The most direct route to Canaan from Egypt was the Via Maris, which was designated as “the way of the land of the Philistines”. Since the fleeing people were neither physically prepared for battle nor spiritually ready to occupy the land, the Lord led them south through the wilderness toward the Red Sea. They journeyed from Raamses to Succoth and then camped at Etham. From there, they turned back north to the region of the salt marshes between Migdol and the sea. Their second camp was at Baal-zephon. Both Migdol and Baal-zephon are unidentified but were probably fortresses at the northeast corner of the Nile Delta. It was here that the fleeing Israelites were overtaken by the Egyptians.
The Lord delivered his people from certain destruction by the greatest miracle of the exodus – the crossing of the Red Sea. Although the Hebrew term yam suph that is used to describe this body of water is used elsewhere to designate the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba, or the Gulf of Suez, the reference in Exodus 13:18 is not to the Red Sea proper. First, its western arm, the Gulf of Suez, is too far south to have provided a logical place to exit from Egypt. Second, the biblical account indicates that yam suph divided productive Egypt from the desert. If Israel had gone directly south to the Gulf of Suez, they would have encountered much desert before crossing any water. Third, when they crossed yam suph, they found themselves in the “wilderness of Shur” which has already been located to be in the northern Sinai Desert just south of Canaan.
Some argue that the Israelites crossed a sandy strip along the north side of Lake Menzaleh, but it seems more accurate to view yam suph “sea of reeds” as a marshy area north of the Gulf of Suez which comprised the Bitter Lakes and Lake Timsah. The exact location would be impossible to identify in view of the major geographical changes engendered by the construction of the Suez Canal.
After crossing “the Red Sea”, the Israelites entered the Wilderness of Shur. They complained at Marah about the bitter water and then camped at Elim, which is unidentified. From there they set out again and entered the Wilderness of Sin. While passing through this region, they camped at Dophkah, which means ‘smeltery’ and is a site identified with the Egyptian mining center of Serabit el-Khadim.
Then the Israelites journeyed inland, probably through the Wadi Feiran, camping at Rephidim and finally came to the foot of Mount Sinai. They had gone all these places in the three months after their departure from Egypt. The Israelites then spent 10 days short of a year at Mount Sinai, where God reaffirmed his covenant with them as a nation and instructed them as to the law, the tabernacle, and the priesthood. Journeying north from Mount Sinai, the Israelites passed through the Wilderness of Paran to Kadesh-barnea which was an oasis on the edge of the Wilderness of Zin. It was there that they received the discouraging report from the spies of giants being in the land. From there the spies, except Joshua and Caleb, told the people that there was no way they could ever conquer the land, and their disobedience caused them to have to spend 40 years in that same wilderness they had been roaming around in. Most of this time seems to have been spent at Kadesh-barnea, or in that area.
After the old generation had died off, the Israelites left the Wilderness of Zin and journeyed north to the Plains of Moab in preparation for the conquest of the Promised Land. Many of the cities that are mentioned in the Biblical passage of their journeys must have just been campsites which provided no remains for archaeological investigation. Of the names mentioned, there are four that we have information about:
This means ‘smeltery’ and has been identified with the Egyptian mining center of Serabit el-Khadim. This site was first excavated by W. F. M. Petrie in 1905. Archaeologists have successfully uncovered an Egyptian temple dedicated to Hathor, goddess of the land and minerals there. A stele in this temple records a history of the mining expeditions there. A second important find at this site was a small statue inscribed with letters that are recognized as being the earliest Semitic alphabetic script. It has been dated about 1500 B. C.
Israel spent almost a year camped in the plain before Mount Sinai, which is also known as Mount Horeb. Early Christian tradition from the time of the fourth century A. D. identifies biblical Mount Sinai with 7,363 foot Jebel Musa in southern Sinai. At the foot of this mountain lies a monastery that was built on a site where Helena, Constantine’s mother, erected a small church two centuries earlier. There are several factors favoring this identification of Mount Sinai:
the early tradition
the mountain’s distance from the starting point of Israel’s exodus from Egypt
its distance from the entrance to Canaan, an eleven day journey to Kadesh-barnea
its proximity to Serabit-el-Khadim (Moses’ father-in-law was a Kenite (smith) and the mines there could account for his presence)
just to the north of the mountain is a large 400 acre plain where the Israelites could have camped
Even though there are different opinions as to where the mountain is actually located, it is still worth seeing the traditional site. A climb to the top of Jebel Musa allows one to reflect on the events associated with the giving of the law to the people of Israel. The monastery located at its base is famous for Tischendorf’s 1859 discovery of the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus.
This was an oasis in the Wilderness of Zin in northern Sinai. It was there that Moses told the rock to bring forth water at the Lord’s command. There are two places there that are thought might be this oasis. They are just five miles apart, so the general vicinity of the oasis is known. They both had abundant water to have supplied the Israelite people. The Bible says that Miriam, Moses’ sister, died at Kadesh, so it must be near one of these sites.
This is the last place mentioned in the route of the Israelites before they passed into Transjordan. It is described as “near Eloth” on the shores of the Gulf of Azaba, which is the northwest arm of the Red Sea. This area would later become Israel’s gateway to Arabia, Africa, and India. Solomon maintained a fleet of ships at this harbor town, and it was here that Jehoshaphat’s ships were wrecked, shattering his hopes of engaging in maritime trade.
Below is a map of the traditional known route of the Israelites from the time they left Egypt to the time they entered Canaan.