THE HOLY BOOK OF UNIVERSAL TRUTHS,
K. U. P.
(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)
Anyway, here goes. We know from Exodus 2 that Moses was adopted by Pharaoh's daughter and raised in the royal household as an Egyptian prince. When he was a young man, around twenty years of age, the Ethiopians invaded Egypt from the south. They overran most of the country, including Memphis, without meeting much resistance; only the eastern Nile delta, the land of Goshen, remained firmly under Egyptian control. At the city of Avaris, the Biblical Raamses, Egyptian oracles and prophets told Pharaoh that he could only win if Prince Moses led the army. Nothing else had worked to this point, so Pharaoh ordered his daughter to bring Moses to him. She was concerned that Pharaoh would kill him, so before handing Moses over, she got him to promise that he wouldn't hurt the prince. Josephus doesn't make it clear why she had that fear; did Pharaoh already know that his adopted grandson was a Hebrew?
Anyway, Moses was placed in command. Most generals in a situation like the one Moses faced would have engaged the Ethiopians head-on, or marched up the Nile to take the nearest city under Ethiopian control. Moses did neither. In a surprise move, he marched across the desert, and came back to the Nile farther south than expected, thereby cutting off the Ethiopian army from its supply lines. The part of the desert he crossed was infested with snakes, but Moses had a solution for that: he had many baskets made of reeds, put ibises in the baskets, and gave each basket to a soldier. When they got to the dangerous spot in the desert, Moses ordered his troops to let the ibises out, and those birds ate every snake they could find. The rest of the march was uneventful. After they cut the Ethiopians off from their homeland, Moses finally attacked them, and a great slaughter was the result.
Those Ethiopians who survived the battle fled southward. Moses pursued them, and when he got to the Ethiopian capital, he faced a new challenge; it was on an island in the middle of the Nile. Ancient commanders never looked forward to taking a city or fortress by siege, because it was a long, expensive affair, especially in the days before siege weapons like the catapult were invented. Moses would have to blockade the capital until starvation forced it to surrender, and because of its location, he would need both a strong navy and a strong army to do it. Fortunately for Moses, a long siege was unnecessary. Tharbis, the daughter of the Ethiopian king, managed to see Moses from the city wall; she fell in love with this handsome, brave commander, and sent her most trusted servant to him with a marriage offer. Moses agreed to marry her, if she would surrender the city. On those terms they got married, the war ended, and Moses led the Egyptians home in triumph.
Presumably Cecil B. DeMille knew this story, because early in "The Ten Commandments" there is a scene where Prince Moses shows Pharaoh the treasures he brought back from his Ethiopian campaign, including a princess who is grateful that Moses was the one who captured her. If the story is true, then the princess Josephus called Tharbis was the first wife of Moses, not Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro. Because we don't hear of the princess going out of Egypt with the Israelites later on, my guess is that she died before the Exodus took place.
I am mentioning all this because of an interesting passage written when Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses for leadership of the community. In Numbers 12:1 they criticize Moses for marrying a "Kushite woman." To an ancient Egyptian, a Kushite was somebody from the ancient land of Nubia--modern Sudan. However, we must also keep in mind that ancient geographical terms for Africa were looser than the names we use today. For example, the Greeks usually saw the continent divided into just three countries: Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia. "Libya" meant all of North Africa west of Egypt, while "Ethiopia" meant all of Africa below the Sahara. The name of Ethiopia comes from Aethiops, meaning burnt skin, so the Greeks saw any black person as an "Ethiopian," whether he came from Ethiopia, Nigeria or Senegal. It appears the Bible treated the word "Kushite" the same way, so in the Old Testament, "Kushite" and "Ethiopian" refer more to race than to nationality.
My conclusion is that Moses had a black wife, most likely the Ethiopian princess mentioned above. Some Bible scholars refuse to accept this, claiming that the Kushite woman was really Zipporah, and insisting that some Kushite tribes settled Arabia as well as Africa. Sorry, I find their explanations complicated and a little too defensive. Maybe they don't like the idea of Moses marrying someone who had a different skin color than he did, but for me it makes sense to believe that he got married while he was prince of Egypt (after all, pharaohs were supposed to have kids quickly, to perpetuate the dynasty), and then later he fled to Midian and met Zipporah.
Anyway, when you read the rest of Numbers 12, you will quickly see that when Miriam and Aaron criticized the marriage of Moses, it was just an excuse to put forth the claim that they had as much right to lead as Moses did. God resolves the matter by declaring in no uncertain terms that he chose Moses, and nobody else, to lead the Israelites. Note that nowhere does God say anything about the wife of Moses. That tells me God is neither for nor against interracial marriage; the subject just isn't important to Him.
High Numbers In the Old Testament
One reason why many people do not believe the Exodus account is because in many parts of the Old Testament, the numbers given are absurdly high. A good example is 1 Samuel 6:19, which says that God struck 50,070 people dead, because they looked into the Ark of the Covenant. Would you believe a modern news story with numbers like that, say, a report of a train wreck that killed 50,070 people? That doesn't happen even in Third World countries with lax safety standards. But throughout history, Jewish scribes have copied their scriptures with painstaking care. Because numbers are spelled out in Hebrew, and not written with numerical symbols, it makes more sense to believe that the numbers got confused at some point, than to assume that somebody made them up.
That seems to have happened in the case of 1 Samuel 6:19. All Israelite "cities" at this point were really only small towns; the largest communities in the Holy Land (e.g., Gaza, Megiddo) belonged to the Canaanites or the Philistines. Therefore the town where this incident took place, Beth-Shemesh, probably did not have anywhere near 50,070 people. However, there are some Hebrew texts that say only 70 people were killed, leaving out the fifty thousand; Josephus also puts the casualty count at 70. Apparently a textual error is to blame for 70 becoming 50,070.
In cases where two scriptures describe the same event, like the parallel books of Kings and Chronicles, it becomes apparent that the copyists had trouble keeping track of numbers, though they usually got all the words right. For example, 2 Samuel 10:18 says "700 chariots," while 1 Chronicles 19:18 says "7,000"; somebody got careless with zeroes there. Or a digit can be left out: 2 Kings 24:8 says that Jehoiachin became king at the age of 18, but 2 Chronicles 36:9 gives his age as 8.
When the text is counting men, it can go haywire, due to two words that look the same when written in Hebrew. The first word, eleph, means "thousand," but it can also mean "family," "clan," or "military unit." The other word, alluph, can mean "chieftain," "commander"--or a professional soldier. When you write the words without vowels, as is normally the case with Hebrew, both look like lp.
The distinction of professional soldiers is important because it appears that sometimes, when counting soldiers, the scribes kept track of how many were full-time and how many were recruited just for that campaign. To an ancient general, scribe or accountant, that mattered; most ancient societies could not afford to keep a permanent standing army. Their armies were what we would call militias; every able-bodied man was expected to take up arms when his ruler called on him to do so, but when the crisis passed, he would return to whatever job he had in peacetime. The only men armed all the time were the police and guards, so the typical kingdom would be virtually defenseless if an enemy surprised it before it had time to mobilize. In a nutshell, full-time soldiers were better fighters, but they were also very expensive, and could be dangerous if they turned against their ruler, so most rulers tried to cut corners by using full-time soldiers as little as possible.
The Spartans were some of the most famous professional soldiers who ever lived. Sparta could afford them because it had a class of serfs, called Helots, doing most of the work. The Greeks knew that professional soldiers made a difference, and claimed that one Spartan warrior was the equal of twelve warriors from anywhere else. We see the distinction in a dialogue from the movie "The 300," where King Leonidas, while marching to battle, meets an ally named Daxos, and Daxos has a larger group of men:
Daxos: I see I was wrong to expect Sparta's commitment to at least match our own.
Leonidas: Doesn't it? [points to one of the soldiers of Daxos] You there, what is your profession?
First Soldier: I am a potter... sir.
Leonidas: [points to another soldier] And you, Arcadian, what is your profession?
Second Soldier: Sculptor, sir.
Leonidas: Sculptor. [turns to a third soldier] You?
Third Soldier: Blacksmith.
Leonidas: [turns back and shouts] SPARTANS! WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?
Spartans: HA-OOH! HA-OOH! HA-OOH! [the cheers of professional soldiers]
Leonidas: [turning to Daxos] You see, old friend? I brought more soldiers than you did.
Click here to see the film clip of that scene (opens in a separate window).
So how does all this apply to the story of Moses? Well, the Book of Numbers, true to its name, is full of numbers, and a lot of them are larger than you'd expect. Take the two censuses listed in the book. The first census, conducted early in the journey, gave a result of 603,550 men fit for military service, while the second, done thirty-eight years later, reported 601,730. Add to that women, children and the elderly, and the estimated size of the Israelite nation is 2 to 3 million. This is a stupendous population, equal to what Egypt had at the time, and the Nile Valley was a much more pleasant place to live than the desert.(1) Put that many people in Israel, and the population would be equal to modern Israel's population in the 1960s. How would you feed that many people, with the primitive farming techniques available back then? And remember that only seventy souls were listed in Jacob's clan when he moved into Egypt. Whether you believe the Israelites were in Egypt for 215 years (the short chronology) or 430 years (the long chronology), they would have to grow from 70 to 600,000+ in a few generations. That would require that everyone be incredibly prolific; each couple would need to have at least as many kids as Jacob did.
On the other hand, a scribal error may have confused the words eleph and alluph, as mentioned above, producing census totals that are orders of magnitude off. For example, if the tribe of Simeon was originally counted as having "2,300 men, of which 57 are professional soldiers," the census taker would have been thinking "2.3 eleph and 57 alluph," but he would have written it down as "2.3 lp and 57 lp." Later on somebody else would have tried to clean up the figures by adding all the lps, turning the result into 59.3 lp, and causing scholars later on to think that lp simply meant "one thousand"; thus, the count for Simeon became 59,300 men. As for the Levites, who weren't organized for military service, somebody may have thought their numbers were too small in comparison with the other tribes, so they assumed a census taker wrote down the wrong number for them, and added some zeroes to "correct" the problem.
Break down all the census figures this way in the original Hebrew text, and it looks like there were really 18,000 men on the march, a much more manageable figure than 600,000+. Then if the families of the ex-slaves were about the same size as our families, we get a total of approximately 72,000 people for the whole Israelite nation.
Finally, if you thought 2-3 million people would have a big impact on Egypt or Israel, imagine how it would strain the resources of the wilderness in-between. Yes I know, the Bible tells us that God provided water for them, and food in the form of manna and quails, but still there's the issue that no ancient Israelite campsites or graves have been found. There are some skeptics who don't believe the Exodus account for that reason. To that argument I would make the following responses:
Where Was Mount Sinai?
The traditional site for Mt. Sinai, also called Mt. Horeb, is the tallest mountain on the Sinai peninsula, called Jebel Musa by the Arabs. It was identified as the holy mountain by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, in the early fourth century A.D., after she came to the eastern Mediterranean lands, looking for evidence to back up the stories of the Bible. Consequently St. Catherine's Monastery was built at the base of the mountain. The monastery's extremely remote location has ensured that it would survive wars and other man-made upheavals, so today it is the oldest Christian monastery in the world that is still active with monks. Over seventeen centuries, the word of St. Helena and the presence of the monastery has convinced most Christians that Jebel Musa is the mountain that Moses stood on, first when he saw the burning bush, then when he received the Ten Commandments. Centuries later, the prophet Elijah fled to Mt. Sinai to escape the evil Queen Jezebel, so we know that the Israelites knew where the mountain was, for quite some time after they left the site.
Not all theologians are satisfied with that, though. Some believe that because the Israelites eventually wandered east of the Sinai peninsula before entering the Promised Land, a location for the mountain in the Negev, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia should be considered. Others have suggested that Mt. Sinai must be a volcano, because of the lights, noise and flames on the peak, while Moses was there. Since the late nineteenth century, more than a dozen mountains have been nominated as alternate candidates for Mt. Sinai.
In 1989 Ron Wyatt, an archaeologist and adventurer, published a book claiming the Durupinar mound in eastern Turkey was Noah's Ark.(2) In the book, he also claimed to have identified Jebel al-Lawz, a mountain in northwestern Saudi Arabia, as the correct Mt. Sinai. This meant that if he was right, then the Gulf of Aqaba, and not the Gulf of Suez or the "bitter lakes" that existed before the Suez Canal was dug, was the place where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Shortly after that two other adventurers, Larry Williams and Bob Cornuke, went to Saudi Arabia to examine the evidence for themselves, and they came back as believers in the Arabian site. Cornuke wrote an exciting story of that trip, which involved trouble with the Saudi authorities and secret military installations; it sounded like a real-life Indiana Jones expedition.(3) Because readers always like a good story, Cornuke and his associates usually get the credit for the Jebel al-Lawz theory, and it has been popular ever since.
On January 24, 2004, I attended a seminar held by the British archaeologist David Rohl, in Clearwater, Florida. Most of the seminar was a lecture with a slide show, covering the material in his first book, Pharaohs and Kings. You can see and hear the lecture and slides on the DVD set available here. The only part of the seminar not shown on the DVDs was the question & answer session at the end. In his presentation, Rohl did not talk much about the route taken by the Israelites through the wilderness, except for their first steps, which he traced carefully enough to pinpoint a location for the Red Sea crossing. From what I saw on his maps, I got the impression that he follows the route accepted by most Bible scholars, going mostly through the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, with Jebel Musa as Mt. Sinai. Though he did not talk about Mt. Sinai's location, at least half the questions asked had to do with the "Mt. Sinai in Arabia" theory. That astonished me, and let me know how popular this theory really is. Rohl's answer was that the only thing Jebel al-Lawz has going for it is that it is a burnt mountain, which you would expect if God was on top of it for forty days. As for the petroglyphs of cattle carved nearby, Rohl did not think those were cult images of the Golden Calf, because he has seen plenty of rock art like that in Egypt's eastern desert.
Never call me trendy, and I have problems that keep me from accepting the Mt. Sinai = Jebel al-Lawz equation, which can be grouped into two categories. The first is the credibility of its proponents, the second is how it ignores the distances involved in the journey.
1. Credibility: As I read Ron Wyatt's book, I thought he was onto something when he was looking for the Ark, but the rest of what he wrote seemed too good to be true. Among other things, he claimed to have discovered brimstone that fell on Sodom & Gomorrah; the secret to how the Egyptians built the pyramids; chariot wheels in the Gulf of Aqaba; the burial crypts of Amorite giants; the Ark of the Covenant; and the exact location of the spot where Jesus was crucified. Just one of those discoveries would make an archaeologist famous, and if Wyatt really found all of them, he would have been remembered as the luckiest archaeologist of all; by comparison, the gold of Troy and the treasures of Tutankhamen aren't very meaningful. Wyatt promised a series of books, each one focused on one of his other discoveries, but he died of cancer before he got around to publishing them. Alas, even a fundamentalist like me can only believe so much. I may have been born in the night, but it wasn't last night!
Another proponent of the theory I can think of is Dr. Lennart Moller, a Swedish author who wrote The Exodus Case: New Discoveries of the Historical Exodus. The book has enough gorgeous photographs inside to make you feel like you are looking at a National Geographic, and it has gained admirers just for its cool appearance. However, in the name of proving that Jebel al-Lawz is the correct mountain and that evidence for the Exodus exists, Moller also twists the accepted history of ancient Egypt until it is barely recognizable as Egyptian history. For example, he puts forth the theory that the XVIII dynasty pharaohs were called Thutmose or Hatshepsut before they were crowned, and Amenhotep afterwards. In addition, he suggests that many Egyptians were really Israelites under other names. Thus, Joseph becomes Imhotep, the builder of the first pyramid, and Moses becomes Thutmose II. I guess that means I saw the body of Moses and didn't know it, when I was in the mummy room of the Cairo Museum. Sorry, but I find such alterations too confusing to wrap my brain around them, and for me they create more problems than they solve. If I can't understand what somebody is saying, how can I believe it?
2. Mileage Figures: Although the Bible has detailed information on the journey, today's scholars have a hard time making sense of it. You can go to Numbers 33 for a list of every campsite, but almost none of those names can be pinpointed on a map; the main one we know for sure is Kadesh-Barnea, at the entrance to the Negev. Nor are any figures in miles or kilometers given for the Israelites' journey through the wilderness. The only way distance is measured is by how many days it took to go from "Point A" to "Point B."
The first such figure appears in Exodus 3:18 and 5:3, when Moses asks Pharaoh for permission to let the Israelites journey into the wilderness for three days, to perform sacrifices. Presumably this was how long it took Moses to travel from Mt. Sinai to Egypt, after he saw the burning bush. However, the Israelites would have traveled much slower over the same distance, for reasons explained below. Indeed, the commandment given to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days is usually taken as a sign that it took seven days just to get out of Egypt. Later on, we read that it takes eleven days to go from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh-Barnea (Deuteronomy 1:2), so the holy mountain needs to be within range of that campsite, too.
We have a solid figure from the first campaign of Thutmose III, the greatest conqueror of Egypt's XVIII dynasty. According to him, it took nine or ten days for his army to march from the fortress at Sile to Gaza, a distance of 150 miles. This works out to a little over fifteen miles a day.. Of course the chariots could go faster, but when they weren't fighting, they had to advance at a slow pace so the foot soldiers and supply wagons could keep up with them. This alone rules out Jebel Musa as a candidate for Mt. Sinai, because it is 200 miles from the Suez Canal. Only an army with 100 percent of its soldiers riding on horseback, like the Huns or the Mongols, could think of 200 miles as a three-day journey.
Okay, if a bronze age army can be expected to go fifteen miles a day, how fast would a horde of civilians go? Well, an ordinary man in good health can also be expected to hike fifteen miles a day, if he is on a road or otherwise following favorable terrain. Unfortunately, the Bible specifically says the Israelites avoided the main road, the "Way of the Philistines" along the Sinai peninsula's northern coast, so the path they took would have been off the roads, and they would have been slowed down by obstacles like deep sand. In addition, the group included women, children, old and sick adults, and livestock--all of them would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to go fifteen miles in a day. Finally, they would have stayed for days at any decent campsite; the Bible says it took them more than a month to cover the distance Moses covered by himself in three days. From my own travels, I learned that a group moves at the speed of its slowest member, so it's safe to say these families of ex-slaves would have gone much slower than fifteen miles a day. Modern Bedouin families have been reported traveling an average of six miles a day on their migrations, and because the Israelites were living like Bedouins in the wilderness, we can also give them a speed of six miles a day.
Okay, here are the speed figures we have so far. In miles per day:
Nor can the distance be shortened by declaring that the Israelites started from somewhere in the Sinai. Today the Sinai peninsula is Egyptian territory, but for most of history it was not considered part of Egypt. The Egyptians went there to mine copper and turquoise, but they never wanted to live there, and most of the workers were slaves and prisoners, because working conditions in the mines were appalling. Before the twentieth century, nobody built cities in the Sinai. A home in such a place, even at an oasis, would have been about as appealing as living on a modern-day offshore oil rig. Though Egypt has been described as the world's biggest sandbox, the Egyptians have always been river-dwellers, not desert people; 96 percent of Egypt's population lives on 4 percent of the land--the part that is not desert. Also remember that when Jacob and his family came into Egypt, Pharaoh invited them to settle on the best land, in the eastern Nile delta. Nowhere in the Biblical account does it say that the Israelites were relocated to the Sinai, before Moses led them on the Exodus. Likewise, the two cities that the Israelites built in Exodus 1, Pithom and Raamses, have been identified with Tell er-Retaba and Tell ed-Daba; again, both sites are in the eastern Nile delta. And when the pharaohs decided that Egypt needed stronger defenses, they built canals, walls and forts where the Suez Canal runs today, which defended the Nile valley but not the Sinai. The only place in the Sinai where the Egyptians built forts was along the previously mentioned "Way of the Philistines."
For more on the problems that come with putting Mt. Sinai in Arabia, see these pages by Gordon Franz and Brad Sparks.
Okay, so where do I think Mt. Sinai was? Forget Jebel Musa, and forget Jebel al-Lawz. My conclusion is that because the Israelites didn't have any special transportation to speed them up, Mt. Sinai has to be in the northern half of the Sinai peninsula. A mountain in this area can be reached in the time the Bible says it took to get there, and will also be between 66 and 165 miles (an eleven-day journey) from Kadesh-Barnea. Therefore I favor the theories of Menashe Har-El, an Israeli professor who explored the Sinai during the years when Israel held it (1967-82), and retraced the steps of the Exodus while taking the mileage figures into account.
Menashe Har-El found a good spot for the Red Sea crossing among the previously mentioned "bitter lakes"; he points out that the Hebrew verison of the Old Testament does not say "Red Sea" but Yam Suf, meaning "Sea of Reeds," and because reeds do not grow in salt water, this must mean the Israelites really crossed a lake of fresh or brackish water. Once in the Sinai, he found places for the first three campsites, Marah, Elim and Rephidim, that fit the descriptions given in Exodus. Rephidim is in the Wadi Suder, a dry riverbed that is the first convenient way to go inland, after leaving Egypt and the Gulf of Suez. Exodus 17:6 gives us a clue because there God says to Moses, "Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb," meaning that Mt. Horeb-Sinai must be visible from Rephidim. Sure enough, there is one imposing mountain you can see from there, a 2,000-foot-high peak called Sinn Bishr. Sinn Bishr is an Arabic name, which appropriately can mean either "the announcement of the law" or "the laws of man." The distance from the Suez Canal to Sinn Bishr is 45-55 miles, depending on your route--close enough for a three-day journey on foot if you push yourself.
So has the real Mt. Sinai been found? Because more than three thousand years have passed since the original story, I don't think we'll find proof that can convince everybody. And because Sinn Bishr is not the highest mountain that has been called Mt. Sinai, I suspect that for the foreseeable future, many people will stick to the candidates they prefer, especially Jebel Musa. But then, who said that truth has to be more spectacular than fiction?
1. Egypt was the most densely populated country in the world until about 500 B.C., when India caught up and passed it. Currently we estimate Egypt's population to have been a hundred thousand in 3000 B.C., two million in 2000 B.C., three million in 1000 B.C., and seven million in 300 B.C. After 300 B.C., oppressive foreign rulers (Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Fatimids, Mamelukes and Turks) taxed Egypt so heavily that the population shrank to 3.75 million by 1800 A.D.
2. Wyatt, Ron, Discovered: Noah's Ark, Nashville, TN, World Bible Society, 1989. For my comments on the Durupinar formation, see Chapter 10 of the Genesis Chronicles.
3. Cornuke, Robert, and Halbrook, David, In Search of the Mountain of God: The Discovery of the Real Mt. Sinai, Nashville, TN, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
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