The Traditional Route of the Exodus,
Part I: Getting Started
by Jimmy Dunn
In seeking out the Exodus route, a number of sources must be used. Obviously, the Bible sets the tale and provides names and places along the route that are mostly unknown to us with any certainty. Indeed, while Bible scholars may point to places with what seems to be certainty, there remains some question even in the surest of sites. It is regrettable that so many references state that some locations known from the Exodus are certain, when they are not. Even major areas, such as the Red Sea, are more than a little questionable.
Here, we will attempt to trace the Exodus route strictly following the Biblical account, even though many modern scholars are fairly certain that the story could not have, or did not take place exactly as stated in the Bible. In attempting to do so, we will take a traditional approach to the route because, frankly, there are too many suggestions of alternate routes to really consider, and while some of them have merit, many others do not..
The general location of Goshen, and the city of Qantar (Pi-Ramesses)
There are many reasons why scholars believe that the story of the Exodus may not be a literal tale. Of course, one reason is because of the lack of specific evidence of the Exodus in a land that has been pored over by archaeologists. During the historical period in which we believe, according to the Bible, that the Israelites inhabited Egypt over a period of 430 years, we find considerable documentation of even such trivial matters as marriage contracts and shopping lists, but we find no real substantial evidence of horrendous and supernatural plagues. We find, for example, records of the level of the Nile, but no records of it ever having turned to blood.
Of course, the 430 year time span, almost half a millennium and the length of many generations, that the Israelites spend in Egypt brings up another sticky point, rarely mentioned. One might imagine, over that length of time, that the Israelites might have acclimated to the Egyptian language. Indeed, since absolutely no evidence of Hebrew seems to exist in that region during Egypt's ancient period, we almost must assume that the Israelites would have adopted the Egyptian language, and moreover we might even expect to find the Hebrew language littered with Egyptian words, and even its script to bear many similarities. Yet, one of the problems we find in tracing the route of the Exodus is that many of the place names are Hebrew adoptions which end up being almost useless from the standpoint of pinpointing specific locations. This makes it difficult to assume, even at best, that the account of the Exodus was written contemporarily with the event itself, because the Israelites of the Exodus would have probably known these locations better by their Egyptian names.
There are also some timing problems that are more specifically related to the route of the Exodus, and the location of their existence in Egypt. The earliest dated archaeological mention of Israel in Egypt (and that we know of, anywhere in the world) recorded the conquest of Merenptah, Ramesses II's son, over them. Hence, by this early date, we believe around 1207 BC, the Israelites had already settled into a nation. The Bible states that the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years, and they spend another 40 or so years wandering in the desert of Shur (the Sinai, according to tradition). If, for example, Merenptah's victory over the Israelites took place only shortly after they established their kingdom in the promised land, then according to the Bible they would have arrived in Egypt sometime prior to 1677 BC, a time probably corresponding to the 13th Dynasty. Interestingly, this corresponds to the Second Intermediate Period when foreign invaders, referred to as the Hyksos, invaded and ruled Egypt. Indeed, they did rule from the Delta, where the Israelites are believed to have lived, and some scholars would even associate them with the Israelites, though they would later have to be driven out of Egypt. Of course, that hardly corresponds with the story of the Exodus.
However, our interest here is in the starting place of the Biblical Exodus, so the 430 years history of the Israelites in Egypt, according to the Bible, is of less importance than their final location in Egypt, just before the Exodus, and the timing of the Exodus. According to the Jewish calendar, the Exodus dates to about 1313 BC, squarely in the middle of the reign of Horemheb who ruled, we believe, from Thebes. Various evidence would make this difficult to accept. For example, the Israelites were said to have lived in an area known as Goshen, which is generally thought to have been located in the Eastern Nile Delta, and therefore some distance from Thebes. Perhaps more importantly, the Bible explains that the Israelites were put to work building the store cities of Rameses and Pithom. The first known king named Ramesses was Ramesses I, who's reign is believed to have begun in 1395 BC, but did not last long enough to produce much effect. However, even his reign came just after that of Horemheb. Most scholars seem to believe that the store city of Rameses to which the Bible refers is the city built by Ramesses II as his Delta Capital, actually named Pi-Ramesses or Per-Ramesses, meaning "House or Domain of Ramesses". Though it is interesting that Pi-Ramesses, the capital of Ramesses the Great, is referred to as a store city in the Bible, if this is the city referred to then it would certainly mean that the Exodus had to have taken place some time after 1313 BC.
Indeed, Pi-Ramesses, near the modern city of Qantar on the edge of the Eastern Nile Delta and often associated with the store city of Ramesses in the Bible by scholars, does seem to fit into the story of the Exodus fairly well. However, we cannot say with complete certainty that there was not another city, even of earlier date, named Ramses. Though Ramesses I was the first king so named, that name may have existed prior to him. Also, Goshen where the Israelites lived in Egypt and apparently the region from which they departed on the Exodus, according to numerous sources and scholars, is fairly well defined as being in the Eastern Nile Delta. Hebrew tradition evidently considered Goshen and Rameses to be the same place, which is a bit confusing, considering that Goshen was clearly an area and not a city.
Indeed, if we follow the Biblical account as closely as possible and accept the numbers of the Exodus, perhaps all locations mentioned should be associated with areas rather than cities, as these large numbers would overwhelm and overflow almost all, if not all, cities of this period in time. In other words, one million people, along with herds, supplies and other logistical support would require more of an area to use as a base camp. In fact, most cities of this period would have hardly been useful to such a large hoard of people.
If Pi-Ramesses was the store city referred to in the Bible, then we must further consider the timing in relationship to known facts. We know that Ramesses the Great lived for about 96 or so years, ruling Egypt, we believe, for about sixty-six years, and afterwards, Merenptah ruled for about ten years. However, Egyptologists believe that Merenptah's victory over Israel came fairly early in his reign. Given that the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness prior to taking their Holy Land, according to the Bible, then we would have to assume that the Exodus must have occurred very early in Ramesses II's reign, sometime prior to 1248. That provides just enough time for the Israelites to establish their kingdom and have it sacked by Merenptah. Once again, any earlier date would completely rule out Pi-Ramesses as the Biblical Ramesses. Unfortunately, since there is no archaeological evidence of the existence of Israelites having built Pi-Ramesses, we can only make our best guess that this was the city mentioned in the Bible, though without the certainty that some Biblical scholars imply. Simply put, we have no better place than this to begin. Though it fits in many ways to the Exodus story, there is no archaeological evidence that even suggests that it was indeed inhabited by the children of Israel.
So we begin our journey retracing the steps of the Exodus with considerable uncertainty, but we begin it nevertheless in the vicinity of Qantir, which modern excavators have identified with some certainty as Pi-Ramesses. To a certain extent, we are perhaps lucky in that we can at least claim the eastern Delta to be, in some certainty, the original starting point of the Exodus, even though we have no great faith in Pi-Ramesses as the biblical Ramses.
Worse still, this is the end of any small certainties in our journey. The next stop for the Israelites, according to the Exodus, most believe one day later, was Succoth, which has not really been identified at all. Strictly according to the Biblical account, they must have moved well over one million individuals, along with livestock and other goods, which is a difficult number for most historians to accept, to this first stop along the route of the Exodus. What is clear is that they could not have gone far with such numbers.