A Review of Menashe Har-El’s, Sinai Journeys – The Route of the Exodus

Central to the Torah’s story is the forty-year wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel. According to our sources, 603,550 males and their families with all of their stuff, leave Egypt en masse from the land of Goshen to the land promised to them by God. The Bible reports the high drama of this journey. Pharaoh and his armies give chase to their departed slave labor, finding them at the Sea. The Sea splits before the Israelites allowing them to cross over into the wilderness on dry ground but closes upon the Egyptians, drowning them. The children of Israel sing a song of victory and then begin their journey to the Mountain of God where they enter into a covenant with the God of their fathers. They remain at the holy mountain for some time and then move to an oasis called Kadesh. Scouts are sent to survey their land, but the majority of them return with a negative report, dissuading the people from entering and resulting in an extension of their wilderness journey until that entire generation dies off. The Torah ends with a new generation of Israelites prepared to enter the land under new and faithful leadership.

The story, in all or in part, has occupied the minds of people for thousands of years, inspiring billions throughout the ages. It has served as the subject of articles, books, and movies. Some of these have sought to popularize, some to sensationalize, and some to scrutinize the details of the story. Did any of it really happen? Did some of it happen, but not the way the Bible describes it?

The story of this journey is recorded against a backdrop that presents itself as a travel log within an exciting narrative of events. The biblical books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy provide the reader with geographical data that is presented as authentic. Can we read these accounts and retrace the route of the Exodus?

I recently read, The Sinai Journeys, the Route of the Exodus, by Menashe Har-El.[1] The book was originally published in Hebrew in 1968 by the author and was republished in English in 1983.

I learned of the work from Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini in a discussion with her about the various possibilities for locations of places mentioned in the biblical texts, in the wilderness itinerary lists. Upon her recommendation I ordered the book and am glad that I did.

This is not like one of the many popular, sensational books claiming to reveal the real Mount Sinai. Though Har-El does offer his opinion on that question, the real value is in the bulk of disciplined research that he provides. The book is packed with information, presented in three major sections: Part One – Landscape, Sites, and Mankind, Part Two – The Views of Modern Scholars Concerning the Exodus and Criticism of These Views, and Part Three – The Investigation in the Light of Geographical Science.

Har-El works through his material in a detailed manner, discussing the geology, climate, soil and vegetation, water resources, and ancient routes related to the regions associated with the bible’s wilderness itineraries. He provides the reader with many of the theories proposed by various leading scholars and then offers criticism of these views based upon his extensive knowledge of historical and geographical realities of the land from the Nile Delta, through the Sinai Peninsula, and into the Land known anciently as Canaan.

The narratives recorded in the Hebrew Bible about this central event assume a familiarity that few modern researchers have at their disposal. This has created an opportunity for assumptions that are simply uninformed. The terrain of this vast wilderness is not suitable in places for travel. Many of the place names are difficult to identify today. Har-El takes the reader on an incredible journey back through time, surveying the words of ancient authors, in an effort to retrace the route of the Exodus. He demonstrates known routes from his extensive knowledge with maps and diagrams that combine to produce an “original study of a subject which has too often been treated in a superficial manner.”

In his preface, Har-El says, “I have attempted to rely fully on biblical narrative and keep close to it without trying to misrepresent the contents of its verses or to interpret them too freely. I have restricted the discussion on the identification of the route of the Exodus from Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula as far as Kadesh-Barnea, that is to those areas where the problem of identification has been complex or intricate and have refrained from attempting to identify the whole route because of limitations of scope.”

I highly recommend this book. It is not an easy read. The first section, though necessary, is especially slow going and extremely scientific; the discussions of various positions are tedious; but for those who can persevere, the reward is great. His research ultimately demonstrates that some of the popular theories of the Exodus and proposed sites for Sinai are unrealistic when one closely examines the biblical texts in the light of geology and geography.

Har-El’s, Sinai Journeys, The Route of the Exodus is an informed contribution to one of the Bible’s foundational stories. I wish that the book was required reading before one can enter a discussion of the location of the True Mount Sinai, but it is not the kind of book that most people prefer.

And you shall remember all the way which Jehovah your God led you these forty years in the wilderness…
Moses ~ Deuteronomy 8:2


[1] Menashe Har-El, The Sinai Journeys, The Route of the Exodus (San Diego, CA: Ridgefield Publishing Company, 1983). From the jacket of the book: “Professor Menashe Har-El is a noted geographer and scholar, as well as an outstanding surveyor and explorer. He received his M.A. degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Ph.D. degree from New York University. A noted teacher of Geography of the Middle East, Dr. Har-El is Professor of Historical and Biblical Geography at Tel-Aviv University.”

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