israelites. The language of 14:19-20 about the angel of God and his “pillar of cloud” standing between the Israelites and Egyptians to keep them apart throughout the night is, admittedly, not easily explained in terms of any natural phenomenon, even under the control of God. Whether this is a totally supernatural act of God or simply poetic language to express God’s care by keeping the Egyptian army away, I don’t know. In general, however, the Exodus narrative does not seem to employ “poetic language,” and so if it is, it would represent an exception. Assuming this event was about 7 days after they left Egypt, the moon would not have risen until about midnight, and so the first half of the night would have been very dark.
The Crossing of the Red Sea
The stage is now set for the climax of the entire Exodus drama. God causes a “strong east wind” to blow all through the night, driving the sea back. The image burned in our minds from Hollywood movies of the water suddenly dividing and piling up in massive walls on either side of a dry channel is not at all what is implied in the text. Instead, it clearly states that a strong wind blew all night to drive back the waters of the sea. This describes what is known as “wind setdown,” when strong winds blowing across a long stretch of water for many hours gradually push water downwind, lowering the water level at the upwind shoreline. It is the same mechanism that causes a damaging storm surge in a hurricane, where the wind is blowing onshore and pushes water a considerable distance inland.
At first glance, however, the description of an “east wind” seems to pose a problem, since the Gulf of Aqaba runs from north northeast (NNE) to south southwest (SSW), and thus a wind directly from the east would have only a relatively small component blowing the right direction. Humphreys points out, however, that the ancient Hebrews only referred to things in terms of the 4 cardinal directions, and so an “east wind” could refer to anything between northeast and southeast. In order for the wind setdown mechanism to be able to explain the effect described in Exodus, the strong winds would have to blow from a direction pretty close to NNE down essentially the entire gulf.
Admittedly, describing such a wind as a “north wind” would seem to make more sense, but since we don’t know exactly where they were on the shoreline and exactly what section of the gulf they were crossing, that is not necessarily the case. When one considers the layout of the shoreline at the head of the gulf, along with the type of pressure gradient that would be necessary to generate such winds along the length of the gulf, then a wind a bit east of northeast at the shoreline where they might very well have been would actually make more sense. Thus, if one were to simply use an ordinal direction, then “east wind” would be it.
From the standpoint of how the atmosphere works, what would be needed is a strong pressure gradient between high pressure to the NNW and low pressure to the SSE of the head of the gulf. In such a scenario, the wind would be blowing from the NE (slightly cross-gradient towards the lower pressure) and would then gradually shift towards a more northerly wind blowing down the center of the gulf. (See Map 4) Eventually, the winds would shift towards a NW and then westerly wind farther south, but this could easily have been at the base of the gulf or even out in the Red Sea proper. Thus, it is not at all difficult to imagine a wind-generating pressure system that would have winds starting out a bit east of NE at the head of the gulf and then increasingly shifting towards a north wind further to the south. The high cliffs running down either side of the gulf would also serve to funnel the force of the wind straight down the gulf. Such a scenario blowing all night could indeed cause a considerable wind setdown, exposing the sea bottom for many hundreds of meters out, particularly if the gradient of the beach were not steep.
The Exodus account, however, clearly states that there was water on both sides of the dry pathway across to the other side, and so in order for the wind setdown theory to be valid, that would require some sort of ridge to be running across the gulf to the other side. This bit of speculation, of course, needs to be tested against the actual features along the various possible crossing routes to give it more credibility. It is quite possible, however, that the shoreline itself has changed considerably in the past 3300 years, and so what we can see today is not necessarily the same situation as in Moses’ day. Thus, even if there is not such a ridgeline today, that doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t one at that time. The presence of such a ridge would, however, lend considerable credence to this theory.
When it comes to the issue of a “wall” of water on both sides, even if we opt for a ridge exposed by a wind setdown, the “wall” would only be on the downwind side. While the Hebrew word translated as “wall” is the same word that is ordinarily used for the walls of a city or house (but a different word from “shur,” the “wall” of the cliffs), it needn’t mean a more or less vertical slope to the water. The important point is that water was on both sides of them as they crossed. The text says that the water was “a wall to them on their right hand” (which would be the downwind side), with the original Hebrew wording being imprecise as to what the water was like on the left. If “wall” is understood simply to mean a “barrier”, then it wouldn’t matter, but even if taken to be a steeply sloped “wall” of water being held up by the wind, the text simply doesn’t directly say that the water on the left was the same. As a physical mechanism, no amount of wind could hold up walls of water on both sides unless it was coming from directly above along the entire route and then spreading sideways from there. Such as scenario would have to be totally supernatural, as no natural mechanism exists that could cause it. But the text implies no such thing, and it clearly states that it took all night to accomplish. If God were to use a supernatural mechanism that superseded the natural laws he had created, he could have done that in seconds (just like in the Hollywood movie!)
As to what the mechanism would have been for causing the water to surge back in with enough force to knock over the soldiers and their horses, there are several possibilities. If the Israelites were crossing a section of the gulf near its head, it would make more sense for the Egyptians to simply go around the shoreline and cut the Israelites off at the other side. The text, however, says that God “threw the Egyptian army into confusion.” The only light would have been a half moon overhead, as the sun was not yet up, and with such a strong wind, there was no doubt a lot of dust in the air. Likewise, he “made the wheels of their chariots come off so they had difficulty driving.”
The text says that it was daybreak when the Lord caused the surge of water that wiped out the Egyptians. Among the factors that could have contributed to this, the moon would have been at its highest point in the sky, which means that the tide would be coming in, adding to the pressure behind the waters being held back. The text doesn’t specifically state that the wind suddenly stopped — only that “the sea went back to its place.” Humphreys did some calculations of how fast a “bore wave” would come roaring back in if the wind supporting the water suddenly stopped. He came up with 11 mph (17 kph), which would be sufficient to overtake anyone trying to flee towards the shore through the shallow water already there. Winds being generated by a large low-pressure system do not naturally, of course, just suddenly stop. It is possible, however, for the wind in such a system to suddenly die down in a localized area. For instance, if there were a strong thunderstorm cell a few kilometers out in the gulf, it could have caused a strong downdraft (“microburst”) that could have temporarily cancelled out the large-scale wind where they were.
The fact that the text doesn’t even mention the wind stopping, however, may mean that God orchestrated some other natural mechanism to bring the water surging in. An exceptionally big wave coming up the gulf and hitting at just the right time could have done the trick. For all we know, God could have caused an earthquake at the mouth of the gulf that set off a tsunami at just the right time to reach them when Moses raised his hand over the sea. Whatever physical mechanism was involved in drowning “the best of Pharaoh’s officers” (Ex. 15:4) (which implies that Pharaoh himself was not killed), the purposes of God were fulfilled.
Was Mt. Sinai an Erupting Volcano?
With no more fear of being pursued by the Egyptians, the Israelites could now focus on reaching their destination — Mt. Sinai. Humphreys lists a number of interesting points in the text concerning how Mt. Sinai is described that point to an erupting volcano. If he is correct in his conclusion (and I believe he is), then this means that whatever mountain is the true Mt. Sinai must be an active volcano, of which there are none in the Sinai Peninsula. The only volcanoes in the region with recent (geologically speaking) activity are in western Saudi Arabia, near the ancient land of Midian. This is exactly where the text states that Moses was when he lived in exile.
Moses’ first experience on the “mountain of God” was when he saw the “burning bush,” where he encountered the living God. The text describes this in terms of a real fire burning within a bush that clearly was more than simply bush wood on fire. Humphreys suggests that this may have been superheated natural gas leaking out of a fissure that opened up under the living bush, something that is entirely possible in a volcanic zone that includes gas and petroleum deposits. The gas would ignite as soon as it encountered air, and if the bush were still green, you would have exactly the spectacle Moses beheld — a burning bush that wasn’t immediately consumed.
During the Exodus itself, “a pillar of cloud” by day and a “pillar of fire” by night served as a beacon to direct the Israelites. It has usually been portrayed as a whirlwind moving along in front of them, but Humphreys points out that the text states that it only remained in front of them and nothing about it moving along with them. He suggests that this simply refers to an erupting volcano seen at a distance. Such a pillar-shaped cloud from an erupting Mt. Bedr would easily be visible in the clear desert air from the eastern Sinai Peninsula as they crossed over, and it would be only slightly to the right of their direction of travel. He deals with the conundrum of Ex. 14:19-20, where the “pillar of cloud moved from in front and stood behind them,” as referring to them turning north for a time to go up around the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. He interprets God’s command to “turn back” after camping at Etham to simply mean to turn to the left so that their backs would be towards the pillar of cloud. If their campsite at Etham were prior to them descending down to the gulf, then this would be a possible solution. It does not, however, explain the reference of the pillar of cloud standing between the Egyptian army and Israelites to keep them apart the night of the crossing. Likewise, it does not fit his own hypothesis that Etham was at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. (Remember that the “Desert of Etham” was along the eastern side of the gulf.) Thus, while the pillar-shaped cloud of an erupting Mt. Sinai is an intriguing possibility for explaining the “pillar of cloud,” it is not a good explanation of Ex. 14:19-20, and so I feel the jury is still out on this aspect of the story.
Whether or not the description of the “pillar of cloud” can be explained by a volcanic eruption, clearly many other aspects of their experience can be. The description we see in Deut. 4:11 vividly describes what an erupting volcano would look like, “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness.” Exodus 19:16-19 describes phenomena that would be associated with an erupting volcano, including earthquakes, lightening coming from thick clouds and even a “loud trumpet blast” (which can be caused by high-pressure gas blowing through a narrow opening of the right shape).
The “Desert of Sin”
Humphreys deals with numerous other details of the story, which I will only briefly touch on. (Humphrey’s article at: http://www.europhysicsnews.com/full/33/article6.pdf gives further details.) For instance, the description of “manna from heaven” is identical to what can be collected under tamarisk trees under the right conditions. The “Desert of Sin” is where the Israelites first ate manna, and Humphreys brings together a number of lines of evidence that this is the “Hisma Desert” in Midian (western Saudi Arabia; see map 1), where tamarisk trees are very common. During the spring, when plenty of water is available and the trees are producing lots of sap, tiny drops of sap ooze out of places bitten by insects, etc. and solidify into “thin flakes like frost on the ground” that are “white like coriander seed and taste like wafers made with honey” (Ex. 16:14, 31). Likewise, Quail are known to winter in southern Arabia and then fly to Europe during the summer. The migratory route takes them right over western Arabia, peaking in April. The Israelites arrived in the “Desert of Sin” one month after leaving Egypt, which would place them there in late April or early May, easily within the time span when quail would be migrating through the region.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Humphreys’ book is the connection he makes between the events at Mt. Sinai and the cult of the “Moon-god.” He weaves together numerous bits of evidence that support the view he shares with many biblical scholars that the name “Sin” is derived from the Babylonia Moon-god of the same name, “Sin.” While the Israelites may have sinned in the “Desert of Sin,” the linguistic similarity is simply a coincidence of the English language. The nearby city of Tayma has been shown to be an ancient center of this particular cult, and together with other evidence, this paints a picture of the Moon-god being the most revered of the gods of ancient Arabia. (See map 5. Tayma is about 120 km the east of Mt. Bedr.)
Humphreys includes the following quote from another book, “Arabia and the Bible,” by James Montgomery, a Hebrew scholar, “There stands out [in south Arabia] a definite astral triad of highest deities: Moon, Sun and Morning (or Evening) Star [Venus]. The Moon has the pre-eminence, even as he had in the elder Babylonian religion, before settled agricultural society had shifted the center of gravity to the Sun.” Interestingly, it seems that the crescent moon with the one bright star that is generally associated with the Muslim faith is a throwback to this pre-Muslim time. While quite rare, a brilliant Venus and a crescent moon can line up exactly in this configuration shortly before sunrise or after sunset, and such a conjunction would have certainly held great significance to the people of that day who worshipped the Moon-god Sin.
Are the names “Sinai” and “Sin” related? Humphreys makes a compelling case for it. Apparently the “ai” ending can mean “from,” “belonging to,” or “of”, and so the Hebrews giving the mountain the name “Mount Sinai” likely meant the “mountain of the Moon-god Sin.” Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a “priest of Midian,” and while it is true he may have been a priest to some other deity, it is likely that he was a priest to the Moon-god. Exodus 3:1 tells us that Moses took Jethro’s sheep herd all the way to “Horeb, the mountain of God,” where he encountered the burning bush, and Ex. 18 says that Jethro came down himself to this same mountain to meet Moses, where he proclaimed, “Now I know the Lord is greater than all other gods,” and offered sacrifices to God. Whether his shift in allegiance to Yahweh was total and lasting, we don’t know, but he certainly was inspired by God to give Moses very good advice before returning to his own home.
The name of this mountain in Arabic is “Bedr,” which means “full moon.” The crater at the top forms a neat circle, with the mountain itself being a kind of “mini Mount Fuji” sitting on top of a large tabletop mountain. It’s not hard to imagine why this mountain was thought of as sacred, and with the “full moon” crater on top, it was a natural choice for a mountain dedicated to the Moon-god Sin. Unlike all of the other volcanic craters in the region (which are within large lava fields), Mount Bedr is an isolated cone rising some 180 m above the eastern edge of a 5 km wide by 10 km long tabletop mountain called “Tadra,” which itself stands some 1500 m above sea level. This elevated plateau is composed of ancient sandstone into which this volcanic cone has intruded itself. The following two websites give satellite views of the mountain. The first one is in black and white and shows the cone of the volcano sitting on the right-hand (eastern) edge of the grayish colored, oblong table mountain. There is an elongated light-colored patch just to the left of the cone, which presumably is very flat and without much vegetation. What it would have looked like 3300 years is, of course, uncertain, but such a spot would have provided an ideal location for building the tabernacle and forming a long-term campsite close to the mountain. Being on the west side of the volcano would have protected it from ash falls, as the prevailing winds would carry that away from them. The other satellite picture is in color and shows the table mountain in mostly green, indicating its relative abundance of vegetation. The volcanic cone itself appears light brown in the picture.
The layout of the mountain would make it very easy to delineate the boundaries of the “holy ground” that the people must not intrude upon or even let their animals enter. Humphreys quotes an explorer by the name of Alois Musil who wrote of his experiences in the area a century ago in a book entitled “The Northern Hegaz.” He said that the Bedouins in the area were afraid of climbing Mount Bedr and didn’t even allow their animals to graze on “the grey ridge of Tadra,” the table mountain on which Bedr stands. Musil likewise describes an intriguing altar of twelve stones on the north side of the mountain were the local tribesmen “still offer up sacrifices when they are encamped close by.” These may even be the very stones referred to in Exodus 24:4, “He (Moses) got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel.” Unfortunately, this region is off-limits for expeditions to make geological and archaeological explorations, and so we are thus limited to satellite pictures and early accounts such as Musil’s for our theorizing. Such explorations to determine if this mountain has any archaeological remains from the Exodus and whether it erupted in the proper time frame would go a long way towards confirming (or disproving) this theory. As to why the Saudis place the area off limits, my speculation is that with all their oil income, they certainly don’t need the tourist dollars confirmation of Mt. Sinai would generate, and anything that would give credence to the story of God’s special care for the hated Jews is not something they would welcome.
I want to close with a quote from Humphreys’ book about the incident of the “golden calf.” “Our knowledge that Mount Sinai is Mount Bedr helps us understand better the curious incident of the golden calf recorded in the book of Exodus. The background is that Moses had climbed up Mount Sinai, the summit of which was covered in volcanic smoke, and he had not been seen for forty days and forty nights. Exodus 32:1 records the Israelites’ going to Aaron and saying, ‘As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ But we can guess what they thought. Moses had gone up to the top of the fiery mountain of the Moon-god and had disappeared. The Israelites must have thought Moses had been slain at the top of this terrifying mountain and that the Moon-god had triumphed over Moses and his God Yahweh. So the Israelites, forgetting all the good things their God had done for them, quickly changed sides and made an idol to worship that represented the Moon-god. And what animal represented the Moon-god, carved on his temples from Babylon to southern Arabia, including the carvings found in Tayma in Midian (see picture)? As we’ve seen, it was a young bull, otherwise called a calf.”
Picture: Tayma Cube from 6th Century BC. Note the bull’s head with the horns in the shape of a crescent moon, with the crescent moon in the upper right.