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Questions About the Exodus

Sorry there was no post last week.  I had planned to put this one up, but this has turned out to be one of my longest posts since my Priesthood Ban post.  This post is over 6000 words (14 pages), so be forewarned.  I’ve combined three different videos, so that’s why it took so long.  I’ll color code these quotes so you know which videos these quotes come from.   The videos are Science of the Exodus, by National Geographic; Exodus Decoded, by Simcha Jacobovici; and Exodus Revealed, by Discovery Media Group.

What I found interesting was the fact that there were many similarities.  The same experts and evidence often appeared in multiple videos, yet often different conclusions were provided.  It reminds me of the debate concerning Book of Mormon evidence.

During Passover celebrations in 2001, Rabbi David Wolpe created international headlines in Israel by proclaiming to his Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, “the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”

For more than 1700 years, Christians have been looking for Mount Sinai, the place where Moses received the 10 Commandments.  Constantine’s mother, Helena was probably the first Christian in search of Christian artifacts in the 4th century.  When Christians came across a strange-looking bush at the base of a mountain on the Sinai Peninsula, they erected a monastery claiming that they had found Mount Sinai.  The monastery still exists today, and you can walk the steps that these early Christians have claimed as the real Mount Sinai.

Prof Philip Davies, University of Sheffield, “When it comes to the Exodus, we have no evidence that it happened, and a good deal of evidence that it didn’t.  They made it up.”

Professor Eric Cline, George Washington University, “We do not have a single shred of evidence to date.  There is nothing archeologically to attest to anything from the biblical story: no plagues, no parting of the Red Sea, no manna from heaven, no wandering for 40 years.”

Dr. Kathlyn M. Cooney, Egyptologist, Stanford University,, “the most likely reason that we’re not finding any evidence for the Exodus in Egypt is that it didn’t happen the way that the Bible said it did, or that it didn’t happen at all.”

Since that famous (infamous) sermon in 2001, Wolpe has gone on to soften his words a bit.  In March 2010, he said it was possible that a small group of people left Egypt, came to Canaan, and influenced the native Canaanites.  Even skeptics admit there could be something to the story.

Cline, “I think there’s a very good chance that what actually took place was a series of migrations waves or migrations if you will, over three or 400 years of people leaving Egypt and making their way up to Egypt in ones, twos, threes, maybe even tens, hundreds at the most.”

So, let’s talk about some of the biggest questions concerning the Exodus.

The Burning Bush.

The Bible says that God spoke to Moses in the form of a burning bush that was not consumed.  As mentioned previously, a strange bush was found at the base of the traditional Mount Sinai.  Is there another explanation for this burning bush?  Colin Humphreys has an explanation for a burning bush, involving real fire.  As we all know, oil and natural gas are prevalent in the Middle East.  Humphreys believes the Acacia Bush is an ideal candidate for the Burning Bush.

“The most common bush in the desert is the acacia bush, and we know that if you burn an acacia bush you get charcoal.”

The Acacia Bush maintains it’s shape and turns to charcoal.  He gives a demonstration using a natural gas barbecue grill and an acacia bush.  The bush maintains it’s shape, even though flames shoot through the bush.

When did the Exodus Happen?

There are two main theories:  the Early Exodus Period, and the Late Exodus Period.  Supporters of the Early Period point to 1 Kings 6:1, “”Now it came about in the four hundred and eightieth year after the sons of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel…that he began to build the house of the Lord.”  Most historians put the Temple of Solomon at 965 BC.  This would put the Exodus at approximately 1445 BC.

Pharoah Thutmoses I reigned from 1525-1512 BC.  Scholars have speculated that his daughter Hatshepsut may have rescued Moses from the Nile.  She served as Pharoah from 1503-1482 BC, and battled with her stepson Thutmoses III (1504-1450 BC) for control of Egypt.  Thutmoses III eventually removed nearly all traces of Hatshepsut’s monuments.  Thutmoses III death in 1450 coincides well with the date of this Early Exodus time period.

Supporters of the late period refer to Exodus 1:11, “And they built for Pharoah store cities, Pithom and Ramses.”  Ramses II seems to be the most likely Pharaoh.  He lived 1290-1224 BC.  He moved the capital from Thebes to the Nile Delta, and built a new city called Pi-Ramses.  Some archaeologists have linked this city built on top of an ancient Israelite city.

Simcha Jacobovici believes the date of Exodus may be earlier.  He believes the eruption of the Santorini Volcano in 1500 BC may explain many of the Biblical plagues.  The Egyptian name Ahmose means “brother of Moses” in Hebrew— an interesting play on words.    At this time, Egypt was ruled by a Semitic people called the Hyksos, people who were hated by the Egyptians.  Since Joseph was of Semitic origins, this may have helped him join the ranks of the Hyksos ruling class.  The Bible refers to a pharaoh that “knew not Joseph.”

Egyptians have recorded and event called “the Hyksos Expulsion” around 1500 BC.  Could it be the Israelites were expelled, rather than left freely?  Perhaps it depends on who writes the history.

Is there an Israelite presence in Egypt?

In 1967 Professor Manfred Bietak, Chair of Egyptology at the University of Vienna, discovered the ancient Egyptian capital of Avaris.  It was the home to many ancient Egyptian pharaohs.  Some believe the architecture of this city bears resemblance to later Israelite/Canaanite architecture.

Jacobovici attributes Avaris to the Hyksos, while Dr Bryant Wood refers to the ruins as “Asiatic”, similar to later Canaanite   Let me quote from the Exodus Revealed video.

Dr Bryant G Wood, Director of the Associates for Biblical Research, “In this small village, there is stratum D2 dating to the time of Joseph.  All the remains are Asiatic in nature, material culture is Asiatic— there is nothing Egyptian.”

A map of the excavation site confirms its distinctive Israelite origins.  Archaeologists immediately recognized that the design of this horseshoe shaped dwelling was identical to structures built in Israel centuries later.  It was a prototype of Hebrew architecture constructed near the time Joseph was believed to have lived in Egypt.

…

There should be evidence of Israel’s arrival in Canaan, the Promised Land sometime between the 14th and 12th centuries BC.  Such evidence does exist.  More than 3200 years ago, the Pharaoh Mernepteh, ventured out of Egypt on a military campaign to the Land of Canaan.  Later, in a poem proclaiming his victory, he boasted that “…Israel is laid waste.”  This inscription dates from about 1210 BC, and establishes that the Israelites had arrived and settled in Canaan, well before the Mernepteh’s conquest at the end of the 13th century.

Additionally at Telamarna in Egypt, archaeologists have uncovered a series of letters on cuneiform plates.  Many were authored by Canaanite rulers early in the 14th century BC.  These letters contain desperate pleas to the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten for military assistance to defend Canaan from nomadic invaders.  One of them warned that if pharaoh does not act, “…all Canaan will be lost.”  The invaders were identified by the term “apiru”.

Wood, “This is kind of a generic term for stateless individuals who weren’t connected with any particular urban center and so the Israelites undoubtedly would have been referred to as either Apiru, or Asiatics by the Egyptians.”

Dr Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University, “I do think that the term Apiru is the origin of the term Hebrew.”

If the name Apiru referred to the name of the Hebrew people, then the Telhermana inscriptions provide strong evidence for the presence of Israel in Canaan.  They also suggest Israel may have entered the country earlier than scholars had previously thought, at the beginning of the 14th century BC.  Recent excavations of the Canaanite city of Hazor also support a 14th century Israelite invasion.  Evidence has been uncovered that the city was destroyed at least twice during the period described in the biblical books of Joshua and Judges.

Scattered among the remains of a large palace were Egyptian and Canaanite idols— their heads and hands intentionally chiseled off.  Archaeologist Amnen ben Tour, has concluded by process of elimination that the invading Israelite army must have ravaged Hazor.  For neither the Egyptians, nor the indigenous Canaanite would have purposely destroyed their own gods.

How can we explain the Plagues?

I presented Jacobovici’s position on the plagues in my previous post.  National Geographic (NG) had similar explanations for plagues 2-6 dealing with insects and frogs.  NG even interviewed several entomologists and epidemiologists to further pin down the actual types of bugs most likely in these infestations.

The first plague, turning the Nile to blood has a few different explanations.  Jacobovici believes an underground natural gas into the Nile may have caused caused the waters to turn red and kill all the fish.  Two lakes in Cameroon turned blood red in 1984 and 1986.  Epidemiologist John Marr believes microscopic algae may have turned the Nile blood red.  In 1995, a coastal river in North Carolina turned bright red due to an algae bloom.

Marr, “Wisteria was labeled the cell from hell because it killed millions if not billions of fish.  If that occurred in North Carolina in the 1990’s, why couldn’t it have occurred in Egypt 3000 years ago?”

The last plague has some interesting interpretations too.  Moses prophesied that the firstborn of Egypt would all die, and the Israelites would be spared if they put lamb’s blood on their doorposts.  The Destroying Angel would “pass over” homes with lamb’s blood.  So, how can scientists explain such a selective mode of death?  Some believe the Firstborn is metaphorical.

Epidemiologist Martin Blaser of NYU, “There is no disease that we know of that just affects the firstborns, so I take that it’s a metaphor for a disease that kills one out of every 3 or 4 people.”

Blaser thinks bubonic plague may have been the culprit, because it affects both animals and humans.  Eric Cline of George Washington believes the plagues could refer to a “Sea People” that attacked Egypt.

Cline, “The attack of the Sea Peoples was probably the Egyptians worst nightmare.  They are the fiercest warriors that the Egyptians have faced, and the Egyptians tell us that everybody went down in the face of these sea peoples.  Only the Egyptians were able to stand, and even that was a Pyrrhic victory because the Egyptians were so weakened that they were never the same again.”

Although the Egyptians never mentioned the plagues, they did document these attacks in pictographs on the mortuary Temple of Ramses III.  Archaeological finds match these writings.

Cline, “I see no need to use divine intervention when human intervention can explain it just as well, if not better.”

Others believe the death of the firstborn may have been more literal.  Epidemiologist John Marr recently investigated the mysterious death of children that was due to a mold.  He postulated that following the plagues of locusts and hail, much of the grain in Egypt would have been moist and in short supply.

Rare molds can wreak havoc on human health, and can even cause internal hemorrhaging.  With little else to eat, the Egyptians may have resorted to moldy toxin laced grain.  Death would come suddenly, with no visible cause, as if the victims were touched by an angel of death.  Still, why the first born?  Marr found his answer, the final piece to the puzzle in an Egyptian tradition.

Marr, “During the times of famine, the eldest, the oldest Egyptian child would be given a double portion of food in order to stave off starvation.  Instead of saving them, it killed them.”

Jacobovici has another theory for the selective deaths during this final plague.

SJ, “The final plague took place at midnight, after Moses ordered the Israelites to sit down to what became known as the first Passover meal.  While the Israelites were involved in the Passover ritual, the Egyptians slept, and then it happened: every firstborn male Egyptian died.  Every house was affected.  No one has ever been able to offer up a plausible scientific explanation for the death of the firstborn until now.  According to our scenario, at this point in the sequence of events that began some 6 months earlier, the gas leaks that set the chain of plates in motion would have finally erupted.  Carbon dioxide would have seeped to the surface, and being heavier than air, would have killed animals and sleeping people before it dissipated harmlessly into the atmosphere.

In case you think all this is conjecture, consider this.  It happened in exactly the same way in 1986 at Lake Nyos, Cameroon.  On the fateful night of August 21, the villagers at Nyos went to sleep.  They couldn’t have known that the carbon dioxide gas which had turned the lake blood red, was now reaching a critical point.  As the people of Lake Nyos slept, the top of the lake was keeping the carbon down like a cap in a pop bottle.  But then the earth rumbled, and a landslide took place sending rock into the water, disturbing the surface pressure and releasing the gas.  The gas then rose to the surface, and like some alien monster, emerged from the water, droplets forming on it, turning the invisible gas into a visible fog.  The fog then rolled across the water, and across the land, suffocating everything in its path.  And as suddenly as it appeared, it disappeared, dissolving harmlessly into the atmosphere.

The next day those who had been sleeping on higher ground woke up to find some 1800 people dead, hundreds of cattle and small animals also dead, all around there was deadly silence.

SJ, “After the death of the First born, Pharaoh finally relented, letting Moses take his people out of Egypt.  According to the Bible, what made pharaoh give up was the selectivity of the deaths: the fact that it was only male, firstborn who died.  It was this selectivity that demonstrated to him that God himself was involved.  How can we account for this?

Well, Egyptian firstborn males had the privileged position.  They were the heirs to the throne, to property, title, and more.  They slept on Egyptian beds low to the ground, while their brothers and sisters slept on rooftops, sheds, and wagons.  The Israelites sitting up at their first Passover meal did not feel a thing, while the low traveling gas suffocated the privileged Egyptian males sleeping in their beds.

How many people participated in the Exodus?

The Bible says that 600,000 men left Egypt.  Adding women and children would have increased the total number to 2.5 million people, the size of modern-day Brooklyn, NY.  If the group were that large, there should be some evidence somewhere in the wilderness.

Cline, “if the Biblical numbers are correct, and you’ve got two and a half million people wandering around for 40 years, I would want to find entire landscapes denuded.  I’d want to find hundreds of sheep and goat carcasses, the bones.  Even if they didn’t ask for directions wandering for 40 years, there would be something.”

However, archaeologist Jim Hoffmeier of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School says the number is probably far fewer, due to a mistranslation dating thousands of years.  The original Hebrew says there were 600 elith.

Hoffmeier, “The word elith can be translated 3 different ways:  it can be translated thousand.  Elith can also be translated to the clan.  The third option is that it’s a military unit, which I think is a more plausible scenario.”

According to Hoffmeier’s interpretation, instead of 600,000 men and their families, there were as few as 5000.

Hoffmeier, “we’re talking about a few tens of thousands, certainly not hundreds of thousands, adding women and children making it millions.”

How did the Red Sea part?  Where did the Israelites cross?

There are 3 main theories for the crossing of the Red Sea: a northern, central, and southern route.  Those supporting a northern route point to volcanic activity to explain the parting of the Red Sea.

Geo-archaeologist Floyd McCoy researches tsunamis at the University of Hawaii.  He says a tsunami might have created a land passage for the Israelites across a lagoon.  Although we think of a tsunami as a lot of water, what comes before is the disappearance of water.

Floyd, “Sometimes you get a warning that a tsunami is coming.  Sometimes that ocean disappears, and that’s called draw down.  Remember what a wave looks like; it’s sinusoidal:  bottom, top; trough, crest.  If the trough comes in first, that’s draw down; the ocean disappears.

The Israelites would have crossed on the northern edge of the Mediterranean ocean according to this theory.  However, several Egyptian military outposts have been found along a northern route into Israel dating to the Exodus period.  Many believe the Israelites would have avoided these military outposts when trying to leave Egypt.

In addition to the Biblical mistranslation of elith, Hoffmeier believes the Red Sea is a mistranslation, and the parting of the sea may have occurred closer to home.

Hoffmeier, “The Hebrew Yam Suf literally means sea of reeds.  When the Greek translators took the Hebrew Yam Suf and translated it into Greek, they translated it as Red Sea instead of Reed Sea.  So we’ve been stuck with a faulty translation for over 2000 years.”

Hoffmeier has been working with Prof Stephen O. Moshier, Geologist of Wheaton College.  Together they have pieces together satellite photos and ancient maps to identify a sea of reeds.  They’ve come up with Lake El Balah, on the eastern border of Egypt.  Jacobovici paints another picture of this scenario.

Hoffmeier, “It’s an ancient lake that survived until the 1850’s.  When the Suez Canal was put in, this ancient lake finally died.  Professor Manfred Biatek after conducting a thorough study of this area, proposed that this lake was known to the Egyptians as Ha Tufi, meaning the marshland, the marshy sea.  And the word tuf, the Egyptian word for reeds is the same word as suf in Hebrew.  So Yam Suf, he suggested, was a name derived from this body of water.  Now it is called the El Balah Lake.”  [In Hebrew it means the lake where God devoured.]

…

SJ, “Identifying the precise location of Yam Suf means that we can finally explain the miracle of the parting of the sea. This satellite photo clearly demonstrates that Lake El Balah is close to the edge of the Nile Delta, where soil accumulates and collapses from time to time.  As Pharaoh chased the Israelites to the shores Lake El Balah, the extreme seismic activity that caused the two plates and the Santorini eruption would have now caused the delta to start sliding into the eastern Mediterranean.  As this millions of tons of soil moved forward, the edge of the African plate, which had now released from its burden must have risen between one to one and a half meters.  In other words, the sea parted.

Water would have cascaded from higher ground to lower ground and drained from pools and sinkholes creating dry land for the Israelites to cross.  At this point, further seismic activity, or another collapse of the delta would have sent a major tsunami crashing against the coasts.

Pellegrino, “We get some glimpse of these tidal waves in Turkey where they carved out channel scablands 30 miles inland.  In order to do that at the shore, these waves would have had to have been more than half as high as the Empire State Building, and that’s exactly the description that we do have in the Bible.”

SJ, “If the tsunami went a mere 12 km inland, it would have reached Lake El Balah and engulfed the Egyptian army.  By this point, according to the Bible, the Israelites had advanced beyond the reach of the waves.

Those who support a central route believe Moses and his followers crossed an ancient frankincense trail across the central Sinai Peninsula.  In his younger days, Moses killed an Egyptian while defending a Hebrew slave.  The Bible says he fled to the land of Midian, in Modern Day Saudi Arabia.  It is likely that Moses would have followed the frankincense trail to Midian.  It is the shortest, most direct route to Midian.  If Moses had made the trek before, it is likely he would have followed it again.  Dr Lennart Moller of the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden notes that the Bible says that

In the Book of First Kings, In approximately 950 BC, King Solomon’s is said to have built his navy at Ezion Geber near Elath, an ancient city on the northern coast of the Gulf of Aqaba.  According to the Hebrew text, this gulf where Solomon’s ships were said to harbor, was call yam suf.

He believes Newieva Beach is large enough to hold a large Israelite party, and it has some unusual features that make crossing there more likely than other places.

The geography of the Gulf of Aqaba also resembles descriptions of the Yam Suf God once parted for Israel.  Aqaba is extremely deep, plunging more than a mile in some spots.  It is adjacent to a dense wilderness of rugged mountains.  It is located clearly outside the borders of ancient Egypt, as recognized during the time of Moses.  These similarities to the scriptures have led Lennart Moller and others to theorize the Gulf of Aqaba is the Red Sea of the Exodus story.  If they are correct, then 2 distinct possibilities for a crossing point exist:  the first is located on the bottom of the Sinai Peninsula, on the Straits of Tyron.  This channel 5 miles across is one of the most popular recreation areas on earth, as spectacular reefs and marine life attract divers from throughout the world, but the topography of the sea floor here would have made crossing highly unlikely.

For less than a mile offshore, a subterranean canyon plunges nearly 1000 feet at a grade so steep, passage on foot through jagged coral beds would have been virtually impossible, even if the waters were miraculously removed.  70 miles north of the straits, near the center o the Aqaba coast, another potential crossing site extends into the sea.  It is called the Newieva Peninsula.

Moller was attracted to Newieva Beach because of some interesting coral formations.

Moller, “The first time I was diving there, of course we were then looking for possible artifacts, and I had seen some pictures of what we could look for.  I was skeptical and excited because if this is the place for the crossing, then of course, that’s a big thing, so I was excited about that.  But I was also skeptical because 3500 years— that’s a long time.  But if Newieva is the crossing site, then of course you would expect to find remains of the Egyptian army.”

Like others who had explored Newiva before him, Moller immediately recognized the difficulty of this search.

Moller, “If we assume a number of artifacts were spread out on the sea bed, sooner or later corals would start to grow on them, and of course if you have an array of some coral all growing on something, it’s very hard to distinguish the structure that was there in the very beginning.”

Though the coral complicates any search here, it may have been instrumental in preserving the shapes of artifacts, for coral is a living organism that will not begin to grow on a foundation of sand or silt.  Instead, it must first attach itself to a solid object where it will sometimes conform to the shape of its host.

Moller, “So for instance if it were to grow on a wooden artifact, the wood would normally disappear in the sea waters after a time.  But if you have corals growing on the wooden artifact, the corals could have the shape of the wooden artifact and then the coral would consume the wood and material over a periods of time, but still keep the shape of the wooden artifacts.”

During the course of his exploration, Moller observed the pattern of coral growth at Neweiva differed from other parts of the gulf.  Unlike the coral at the northern and southern ends of Aqaba which often forms large dense reefs, sometimes covering acres, the formations at Nuweiva beach are generally smaller, and scattered randomly across the bottom of the sea floor.  Divers familiar with the area have compared the distribution of coral here to a junkyard, and the aftermath of a disaster.  This description is fitting, and among the strange formations in these waters, many display features indicative of human engineering.

Moller, “When we dive, and when we film, at the Neweiva location, we look for certain structures, and you try to look for 90 degree angles, or circular objects, wheel like structures, so that is what you scan for when you dive.  There are situations where you see something that looks like an axle, a hub, some that looks like a wheel, and you say to yourself, this is a coral reef.  This coral grew on an artifact, and that is what’s different to me when I compare corals at other locations around the world.”

Since the earliest explorations at Newieva, one distinctive type of formation has often been identified on the sea floor, a slender table-like structure, sometimes standing on end with a coral encrusted base, a straight shaft, and a circular top.

Moller, “It’s a 90 degree angle, and right angle between something that looks like an axle and a wheel.  You can see this in different varieties, and it looks very different from normal coral.  It is like a man-made structure with a coral roof on it.

While most of the possible artifacts found on the coast of Newieva are covered with coral, one significant discovery was not.

Moller, “There is one find at the Neweiva location that is of great interest, and this is the gilded wheel.  It is a wooden basic structure of the wheel, and it is covered with gold or electrum, a mixture of silver gold, and corals have not been able to grow on it.  It’s been fairly well preserved, although it’s very fragile.  It seems the wooden content has been dissolved.  You could break it if you try to remove it.”

After its discovery, the fragile wheel-shaped veneer was photographed and left in place on the sea floor.

Later analysis revealed that its dimensions and design resembled four-spoked chariot wheels painted on a 18th Dynasty tomb wall near the Biblical date of the Exodus.

Moller referenced a southern crossing point as well, but dismissed it because of the steep cliffs and jagged coral.  Proponents of a southern route believe a volcanic land bridge may have appeared at this area.

Stephen J. O’Meara, Volcanologist, Volcano Watch International flies over an active volcano.  “Imagine the Jews, reaching this massive land bridge, formed by lava.  Here we have earth being created before our eyes.  You can see the lava flow going into the ocean on a new bench of land.  This is a very highly unstable platform of land.  The bench will not last for long.  This whole area can fall in just a matter of minutes.  Massive collapses have occurred here in Hawaii almost in the blink of an eye.”

The Red Sea forms part of the Great African Rift System.  The entire region has an explosive volcanic history.

O’Meara, “Although we see a very small lava flow, you have to in your mind scale this up to a massive volcanic eruption 3200 years ago.  It enters the water, the water boils, it disappears.  It’s enough to choke valleys and cause land bridges.”

In O’Meara’s scenario, an underwater eruption could have created a temporary unstable lava bridge.  The surface layer of lava cools quickly when it hits the water.  The Israelites could have crossed over this new land.

O’Meara walking on lava, near bright red lava flow, “But what’s amazing about this lava, even though it’s so hot that I have to keep walking right at this moment, that if I had to, to save my life, I could wait, walk over this lava in 10 minutes.”

This new unsupported land could have quickly disintegrated.

O’Meera, “and then when the Egyptians were on their chariots, [hops around because of the heat] and they tried to cross this same bed, the lava gave way.”

The collapse of this land bridge would have plunged pharaoh’s army into the sea.

O’Meara, “It makes sense.  Volcanoes are the only thing that makes sense.  The Bible is just filled with volcanic references and especially in Exodus out from the plagues to the parting of the Red Sea, and seeing pillars of fire, and mountains quaking, and burning bushes, all of them just in Exodus.  You imagine, you come up here and see this and you are not a scientist.  There were no scientists back then.  Listen to it!  [lava crackling]  It’s talking to you!  It’s written in the Bible, God says, ‘I am the rock.’  There you are!”

Where is Mount Sinai?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are several proposed locations for Mount Sinai.  The traditional location is at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.  Tradition for this site goes back to the 4th Century.  After Moses escaped to Midian, he found the Burning Bush.

Many scholars believe that Mount Sinai is in the Land of Midian in modern day Saudi Arabia.

Separated by the Red Sea and the Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula, Moses married a Midianite woman, tended the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, and lived in obscurity for years, until the day he wandered to the base of Mount Sinai.  There God spoke through a burning bush and revealed his plan to free Israel from bondage.  Given the Biblical record, some believe that Mount Sinai must be in Midian, but is there any other evidence to support this theory?

Several Jewish documents, some written several hundred years before Christian traditions, locate the mountain of God in Midianite territory.  In 250 BC, a council of 70 Hebrew scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek for the first time.  Their translation of the Exodus account presupposed that Mount Sinai stood in the Arabian Peninsula.  Three centuries later, the Jewish philosopher Philo placed the mountain “east of the Sinai Peninsula” and south of Palestine.  At the same time, the apostle Paul, who was educated under the Rabbi Gamaliel, also located Mount Sinai in Arabia (Galatians 4:25).

Kerkeslager, “So Paul and Philo, when they used the word Arabia, they’re not thinking of the Sinai Peninsula.  Once again, I think that point needs to be emphasized very clearly.  In terminology, Arabia in the 1st century, Greek geographers usually had in mind the Arabian Peninsula.  That’s how that term is used.”

Perhaps that most specific description of Mount Sinai’s location can be traced to the first century historian Josephus, who wrote “it was the highest of mountains…” near “…the city of Madian.”  Shortly after this account, Madian was identified in the Arabian Peninsula by the Greek geographer Ptolemy.  1900 years later, archaeologists excavated this city that according to ancient records had once stood near Mount Sinai.  The ruins of Madian lie just outside the modern day town of El-bod near Saudi Arabia’s northwest coast.

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Viveka Ponten of Stockholm, Sweden said, “I have always been interested in archaeological finds that could confirm the truths of the Bible.  I have wanted come to Saudi Arabia to see for myself— I want to be able to say ‘I have seen this place’.”

In 1996, Vivika Ponten entered Saudi Arabia on a work permit.  During the following years, she made several trips to Jebel Elboz.

Ponten, “It was very difficult to find the mountain.  I think I had been there for 7 months before I came to the mountain the first time.  We went around looking for it in the desert.  I did 5 long day trips— 5 different locations, just looking and looking for this place.”

Throughout her search, Ponten encountered a strong local tradition that Moses had once lived in Arabia.

Ponten, “It seems to be a tradition among the locals there that this mountain range is called Jebel-Musa.  They call it that, and many places have the name of Moses, like their wells, that they call Adien-Musa, or Bijan-Musa, which means ‘the well of Moses’.”

When Ponten finally reached Jebel Alboz, her attention was drawn to specific features of the mountain that resembled the Biblical description.  Most prominent was a jagged peak, more than 8000 feet in elevation, and blackened, as if scorched by fire.  [Deuteronomy 9:18, the Lord descended on it in fire.)

At its base, an enormous pile of boulders, at least 15 feet high and 60 feet across (Exodus 32:5, he built an altar in front of the calf.)  The flattened top of this structure had the appearance of being man-made, and etched into its rock faces were petro glyphs of bovine creatures, cattle and bulls.  The distinctive horns and some of the inscriptions resemble pictures of ancient Egyptian Apis bulls.  Could these stones be the remains of an Israelite altar, once built at the base of a holy mountain?  Conclusive investigation is not possible at this time, for Saudi law severely limits all foreign research.

Ponten, “They have put up archaeological signs that tell this is an archaeological area, and you’re not supposed to trespass here.  It’s evident that the Arabs themselves consider this to be some old site of archaeological interest.

Satellite photos of the area have revealed another geographical feature that parallels the Biblical account: a sprawling plain more than 10,000 acres.  Flat, surrounded by mountains, and adjacent to the dried bed of an ancient river, it could have provided an ideal place for the Israelite encampment 3500 years ago.

Just west of the mountain stands another link to the possible Exodus account: a towering rock, 60 feet high.  It is split from top to bottom, and evidence of water erosion is etched into its base.  Many features of Jebel Alboz reflect the Biblical account of Mount Sinai.  As the highest mountain of northwest Arabia, it matches ancient Jewish historical records.

Kerkeslager, “Based on the textual evidence, Jebel Alboz is as good of a guess as any; it might even be the best guess.  It’s definitely better than anything in the Sinai Peninsula, and probably better than any other guess that we have.  It would be nice to have some excavation, and that’s really [why] we need excavations.  We need somebody who is competent, trained archeologist to go in and record the material carefully, submit it for dispute and debate among other scholars, because there are too many gaps in our knowledge.”

The intriguing similarities between Jebel Alboz, and the Biblical record may indeed stimulate new investigation here. Yet whether or not future excavations confirm this site as the actual mountain of God, a considerable body of documentary evidence indicates that Mount Sinai is located somewhere in northwestern Arabia.

Others believe Mount Sinai is somewhere on the Sinai Peninsula.  Jacobovici discusses another possible location discovered by Prof Uzi Avner.

Holy mountains in the desert are marked by ancient, open-air, rock sanctuaries.  In this area there is only 1 mountain surrounded by sanctuaries.  Today that mountain is called Jebel-Hashem el-Tarif.

Although this entire are is in the middle of a military zone, we got to it.  This mountain perfectly fits all the criteria for Mount Sinai.  It is surrounded by a huge plateau that could have accommodated hundreds of thousands of Israelites.  It is easily accessible.  It literally sits on the main trans-Sinai highway, which follows the topography of the ancient route.

Prof. Uzi Avner, Arava Environmental Institute, Israel, “The Mountain is not very high, only about 200 meters above the plateau, but it is very conspicuous.  You can see it from a distance.  The unique point is that it is surrounded by actually the largest concentration of open air sanctuaries that we now today in the desert.”

Conclusions?

So, do we need to believe that any of these scenarios?  Both skeptics and believers seem to agree that faith and science are two different animals.

Hoffmeier, “For people that have religious convictions, they don’t need proof.”

Cornuke, “it all boils down to, this is a supernatural event, and you can’t explain it in any other way.”

Ultimately, the power of Exodus lies more in faith than in science.

Cooney, “There’s no real scientific proof that the Exodus took place, but as a Christian or as a Jew, you shouldn’t need scientific proof to be a person of faith.  Faith doesn’t need to be scientifically proven, nor should it be; it’s faith.”

Cameron, “It seems that the Bible, geology, and archaeology, are all telling the same story.  But skeptics, who would like to regard the Exodus as myth, might resist the idea that it actually happened, because this would imply that God does indeed exist.  Believers on the other hand may feel that a scientific explanation of the Biblical story takes God out of the equation. “

SJ, “But in the Book of Exodus, God does not suspend nature, he manipulates it.  In other words, according to the Bible, we should be able to understand the science behind the miracles.  The greatest miracle of them all was the parting of the sea.

Rabbi David Wolpe believes that the historicity of the events in the Bible should not matter; faith is not determined by the same criteria as empirical truth.

So, what do you think?  Does any of this convince you of the historicity of the Exodus?  Do you think the Exodus is myth?

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27 comments on “Questions About the Exodus

  1. Thanks for all the work, MH. I’ll be chewing over the particular explanations you pose for awhile.

  2. In order to call your analysis “thorough,” you would have to include the work of such mavericks an Immanuel Velikovsky, David Rohl and Ron Wyatt. In my view, the Exodus is the archetypal cosmological event. As such, it reveals the same natural events as those predicted for the Last Days, just prior to the Second Coming. Seen in that context, there is ample historical evidence for a very real event. I invite you to examine the evidence I’ve assembled at http://www.mormonprophecy.com and www. mormonprophecy.blogspot.com

  3. Anthony, I quickly perused both sites. Do you have a link that specifically addresses the Exodus?

    FireTag, I hesitated to post something so long, because I knew some people might lose interest. However, it is pretty nice to have so much information in a single post, and I find that I often reference my old posts when talking to others. I guess there are 3 basic opinions on the Exodus: (1) it happened as the Bible said, (2) it never happened, (3) parts are true, and other parts are embellished. Of these 3 options, which way do you lean (or is there a 4th option you like better)?

  4. I didn’t lose interest. The week of the CofChrist World Conference, tax filing week, and the annual meeting of a home owners association for which I’m President contains just a bit more fun than I can stand!

    My position on both the Exodus and the BofM is pretty much the same: containing written accounts of earlier oral histories recording, but invariably altering and embellishing historical events according to the limited understanding of the writers and visionaries. We do the same to our own modern scriptures.

    It is fun and, often insightful, to try to sort out which parts are which though.

  5. FireTag, you have been busy! I hope things settle down for you a bit, and you can digest more of this post.

  6. What an intriguing post! Thank you! I am of the opinion that there is a great deal of essential truths in the OT that have been over translated and sometimes trans substantiated from oral tradition. I believe that most of the events that the Bible stated are true essentially. I believe that the Israelites crossed a body of water, plagues occurred in Egypt, etc, but I don’t know how many of those things happened or exactly where. You have presented here a collection of extremely interesting theories that I am mostly inclined to agree with. It is amazing to me how many Christians can say that the Bible is completely infallible and correctly translated. For instance, I am not sure that the Israelites were told by a loving God to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan. I’m pretty sure that is oral tradition.

  7. Sean, thanks for stopping by. Of course not all the theories agree with each other. For example, which explanation for turning the Nile red do you like better: red algae blooms, or an underwater gas leak?

    Also, check out my previous post on Joshua’s Unholy war.

  8. […] this is a strength or a weakness.  (Morgan, I’m also curious for you to comment on my previous post about the Exodus–I discuss Egyptian chariots, and wonder if you might comment on some of the warfare mentioned […]

  9. FireTag, I realize your World Conference ended this weekend, and it appears to me that the vote on D&C 164 was postponed. Is this correct? (I tried to read through the Minutes on the CofChrist.org website, and that was the impression I got.)

  10. NO. The Section was canonized, and the process didn’t take abnormally long, although it was a bit unusual for two of the leading quorums and one regional caucus to express either doubts or request further clarification in their formal letter of approval. I’m now drafting a post for Mormon Matters that is on the schedule for Wednesday PM that will try to explain where we seem to be going from here.

  11. I think I have enjoyed this post more than any of the rest. I didn’t lose interest at all. Very timely too as this is what we are studying in Gospel Doctrine (GD) class right now.

    This past Sunday our GD instructor placed the crossing of the Red Sea near the top of the Gulf of Suez, and Mount Sinai in the lower portion of the Arabian peninsula, west of the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. I remember sitting there looking at the chalk-drawn map on the black board thinking to myself, “No wonder the Israelites murmured, look how far out of the way Moses took them. He could have simply gone east by northeast and gotten there in months, and on dry land…probably before they ran out of rations causing the need for manna.

  12. Thanks Bishop Rick. I haven’t heard of a Gulf of Suez crossing. Did he have a reference for picking that location?

  13. He didn’t site any sources but I found this map which closely resembles the map he drew on the blackboard.

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/biblemaps/2

  14. Thanks Bishop Rick, I didn’t know that the LDS Bible had a possible route. I wonder who came up with this map. It appears to me that they are trying to tie everything with the traditional Mount Sinai in the Southern tip of the peninsula, but from what I can tell, most scholars don’t believe this is the correct place for Mt Sinai.

    Jacobovici makes a big deal about Kadesh-Barnea–apparently it has been found, so I think the LDS map pegs that spot pretty reliably. I’ll have to learn more about the dig.

  15. I found similar maps on Jewish sites, Protestant sites and Catholic sites, so there does seem to be some consensus. That being said, I have no idea how old these maps are either. They may all be updated in the future.

  16. I just finished reading “The Mountain of God” by Robert Cornuke and David Halbrook.
    They make a good case for Jabal al Lawz in Saudi Arabia being the actual site of Mt. Sinai. The evidence and pictures in this book are pretty amazing: the peak’s summit is scorched black, an altar of stacked granite (they believe it is the altar to the gold calf) and has Egyptian Hathor and Apis bull gods etched on it , a split rock, water erosian at the base of the split rock, 12 pillars of stone, a spring that matches the seventy palms of Elim, and a site that matches Marah-is anyone aware of this site? It would seem that the Saudi’s regard this as the actual Mt. Sinai.

  17. Doug, this is the exact same mountain that Vivica Ponten referenced above. I spelled it slightly different, Jebel Elboz and Jebel Alboz (I didn’t know the spelling, but your spelling sounds more correct–I was guessing when I transcribed this.) I think it is the best candidate for the real Mt Sinai. I spoke with George Potter, and LDS BoM geographer. Potter believes he has found the river Laman in Saudi Arabia, and Nephi’s Harbor in Yemen. He was in Saudi Arabia specifically to look for Jebel al Lawz, and he believes it is the best match too. As I understand it, most European researchers support this position as well.

    Jacobovici disputes the mountain because he thinks Mt Sinai needs to be closer to the land of Israel than Saudi Arabia, so there is certainly some dispute. I think Jacobovici has some compelling arguments for his case, but I believe the Saudi site is much more compelling.

  18. It sounded like the same mountain but the spelling threw me off. The pictures were so compelling. There was even the remains of a land bridge at the spot most likely to be the place where they crossed. The Bible says that the mountain was covered in smoke and fire (Exodus 19:18-19) and how amazing to discover that this mountain was scorched black-what else could cause that?

  19. Yes, Doug, I don’t know if you saw the video I quote above, Exodus Revealed, by Discovery Media Group, but I found the photos of the site VERY compelling. It is a shame that the Saudi government won’t allow archaeologists to check out the site better. The underwater coral formations were fascinating as well. I highly recommend the video. I know it is available via Netflix, and I have purchased a copy of it. (It is currently “out of print”, so you’ll need to pick one up on eBay or Amazon if you want to buy it.)

  20. […] questionable authorship, and many places remain unidentified.  In a previous post, I discussed Questions about the Exodus: there isn’t a shred of evidence that it actually happened.  During Passover celebrations in […]

  21. Well, thank you for transscribing some of my testimonies and putting it out there for people to realize that God´s Word is telling the truth

  22. Viveka, I am absolutely honored that you happened across my blog! Have you made any other trips to Saudi Arabia? (I’d love to talk to you and discuss your findings.) Have you found acceptance among other scholars?

  23. Thanks MH, I wonder if the reason why Nephi remindedd his brothers of the history of the exodus was because they were wandering throught hte same are . possibly the brass plates had a better description than our current bible does

  24. […] theory of the Exodus.  If you want to see some of the previous theories, click here for my post on Questions about the Exodus.  I just reviewed a video from the History Channel called Bible Battles.  The film analyzes […]

  25. […] Passover.  Some people think the Israelites weren’t really slaves to the Egyptians.  Others question whether the Exodus actually happened.  Others have tried to scientifically explain the biblical […]

  26. Have you seen Exodus: Patterns of Evidence?

  27. No I haven’t. It looks interesting. I’ll have to check it out.

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