Geographic Exodus Names
People often name locations and objects simply, such as a place called “Elkland” where elks once may have roamed. Frequently in stories, however, place-names like “Bitter Water” or “Rest Stop” indicate we are looking at a fairytale or myth, to be passed along easily from generation to generation. In instances where such appellations would serve as a warning to other travelers, such as “Place of the Bitter Water,” these names may be found in a number of sites. Hence, we cannot be certain of a location based merely on such simplistic names.
Like the designation “Resting Places,” other monikers in various Bible stories also serve as fictional elements of similar primitiveness, including Kadesh Barnea, where the Israelites purportedly ended up camping for 38 years, after leaving Mt. Sinai (Num 20). The name means “Holy Wandering,” and, since the traditional site dates to the Iron Age,256 it certainly was styled after the purported Exodus, rather than previously existing as some miraculously named location where the Israelites just happened to land. All in all, the whole Exodus story has an air of fiction, even beyond the miraculous and supernatural events.
Mt. Horeb and Mt. Sinai
As another example, the alternate or “twin” name for Mt. Sinai is “Mt. Horeb” ( חרב Choreb), which means “desert” an appropriate designation for a mountain in a tale occurring in the desert. In this regard, there are many “desert mountains” in the area in question, so trying to pinpoint one of them from over 3,200 years ago could be difficult indeed.
Gesenius’s Lexicon delineates Horeb as “a lower summit of Mount Sinai,” from which one “ascends Mount Sinai properly so called.” The name “Sinai” ( סיני Ciynay) itself simply means “thorny” and thus could be used to refer to any thorny area, plenty of which can be found from Egypt to Arabia.
Two Years Encamped
According to the Bible, the Israelites spend two years at Mt. Sinai before encamping at Kadesh Barnea. Mt. Sinai is said in Exodus 16:1 to be located in the “wilderness of Sin,” a name meaning “clay.”257 Conventionally, this wilderness is situated between “Elim and Sinai.” According to tradition, Sin has been located on the eastern edge of Egypt, while Mt. Sinai has been placed on the Sinai peninsula.
Even if the traditional Mt. Sinai where sits St. Catherine’s monastery were “real,” in the sense that it is indeed the mountain in the biblical tale, its existence would not make the Exodus story true, any more than the tales of Mt. Olympus, a real place in Greece, prove the Greek gods sat thereupon and their myths were historical.
Because there exists no evidence of the Exodus or any Mosaic behaviors on the traditional site of Mt. Sinai, researchers have looked elsewhere and struck upon other locations, such as Serabit el-Khadim in the western Sinai. Serabit is renowned for its turquoise mines discovered by at least 3500 BCE and mined by the Egyptians during the fourth to second millennia BCE. These mines at Serabit were worked in the second millennium by Semitic prisoners of war evidently significantly from the Northwest Levant, and it has been surmised that Serabit’s advanced metallurgical and smelting facilities would have been used by Moses to create the ark, tabernacle and other artifacts.
Moreover, there existed at the site a temple to the horned Egyptian goddess Hathor the Cow, leading to speculation that her worship by these Semites is the source of the biblical “Golden Calf” story. Also, there appear several ancient inscriptions in Proto-Sinaitic, hypothesized to be the alphabet used by Moses to compose the Pentateuch.
Despite these claims, the Serabit Canaanites cannot be equated with the Hebrews of Exodus, as some have done, based on the writings of the site’s first archaeologist Dr. Flinders Petrie and his assistant, Canadian researcher Lina Eckenstein (1857–1931).259 Eckenstein’s work on the subject is published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and treats the Pentateuch as a historical text.260 Nevertheless, this Serabit thesis contradicts the Bible in a number of ways, including that the Torah makes no mention of a Hathor temple and active priesthood waiting to greet Moses on Mt. Sinai.
As Petrie cautioned: “It must not be imagined that the Semitic ritual of the temple at Serabit had any direct connection with the Exodus some centuries later. I do not suppose the Israelites ever saw either the temple or the mines.”
Certain traditions from their Egyptian sojourn, such as the worship of assorted deities, may have been passed into the folklore of possible protoIsraelite Semites at Serabit. However, the supposition that the goddess of the region, Hathor, was the “Golden Calf” would appear erroneous, because the northwestern Semitic Phoenicians, for one, were already Hathor worshippers for centuries to millennia without any type of bondage in Egypt. Hence, such worship by Canaanites would not necessarily be the result of a particular stay in Egypt, whether voluntary or conscripted.
There appears to be a long history of Canaanite presence at the site, leaving behind Proto-Sinaitic writing, centuries before Moses would have arrived in the area, according to accepted dates. In addition, these inscriptions have not been translated, save for one possible reconstruction by Egyptologist Gardiner, and they have not been shown to have any relationship to Moses or the Pentateuch.
Furthermore, Eckenstein relates that Ramesses IV (fl. 1155–1149 BCE) was the last pharaoh for centuries at Serabit,262 activity postdating the purported time of Moses both traditionally and as a hypothesized friend of Akhenaten.263 Hence, Serabit would have been occupied over several centuries by many Egyptians, at least seasonally, as no permanent garrison was found there.264 In any event, there had been Egyptians at Serabit on and off for centuries, but there exists no evidence that these were heretical followers of Akhenaten chased there by other Egyptians, as is surmised in this hypothesis.
Even if the Israelites moved along the traditional route, the Serabit region is much farther north and west than the traditional site of Mt. Sinai, so they would have passed right through this territory, thus possibly encountering hundreds of Egyptians working an organized mining operation in existence for centuries to millennia. Yet, this historical detail is missing from the Exodus account.
There simply is no direct evidence of Israelite occupation of Serabit or even Israelite existence at all during the time when Moses is hypothesized to have visited the site. What the discovery of Serabit in the Sinai does prove, however, is that the desert was not the desolate wasteland depicted in the biblical account and that the Egyptians could not have been escaped by this flight into the Sinai region, as they were already there and had been for centuries.
The Exodus story may have been placed deliberately near this important “country of blue stone,” as it was called in antiquity,265 but it remains a mythical motif historicized, not history, mythologized or otherwise, as we will continue to see in the present work.
Baal Zephon and Migdol
Bible literalists contend that the Ugaritic and Hyksos god-name Baal Zephon at Exodus 14:2, meaning “lord of the north,” reflects a historical detail proving the veracity of the Exodus tale. However, it could be simply an old term that maintained its currency for many centuries after its first usage, apparently during the 19th Dynasty or Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 BCE).270 The fact that this god-name was known later to the Greeks as Zeus Kasios, reflecting Mt. Casius, demonstrates that his worship continued into the Hellenistic period (323–32 BCE), spanning the centuries when much of the Bible were composed. While this name’s inclusion may reflect the memories of proto-Israelite nomads kept alive in folklore later used to create the Exodus epic, its employment in the tale nevertheless could have been incorporated in much later centuries than the purported time of the event.
The retention of god-names for many centuries does not prove that texts in which they appear emanate from the monikers’ earliest usage, obviously. In this same regard, modern texts using the English god-name “Jehovah,” first popularized by the King James Bible in the 17th century AD/CE, do not date from that era.
Nor does the geographical detail of the Canaanite city of Migdol in this same verse indicate that the story is true, any more than the presence of Cambridge or London in Gulliver’s Travels demonstrates that historicized fiction to be true. The same can be said of other biblical demonyms that reflect real places.
Furthermore, Baal Zephon, the “protector of sailors,”271 has been equated with the storm god Baal Hadad, an identification important for our discussion of the water-controlling, storm-god myths below.