The Land of Goshen in Egypt
Pithom, Avaris, Rameses, Succoth, and the initial route of the Exodus
plus (in part II) the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds?

Typical map showing alternate routes for the exodus.
Excerpt of map by published by Moody Press, click here for full map.
See end note 1 regarding their positioning of Goshen
See part II regarding their possible routes for the exodus.

Part I

The land of Goshen is a northeastern section of the Egyptian Nile Delta. Abraham, during his travel and stay in Egypt, would have passed through this region before heading on towards Giza and Memphis. Later, on return to Israel, when Abraham was graciously allowing Lot to choose the best of the land, it likely would have been the lush region of Goshen (and certainly the entire Nile region) that would have been fresh in their mind...

Genesis 13:10 Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar. (NIV)

Approximately two centuries later, when Joseph had become ruler (under Pharaoh) over the land, much of the administrative power of Egypt was now concentrating in the Delta region (with the capital actually relocating there during the Hyksos period which followed). During a famine, due to irrigation, the Delta region would also suffer the least (Genesis 41:53-57). When Joseph wanted his family to move into the land, the Land of Goshen was a primary location for a number of reasons...

  1. It was close to where Joseph lived and worked (including nearby large-scale food storage).

  2. It was ideal land for raising flocks and herds

  3. It kept them closer to a border area nearest Canaan

The final reason, listed above, has much intertwined with it. During this time in Egypt, shepherds were considered outcasts. Had Joseph's family needed to travel further into Egypt, away from their border of entry, it would have provoked reaction from the Egyptian people. All these reasons came together to enable Joseph to provide his people with some of the best land in the country (for tending livestock, versus growing crops).

Genesis 46:28-43 Now Jacob sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to get directions to Goshen. When they arrived in the region of Goshen, 29 Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time. 30 Israel said to Joseph, "Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive." 31 Then Joseph said to his brothers and to his father's household, "I will go up and speak to Pharaoh and will say to him, 'My brothers and my father's household, who were living in the land of Canaan, have come to me. 32 The men are shepherds; they tend livestock, and they have brought along their flocks and herds and everything they own.' 33 When Pharaoh calls you in and asks, 'What is your occupation?' 34 you should answer, 'Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.' Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." (NIV)

Genesis 47:1-6 Joseph went and told Pharaoh, "My father and brothers, with their flocks and herds and everything they own, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in Goshen ." 2 He chose five of his brothers and presented them before Pharaoh. 3 Pharaoh asked the brothers, "What is your occupation?" "Your servants are shepherds," they replied to Pharaoh, "just as our fathers were." 4 They also said to him, "We have come to live here awhile, because the famine is severe in Canaan and your servants' flocks have no pasture. So now, please let your servants settle in Goshen." 5 Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Your father and your brothers have come to you, 6 and the land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. Let them live in Goshen . And if you know of any among them with special ability, put them in charge of my own livestock." (NIV)

It is certain that Joseph lived close to this region because he was able to be easily notified of the arrival of his family in Goshen and then travel out to meet them. The region of Goshen is only 30 to 40 miles long (maybe 900 square miles total), primarily above (north of) Wadi Tumilat and bordered by Lake Timsa and the Nile itself. One of the amazing things noted in Scriptures, during the events leading to the exodus, was that God protected this geographic region from some of the plagues which were felt throughout the rest of Egypt.

Exodus 8:22-23 "'But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the Lord, am in this land. 23 I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This miraculous sign will occur tomorrow.'" (NIV)

Exodus 9:25-26 Throughout Egypt hail struck everything in the fields - both men and animals; it beat down everything growing in the fields and stripped every tree. 26 The only place it did not hail was the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were. (NIV)

A few major cities are identified with the region of Goshen, notably Pithom and Rameses, especially in regards to the slave labor of the Israelites in the generations following Joseph. These store cities were likely built/expanded due to the memory of Joseph's earlier actions in storing provisions in the face of famine. Clearly the decendants of Jacob, themselves, were spread throughout the entire region as they were multiplied greatly during this time.

Genesis 47:27 Now the Israelites settled in Egypt in the region of Goshen. They acquired property there and were fruitful and increased greatly in number. (NIV)

Exodus 1:8-14 Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. 9 "Look," he said to his people, "the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country." 11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly. (NIV)

It is this reference to the city of Rameses that has led people to speculate that Pharaoh Rameses II (alt Ramses II) was the Pharoah of the Exodus. Pharaoh Rameses I is ruled out because he had an extremely short two year reign (about twenty years earlier). Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (275-339 A.D.), who was quite accurate on many other things, appears to have been the first to speculate that Rameses II was the Pharaoh of the exodus. He was wrong. Far too much Biblical and historical evidence points to a much earlier date for the exodus, for example...

  1. The timeline given by Scriptures would not work (i.e. 1 Kings 6:1)

  2. There would have been insufficient time for the period of the Judges

  3. Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II, claims Israel to already be an established nation, something unlikely if they had just gotten to the Promised Land.

In reality, two primary possibilities exist for these references to Rameses in the text.

  • God allowed/caused the text to be updated with a later name, one that would be more familiar to the people of the centuries which followed. Place names frequently changed in Egypt (and the whole Middle East), some stuck, and many didn't. These cases of Rameses being used as a place name, and the much earlier one in Genesis 47:11 (see next point for verse), are examples of updating names, along with that of Dan which was originally called Leshem and Laish (contrast Joshua 19:47 and Joshua 18:27-30 to the earlier reference at Genesis 14:14).

  • Rameses was a more general regional title, subsequently applied to the city and later still to these Pharaohs. It is notable that Scriptures refers to the land of Goshen as the district of Rameses hundreds of years before any Pharaoh Rameses had ruled!

Genesis 47:11 So Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt and gave them property in the best part of the land, the district of Rameses, as Pharaoh directed. (NIV)

It is likely that Rameses was a regional name, even at this much earlier period, because Rameses is a title simply meaning "begotton (or born) of (the Sun God) Ra" or "of the (Sun God) Ra". This could be applied to either places or people, as it was with the Pharaohs later on. In this view, the region is first called the district of Rameses, then a store city is named after the district, and finally the Pharaohs, who were from this region (Rameses I thought to having been born near Avaris), were called by the same name.

 

Remains of large amounts of mud bricks at Tell el-Maskhuta (Succoth)

Remains of large amounts of mud bricks at Tell el-Maskhuta (Succoth)

Remains of mud bricks at Tell el Retabeh (Pithom).
Notice holes from where the straw has decayed.

During Israel's enslavement in Goshen their primary occupations centered on the building projects commissioned by Pharaoh. While the strong may have been used for the actual building, even the young and weak could be utilized for making bricks. Remnants of mud bricks, made with straw, are commonly found throughout the area of Goshen.

Exodus 5:6-9 That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people: 7 "You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. 8 But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don't reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our God.' 9 Make the work harder for the men so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies." (NIV)

Map better showing the positions of Zoan, Rameses, Pithom, Avaris and Succoth
See end note 2 regarding their possible routes for the exodus and positioning of Migdol.
Excerpt from map published by Biblical Archaeology Review (Jan/Feb 2007)

 

Determining the exact locations of sites in Goshen has been difficult. The Delta region is too moist to preserve papyrus documents, leaving only monuments and stone engravings. Even mud brick structures tend to deteriorate dramatically. Yet, in recent years, numerous excavations and a consensus of scholars have now identified these locations...

  1. Tell el-Maskhuta - Succoth - Noted location at beginning of exodus; last stop before Israelites headed toward Sinai. (More below)

  2. Tell el-Retabeh - Pithom - The store city being built by the Israelites.

  3. Tell el-Dab'a - Avaris - Probable residence of Joseph and his family (see Genesis 45:8-11).

  4. Qantir - Rameses (Ra'amses, Pi-Ramesse, Per-Ramesse, or "House of Rameses") - site of the royal residence of Ramses II. Ramesses II greatly enlarged this city as his principle northern capital and as a base from which to stage military campaigns to the northeast (Levant and Canaan). This city was largely abandoned beginning circa 1130 B.C. Some stone was removed from it and reused at the new capital Tanis (Zoan).

Following the last plague, the death of all first born, it is probable that Pharaoh was staying at Pi-Rameses when he summoned Moses and Aaron, who were likely at nearby Avaris.3 As Moses and Aaron gathered the people to leave for the exodus, their journey would have begun in the east of Goshen (namely Rameses) and ended in the west of Goshen (namely Succoth). From Succoth onward, the Israelites were truly fleeing the territory where they formerly lived.

Exodus 12:31-39 During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, "Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. 32 Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me." 33 The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. "For otherwise," they said, "we will all die!" 34 So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing. 35 The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. 36 The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians. 37 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. 39 With the dough they had brought from Egypt, they baked cakes of unleavened bread. The dough was without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves. (NIV)

Large semitic ruins at Tell el-Maskhuta (Succoth)

Ruins of homes at Tell el-Maskhuta (Succoth). Note nearby home of modern Egyptians

Closer view of walls from homes. Exposed to the environment these will soon degrade.

 

Remains of a mud brick building at Tell el Retabeh (Pithom).

Closer view at Tell el Retabeh (Pithom).

Another view at Tell el Retabeh (Pithom).

 

Another aspect of the Exodus had to do with Joseph. Unlike his father Jacob (Genesis 50:1-11), Joseph was unable to be immediately buried in Canaan when he died. The closing words of the book of Genesis have him demanding that his remains be taken to the Promised Land whenever the Israelites were able to return. The Bibles notes that he was embalmed, in the Egyptian fashion, and placed in a coffin in Egypt - something that would have been available to him due to his former status under Pharaoh (and perhaps as son-in-law of a prominent Egyptian priest. See Genesis 41:50).

Genesis 50:22-26 Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father's family. He lived a hundred and ten years 23 and saw the third generation of Ephraim's children. Also the children of Makir son of Manasseh were placed at birth on Joseph's knees. 24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." 25 And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place." 26 So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt. (NIV)

Joseph's wish to have his body taken back to the Promised Land appears to have led them to have him interned on the eastern side of the land of Goshen. In Scriptures, the remains of Joseph are not mentioned until the Israelites have all gathered at Succoth, their last stop before the entire people were about to embark on their journey out of the country.

Exodus 13:19-20 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place." 20 After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. 21 By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (NIV)

Based on these passages, it would not be out of place to discover an empty Egyptian type stone sarcophagus in the midst of an abandoned Semitic settlement at Succoth - something that has been found!

Plundered Egyptian type sarcophagus at Tell el-Maskhuta (Succoth)

Closer view. Garbage is from nearby Egyptian village

Where the embalmed body would have lain

 

Part II

Red Sea? Reed Sea? Which Sea?

The Holman Christian Standard Bible Map showing alternate routes of the Exodus. Their map marks the north-south and
east-west canals that met at Lake Timsah. While noting that Lake Timsah or the Bitter Lakes could be "Yam Suph"
their southern route (red) still uses the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez as being the Red Sea crossing.
Click on map for larger image (use broswer back button to return)

For those who accept the Biblical account that the Israelites crossed over a sea during the Exodus, a long standing dispute arises over which Sea. Unfortunately many scholars take a low view of Scriptures, reluctantly assuming that - if the exodus actually took place - it had to be through perhaps a shallow body of water. This belief presupposes that the people waded across, or perhaps that extra dry conditions had naturally dried up some portion on the edge of a marshy area. Any supernatural involvement is summarily dismissed. This becomes virtually the sole reason that a more northerly crossing has been proposed through, or near, the relatively shallow and marshy El-Ballah Lakes. An inquiry based on the Biblical evidence all supports a search south of this region.

Having a high view of Scriptures and an understanding of God's direct involvement in this entire event; there is no question that the Israelites crossed a large body of water by supernatural aid. This expanse of water not only required it being parted by God's intervention, enabling a large host of people to cross on dry ground, it had to have sufficient volume withheld to facilitate the drowning of Pharaoh's charioteers and cavalry when it was subsequently released. If God had the Israelites cross at a shallow marshy lake, as skeptics often propose, it would have been a greater miracle to have the water standing up on each side as a wall and then drowning pharaoh's entire army, as described in Scriptures. Because they don't believe in any supernatural involvement they of course dismiss that description as an exaggeration.

You may be thinking, "doesn't the Bible say which Sea was crossed? Isn't it the Red Sea?" But it's not always that easy. Place names and geographic references change over time, sometimes being forgotten, and often referencing more than one location. Today we have one primary body of water called the Red Sea. It is south of the Sinai Peninsula, bounded by Saudi Arabia on the right and Egypt on the left. Two protrusions extend northward to each side of the Sinai, the Gulf of Suez to the West and the Gulf of Aqaba to the East. Historic references make mention to all three of these bodies under the Red Sea title, perhaps showing they were known to be one body of water. In ancient times it is believed that the Great and Little Bitter lakes, immediately north of the Gulf of Suez, were once naturally connected to the Gulf, in fact making them part of the Red Sea. This historic memory could alone account for continued usage of the Red Sea designation for the lakes north of the Suez.

Without a direct connection, the Red Sea may merely be a general term. Herodotus, a Greek Historian, who lived circa 484-425 B.C. (writing circa 440 B.C.), utilized the Greek term for the Red Sea to encompass not only the Gulf of Suez, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the present Red Sea, but also the Indian Ocean! By his usage it was obviously quite a generic name for the large bodies of water south of the Mediterranean or Great Sea. End Note 6

This broad usage of the Hebrew term translated "Red Sea" is also seen in the much earlier Biblical text. Consider when the plague of locusts descended on the land of Egypt - the entire land of Egypt - their removal was effected by a wind out of the west that took them towards the east of the land. This simply said that the wind blew them out of Egypt towards all the large bodies of water to the east, including the Red Sea proper, the Gulf of Suez, the Bitter Lakes, and Lake Timsah. If only the most southerly body was in view, for much of Egypt, especially the land of Goshen where the primary story is set, it would have required a wind blowing more towards the south instead of towards the east.

Exodus 10:13-14 So Moses stretched out his staff over Egypt, and the Lord made an east wind blow across the land all that day and all that night. By morning the wind had brought the locusts; 14 they invaded all Egypt and settled down in every area of the country in great numbers. Never before had there been such a plague of locusts, nor will there ever be again. (NIV)

Exodus 10:19 And the Lord changed the wind to a very strong west wind, which caught up the locusts and carried them into the Red Sea. Not a locust was left anywhere in Egypt. (NIV)

By the time the Old Testament was being translated into Greek, circa 283 B.C., the translators still followed this general usage of the Greek title "Red Sea" to reference the large body of water being crossed during the Exodus. From the Greek Septuagint translation, often quoted by the apostles, we get the same wording in the New Testament: Acts 7:36 and Hebrews 11:29. These citations are not given in an attempt to better define where the Israelites crossed, they are merely references back to the historic event in the Old Testament, assuming (and divinely confirming) that the translators used a term that properly encompassed a body of water that could be called by that name. This returns us to the Old Testament passages for a better understanding of what specific body of water is in view.

Many Bible translations now routinely footnote the term "Red Sea" to say "Sea of Reeds". For those having a low view of Scriptures, they gleefully point to this and say that it's proof that it was just some marshy area that was crossed. But again, Scriptures make it clear that it was a large body of water with sufficient depth to subsequently drown an army. So the question remains, where does this "Sea of Reeds" come from and is it accurate?

Word meaning has much to do with identifying places names in ancient times. This has led scholars to try and determine the origin of the Hebrew words subsequently translated as "Red Sea". The Hebrew words, transliterated into English, are "Yam Suph", typically directly translated as "Sea of Reeds". References within Egyptian papyrus, from this early period, seem to give credibility to this possibility as similar wording refers to the "Land of Marshes" - as such, the Land of Reeds. Indeed, an Egyptian word for papyrus, itself a water reed, is similar to the Hebrew "suph". Part of the problem with applying the broader Egyptian references to the Hebrew, regarding the places of reeds, is that all locations mentioned in the papyrus are designated lands or regions rather than bodies of water, as is our Hebrew reference. The Egyptian references typically refer to any of the north east delta which again leaves us with a non-specific area.

The Hebrew word "Sea" does not have to mean the vast bodies of water we typically refer to as seas, ancient usage could apply this equally to lakes (even as the Sea of Galilee and the Salt Sea, are inland lakes within Israel).

If the usage of "Yam Suph" is "Sea of Reeds", meaning reeds that grow in fresh or brackish water, this would rule out salt water bodies such as the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba as well as the Red Sea proper. Contrary to the revisionist skeptics, this does not have to mean shallow except along the shores where the reeds grow. It mostly would imply having more fresh water than the Red Sea in which to grow the reeds.

Context helps establish the word "Suph" - the best context coming from the specific book where "Yam Suph" is first being spoken about. Earlier, in the account of the baby Moses being saved after being hidden in a basket in the Nile River, the basket is said to have been hidden among the "suph (reeds)". Here fresh water reeds are clearly in view.

Exodus 2:5 Then Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it. (NIV)

The alternate view, that still tries to place the crossing much further south, at the Gulf of Aqaba, needs "suph" to be in reference to "seaweed". It is true that "suph" can be in reference to both fresh water plants and salt water plants, at least in later usage. The best biblical example comes from a usage, in the account of Jonah, dating hundreds of years later.

Jonah 2:5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. (NIV)

The "seaweed" that was surrounding Jonah in the Mediterranean Sea was "suph". This broad possible usage of the term "suph" likely helped to create the widespread usage of the term "Red Sea". It certainly wasn't the blue green color of the waters. As stated before, it was a generic term for large bodies of water south of the Mediterranean Sea (that had its own more specific name). End Note 6

Since the more immediate context places "suph" in association with fresh water reeds, I still hold that it is more probable that the body of water was closer to Goshen, namely one of the large inland lakes. The question next needing consideration is why would the Israelites be boxed in by a body of water? Indeed, if it was the northern part of the Gulf of Suez, why didn't the Israelites cross over into Sinai at a host of locations north of that point between the lakes? If it is one of the lakes, why couldn't the Israelites not merely move around it and into the Sinai? The answer appears to have been found in archaeology.

Exodus 13:20, 14:1-4 After leaving Succoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. ... 14:1 Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 "Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. 3 Pharaoh will think, 'The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.' 4 And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord." So the Israelites did this. (NIV)

When the Israelites first left Succoth, in the Delta, they turned north. Logically it would have been the fastest way out of Egypt to the Promised Land, going by the northern road. God did not want them to go by this road as it would have taken them through Philistine territory and most assuredly led to war (Exodus 13:17). Instead, they would have needed to head almost due east into the Sinai ("on the edge of the desert"). God's instruction to turn back, now took them south "hemmed in by the dessert". Quite specifically they were hemmed in by the ancient canal extending northward from Lake Timsah to the Mediterranean. This could not be crossed at any spot except for the main trade routes, such as the one God had prohibited them from taking to the north.

This north-south canal was not small either.2 While its' 10 foot maximum depth doesn't sound that deep, compound that by a 200 foot width and you have a formidable barrier. Add periodic fortresses along its expanse and you have an effective and defendable border. Those who have made the fanciful claim that Mt. Sinai is actually across the Gulf of Aqaba in Saudi Arabia often make the claim that Egypt's borders extended to the Gulf of Aqaba. They then state that Israel would have had to gone beyond this to be out of Pharaoh's reach. What they have missed is that while the Pharaoh's of Egypt professed to control Sinai, and certainly had commercial interest there; it was never considered to part of Egypt. The true border of Egypt ran from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, along the canal system and barrier lakes west of the Sinai wilderness.

A question that has not been effectively answered thus far is whether or not the canal system also ran south of Lake Timsah to the Bitter Lakes, as the modern Suez Canal does now. Perhaps subsequent archaeological finds will definitively confirm this. At this point it's quite certain that Israel would have had to go at least as far south as Lake Timsah. If the canal extended further south, the same could be said of the Bitter Lakes, except another archaeological detail makes it less probable that they went south of Lake Timsah. There was likewise a canal on the southern side of Goshen, extending from Lake Timsah to a branch of the Nile River. While there is less indication that it was fortified to the degree of the north-south border canal, this east-west canal certainly would have been a physical barrier to the south.5

Lake Timsah where the Suez Canal enters it

With their southward movement inside the eastern canal system, Moses and the people would have ended up cornered against Lake Timsah. Literally, it was the southeastern corner of the north-south and east-west canal system. There they camped by the sea, one that certainly could be called a "Sea of Reeds" with its fresh water content, but likewise as a generic large body of water south of the Mediterranean. This lake being parted would have created the walls of water and the necessary volume to drown an entire army. The Israelites, having intentionally cornered themselves at this spot, would have certainly made Pharaoh think they were confused (i.e. Exodus 14:3). Remember, it was God who chose where they were to camp, for His purposes, and for His glory!

One cannot be dogmatic about Lake Timsah being the crossing point though. The Great Bitter Lake, further south, is another possibility, and even the northern most part of the Gulf of Suez, though far less likely, is at least a possibility. To get to either of these locations, the Israelites would have had to cross the east-west canal system south of Timsah. One interesting find, which perhaps supports the Bitter Lake possibility, is listed in ISBE...

A model letter from ca. 1200 B.C. written probably by a border official at Teku (i.e., Succoth) for the instruction of schoolboys, tells of his pursuit of two runaway slaves in a southerly direction past places with names similar to and in the same order as Succoth, Etham, and Migdol. Finally, since the Bitter Lakes (ca. 48 km. [30 mi.] S of Wâdi Tumilat) were in antiquity joined to the Gulf of Suez (i.e., the Red Sea), they also could rightly be called Red Sea. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition)

Though the aforementioned letter doesn't give us specific locations for the Biblically referenced sites, it does keep them in the Lake Timsah and Bitter Lakes region.4 This would certainly eliminate a Gulf of Suez crossing and some of the more fanciful propositions, such as the one we reference next.

Of all the proposed crossing sites for the Red Sea, the view that places Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia is the least likely. Many factors including how steep the underwater basin is, needed travel times and distances in comparison to those specified or alluded to in Scriptures, not to mention the questionable evidence offered in support of their Mt. Sinai, all make this highly improbable. Natural geological structures, such as a mountain with a blackened top, are quite common to the entire region of Sinai, Saudi Arabia, and even Jordan. Other referenced archaeological finds are undoubtedly Nabatean, having nothing to do with the time of Exodus.

The author's son, Scott, reading Scriptures at Lake Timsah

 


End Notes:

(1) Many maps of the Exodus incorrectly move the land of Goshen south of Wadi Tumilat (alt. Wady-'t-Tumeylat) to try and account for travel times between Goshen and Memphis, presupposing that Pharaoh had to be there (at the capital of all Egypt). History has revealed that this was not the case, with a northern or secondary capital being quite common. In fact, because of this Memphis error, some of the alternately proposed routes of the exodus don't even take the Israelites through Succoth.

(2) A Time Magazine article entitled "The First Suez Canal?", dating Monday, October 20th, 1975, provides details concerning the ancient north-south canal from the Mediterranean to Lake Timsah.

While studying aerial photographs of the Nile Delta after their country's 1967 conquest of the Sinai, Israeli geologists noticed soil markings that were clearly vestiges of two dried-up waterways. One was quickly identified as a silted offshoot of the Nile River called the Pelusiac branch (after the ancient city of Pelusium at its mouth). The nature of the other waterway baffled the geologists until they visited the area and found man-made embankments. With that, they realized that these old mounds marked the route of a remarkable ancient canal that predated the Suez Canal by as many as 4,000 years.*

From its Mediterranean terminus at Pelusium, the so-called Eastern Canal probably headed south for ten miles, veered across what is now the Suez Canal near the town of Qantara, and approached Lake Timsah near Ismailia, where old canal remnants have previously been found. Though wind, sand and irrigation works have wiped out much of the canal's course, Geologists Amihai Sneh, Tuvia Weissbrod and Itamar Perath hint at an intriguing possibility: the waterway may have split in two, one branch following a great east-west depression called Wadi Tumilat to link with the Nile, the other continuing south into the Red Sea along a route that became part of a canal system later built by the Persian conqueror Darius.

The old waterway probably ranged in depth from 7 ft. to 10 ft., adequate for ancient barges, but the embankments were 200 ft. apart, much wider than necessary for the water traffic of that day. The Israeli scientists think they know why. Writing in American Scientist, they point out that a wide channel would have made it an effective barrier against invaders from the east, a constant threat to ancient Egypt. In addition, it would have provided essential irrigation water. Could the ancient Egyptians have built such a great canal? Yes, say the geologists. After all, hundreds of years earlier the Egyptians had already tackled another project of comparable magnitude: the construction of their first pyramids.

* A date based on references in old [Egyptian] chronicles.

Part of Ismalia seen from across Lake Timsah

 

(3) Some site lack of evidence for Rameses as a major city at this early time, though it certainly was being built as a store city according to Scriptures. An alternate view would have Pharaoh at Tanis (Zoan), and Moses and Aaron perhaps at Rameses (or nearby Avaris). This would still make it a 9-12 mile distance, one way, for Pharaoh to summon Moses and Aaron, a workable scenario if travel was by horse and/or chariot. Again, the west to east gathering of the Exodus would still be in view. The Psalmist, writing years later, references the region of Zoan as having experienced the miracles (plagues). While this provides the possibility that Pharaoh was at Zoan (Tanis), it may only by a general descriptor encompassing the region (even as the district of Rameses encompassed a vast area as well).

Psalms 78:12 He did miracles in the sight of their fathers in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan. (NIV) [Also Palms 78:43]

(4) The TourEgypt website references the same early papyrus, placing it perhaps earlier by a decade or two than the ISBE dating...

It should also be noted that the route chosen by the escaping Israelites, from Piramesse to Tjeku (biblical Succoth: Exodus 12:37) and eastwards, was precisely the same that was used by two escaping slaves of the late 13th century BC, as reported in Papyrus Anastasi V. (http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/egyptexodus.htm)

While Israel's exodus was a couple hundred years earlier, place names likely would have remainded the same for a few centuries. Maybe local legend still told the story of how an entire nation of slaves escaped via this route, leading these later slaves to try the same.

(5) Planetware.com makes note of the east-west canal, stating that archaelogy shows it was wider and deeper than the north-south canal.

In the Early Historical Period it was already navigable during the Nile flood by boats of shallow draft, providing a means of transport for both people and goods to and from the east coast of Africa and Syria. It was much favored by the Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom, who improved and deepened the channel. Ramesses II was particularly active in this respect, building on the banks of the canal the towns of PeRamses and Pithom, which ranked with Bubastis as important trading and market centers. The remains of steeply battered masonry embankments show the canal to have been 150ft/45m wide and 16ft/5m deep. (http://www.planetware.com/ismailia/wadi-tumilat-egy-ism-wadtum.htm)

(6) For those who find it hard to believe that people can use a generic term to reference diverse bodies of water, consider an Egyptian practice that has continued into relatively modern times. Egyptian author Galal Amin, in the first of his books highlighting changes in Egyptian society from the 1950s until the present, notes a practice that was still commonplace in the mid 20th century.

... the great majority were peasants who rarely left their villages... These villages were, by communications standards of that time, very far away from the sea [i.e. Mediterranean, Gulf of Suez and Red Sea]. Their inhabitants still sang the praises of the summer breeze, and went in search of it, finding the breeze that came from the direction of the sea available to them on the banks of the Nile and the many canals that branched our of it. As a matter of fact, when most Egyptians referred to the 'sea,' bahr, it was the Nile and its canals they were talking about. As for the real sea, they called it 'the salty one,' and it was something that inspired great awe provoked, presumably by ignorance of it and a lack of any direct experience with it, and no realistic hope of ever seeing it. (pg 121, Whatever Happened to the Egyptians, by Galal Amin)

If usage of generic terms could extend into the modern era, primarily due to "lack of any direct experience" and general "ignorance" how much more would the same reason apply to those of ancient times who would never leave their dwelling places along the branches of the Nile and its related canals in the land of Goshen? With Israel having lived in Egypt for four hundred years, mostly restricted only to their delta villages and region, it is reasonable to assume that common local practice and nomenclature of the day would be utilized by them as well.