"In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai..." --Exodus, Chapter 19
begins one of the Bible's most memorable sagas, the
40-year wanderings of Moses and the Israelites through
the vast and barren prison of Sinai. No story has done
more to put Sinai on the map than Exodus, and for many, a
visit to the land where manna fell from heaven and Moses
received the Ten Commandments is nothing short of a
Most of the places mentioned in Exodus are unknown. Where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, where they first set foot in Sinai, and even the location of biblical Mt. Sinai itself is the subject of relentless argument among scholars, historians, and theologians. Exodus may have put Sinai on the map, but putting Exodus back into a geographical context is an unfinished labor that often involves sifting through desert sands and Old Testament manuscripts for minute clues.
There are three main theories as to the route the Israelites used when they crossed into Sinai. The first has Moses and his tribes moving out of Egypt past modern-day Suez, then crossing into Sinai near Ain Musa. The second places the crossing further south, near a place called Ain Sukna. The third and most popular theory focuses on the north and the Nile Delta region. This region is far richer in pastures, water, and manna-producing tamarisk trees, and it also would have been the safest: the southern routes would have taken the Israelites dangerously close to Pharaoh's turquoise and copper mines, which were heavily garrisoned.
However the Israelites entered Sinai, the mystery of where they roamed once they got there is even greater. Central to the story of the wanderings is the location of Mt. Sinai, the sacred height where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The variety of mountain theories is practically endless. One theory even says that Mt. Sinai is really a low mount in southern Israel, another that it's a highland in Saudi Arabia. Within the Sinai Peninsula itself, there are so many possibilities that a rigorous study could only narrow the search to 20 peaks. Wherever the "real Mt. Sinai" is, it is indisputable that Southern Sinai's Gebel Musa ("Mountain of Moses") carries enormous spiritual and historical significance for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. In the 4th century AD, Coptic Christians came to the mountain and founded a small church at the spot where it was believed God spoke to Moses in the form of the burning bush. Later on, the site evolved into St. Catherine's Monastery, revered by many as one of the most sacred places on Earth.
It may take years before any solid, physical traces of Exodus can be found. Moses and the Israelites were wanderers here, not builders of cities. But if they were in Sinai for four decades then they undoubtedly saw quite a bit of it. They passed through the wadis and drank from the desert wells. The ancient trails they must have walked are the same ones denizens of the Sinai have been walking for eons. The physical evidence may be long gone, but the landscape - and the story - are eternal and inseparable.
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