The Jews had asked and obtained permission from the Pharaoh to go into the desert for "three walking days" in order to make sacrifices to their God (Ex.8,27). But the first leg of their journey, from Pi-Rameses to Succoth, was a seven-day’s march. The questions that arise here are many; one wonders whether they had lied or not kept their word. Then there is the question of the Egyptian troops, who followed them closely from the first day (Ex.14,8), but strangely did not stop them. We must ask whether this whole story is credible or not. The truth is that a "day's march,” then as now, is a unit of distance quite apart from the maximum or minimum speed of any given traveler. The distances along mountain tracks even today are always indicated by "walking hours;” the times are clearly dependent upon the difficulty of the terrain as well as the distance to be covered, but gauged on the constant pace of the average mountaineer. Traveling with the entire family, children and grandparents, perhaps stopping now and then to gather berries etc., one must calculate a period for the whole route at least three times the norm.
The "day's march,” apart from the difficulties along the route, must take into consideration the availability of water, an essential factor in the desert; it should end, then, at a spot where there is at least a well. Then as now, however, a day's march was gauged on a problemless journey of a typical commercial or military caravan--between 35 and 45 kilometers. Therefore, the Jews' destination, the sacred place where they would honor their God, was situated in the desert more than one hundred kilometers from Pi-Rameses.
This, however, was no commercial caravan; it was an entire population, with women, children, the elderly and the sick, with herds and flocks, with all their possessions, their tents and household goods, their tools and their supplies and provisions of every sort. A part of these goods was loaded onto pack animals, but the major part had to be carried in "covered wagons", drawn by oxen (Nm.7,3-9). Each tribe possessed a certain number of these and, therefore, the total must have been rather high. It was a seemingly endless column that stretched out for several kilometers.
The old and sick, together with the women and smaller children, traveled on the wagons (Gn. 46,5). The older boys gave the adults a hand, driving the cattle along the flanks of the column, leading by hand the pack animals and those yoked to the wagons. The rate of march was governed by the slow pace of the oxen, about two kilometers per hour. They could not have traveled more than an average of 15 kilometers per day. Therefore, they needed three days to cover the distance of a "day's march."
Since the "day's march" normally took them from one watering hole to the next, the Jews could not count on replenishing their stocks along the way; they had to ensure their water and food supplies were sufficient for the duration of the march. They also had to provide reserves of water and forage for the pack animals and the oxen drawing the wagons. The untethered animals could graze whatever grass they could find, but they were not watered. This could only be provided at the end of that leg of the journey.
Anyone who has watched livestock being watered in the desert has an appreciation for the time required to water dozens of flocks and herds. The women took advantage of this time to knead loaves of unleavened bread which would be baked during bivouacs in the following days; simultaneously, additional supplies of water and, where possible, forage and firewood, were also gathered. All this required an entire day's halt. So in order to cover the distance of a "day's march", the Jews required exactly four days--three marching and one resting. This was the fastest speed they could manage.
The Jews covered the first two "days' march"--more than 70 kilometers--in one seven-day segment; this journey would be commemorated every Easter. It was the longest stage of the whole journey and was possible only because the first leg took them through a "green belt,” where there was an abundance of water, allowing the herds and flocks to be watered along the route. On the seventh day they arrived at Succoth, where they camped for a couple of days.
As soon as the Jews set out of Pi-Rameses, the Egyptian surveillance troops began to tail them (Ex.14,8); they probably maintained a rearguard position a fair distance behind. If necessary, in an hour they could cover a distance that would take the Jews a whole day. Perhaps it was at Succoth where they stayed for the first time so near to the Jews' encampment; they too needed to water their horses and secure their own drinking water. In all probability the incursion into the Egyptian encampment mentioned in Ex. 14,24-25, when the Jews blocked the wheels of the war chariots, took place right there. Obviously no permanent damage was done, nevertheless the troop commander decided it was more prudent to distance his camp from that of the Jews and to post sentries.
On the morning of the tenth day following their departure, the Jews left Succoth for Etham on the outer limits of the desert of the same name (Ex.13,20; Nm.33,7). Five days later they broke camp at Pi-Hahirot and crossed the Red Sea (Nm. 33,8). The name Pi-Hahirot must have indicated an extended territory; in fact an additional two references were considered necessary in order to pinpoint the spot where the Jews camped: "Opposite Migdol, in sight of Baal-Zefon" (Ex. 14,2; Nm. 33,7). The name Baal-Zefon means "Lord of the North" and refers to a religious site dedicated to that divinity. It was the Jews’ declared destination: a holy place in the desert, three days' march from Pi-Ramses, where they intended to make sacrifices to their God.
Moses had to time the arrival at Pi-Hahirot to occur only at the very last moment, in the afternoon, a few hours before the crossing. The phenomenon of emerging sand banks happened several nights in succession during that new moon and if the Jews had to pass even one night at Pi-Hahirot, the Egyptians could have discovered it and upset their plans. Moses dared not take such a risk.
Etham must have been situated a few kilometers from Pi-Hahirot, 8 or 10 at most, probably near to the modern day Suez. It was the other extreme of the third "day's march", which began at Succoth. It took the Jews three days to cover the distance; they arrived at Etham in the evening of the twelfth day. Moses spent the following two days going over his plan, meticulously checking times and route. There is no doubt that he went over to the sand banks of the Suez Bay at low tide and, with a few of his faithful followers, verified the phenomenon and assessed the difficulties, the time required for the crossing, etc.
The Jews left Etham on the morning of the fifteenth day, the last of the lunar month. In the afternoon they camped at Pi-Hahirot; they had a meal and rested for a few hours. As soon as it was dark, they loaded up their baggage, yoked the oxen to the wagons, reassembled the flocks and arranged themselves in the order of march. About one a.m. the crossing began; it took them a little less than three hours to traverse the Red Sea. They stopped for the whole morning on the far shore, near the Ayun Musa wells, to water the animals and allow them to rest from the fatigue of the crossing; but the Jews themselves were too elated by the events of the night to think about rest! There was great rejoicing with singing and dancing the entire morning. They departed again in the early afternoon, free at last, on their way to the Promised Land.
In Numbers 33 the Bible relates the whole route, stage by stage and even gives the date for certain stages. It was the moon that marked the rhythm of their days; its face, now dark, now luminous, linked the memory of events. They had left Pi-Ramses on the fifteenth day of the first month (Nm. 33,3) at full moon. They crossed the Red Sea at new moon, fifteen days later. At the subsequent new moon, the fifteenth day of the second month, they reached the Sin desert (Ex. 16,1). They finally set up camp in the Sinai on the first day of the third month (Ex. 19,1), again coincident with the new moon.
From the biblical data, therefore, we know precisely and with no possibility of error, the duration of the entire journey from Pi-Rameses to the sacred Mount Horeb: one and a half lunar months, exactly forty-four days. Of these, fourteen took them to the Red Sea, while the remaining thirty days were needed to go from the eastern shore of the Bay of Suez to Har Karkom. Following faithfully the descriptions given in the Bible, it should not be difficult to ascertain which path the Jews took on their journey between these two places; if the narrative has any historical value at all, it must agree completely with the journey’s reconstruction.
The Jews in their thousands, with all their wagons, supplies, household goods and livestock, could not possibly have taken any secondary routes, along difficult tracks without a plentiful supply of water; Moses, therefore, was forced to lead them along one of the major passable wagon tracks, which joined Egypt with Palestine across the Sinai Peninsula (see fig. 14). There was another reason for this decision; although most of the pursuing Egyptian troops had been exterminated, there were undoubtedly survivors; thus it was logical to assume that within a few days the Egyptians could organize a further contingent of troops to again take up the chase. So the Jews had to get away as fast as possible. The quickest route was obviously the great track, along which their wagons could move at their most rapid speed, which, as we have seen, was four days for each "day's march"--three on the move and one of rest.
At this point we know a large number of facts regarding the itinerary and it is clear that a faithful reconstruction of it must correspond exactly to all of them. These facts are as follows:
- The date and place of departure (Pi-Ramses, the fifteenth day of the first month)
- the date and place of arrival (Har Karkom, the first day of the third month)
- the date and the exact point of the Red Sea crossing (Suez Bay last day of the first month)
- three intermediate dates (arrival at Succoth the 21st day of the first month; arrival at Mara on the third day of the second month; arrival at Sin desert the fifteenth day of the second month)
- the various legs of the journey listed in Numbers 33,7-15 (Pi-Rameses, Succoth, Etham, Pi-Hahirot, Marah, Elim, Sea of Reeds, Desert of Sin, Dophkah, Alush, Rephidim, Sinai)
- the speed and method of travel (three days' march at a daily average between 13 and 15 kilometers, plus a fourth day of rest)
- the ancient tracks of the Sinai Peninsula (mainly corresponding to today's roads).
With the help of these facts, the Exodus route can be easily retraced day by day, exactly and with certainty. After the Red Sea crossing the Jews had to stop for the whole morning at the Ayun Musa wells in order to water and refresh the livestock and to replenish their own supply; then they moved off northwards into the Etham desert until they reached the track that took them towards Palestine. It can be ascertained from the Bible itself that they started off in a northerly direction: while they hugged the sea coast they saw the corpses of the drowned Egyptian soldiers (Exodus 14,30). These troops were overwhelmed by the incoming tide as they crossed over the sand banks of the Bay of Suez; their bodies were carried to the north. The Jews' initial route was therefore northwards.
The quickest and most direct route to Palestine from the Bay of Suez passes by Bir et-Temada and Bir Assane. Initially the Jews had two alternatives to reach Bir et-Temada: either through the Mitla Pass or through the Jiddi pass. The first of these options would have taken them about twenty kilometers along secondary tracks as far as Bir el-Mura, then a further 45 or so to the Bir el-Tawal oasis and, lastly, a little more than 40 kilometers to Bir-et-Temada. But with the second option they would have had to travel about 40 kilometers, as far as Little Bitter Lake, then another 50 or so to the Bir-el Jiddi oasis, and as many again up to Bir et-Temada.
Both of these routes are more or less in accord with the indications in the Bible; there are, however, certain factors--apart from the fact that it is the most direct and the shortest one--that point us towards the Mitla Pass option. It took them three days to arrive at Mara (Ex. 15,22; Nm.33,8). We have to take into consideration that they must have started off in the afternoon of the first day, and that the verses of Exodus 15,22 and Numbers 33,8 both specify (the only occasion in the whole itinerary ) that to reach Mara they passed "across the desert.” This gives the impression that they travelled along minor tracks, or perhaps no track at all, and so probably covered no more than about twenty kilometers during those three days. Furthermore, in order to reach the Bitter Lakes, the Jews would have had to pass in front of Etham again. This name means "fortress", so it was certainly an Egyptian roadblock with a permanent garrison. These troops most probably did not have war chariots and were in any case too few in number to go chasing after the Jews. They were certainly able to block the way, however, should the Jews dare to pass close.
The biblical Mara, therefore, should be identified with the similar sounding Bir el-Mura, situated about ten kilometres as the crow flies to the north-east of Ayun Musa (a little more then twenty kilometers along the track). As with other areas in the Sinai bearing the same name, Bir el-Mura has wells containing very bitter water, and something approaching a revolt almost broke out as a result (Ex.15,24). From there, the Jews pressed on toward Palestine at a forced rate of march. It took them three days to get from one oasis to the next and at each one they rested for a whole day. These are the stages of the journey refered to in Numbers 33.
They left Bir el-Mura on the morning of the fifth day, crossing the Mitla Pass on the sixth and reaching Bir el-Tawal during the afternoon of the seventh. Bir el-Tawal is identifiable with the biblical Elim, an oasis with twelve wells and seventy palms, where they rested for the whole of the eighth day. They left again on the morning of the ninth and reached the following oasis, Bir et-Temada after the usual three days' march, on the eleventh day of the month. The daily average for this first stretch was 13-14 kilometers. Bir et-Temada is situated at the confluence of a vast system of wadis, which occupies the entire central area of the Sinai peninsula; it presented a vast expanse of marshy ground invaded by reeds, from which the biblically attributed name "Sea of Reeds," is derived.
Following the usual one day’s rest, the Jews set off again on the morning of the thirteenth day, arriving with the full moon at Bir Assane, an oasis which today still maintains its biblical name: the Sin Desert. Exodus 16,1 reports that this was on the fifteenth day of the second month. There are exactly 47 kilometers between the two oases, and therefore the daily average was 15,6 kilometers, fairly high but not excessive for that route. They departed Bir Assane on the morning of the seventeenth day.
According to the biblical narrative, the journey required fifteen days between the Sin Desert and Mount Horeb, including three intermediate stops: Dophcah, Alus and Rephidim. The latter was situated no more than 15 kilometres from Mount Horeb, since the distance between the two was covered in a single day (Ex.19,1). We, therefore, have a total af ten days' march, during which the Jews could not have covered more than 150 kilometres. On the basis of these limiting factors there could be no alternative: they must have followed the track to Kuseima. After three days' march at the approximate daily average of 12 kilometers they reached the oasis of Bir el-Hadira, the biblical Dophcah, where they remained for the entire twentieth day.
On the morning of the twenty-first day of the second month, they set off from Bir el-Hadira. Toward the end of the following day they reached a fork: the north-east track goes on to Kuseima and Palestine; on the right, to the south-east, there is a ten-kilometer secondary track to Darb-el-Aza, the high road that descends directly to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. The Jews turned right and that same evening set up camp along the Darb-el-Aza, at Bir Sheida.
They were headed to Palestine, so this choice may seem inexplicable and illogical. But some simple considerations make it clear that they had no alternative--entering Palestine would have meant suicide. Palestine was by no means uninhabitated. On the contrary, as reported by those explorers who accompanied Joshua a year later, there were many prosperous and large populations with professional armies, war chariots and cities surrounded by fortified walls (Nm.13,33; Dt. 1,28).
The Jews were shepherds, who had lived until then under the protection of the Egyptian army. They had no experience in war, they had no army, and no weapons other than knives used for butchering their animals. They had no unified state organisation, still being split into autonomous tribes. They did not even have a leader, since Moses at that time was considered only a "guide,” without any definite authority. Having with them all their women, children, cattle, gold and other precious goods, they represented an irresistible attraction for looters, thieves, etc. (Nm.14,3; Dt.1,39). In these circumstances they had not the slightest hope of occupying any territory in Palestine, something of which the Jewish elders must have been perfectly aware. Therefore, they were forced to take refuge in some isolated and safe area where they could take the time necessary to remedy their serious organizational deficiencies. Moses had lived for a long period in that very area of Mount Horeb and he knew it very well. He knew, therefore, where they would find a well-hidden valley in the desert, difficult to access and easily defended.
They proceeded down the Darb-el-Aza during the whole of the twenty-third day of the month. It was an easy march with many wells along the way and they made better going than usual. They had to travel a little less than 20 kilometers, reaching Riyash, the biblical Alus, situated on the bed of a wadi that still keeps its ancient name: Lussan. They departed Riyash on the morning of the twenty-fifth day and at once left the Darb-el-Aza, moving into the Paran Desert in the direction of Har Karkom. They travelled about forty kilometres at a daily average of 14, and in the afternoon of the twenty-seventh day of the second month they arrived at Beer Karkom--a locality seven kilometres from Har Karkom, which Dr. Anati, on the basis of significant archaeological evidence, has identified with the biblical Rephidim.
The following day the Jews sustained their "baptism of fire," clashing with a local tribe of Amalekites. The battle lasted until the evening (Ex.17,8-13). It is symptomatic that the Jews should be attacked for the first time at that very spot. The main track was in a sense a free zone; any person had the right to use it. But the moment the Jews moved off it and turned onto a local track, they provoked the immediate reaction of the population owning that entire territory. This reaction was predictable and was in fact foreseen by Moses, who upon arriving at Rephidim that same evening had made arrangements for the following day’s battle, placing Joshua at the head of the Jewish force (Ex.17,9).
The Amalekites who attacked the Jews owned an area indicated in the Bible as the "Paran Desert," which presumably stretched from Beer Karkom as far as Ein-Kudeirat in the Cadesh area. These people were certainly bedouins, semi-nomadic, much less numerous than the Jews, and possessed only light weapons with no professional army. The great difficulty Joshua had in overcoming them was a clear indication of the Jews' lack at that time of a warfighting capability; they would need a long period of preparation and organization before becoming capable of attacking those peoples inhabiting Palestine who were by far more numerous and warlike than the Jews.
The hard-won victory over the Amalekites, who were completely wiped out (Ex.17,13), enabled Israel, on the twenty-eighth day of the second month, to take over a territory which, although a desert area and small, constituted a secure base in which they could become organized for the next conquest without being disturbed.
The two days following the battle were spent burying the dead, medicating the wounded, and dividing the spoils of the vanquished. It was the one and only stop, after the Red Sea crossing, at which the Jews stayed for more than one day. On the first day of the third month, they left Rephidim and in the afternoon they set up camp on a vast plain at the foot of the Holy Mountain. They stayed there for a whole year, during which Moses went from being a simple guide, to become the undisputed head of the "Chosen People" and changed the course of History.
Synthesized below is the entire itinerary of the Exodus, showing the various legs of the journey, the duration of each march and the stops with the respective dates (the dates emphasized are those reported in the Bible or confirmed as certain - see fig. 14):
List of legs of journey day of stop day of durat.
arrival over depart of jour.
1st Month 1. Pi-Ramsess 15th 7 d
2. Succoth 21st 2 24th 3 d
3. Etham (Suez?) 26th 2 29th 1/2 d
4. Pi-Hahirot (Suez Bay) 29th 1/2 29th 3 h
Red Sea Crossing 29th (Night) 3 d
2nd Month 5. Mara (Bir el-Mura) 3rd 1 5th 3 d
6. Elim (Bir et-Tawal) 7th 1 9th 3 d
7. Sea of Reeds (Bir et-Temada)11th 1 13th 3 d
8. Sin Desert (Bir Assane) 15(Ex.16.1) 1 17th 3 d
9. Dopcah (Bir el-Hadira) 19th 1 21st 3 d
10. Alus (Riyash) 23rd 1 25th 3 d
11. Rephidim (Beer Karkom)27th 3 1st 1 d
12 Horeb (Har Karkom?) 1st (Ex.19.1)