“And they traveled from Eilim and they camped by the Yam Suf” (Bamidbar 33:10). Being that they had crossed the Yam Suf (often translated as “the Red Sea” and “the Sea of Reeds”) just a couple of stops prior to this one (33:8; this was their third encampment after crossing), it is a bit curious that the Children of Israel were back at the same sea they had crossed. Why did they return to the Yam Suf?
WHERE IS MT. SINAI?
Since they were headed for Mt. Sinai (33:14-15, compare with Sh’mos 19:2), and where they were headed directly impacts why they were back at the Yam Suf, the location of Mt. Sinai may help. There has been much discussion recently (in scholarly circles) regarding whether Mt. Sinai is in the Sinai Peninsula (as has seemingly always been assumed) or in Saudi Arabia (as well as specifically where in those areas it might be). Therefore, let’s take a detour by discussing the issues surrounding whether Mt. Sinai is on the Sinai Peninsula or in Saudi Arabia.
WHERE’S THE EVIDENCE?
One of the reasons people started looking for possible locations outside the Sinai Peninsula is the lack of archeological evidence from the time period of the exodus from Egypt. Although it is true that, generally speaking, a lack of evidence is not evidence in and of itself (as it only means we haven’t come cross any evidence yet, not that it definitely doesn’t exist), the expectation of archeologists and biblical scholars was (and is) that if a nation said to consist of 600,000 adult males (Bamidbar 2:32), besides women and children, had been there, there would be evidence that they were (just as there is evidence of others being there before this time period and afterwards). Putting aside any discussion of exactly when the exodus occurred, since there is no evidence from any of the possibilities, many question how the Sinai Peninsula could be considered a candidate for the location of Mt. Sinai.
The fact that it is called the Sinai Peninsula doesn’t mean that Mt. Sinai must be on it, as it was called the Sinai Peninsula precisely because it had been thought that Mt. Sinai was there. [It is a desert area between Egypt and Canaan, so makes sense to have been where Mt. Sinai is, and when the area was first explored they did find evidence that people had been there a long time ago (now determined to be earlier than the exodus could have been).] Nevertheless, it is significant that people inhabited the peninsula, and specifically the southern part of it, before there was a Mt. Sinai to be searched for.
When traveling from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, which requires crossing the peninsula from west to east (east to west if going from Saudi Arabia to Egypt), rather than crossing in a straight line in the center or northern part of the peninsula, the route taken was through the southern part of the peninsula so that travelers could take advantage of water sources available on this longer route. To quote Aviram Perevolotsky and Israel Finkelstein (“The Southern Sinai Exodus Route in Ecological Perspective,” BAR 11:4, July/August 1985), “the only environment that enabled non-nomadic subsistence in the harsh desert was the wadis of the high mountain valleys.” [This is similar to Babylon’s attack of Israel being described as coming “from the north” (Yirmiyah 1:14) even though Babylon is east of Israel, not north of it, because when traveling from Babylon to Israel, rather than crossing the desert from east to west, the route usually taken was via the “Fertile Crescent,” following the Euphrates River north and west into modern-day Syria, then west into Lebanon before heading south into Israel. Hence the attacking army came “from the north.”] Since it was common to travel through the southern part of the peninsula, when explorers were trying to find Mt. Sinai, they found evidence there likely of travelers taking this route between Saudi Arabia and Egypt (or vice versa), or from small communities that had set up shop along this route. It had been thought that one of these sites was Mt. Sinai, but the dating of this evidence disqualifies it from being relevant to that time period. Which is why we are left with no evidence. But we are left with an explanation as to why the longer route through the southern peninsula was used instead of shorter routes. Interestingly, when the early encampments are described, we are told that they traveled three days in the desert before camping in Marah (Bamidbar 33:8), a reference to their search for water (see Sh’mos 15:22-23), and the 12 springs in Eilim are mentioned as well (Bamidbar 33:9, compare with Sh’mos 15:27, where it says explicitly that they stayed there because of the water).
Nevertheless, in this case (more than others), a lack of evidence really isn’t evidence. Besides the suggestion by some that being on the constant move and having few belongings to leave behind minimizes the relevance of not finding anything, we are taught that the nation was led by, and surrounded by, “clouds of glory” that did numerous wondrous things. It “lowered [terrain] that was high, raised [terrain] that was low, and killed snakes and scorpions [along the way]” (Rashi, Bamidbar 10:34). Whether it physically changed the terrain (which reverted back to its original contours afterwards) or acted as a cushioned carpet (some suggest a moving carpet) that made the route level by adjusting its own thickness, no trace of these travels was left afterwards. Their clothing never wore out (D’varim 8:4 and 29:4) because “the clouds of glory would rub against their clothing and clean them” (Rashi in 8:4), so there was no trail of discarded worn out clothing. The Tribe of Dan traveled in back of everyone else, picking up (and returning) anything left behind (Rashi on Bamidbar 10:25). Any location they had been at or through was left clean, without any garbage (even the food they ate was completely absorbed into their bodies, with no waste). Is it any surprise, then, that no evidence was left to “prove” where the Children of Israel had traveled or camped? With the “clouds of glory” acting as an eraser, wiping everything clean, and little (if anything) being left behind, finding no evidence on the Sinai Peninsula does not preclude it from being where Mt. Sinai is.
PROXIMITY TO MIDYAN
The “burning bush,” which was atop Mt. Sinai (Sh’mos 3:1-2), occurred when Moshe was living with his father-in-law, Yisro, in Midyan, tending his sheep. Mt. Sinai must then be within grazing range of Midyan, which is fairly well accepted to be in Saudi Arabia, specifically on the eastern bank of the Gulf of Aqaba, which is the eastern fork of the Yam Suf. It would have been quite a distance for Moshe to travel from Saudi Arabia to the Sinai Peninsula (see Tur on Sh’mos 3:1), especially to its southern part. However, there are several reasons why Moshe would have ended up far from Midyan.
When Moshe first arrived in Midyan, he came across Yisro’s daughters shepherding their father’s sheep, but being hounded by the local shepherds (Sh’mos 2:16-17) because their father had abandoned his idolatrous ways (Rashi). Yisro’s status as an outcast likely didn’t improve after Moshe’s arrival, so when Moshe took over the shepherding duties, it makes sense that he didn’t do so locally, but traveled far enough away that he wouldn’t be bothered by the local population. Additionally, Moshe purposely led the sheep into the desert (3:1) in order to avoid grazing on private property, which would be stealing (Rashi). Notice, though, that the Torah doesn’t just say he led them into a desert, but into the desert, as in the known desert. Which desert would Moshe be familiar with? The one he had to cross when fleeing from Egypt to Midyan, the Sinai desert, on the Sinai Peninsula. And the only real grazing area there is in the southern part of the peninsula. As Itzhaq Beit-Arieh (“The Route Through Sinai: Why the Israelites Fleeing Egypt Went South,” BAR 14:3, May/June 1988) put it, “compared to other parts of Sinai this region is ecologically better adapted to the sustenance of life, because it is covered by assorted vegetation consisting of acacia and palm trees and a fairly dense growth of perennial bushes, along with a seasonal cover of grasses and weeds suitable for pasturing sheep and goats.”
The Zohar (2:21, quoted by Torah Sh’laima, Sh’mos 3:18) says that Moshe was able to sense the special holiness in that desert, so purposely went there; it follows that he would go as far into the desert as this holiness he sensed led him. Pirkay d’Rebbe Eliezer (40) says that Moshe shepherded his father-in-law’s sheep for 40 years; he likely kept them out grazing for extended periods of time, certainly long enough to come across “G-d’s mountain.” Since G-d wanted to communicate with him to send him on a very special mission, Moshe would have been divinely led to this mountain despite it being so far from Midyan. The Midrash (Sh’mos Rabbah 2:2) says that a young goat (or sheep) ran away, and Moshe ran after it, with the commentators explaining that it ran to Mt. Sinai so that G-d could speak to him there.
Therefore, even though placing Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia may seem more intuitive because of its proximity to Midyan, there are enough reasons why Moshe might have led his sheep (or been led) to the distant Sinai Peninsula to prevent us from excluding it.
WHERE AHARON MET MOSHE
When Moshe went back to Egypt (from Midyan) to lead the Children of Israel out, he was met, on the way, by his brother Aharon at “G-d’s mountain” (Sh’mos 4:27). Aharon was told to “go meet Moshe in the desert” (ibid), and the place they happened (“vayif’g’sheihu”) to meet up, obviously with some divine help, was at Mt. Sinai. It would therefore follow that Mt. Sinai is somewhere between Midyan and Egypt, with both Moshe and Aharon taking the same route (from opposite directions). As we have seen, this works if Aharon followed the longer but more hospitable route through the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, and was the same route Moshe took. If, however, Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia, it would only be on the way to/from Egypt if Midyan did not extend all the way to the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba and Mt. Sinai is in the strip of land between the northern border of Midyan and the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. None of the proposed Saudi Arabian sites for Mt. Sinai are there, but further east, putting it miles out the way when traveling between Egypt and Midyan. Besides, by the time Aharon and Moshe met at “G-d’s mountain,” Moshe had already traveled far enough to check into a place of lodging (4:24), and it was considered as if he had already “returned to Egypt” (4:20). It doesn’t sound like Mt. Sinai is close to Midyan; if anything, Moshe and Aharon seem to have met somewhere in the middle, perhaps even closer to Egypt. It should also be noted that Aharon’s instructions were to “go meet Moshe in the desert,” without specifying which desert. The only desert that Aharon could have been familiar enough with for it to be referred to as “the desert” was the one right outside Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula.
REQUESTING PERMISSION FROM EDOM
While staying in Kadesh, Moshe sent messengers to Edom, asking for permission to pass through their land (Bamidbar 20:14-19). Cutting through Edom must have made it a shorter trip to the Promised Land, and Edom’s refusal forced the Children of Israel to take a longer route. Since Edom is southeast of Canaan, and northeast of the Sinai Peninsula, if the nation was “wandering” on the peninsula, there should be no need to travel through Edom to get to the Promised Land. If, however, they were in Saudi Arabia, which is southeast of Edom, passing through Edom could cut down on their travel time.
It should be noted that Kadesh Barneya, from where the spies left to scout the Promised Land (D’varim 1:19-22), and part of the Promised Land’s southern border (Bamidbar 34:4), is directly north of the Sinai Peninsula, so if Mt. Sinai was in Saudi Arabia, the nation had to travel from the eastern side of the Gulf of Aqaba to the area north of its western side, and if they were now back in Saudi Arabia (and therefore requesting permission to pass through Edom), they would have traveled from the eastern side of Aqaba (the Sinai Peninsula) to Saudi Arabia (the proposed location of Mt. Sinai) on the western side of Aqaba when they first left Egypt, went back to the eastern side (to Kadesh Barneya), and then back again to the western side (before asking permission to pass through Edom). Aside from Saudi Arabia no longer being a convenient place for Mt. Sinai to be (since they went from the eastern side to the western side and back so often), why did they now need Edom’s permission to go there if they didn’t need it for their earlier trips to the western side of Aqaba?
Whether “Kadesh” and “Kadesh Barneya” are one and the same (including if “Kadesh” is a particular location within a region referred to as “Kadesh Barneya”) or they are two separate locations (some have the famed Petra being “Kadesh,” which would mean that when the Nabateans buried their dead on top of older cemeteries, this might include the burial places of those who died during the nation’s 19 year stay in Kadesh) is a separate, long discussion. It is fairly clear, though, that Kadesh was on the western side of Edom (see Bamidbar 21:4, where we traveled back south, towards the Yam Suf, from Hor HaHor, in order to circumvent Edom, whereas we would have traveled north if it was on the eastern side), so the request to pass through Edom must have been a request to pass from west to east.
Several years ago I discussed why they wanted to cross through Edom get to its eastern side despite the Promised Land being on its western side (see the last four paragraphs of https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/parashas-balak-5770/), as well as why the Torah never tells us that Moshe also sent a request to Moav to pass through their land (see Shoftim 11:17). After the sin of the spies, the nation was not entering the Promised Land from the south, but from the Plains of Moav (opposite Yericho). Had Edom given us permission to cut through their land, we would have continued to the Plains of Moav (which is why we needed Moav’s permission too), but once Edom refused, the request of (and denial of permission from) Moav became irrelevant, so wasn’t mentioned in the Torah. It was relevant to Yiftach’s dealing with Amon, so he included it in his message to their king, but by the time the nation reached Moav after having to go around Edom, Sichone had taken the land from Moav. The bottom line for our discussion is that putting Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia doesn’t help regarding why we asked Edom to pass through their land.
MORE FROM YIFTACH’S MESSAGE TO AMON
Included in Yiftach’s message to the king of Amon was that “when they came up from Egypt, Israel went in the desert until the Yam Suf and they came to Kadesh” (Shoftim 11:16). His point seems to be that had permission been given, we wouldn’t have taken any land east of the Jordan River (including the land Amon claimed was wrongly taken from them); it was only because we had to go around Edom and were attacked by Sichone (when we asked for permission to pass through his land), that we took the land he had conquered from Moav (and Amon). We only went past the Yam Suf (referring to the Gulf of Aqaba) because we were forced to go around Edom, and forced to conquer the land east of the Plains of Moav in order to get to them. Yiftach included the words “until the Yam Suf” to indicate the eastern limit of the nation’s travels, which indicated that they didn’t intend to conquer anything east of that marker. If Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia, this statement would not be true, as they would have traveled past the Gulf of Aqaba. There are other possible explanations for the expression “until the Yam Suf” (see Radak), but this seems to be the most straightforward way of understanding it.
CIRCLING MT. SEYIR
When it was finally time to stop wandering in the desert and head for the Plains of Moav, G-d told Moshe “you have circled around this mountain (referring to Mt. Seyir) long enough, turn to the north” (D’varim 2:3). If Mt. Sinai is on the Sinai Peninsula, the nation never really circled Mt. Seyir, even if they did travel on its western side from south to north (before sending the spies), back down south (after the spies), back north (to Kadesh, from where they asked Edom permission to go through its land) and then back south (after Edom refused). [See https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2016/07/14/parashas-chukas-5776/ for an elaboration on these trips.] If, on the other hand, Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia, even if they hadn’t been on its eastern or northern sides, they would have traveled not only on its western side several times, but on (and past) its south side several times as well (as discussed above), which is much closer to “circling” it than only having traveled on one of its sides. Nevertheless, having gone past Mt. Seyir five times on its eastern side is likely enough for it to be described that way.
THE ROAD TO MT. SEYIR
The Torah (D’varim 1:2) says it was an “11 day trip from Choreiv (Mt. Sinai) to Kadesh Barneya, taking the road to Mt. Seyir.” Since Mt. Seyir is northeast of the Sinai Peninsula, while Kadesh Barneya is directly north of it, there should be no reason to take the road to Mt. Seyir to get from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh Barneya. If, on the other hand, Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia, with Mt. Seyir being northwest of it, it makes sense to take the road to Mt. Seyir, from where they could travel further west to Kadesh Barneya. Nevertheless, taking “the road to Mt. Seyir” doesn’t necessarily mean taking it all the way to its final destination, just as taking the highway that goes to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem to get to Beit Shemesh doesn’t mean going all the way to Tel Aviv. And, as I have previously shared (https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/parashas-devarim-5773/), “the road to Mt. Seyir” may have been a relatively short road that goes from the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula to the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, where it meets other major roads. If “the road to Mt. Seyir” didn’t really go to Mt. Seyir, but met with the major trade route that did (“The King’s Highway,” see Bamidbar 20:17), we can understand not only why it’s called “the way to Mt. Seyir” even if it doesn’t go there, but why the Children of Israel would take it despite not traveling to Mt. Seyir. Once they reached the end of that road (or the appropriate crossroad), they took “the road to the mountains of the Emori” to Kadesh Barneya.
Geologists have offered support for the theory that Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia based on the description of what happened when the Torah was given (thunder and lightening, smoke, fire, and the entire mountain shaking, see Sh’mos 19:16 and 19:18) and when Eliyahu went to Choreiv (a strong wind that smashed the rocks of the mountains, followed by an earthquake, then fire, then faint sounds, see M’lachim I 19:11-12). Shimon Ilani, a volcano expert who spoke at a two-day colloquium in 2013 on the topic of where Mt. Sinai is (quoted in the March/April 2014 edition of BAR), said that “the shattering gust of wind, the quaking and rumbling, the fiery conflagration, all emitting from an imposing peak, evoke nothing so much as a shattering initial volcanic explosion, followed by violent shuddering and a fiery exhalation, abating after the eruptive force is spent. The sequential description of wind-earthquake(-noise)-fire-silence is very close to what happens during an explosive volcanic eruption.” Since there has been known seismic activity in Saudi Arabia, but not on the Sinai Peninsula, if the experiences described were the result of a volcanic eruption, it was more likely to have occurred in Saudi Arabia.
As enticing as providing a natural explanation is (see https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/parashas-bereishis-5773/), there might be a few caveats here. First of all, just as the “burning bush” was not consumed by the fire (Sh’mos 3:2), the manifestations of G-d descending upon Mt. Sinai likely did not take any physical form either. Although a description of rocks being smashed by wind defies this, if there was a real volcanic explosion, Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the 70 elders (see Sh’mos 24:9, although according to Ramban this part of the narrative would have happened after the explosion) would not have survived. (Eliyahu was in a cave, so might have been protected). Moshe was on the mountain the whole time, as was Aharon (19:24), and Moshe brought the nation closer to the mountain (19:17) rather than moving them out of harm’s way. Afterwards, it says the nation “saw, and moved away, keeping their distance” (20:15), being awed by what had happened, but not physically affected by it. I am therefore hesitant to say that there was an actual volcanic explosion. Besides, if such activity could occur in the region (in nearby Saudi Arabia), it could have happened a couple of times on the Sinai Peninsula as well, even if it has not been documented.
END OF DETOUR – BACK TO THE YAM SUF
If Mt. Sinai is on the Sinai Peninsula (in the south, as explained above), the nation would have followed a route somewhat parallel to the coastline of the Yam Suf, starting from the crossing point at the north end of the Gulf of Suez (the western fork), traveling south (and east, since the peninsula resembles a “V”) all the way around to the east and north near the Gulf of Aqaba (the eastern fork). It is not surprising, then, if along the way, one of the stops was not just parallel to the coast, but on the coast itself, especially where the coast is recessed a bit (see Chizkuni on Bamidbar 33:10).
[This is similar to how Tosfos (Arachin 15a, see also Chizkuni on Bamidbar 33:8) explains the second stop at Yam Suf, although they envisioned the coastline going straight across from west to east, not a “V” shaped peninsula. The M’chilta (B’shalach, Vayasah 1) understands the second stop at Yam Suf to be a retreat; I am presenting explanations more consistent with Tosfos.]
If Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia, even though the crossing of the sea occurred near the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez (see https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/pesach-5776b/, which wouldn’t work if it was the Gulf of Aqaba, since it is so far from Egypt), the second stop at the Yam Suf would have been on the Gulf of Aqaba, right before or right after they entered Saudi Arabia. Please note, though, that since there were two stops at “Yam Suf,” and both couldn’t have been on the Gulf of Aqaba (as they would have already been on the other side after they crossed it), even if Mt. Sinai is in Saudi Arabia, the part of the Yam Suf that the nation crossed had to have been the Gulf of Suez.