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Numbers 33:6-15 The stages of the exodus, Part 2

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, January 26, 2022

6 They set out from Sukkoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness.
7 They set out from Etham and turned back to Pi Hahiroth, which faces Baal Zephon. They camped in front of Migdol.

Still in Egypt, Israel walked from their hut-camp of Sukkoth to Etham “on the edge of the wilderness.” From there, they should have turned northeastward onto the road known as “The Way to the Land of the Philistines” (Exodus 13:17), but God intentionally directed them south even though the way north was much shorter. “For God said” (Moses recalled) “‘If the people face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt’” (Exodus 13:17). So they had turned south, and now, Moses says, “they turned back to Pi Haharoth.” This was a place “between Migdol and the sea,” but Migdol’s exact location is unknown. Migdol means tower. It was a border post marking the edge of Egyptian territory.

There were several places in Egypt called Baal Zephon, or “Master of the North (Wind),” but this was probably the mountain now called Jebel Ataqa, which is the northernmost of a string of mountains that run east-west between the Nile and the Red Sea, “like the teeth of a comb” (as one of my professors described them). For the Israelites to be caught on the wrong side of the mountain, with another mountain to the south and the Red Sea to the east, they seemed to be trapped.

“Pi Hahiroth” means something like “The Face of Heats” (or Angers), a good name for just about any place in a desert where there is heat coming down from above, heat coming up from the ground, and heat coming with the wind.

8 They set out from Pi Hahiroth and crossed through the middle of the sea into the wilderness.

Turning their backs to Pharaoh, now in hot pursuit, they crossed through “the middle of the sea.” This was the parting of the Sea of Reeds, usually translated Red Sea. It might refer to the greater or lesser Bitter Lakes to the north, but there is no truly convincing reason not to think that the Israelites didn’t cross the upper arm of the Red Sea known today as the Gulf of Suez.

The Gulf of Suez is a water inlet of the Indian Ocean that runs roughly southeast to northwest for about 150 miles. It’s average width is about twenty miles, with three slight ‘bulges’ in this width, like knuckles on a finger. The southern bulge with the deep South Belayim Basin does not come into our study. The central bulge, nearly forty miles wide, has two fairly deep spots (the October and the South October Basins, each about 14,000 feet deep). The northern bulge is deepest at the center of the bulge down to the narrow neck, where for about fifteen miles the depth of the Darag Basin also reaches down to about 14,000 feet or more. Just south of the neck is a shallow spot, less than 8,000 feet deep on the Sinai side, but at the top of the Gulf, north of the Darag Basin, the water is uniformly shallow and less than 5,000 or 6,000 feet down. By a miraculous east wind (Exodus 14:21) the Lord blew the sea dry, dividing the waters, so that the Israelites walked with a wall of water to the right and a wall of water to the left (Exodus 14:22). I propose that this could have taken place about five or ten miles south of the present northern tip of the Gulf (the tip is the location of the modern city of Suez). There is a point of land there that juts into the Gulf, known to modern Arabs as Pi-Hairote, and which I believe is the ancient Pi-Hahiroth.

They traveled for three days in the Wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah.

East and a little south from Pi-Hahiroth is another jutting promontory from the Sinai side (and a modern hotel with the ridiculous name “Santa Claus Resorts”), which might have been the place where Israel climbed up out of the Sea and onto the Sinai Peninsula. This is where Moses and Miriam sang victory songs because Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the sea behind them (Exodus 15:1-18,21).

Marah means “bitter.” It was named because of the bitter water the people could not drink, and they complained to Moses. He threw in a piece of wood the Lord showed him, and the water became sweet (Exodus 15:25, a miracle similar to the one in 2 Kings 4:41).

9 They set out from Marah and came to Elim. At Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. They camped there.
10 They set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea.
11 They set out from the Red Sea and camped in the Wilderness of Sin.

After Marah, the Lord had the people turn south, and they followed the shoreline of the Red Sea (Gulf of Suez) to a beautiful oasis. Their road then took them to the Wilderness of Sin, which is not related to our word for wrongdoing, but to the Hebrew word for “tooth.” Exodus 16:1 tells us that this was now one month after they left Egypt.

12 They set out from the Wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah.
13 They set out from Dophkah and camped at Alush.
14 They set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink.

At Rephidim there was no water. Rephidim means “bases,” as in Song of Solomon 3:10 and its “base of gold.” Here the word probably refers to the many places that they had to set up their twelve camps. After another miracle giving them water, the Israelites were attacked here by some Amalekites (Exodus 17:8). This was the battle where Hur and “Faithful Aaron” were “holding up the prophet’s hands” (Exodus 17:12). There “the wicked were waiting to destroy [them]” (Psalm 119:95), but the Lord’s hand saved them and taught them to rely on Moses at the same time.

15 They set out from Rephidim and camped in the Wilderness of Sinai.

After Rephidim, Israel entered the hard southern desert of Sinai, “the Teeth” (Exodus 19:1-2). This was their third wilderness or desert after leaving Goshen. They had crossed through the desert of Shur in the north, the desert of Sin in the center, and now into the desert of Sinai in the south. Although this is merely geography, it is hard not to take a symbolic or figurative meaning from this triple-layered passage to the holy place where God would give Moses the law. It was something like the curtains at the courtyard of the temple, to the curtain before the Holy Place, and finally the curtain before the Most Holy Place. Pursuit was behind them, temptations had come and gone, war had come and been won with much blood spilled, and now they had arrived at the foot of the Mountain of God.

The Lord revealed his holy will to them there! “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Psalm 119:18). The law shows us God’s eternal will (“I will always obey your law, for ever and ever,” Psalm 119:44). The law shows us how to truly obey (“I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart,” Psalm 119:34). When the law is broken, it shows us our need for a Savior (“The wicked have forsaken your law” Psalm 119:53; “they are far from your law,” 119:150). And God’s holy word, revealed to man because it could never be guessed by man, uncovers God’s plan to send our Savior, so that his compassion will be ours. His forgiveness covers us (Luke 1:77), his blessing is upon us (Galatians 3:14, and his mercy endures forever (Psalm 136:22).

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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