The location of Mt Sinai and the location of the Red Sea crossing are closely related. The traditional site is in the middle of the Sinai peninsula and the choice of Red Sea crossing points has mainly been driven by the presumed location of Mt. Sinai. However, the traditional site of Mt. Sinai at St. Catherine’s monastery in the south central part of Sinai was chosen by Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine in AD 315 on the basis of a dream. Most of the places she chose based on her dreams have been proven to be wrong, and that also seems to be the case with the location of Sinai and the travels of Israel that depend upon its location.
Where is Mt Sinai and Where Did Israel Cross the Red Sea?
We can arrive at a more objective identification the location of the events of the Exodus through the use of a topographical map and a careful consideration of what God said about them in the Bible. Our first objective should be to pin down the location of Sinai, for certainly the route of Israel’s travels will be constrained by the location of their destination. We can gain a clue as to where Sinai is located by recalling the events following Moses flight from Egypt into Midian. Midian is a land east of the Gulf of Aqaba (see ISBE on Midian and map above).
During the forty years Moses was in Midian (Ex 2:15), he tended the sheep of his father in law, Jethro (Ex 3:1). While Moses was tending Jethro’s sheep, he had the experience with the bush that would not burn out. When Moses turned aside for a closer look at this strange event, God spoke to him out of the bush and made him a promise. God said, “When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain” (Ex 3:12). The mountain where Moses saw the burning bush presumably was in the region where Jethro lived, since Moses was pasturing Jethro’s flocks there. The traditional Mt Sinai is over 300 miles by land from Jethro’s home in a region where there is very little water or pasture. Also, to make an Arabic location of Sinai more certain, the Bible specifically says that Horeb (Mt Sinai–Dt 4:10), where Moses had the experience of the burning bush, is in Midian (Ex 3:1).
Of course, if Sinai is in Arabia, that location offers many more choices for crossing the Red Sea than a location for Mt. Sinai (Mt. Musa) at St. Catherine’s, for the Red Sea (the Gulf of Aqaba) is the border between Egypt and Arabia for hundreds of miles. Besides specifying that Sinai is in Midian, which is in what was Arabia during the time of Paul (Gal 4:25), the Bible gives many indications that Israel crossed the Red Sea at the Gulf of Aqaba, not Lake Sirbonis or Bitter Lakes or North Suez. These latter sites are too far north, do not provide any reason why Israel should have been trapped there, and do not take into account the elapse of 25 days from leaving Egypt to the Red Sea crossing. Also, the New Testament makes explicit what the Old Testament implies. Paul says that Mt. Sinai is in Arabia (Gal 4:5), and Israel had to cross the Red Sea somewhere at the Gulf of Aqaba in order to stay out of the Promised Land and to get to Arabia (Ex 14:22, 19:1).
Scholars have supposed Israel departed from Egypt anywhere from Zoan at the mouth of the Nile near Goshen to all the way to Heliopolis near modern Cairo at the southern border of ancient Egypt (ISBE Definition for ‘RAAMSES; RAMESES’, article by C. R. Conder). Those are widely separated locations. Some proponents of the Heliopolis location cite as evidence the enormous constructions of Pharaoh Rameses II (the largest of all the pharaohs’ constructions except for the Pyramids of Giza) that are found there, for enormous amounts of slave labor were required for their construction, and the slave labor of captive Israel would be a solution to how Rameses could afford to build such structures. However, Gen 47:11 places Raamses in Goshen (Gen 47:27) on the Nile delta where Israel settled when he moved to Egypt. Since the Bible says Raamses was in the delta, we believe that’s where it was.
The Bible gives us information that enables us to calculate that there were 44 days from the time that Israel left Egypt until they came to Sinai. After Israel crossed the Red Sea, they came to the wilderness of Sin fourteen days before they came to Sinai. We can use this elapsed time and the location of their objective to calculate approximate locations for places named along their route of travel. We also assumed that the places named in the Bible were descriptive of unique features of the local geography.
Though Moses never promised that Israel would come back once they left, Pharaoh expected them to return (Ex 14:5). Israel successfully “borrowed” (Ex 12:35) valuables from the Egyptians, probably due to the Egyptians’ expectation that Israel would have to return, because a body of travelers the size of the Exodus could not live long term in the wilderness. In Pharaoh’s estimation, a trip of three days out and back plus the celebration should have taken no more than two weeks max. During this time of the Hebrew sacrifice the Egyptians were mourning the death of their firstborn. Probably, the more they mourned, the more angry they became, and when two weeks had passed and Pharaoh received word that Israel had fled and was not returning (Ex 14:5), he was of a mindset to set out after them. It appears from his heedless pursuit of Israel into the depths of the sea that Pharaoh was very angry at Israel and was driven more by an overwhelming desire to take vengeance on Israel for the death of his firstborn ones rather than any rational behavior.
That fact that Israel did not come back after a reasonable time may not have been sufficient cause in itself to have initiated Pharaoh’s pursuit. After two weeks Israel could have been anywhere, and Canaan, their most likely destination, was easily accessible in that amount of time. However, Canaan was inhabited by fiercely independent tribes protected by giants and strongly fortified cities (Num 13:33). If Israel had gone to Canaan, they very likely would have been destroyed or driven back to Egypt. God also agreed that Israel was not ready for an immediate assault on Canaan (Ex 13:17), and sent them to the Promised Land “through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea” (Ex 13:18). Pharaoh also knew that whole armies that ventured into this howling wilderness had perished in the barren waste. If Israel was dumb enough to go too far into the wilderness, Pharaoh knew that the wilderness might do his dirty work for him. It was indeed a lack of provisions in the wilderness that required God to miraculously supply food and water for His people (Ex 17:6). Knowing these things, Pharaoh may not have thought it necessary to pursue Israel since the Canaanites or the wilderness would likely eliminate Israel for him. Since Pharaoh did set out in pursuit of Israel about two weeks after they left, something must have happened to cause him to set out in pursuit.
The event that triggered Pharaoh’s pursuit after Israel was a message to Pharaoh via signal fire or carrier pigeon that Israel had fled (Ex 14:5), likely from the Egyptian outpost at Migdal (Watchtower) on the southern tip of Sinai. In whatever way Pharaoh got the message, the Bible says that Pharaoh was told that Israel had fled, and he knew where to take his army to go find them. Israel was in a location that indicated that they had fled from him, for it was more than three days journey away and they were moving away from Egypt. The message from Migdol would lead Pharaoh to believe due to the location of Migdol at the end of the wilderness that Israel was trapped in the extremity of the wilderness (Ex 14:3). The location by Pi-hahiroth satisfies all of the constraints that the text supplies. The name Pi-hahiroth (Mouth of Water) describes a unique mouth shaped bay at the southern tip of Sinai. There is really nothing else like it on the Sinai peninsula. The location by Pi-hahiroth is such that Israel would be able to travel from there to the wilderness of Sin by the 15th day of the second month, as the text requires (Ex 16:1). This camp at the Red Sea northeast of Pi-hahiroth between Migdol and Baal-Zephon placed Israel by a natural underwater land bridge that spans the whole Straits of Tiran at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. Archeologists have found the remains of an Egyptian settlement with a watchtower at the southern tip of Sinai. The Bible repeatedly speaks of a remote location, Migdol, as being at the extremity of Egypt, and the Watchtower at tip of Sinai certainly was (Ezk 29:10 NASB, 30:6 NASB, Jer 44:1, 46:14). This garrison would serve to notify Pharaoh of Israel’s whereabouts and the fact Israel was landlocked at Pi-hahiroth between the mountains at the end of the land and the Red Sea, but how did Israel get to such a remote location at the at the uttermost extent of southern Sinai?
Israel left Egypt in a hurry (Ex 12:11), and no doubt was anxious to put as much distance between themselves and Egypt as possible, but Israel had asked for permission to go a three days journey into the wilderness (Ex 3:18), so we would expect Israel acting under God’s guidance to do exactly what they said they would do. Since the Bible says that at some point in their journey they crossed the Red Sea, and they were headed toward the Promised Land, they would have had to travel east out of Egypt. Since they were not using the short Way of the Philistines and were not yet going into the Promised Land (Ex 13:17), they would have had to stay south of the River of Egypt (Wadi el-Arish, see map) that was the southern boundary of God’s land promise to Abraham (Gen 15:18). If God had led Israel across the Sinai wilderness south of the River of Egypt, they could have crossed into Midian across the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, but they would not have been entangled in the land nor shut in by the wilderness (Ex 14:3) (See map above and also Steve Rudd’s book on the Exodus at http://www.bible.ca/archeology/bible-archeology-exodus-route-travel-times-distances-days.htm). Wherever the Red Sea crossing point was, it was a location that once Israel crossed the Red Sea, Israel was finally and forever free from the pursuit of Pharaoh (Ex 15:13-14). The only route that fits all the Bible constraints is the route along the west coast of Sinai (“the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea” Ex 13:17) to the land’s end at the Straits of Tiran on the Red Sea.
“The way of the wilderness of the Red Sea” that was Israel’s way to Pi-hahiroth would have been along the coastal plain that extends all along the west coast of the Sinai peninsula. Except for fifteen miles of rocky soil, the way is broad and easy, and provided for good travel, even with carts, livestock, children, and old folks, though there was no caravan road along this route, for it did not go anywhere where very many lived. The way was in a howling wilderness (Dt 32:10). Israel left Egypt from Raamses and went to Succoth, but the Bible does not say where Succoth was nor how long it took them to get there, but let’s reason from the record.
Israel’s deal all along with Pharaoh was to go a three day journey into the wilderness and hold a sacrifice (Ex 3:18). Since Succoth is their first camp (Ex 12:37), it probably was where they got to after a marathon three day journey. The three day forced march is likely on several grounds. One factor is that since Israel’s deliverance from Egypt serves as type of God rescuing His people from the slavery of this sinful world, God would likely want Israel to provide a type (Col 2:17, Heb 8:5) of what God’s people would be like when He rescues them at the Second Coming. At Sinai God even said that He bore Israel up on eagles’ wings (Ex 19:4), an apparent reference to their extraordinarily swift passage through the wilderness. Walking and not growing weary would serve as a type of God’s deliverance and glorification of the righteous at the end of the world (Isa 40:31). Also, Israel no doubt desired to put as much distance between itself and Egypt as possible, but they had promised it would be a three day journey, and God always keeps His word (Titus 1:2). Israel began its journey just before sunset (Ex 12:16). This is a very peculiar time to begin an arduous journey, if it was going to be the normal sort of journey, and this night journey followed a journey of the night before when they had traveled from all over Goshen to Raamses. The Bible also requires that the journey would not be leisurely but arduous, for God miraculously preserved Israel and kept them from getting tired and kept their feet from swelling (Ps 105:37-39, Neh 9:21). Based on these considerations Succoth probably is a location that was achieved as a result of a arduous journey encompassing three 24-hour days. Israel could accomplish this prodigious feat because God miraculously strengthened them. Further, in a wilderness that was deadly hot by day and pitch black at night, they could still travel continuously, for God gave them shade with a cloud by day and lit the way with a pillar of fire by night (Ex 13:21).
Where was this important first camp where Moses sanctified the firstborn and God gave Israel the first law? Obviously, it was in the wilderness, and, as we described, lay at a distance achievable by a 72-hour forced march from Raamses. Since the word “Succoth” means “block” or “stop the approach”, it probably was a geographic choke point. Rudd places it about midway down the eastern shore of the Gulf of Suez at a location where the coastal plain narrows and the rocky soil of the northern beaches gives way to a broad sandy plain that is easy to traverse. This location is 180 miles from Raamses, and it could have been achieved by a people enduring a non-stop 72 hour forced march in which they were supernaturally empowered by God to walk 60 miles a day.
When Israel arrived at Succoth, some important events transpired. First, God commanded that Moses sanctify the firstborn of both man and beast (Ex 13:2). The sanctification of the firstborn was the same thing as sanctifying the firstfruits, and the day that Israel arrived at Succoth (the first day of the week) and sanctified their firstborn was the event that serves as the basis for Feast of the Firstfruits, and is a type of the resurrection of the Christ and the 144,000 (Mt 27:52-53), which are the firstfruits of God (I Cor 15:20, Rev 14:4). Sanctification of the firstborn/firstfruits required either redeeming the firstborn by substituting another offering for the first born of the flock (it was to be redeemed with a lamb–Ex 13:13), or in the case of an unclean animal, such as a donkey, that would not be redeemed, its neck was to be broken. In the sanctification of the firstborn at Succoth, therefore, God kept His word that Israel would hold a sacrifice to the Lord. Later we find that Israel’s sanctified firstborn sons were redeemed by giving God the Levites in lieu of the firstborn of Israel and redeeming with money the 273 firstborn not covered by the number of Levites (Num 3:46-47), but that was a redemption of those that had already been sanctified, that is, set apart for God. God also give Moses a first law at Succoth (Ex 13:1-16). The events at this camp were also the prototype of the days of unleavened bread, so Israel probably remained in camp until the 8th day. The time required for Moses to receive the commandment of sanctification of the firstborn, to give this law to the people, to identify the firstborn, and to offer the sacrifices also suggest that Israel spent some time in this camp.
The calendar for the year of the Exodus matches the calendar of the year of Jesus’ resurrection. Based upon the requirement for two Sabbaths on the year of Jesus’ crucifixion, the need for Jesus to be in the grave 3 days and 3 nights, and the fact no gospel records any events on Wednesday if Jesus was crucified on Friday, then we conclude Jesus died on Wednesday afternoon at the time the Passover lambs were being slain (Mt 27:46-50). Jesus was in the tomb night and day Thursday, night and day Friday, and night and day Saturday (3 days and 3 nights). He arose very early on the first day of the week before sunrise. In the same way Israel died to Egypt that Passover night and spent the next three days in the “tomb” of the wilderness from which God supernaturally raised them up to camp at Succoth and consecrate the firstborn.
When the days of unleavened bread were complete, God turned Israel further away from Goshen and led them deeper into the howling wilderness (Ex 13:20) in order that He might finish the deliverance of His people. They journeyed for another seven days to arrive at Etham on the edge or “the end” of the wilderness (Ex 13:20).
At Pi-hahiroth at the end of the wilderness, God turned Israel up the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba toward Etham. Etham (Hebrew: “shut in”) is a cul-de-sac on the east coast of Sinai where the coastal plain ends at a mountain range that extends to the sea. At this point Israel realized the true extent of their dependence upon God. Hemmed in by the mountains and the sea, Israel realized they were trapped, and God ordered Israel to turn back by the way they had come and pitch camp by the sea. Israel went half a day’s journey (9 miles) back to a location they had just passed and pitched their camp northeast Pi-hahiroth (“Mouth of Water”) and across from the island of Baal-Zephon. Their camp was a deserted location on the shore of the Red Sea between the Egyptian watchtower at Migdol and the Straits of Tiran (Ex 14:2). Here they waited for Pharaoh and his army to catch up and for God to show them what to do. At Pi-hahiroth God prepared Israel for an epoch deliverance from evil men by means of water by which He foreshadowed the deliverance and exaltation of the elect by means of fire at the end of the world. As Israel was baptized in the sea to emerge as a free people in a new world, so God’s elect will be delivered from the armies of the Antichrist on the day when they are baptized by fire (Lk 3:16) and emerge as the free sons of God on His new earth.
The scriptures do not say how long Israel encamped by the Red Sea, but we can estimate the time based on the 44 days they took to travel from Goshen to Sinai (Ex 12:51-Ex 19:1). After crossing the Red Sea they entered the Wilderness of Sin fourteen days before they got to Sinai (Ex 16:1) and thirty days after they left Egypt. Counting the camps backwards from the Wilderness of Sin, we find there were five travel days from the crossing of the Red Sea. Counting back from Israel’s arrival at Mt. Sinai, we can establish the following events:
Arrive Sinai 0 days before Sinai 44 days since Egypt
Arrive Wilderness of Sin 14 days before Sinai 30 days since Egypt
Red Sea crossing 19 days before Sinai 25 days since Egypt
2nd arrival at Pi-hahiroth 28 days before Sinai 16 days since Egypt
Arrive at Etham 29 days before Sinai 15 days since Egypt
1st arrival at Pi-hahiroth 30 days before Sinai 14 days since Egypt
Arrive at Succoth 40 days before Sinai 3 days since Egypt
Leave Goshen 44 days before Sinai 0 since Egypt
Counting their camps backward from the wilderness of Sin, we calculate that they crossed the Red Sea on the first day of the week five days before they entered the Wilderness of Sin. They stayed there before Pi-hahiroth seven days while God waited in the pillar of fire for Pharaoh to catch up with them. Israel’s camp by the Red Sea was in a boxed-in place where they would be trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the sea. The boxed-in location of Israel at Pi-hahiroth is typical of the servants of God making their last stand at Bozrah against the armies of the Beast at the end of the world (Bozrah—the sheep pen, Micah 2:12-13, Jer 49:22).
When Pharaoh arrived, God protected Israel by interposing the pillar of fire between Israel and the Egyptians (Ex 14:19) while He parted the sea and led Israel safely across. In what must be accounted as one of the most insane actions in the history of the world, the Egyptians that had just experienced firsthand ten devastating plagues, and could see in front of them a supernatural fiery cloud and a supernaturally divided sea, in an attempt to satisfy their bloodlust, rage, and wounded pride (Ex 14:27) decided to defy Almighty God and plunge into the depths of the sea. The rest, as they say, is history. The next day the 600 chariots of Pharaoh (Ex 14:7) were at the bottom of the sea (Ex 15:5) and the dead bodies of the Egyptians washed up on the shores (Ex 14:30).
Once the children of Israel got close to Sinai in Midian, they were close to the mountain where Moses had been tending Jethro’s sheep when Moses saw the burning bush. At this point Moses was therefore also close to Jethro’s home. It was when Moses was encamped in the wilderness of Sin in Midian that Jethro, priest of Midian (Ex 18:1), came from his home to meet Moses and to bring to Moses his wife and sons whom he had not seen in several years (Ex 18:5). Perhaps Moses’ reunion with his loved ones foreshadows our own reunion with those that we love and from whom we have been separated by death after we cross our Red Sea in which we are baptized with fire and after which we prepare to enter our own Promised Land.
It was the beginning of the third month when Israel encamped before the mountain of God in Midian (Ex 19:1). The beginning of the third month is almost three weeks after they crossed the Red Sea. At that time they had been gone from Egypt for six weeks. Only twelve days after they arrived at Sinai God spoke to Israel from the Mount (Ex 20:22). After God gave the law they spent the next several months encamped before the mount of God, and there they celebrated the first Passover since they left Egypt (Num 9:5). Israel left Sinai almost immediately after the Passover and journeyed to Kadesh Barnea (Petra/Bozrah/Kadesh Barnea). There they camped for the next 38 years until God’s curse on Israel had been fulfilled and the generation that came out of Egypt all died (Num 14:32). An interesting type is provided by Israel’s sojourn at Kadesh Barnea/Bozrah. Where they waited at Kadesh Barnea for God’s deliverance so that they might enter the Promised Land is the same as Bozrah/Petra and is the exact same place where the Lord has announced that He will return first (Jer 49:22, Micah 2:13-14) in the “tents of Judah” (Zech 12:7) to save the remnant of His people that await His return at the end of the world so that they might enter into the eternal land of promise.
As we have seen, there is excellent correspondence between the actual geography of Migdol, Pi-hahiroth, Baal-Zephon and Etham, and the Bible’s description of it. Our confidence that we have correctly located Israel’s camp at the Straits of Tiran is greatly strengthened by observing the sea floor topography there. The sea floor across the Straits of Tiran at the entrance to the Gulf is the only place along the Gulf of Aqaba where the sea floor terrain would support the crossing of several million people with herds, children and carts without a supernatural modification of the sea floor, for the Gulf is very deep everywhere else, often over a mile deep along much of its length. In marked contrast the sea at Pi-hahiroth is only about 40 feet deep in places, and there is a strip of land a half mile wide that runs across the entire width of the Strait. On this land bridge there is only one 2400 foot wide channel where the water currently is over 600 feet deep. It appears that the growth of a coral reef in the middle of the straits of Tiran has caused sea-floor erosion of this channel due to tidal currents flowing around the reef. In support of the view that this channel has been eroded deeper in the 3500 years since Moses crossed here, we notice that the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba in Moses’ day was very obscure. Though the Gulf of Suez was well known, the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba was so obscure that it did not appear on maps until the 1800s. Because in Moses’ day the entrance to the Gulf was not well known we might then conjecture that storm tides and eddies around the coral reefs have eroded the channel to a depth greater than what existed at the Exodus. In any event God could easily have silted up the channel in preparation for Israel’s crossing, if He so desired. Even in the one spot that is now deep, the drop to 600 feet is spread over about a quarter of a mile, so there is only about a 27 degree slope to the depth.
From our study we have seen in the Bible that the mountain of God is in Midian and Midian is in Arabia east of the Red Sea. The fact that Moses did not cross the Red Sea for over four weeks after they left Egypt suggests that Israel traveled a significant distance to arrive at the Red Sea crossing point. The geography at Pi-hahiroth at the Straits of Tiran and the sea floor in the Gulf of Aqaba there both support the Bible’s description of the Red Sea crossing. Israel’s journey from Goshen to Sinai via this route was of sufficient length as to require much of the 44 days the Bible says that it took Israel to travel from Goshen to Sinai. After they crossed the Red Sea they crossed into Midian in Arabia, and as they came to Sinai they came close to Jethro’s home in Midian (Ex 18:2-3) at which time Jethro returned Moses’ wife and sons. The description of the events, places, timing, and geography of the Exodus exactly fit a scenario that locates Sinai in Midian at Horeb and the Red Sea crossing at the Straits of Tiran.