After the Israelites left Egypt, they spent the first forty years of their history wandering in the barren wastelands of the Sinai Peninsula. It was there that they received the law that God gave to Moses, and there that they also received the priesthood under the guidance of Aaron and his sons. The Tabernacle was erected for the first time in the wilderness where God was to “dwell” with his people. Sinai was the place also where the people rebelled against God and were chastised by having to stay in the wilderness 38 years longer than expected. Many years later, Sinai became a place of refuge for Elijah. Understanding this wilderness is necessary to gain a thorough appreciation of Israel’s growth during these years as a nation. This area plays a major part in their liberation from Egypt and all the idols there.
In the Bible, Sinai is used to refer to a specific mountain (Psalms 68:8), a mountain range (Deut. 33:2;Judges 5:5), and a desert or wilderness. It most commonly refers to the peninsula that serves as the land bridge connecting Egypt with Palestine. It is a vast triangle of desert lying south of the Negev between the two northern arms of the Red Sea. From the Red Sea to the Mediterranean is just about all desert. Sinai was in between the two long arms of the Red Sea, the bodies of water called the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez. (This is where the Suez Canal is today). In the Bible, though, both of these bodies of water are just referred to as the Red Sea.
The peninsula is approximately 235 miles from its southern tip to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. A distance of 160 miles spans the wider northern portion from the Suez Canal to the southern tip of the Dead Sea. This gives Sinai a land area of about 18,800 square miles. (See Map Below)
Northern and southern Sinai are vastly different in their geography and geology. The northern half is a broad wasteland of limestone and low chalk hills. The ground covering is mostly gravel and sand. Along the northern coast are many sand dunes, which are blown by the Mediterranean winds and it is extremely hard to keep the roads clear of all this debris. Northern Sinai averages 2,000 to 2,500 feet in elevation and is lower in elevation than the southern region. The higher elevation to the south, east, and west makes this area something of a basin that is called Wadi el-Arish. There were three travel routes that went through this area in ancient times. These are on the map below. The Via Maris “way of the sea” advanced along the northern coast of Sinai into Israelite territory and on to Damascus. It is also referred to in the biblical record as “the way of the land of the Philistines.” The Way to Shur paralleled the Via Maris from Goshen through northern Sinai, but then continued east to Beersheba in the central Negev. Still farther south was “the way to Mount Seir” which extended through north-central Sinai and linked Goshen with Ezion-geber and Arabia.
The southern half of the region is mountainous, and its red and gray granite mountains were important in ancient times as sources for turquoise and copper. The highest point of these mountains reaches 8,660 feet with Mount Sinai reaching 7,363 feet.
The Exodus narratives identify five wilderness regions along the route used by the Israelites in Sinai: Shur, Etham, Sin, Paran, and Zin. Their locations are all shown on the map below. It was in the Wilderness of Zin close to the Dead Sea, that the Israelites spent 38 years for rebelling against God. Kadesh-barnea, from which the spies sent by Moses entered Canaan, is situated on the southern border of this wilderness.
Climate of the Sinai
Along the Mediterranean Coast, the Sinai receives four to eight inches of rainfall annually. The average in the north is only about two and a half inches, and is even less further south. The oases in this region provided water for the needs of the Israelites and they still sustain life there today. These oases in the valleys of the south owe their existence to the strata of marl (a deposit of lime, clay, and sand) deposited in sections of these valleys. The water from sudden rainstorms, which rushes down the impervious granite walls of the mountainsides, is captured and retained by the porous marl. Water can be found by digging in the apparently dry wadis to a depth of two to three feet.
As elsewhere, the temperature in Sinai varies according to season and elevation. It is cooler in the mountains and during the winter. The average monthly temperature (day and night combined) in January is about 64ºF. with an average of 77ºF. in July. The sun is always hot, but the desert cools rapidly at night, thus accounting for the prevailing moderate temperature even during the summer months.
Economy of the Sinai
The area is not agriculturally productive except in the sandy areas along the Mediterranean and at the oases, where date palms are cultivated. It also provides a suitable locale for Bedouin nomads who camp with their camels, flocks of sheep, and goats at these oases. It was in this southern wilderness that Moses was pasturing Jethro’s flock when God appeared to him in the burning bush. Since ancient times, Sinai has been regarded as a region rich in mineral wealth. The Egyptians prized Sinai’s turquoise for their jewelry, and also mined copper which was important for the production of tools and weapons. Ancient copper mines and refineries have been discovered in different places in this area.
Date of the Exodus
The biblical history of the Sinai Peninsula focuses on the Israelites’ entrance into the region, following the miraculous deliverance of God’s people from Egyptian bondage. Although the actual date of Israel’s departure from Egypt and entrance into the land of Sinai is debated, determining the precise date is important for providing us with a historical setting of the Book of Exodus. There have been dates of mid-fifteenth century B. C. Others think 1290 B. C., and still others 1250 B. C. The date of 1446 B. C. is the one that is closest to the biblical data, though, and this date is in harmony with recent archaeological discoveries made in this area. There have been several significant findings in this area that pretty much, in the opinion of the author of this book, prove that the date of the Exodus was 1446 B. C.