Narration for Exodus Route Flyover

Hi, I’m Bonnie J. Gordon, and this is my Google Earth flyover for the route the Israelites might have taken as they fled from Pharaoh in Egypt in the biblical stories of the Exodus. It’s based on the work of Colin J. Humphreys, a Cambridge University physicist who wrote a book called The Miracles of Exodus. I created this flyover as part of the research for my own novels, collectively called The Sina’i Trilogy. You can find out more, and get a link to Dr. Humphreys’s book, on my website

Our first stop is the Land of Goshen, the area that’s highlighted in orange on the Google Earth map. No one is quite sure exactly where Goshen was  located, but its description fits the fertile Nile River Delta that still supplies food to most Egyptians.

I am calling the town my characters live in Pi-Habiru. Some scholars believe the word Habiru is the origin of our word Hebrew, as in “the Hebrew slaves,” but most think it was applied to anyone in Egypt who was a servant or lower-class. In my book Goshen, Pi-Habiru means City of Servants. It’s a diverse place where many languages are spoken. The town you see here is actually called Faykous, a city of about 111 thousand people.

Second stop is the town of Pitom, which is the modern Israeli pronunciation of the biblical store-city of Pithom. Archaeologists have not definitively identified Pitom, but this spot is where there have been excavations for years of an ancient capital city with gorgeous frescoes on its buildings. 

The real archeological action is at our next stop, Ra’amses. Scholars call it “Pi-Ramesses,” and there’s an amazing computer-animated tour of the city linked in my blog post “Pithom and Ra’amses” on the “Goshen” page of my site. It’s eye-popping – check it out.

Most of the first novel in the trilogy is taken up with the Ten Plagues, and my main characters and their family do a lot of walking back and forth between Pi-Habiru, Pitom and Pi-Ra’amses. But after the plagues come to a deadly end for the Egyptians, the Children of Yisra’el are led by Mosheh – the original biblical pronunciation of Moses – into the wilderness. The first stop mentioned in the Bible after Ra’amses is Sukkot [2:55], which archaeologists think was probably an Egyptian Army garrison on the edge of the desert. 

From Sukkot, Colin J. Humphreys thinks the Children of Yisra’el headed toward Midian which is in today’s Saudi Arabia. This route took them southeast, the opposite of where they supposedly wanted to go, in order to avoid Pharaoh’s garrisons along the Mediterranean Coast. It’s a well-known trade route, the same route Mosheh himself would have taken when he was on the run from Pharaoh for killing an Egyptian overseer. So Mosheh led his people through the wilderness of Paran, or Midbar Paran in Hebrew.

According to the biblical story, Pharaoh pursued the Children of Yisra’el across the Midbar. But Humphreys says that, in a tactically brilliant move, Pharaoh split off some of his troops on horseback, seen here as the blue line, to head towards the northeast. Those troops would then gallop down the Jordan Rift Valley to the fingertip of the Red Sea and cut off the Children of Yisra’el just before they reached the border to Midian where Pharaoh held no sway.

In my book Midbar, Mosheh’s original plan was to go UP the Jordan Rift Valley, which today is called the Aravah. That would have taken them past the Dead Sea and the city of Jericho, which archaeologists say existed at this time, into an area of The Promised Land where we know Semitic tribes were living. But they couldn’t go in that direction because Pharaoh’s cavalry had cut them off. So they had to cross the Red Sea instead of going around it like most caravans did – and like people do today when they cross the border between Israel and Jordan. Humphreys talks about a type of wind storm, called the wind set-down effect, that might have briefly exposed the floor of the Red Sea so that Mosheh could lead his people across. In Humphreys’ view, and in mine, the miracle was one of timing.

In his book, Humphreys identifies stops along the trade route on the Midian side of the Red Sea – including the town of Marah where the water in the wells was salty – or “bitter,” as it’s often translated. He believes that Mosheh turned the bitter water sweet by tossing charred wood into the wells, which acted like a charcoal filter to absorb the impurities – just like the one in many water pitchers today.

Our next stop is the oasis of Elim, which Humphreys is not alone in identifying with this spot on the map. It doesn’t look like much of an oasis now, but remember – the climate has changed a lot in this area in the past three thousand-plus years.

Just below Elim, the biblical story says the Children of Yisra’el camped at the Red Sea – which Humphreys believes meant that they switched trade routes and started going east into today’s Saudi Arabia.

These trade routes often followed rivers, which are called wadis in Arabic. Water falling onto the mountains can create broad roadlike paths with lots of pools and plants. As I wrote my novel Midbar, which is Hebrew for “wilderness,” I followed the biggest wadis and relied on Google Earth Street View pictures to describe the route my characters were taking. This technology was an incredible boon, since I never would have been able to actually take this trip and write about what I saw.

For instance, this ridge seemed like the kind of place where the annual quail migration through Saudi Arabia might have passed through, and it’s also high enough so that dew could be produced as is detailed in the biblical story. The manna that appeared after the dew probably came from trees that grow in this area, according to Humphreys. Humphreys also makes a suggestion about the true location of Dof’kah, another place mentioned in the Hebrew Bible where some important events in my novel occur. 

But as far as I know there’s been no archaeological evidence about where Refidim was, or for a major battle there, where the Hebrew Bible says the Children of Yisra’el fought the Amalekites. So I picked the lower orange-highlighted area as a likely spot.

It may surprise you to know that there is a scholarly consensus building around the idea that Mount Sinai, or Sina’i in the modern Hebrew pronunciation, was an active volcano. The biblical description of God descending upon the mountain in a cloud, and the earth shaking and trumpets sounding, pretty accurately applies to an eruption. Saudi Arabia had several active volcanoes during biblical times, and Humphreys believes it’s this one, Hala’l’Badr, that is the true Mount Sina’i. Maybe that’s what really happened – a volcano erupted while a confederation of Semitic tribes worshipped the god under the mountain – and the event passed into folklore.

Today this area is clearly rock desert, and a large community of nomads could not thrive here. But a little further south is the lush green landscape of Saudi Arabia’s As’ir Province, and its Al-Soudah National Park, which is watered by humid Indian Ocean wind currents pushing north along the Red Sea coast. These winds may have pushed further north at various times in geological history, which would have made Midian the same type of paradise that As’ir is today. Since the story of the Ten Plagues also may refer to a climate event that set off a red algae bloom in the Nile River, making the waters look and smell like blood, it’s possible that the climate was a major player in all of the Bible stories.

So there you have it! There’s lots more research that went into my books, everything from how to build a nomadic tent to song lyrics from Cush to the phrasing of Babylonian contracts. I’m just starting to organize it all in blog posts, so I hope that you’ll consider subscribing. Thank you for watching!

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