Israel in Arabia

The white volcanos of harrat Khaybar in central saudi arabia.Although These are not located in the Land of midian, where moses supposedly led the Children of israel to meet their god. they are similar in form to hala’l badr, which erupted around the time of the exodus and which may have been the inspiration for the tale of the ten commandments. There are no freely available images of hala’l badr from this angle. Image credit: Luigi Vigliotti (distributed via

Long before there was an Israel or an Arabia, the desert was lush. And then it wasn’t. And then it was again.

We’ve known for years that  the volcanic, parched lands of western Saudi Arabia – where, according to the Midianite hypothesis, Moses led the Children of Israel to the Mountain of God – has experienced intermittent periods of green and pleasant pastures over the past 400,000 years. But now, recent research published in the journal Nature has established that humans lived and worked on the shores of thousands of lakes that, today, belong to a hostile landscape of sand, rock and dust. 

These discoveries have led to a paradigm shift in our understanding of how our own species, homo sapiens, left Africa to spread throughout the Levant and Europe. No fewer than 10,000 paleolakes have been found in Arabia, and some of them provide evidence of early human habitation – such as tools and arrowheads – for centuries at a time. The current research was based on studying sediments from paleolake beds in today’s Nefud desert, which is on the route to Mount Sinai hypothesized by Cambridge physicist Sir Colin J. Humphreys in his book The Miracles of Exodus. Humphreys concludes that this particular desert must have been involved in the biblical account of the Exodus because it is one of the few places in Saudi Arabia that still experiences heavy falls of morning dew (p. 287) as well as an enormous annual quail migration (p. 293). Dew and quail figure in the story of the manna from Heaven that helped the Children of Israel survive in the wilderness.

But the most recent evidence that the interdisciplinary paleontology team at Nefud found for human civilization was from 50,000 years ago, dozens of millennia before the first pharaoh. So what does this research have to do with Exodus?

Asir province, just south of the land of midian, where according to the hebrew bible the mountain of god is situated. This landscape is very different from the unforgiving desert in the saudi arabian province of madian today. but Conditions in midian might have been more like they are pictured here in biblical times. Image credit: Muhammad Sobri, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When I started this blog with a Google Earth video mapping out the route from Goshen to Sinai that Humphreys suggests in his book – the route my characters follow throughout my Sina’i Trilogy – I was worried by the images I was seeing of the area around Hala’l Badr, Humphreys’s best guess as to the true Mountain of God’s location (p. 319). The pictures were desolate and frightening. Even if I didn’t accept the biblical claim that a million-plus Israelites left Egypt all at once (I try to be a bit vague in the manuscript, but in my head the Exodus led by Moses was maybe around five hundred people), it was clear that even several dozen large, extended families and their animals would never have been able to survive on the Badr plain.

But as I say in the video, there’s an area just south of Hala’l Badr that even today is luxuriously verdant: Asir Province. Watered by moisture carried across the Arabian Sea from India, Asir became my model for the destination of the Israelites who had fled Egypt. I knew that fluctuations in the monsoon could bring more rain to the desert north of Asir in certain years, but that seemed less dependable and long-lived than necessary for the Israelites’ survival. Now, thanks to the article in Nature about how extended the “brief” interregnums of greening in the Nefud desert around Hala’l Badr could actually be, I have more justification for describing the setting as I do.

So this is another juncture, in my work of reimagining biblical beliefs in the light of science, where climate shifts of two thousand years ago may well be impacting our 21st century civilization thanks to the narratives we have created to make meaning from them. Many researchers now believe that the Ten Plagues were the result of a climate incident in the eastern Mediterranean; the social instability the plagues caused led, perhaps, to the release of a few hundred people clamoring for permission to worship in the desert. Those people met up with other Semitic tribes who could guide them to a place they called the Mountain of God – an erupting volcano. And the escapees were also lucky enough to avoid being cut off by Pharaoh’s chariots at the Red Sea due to a weather phenomenon called wind set-down effect.

To be clear, I position myself on the spectrum of pure faith to cold rationalism closer to the latter. But if I had actually gone through these experiences myself, I’d have a hard time not thinking of my community as the Chosen People.

All of which makes me wonder what meaning we will make of the environmental chaos and violent strife we are experiencing as a human community at this moment in history. In two thousand years, what stories will have been written to explain all this? How many will believe those stories as unshakable articles of faith?

Or will anyone be around to believe anything anymore? Or will anyone need to believe anything anymore in order to speak with God?

A hurricane forms in August 2016. Image credit: pixabay via stockvault.

2 thoughts on “Israel in Arabia”

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