Where Did the Children of Israel Cross the Red Sea?
by Anne Habermehl
Clearly, this is a question that exists because there are differing opinions on this topic. Everyone is reading the same Bible, and everyone is looking at the same geography of Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, but not everyone is coming up with the same answers. I'm going to wade fearlessly into these muddy waters (is there a pun there?) and tackle the subject. The object will be to see why there is disagreement and whether we can find an answer. This is not an in-depth treatment of the subject, but will merely give highlights of what is involved.
Red Sea or Reed Sea?
When I was a child in Sunday school, I understood the Children of Israel to have crossed the Red Sea. That was what my (King James) Bible said and still says. But then there were people who started to claim that the Hebrew said yam suph, and that this properly translated to "reed sea." By claiming that "reed sea" was where the Children of Israel crossed, this allowed a somewhat different and broader geographical interpretation of the biblical story. For instance, the crossing did not have to actually have been made across the north end of the Gulf of Suez arm of the Red Sea, or, for that matter, the Gulf of Aqaba, either. Gary Byers of ABR takes the view that yam suph was really "reed sea" 1; when I went to Egypt on the ABR tour in 2008 he took us to a marshy spot north of the Gulf of Suez, beside the Suez Canal, and said that this was where the crossing was most likely. Admittedly, that scene of grass growing out of the water, with a boat sailing past high above us to the east, just didn't quite look like the crossing spot that I had always pictured.
The question is why the King James translators stuck to "Red Sea" as the rendering of yam suph, if "reed sea" was supposed to be the real translation. Those translators were pretty careful in what they did. Plus my Greek Septuagint (LXX) Bibles both say "Red Sea." Why is that? It's because the Greek says erythra thalassa, which is directly translated as "red sea."
I take the view that the Children of Israel crossed a body of water that was an arm of the Red Sea, and not some separate reedy marshy place2 .
Was This Crossing on the West or East Side of the Sinai Peninsula?
There are two arms of the Red Sea that jut northwards from the Red Sea. One, lying in a northwesterly direction, is called the Gulf of Suez. The other, in a northeasterly direction, is the called the Gulf of Aqaba.
I had always thought that it was obvious that the Children of Israel must have crossed the Gulf of Suez on the western side of the Sinai Peninsula, close to Egypt. Common sense would dictate this. Are we really supposed to believe that this large group of people, including old people and young children, and their flocks and herds, went all the way across the Sinai Peninsula3 to the edge of the Gulf of Aqaba for this miraculous crossing? And pharaoh, with his chariots and army, rushed all the way across the Sinai and only caught up with the Children of Israel at the edge of the Gulf of Aqaba? Just what is going on here? Why would anyone take an unlikely scenario like this and push it for all its worth?
It is claims that Mount Sinai was located in Saudi Arabia that would appear to be a major factor in this. The best-known claim for Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia is Jebel El Lawz, a location well advertised by the late Ron Wyatt4 and others. (There are a couple of other lesser-known mountains in Saudi Arabia that have also been claimed to be Mount Sinai.)
Locating Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia raises problems that are overlooked by its proponents. For instance, this would mean that when Moses (who was still in Midian) sent a message to Aaron to meet him at Mount Sinai, Aaron would have had to travel all the way across the Sinai Peninsula and southward to Jebel El Lawz, while Moses traveled south to meet his brother there. When Hagar ran away from Sarah, the angel found Hagar by a well on the way to Shur. Normally Shur is on the western edge of the Sinai Peninsula, on the edge of Egypt, and because Hagar was an Egyptian, it would make sense for her to go in that direction. But locating Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia means moving Shur into Saudi Arabia as well, because the Children of Israel travelled into the Wilderness of Shur immediately after crossing the Red Sea. Why would Hagar go southward into Saudi Arabia?
There is a scholar by the name of Fritz who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the subject of the Children of Israel crossing at the Gulf of Aqaba5. He downplays the location of Mount Sinai in his arguments, but makes claims such as that Moses hardly knew the Gulf of Suez existed (even though Moses had grown up and had been educated in the royal court in nearby Egypt)! This dissertation contains some glaring holes in its arguments. I mention this author because he rather aggressively pushes his viewpoint on this and others have taken it up to support their own agendas.
How Far North Did the Gulf of Suez Reach in Moses' Time?
There are various historical references to the head of the Gulf of Suez being considerably further north of its present shoreline in ancient times. Geology of ancient times supports this.
If we look at the map at left6, we see the City of Suez at the head of the Gulf of Suez (called the Red Sea in this drawing). There are scholars who believe that the Gulf of Suez reached all the way up to Lake Timsah7 in ancient times, making the area from Lake Timsah down to the Gulf of Suez all part of the Red Sea. Water from the Nile flowed through the Wadi Tumilat (which at one time was one of the Nile branches, shown by a dotted line from Cairo to Lake Timsah) and flowed into Lake Timsah and down into the Gulf of Suez/Red Sea. (The dotted line from the Bitter Lakes to the City of Suez is the route of a canal dug later in the first millennium BC.) There is a lot of discussion as to whether the Wadi contained water throughout the year or only at the time of the flooding of the Nile, and whether there was a canal in the Wadi and whether a canal connected the Wadi southwards to the Gulf.
The subject of timeline enters here, because the flow of water in the Wadi was much greater in really ancient times, and then gradually decreased. The Exodus, which took place at about 1450 BC on the biblical timeline, occurred at about 1800 BC on the secular timeline, a subject on which I have published8. This date is based on the known collapse of Egypt at this time.
The Most Likely Place of the Crossing
It is the biblical mention of Pi-Hahiroth (Exodus 14:2) that perhaps gives us the best clue to this puzzle. The translation of Pi-Hahiroth is generally accepted to be "mouth of the waters" or "mouth of the canal." This would fit with putting the encampment of the Children of Israel (just before the crossing of the Red Sea) at the place where the Wadi Tumilat flows into Lake Timsah. They would have crossed the Red Sea because the Gulf of Suez came up that far at that time.
Would it be possible to excavate at Lake Timsah to look for the remains of pharaoh's army? Not very easily. We missed our opportunity to do this, alas! In the time before the Suez Canal was built (it was opened in 1869), Lake Timsah had gone completely dry. But Lake Timsah's dry bowl was filled with water in 1862 during the Canal construction and it became a lake again.9 As archaeologists will tell you, excavating under water is difficult.
Notes and References
1. Byers, G. 2008. "New Evidence from Egypt on the Location of the Exodus Sea Crossing, Part 1." On ABR web site.
2. Franz, G. 2001. "Mt. Sinai is not at Jebel El-Lawz in Saudi Arabia." This paper is online at http://www.ldolphin.org/franz-ellawz.html . My comments: The author's coverage on the topic of the Red Sea and related matters is excellent. I do not agree with him that there were 2 million people in the Exodus; also he chooses a place just north of the modern Gulf of Suez for the crossing.
3. The distance straight across the Sinai Peninsula from the edge of the Delta to the Gulf of Aqaba is about 200 miles.
4. Wyatt Archaeological Research: Mount Sinai. 1978. Online at http://www.wyattmuseum.com/mt-sinai.htm .
5. Fritz, G.A. 2006. The Lost Sea of the Exodus: A Modern Geographical Analysis. Ph.D. dissertation. San Marcos, Texas: Texas State University.
6. Stiros, S.C. 2007. This map is from the paper, "Misconceptions for risks of coastal flooding following the excavation of the Suez and the Corinth canals in antiquity." Journal of Mediterranean Geography, No. 108. This paper is online at http://mediterranee.revues.org/162.
7. Por, F.D. 1971. "One Hundred Years of Suez Canal ― A Century of Lessepsian Migration: Retrospect and viewpoint." In Foundations of Biogeography: Classic papers with Commentaries, Parts 5–8, pp. 426–447, eds Lomolino and Brown.
8. Habermehl, A. 2013. "Revising the Egyptian Chronology: Joseph as Imhotep, and Amenemhat IV as Pharaoh of the Exodus." Presented at the 2013 International Conference on Creationism. This paper is online at http://www.creationsixdays.net/2013_ICC_Habermehl_Joseph.pdf .
9. See Wikipedia page, "Lake Timsah."