Sinai Peninsula, Egypt
October 1 – 3, 2019
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.
Thus began the most arduous detour in the history of travel. Avoiding the busier, breezier Via Maris along the coastline, Moses led two million Israelites on a protracted, inter-generational journey through Sinai Peninsula, a tiny wedge of land between Africa and Asia on the map but an endless, barren desert on the road, much more on foot. It was a circuitous exodus to the Promised Land that took 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Myth, history, or a bit of both, this tale of freedom from slavery and covenant with Yahweh defined the faith and identity of the Jewish people.
More than 3,000 years later, I would embark on a similar journey, albeit on the cushioned seat of an air-conditioned tourist bus that provided free bottled water. The tour guide needed not strike a rock for water nor pray for manna from heaven, neither did he need to lift a finger to part the Red Sea. The miracle of science allowed us to cross Suez Canal through Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel. In a matter of minutes, we emerged in Asia from Africa. My first trans-continental trip on land thus came to pass.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. And the Egyptians pursued and went after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.
It was worth noting that ancient Egypt did not extend to Sinai. Crossing the Red Sea effectively delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. While the anonymous Pharaoh and his army perished in the depths, we waltzed into the Desert of Shur in northern Sinai with zero body count. The landscape was markedly more arid. Of course, the Israelites grumbled as they walked the wilderness without thirst-quenching water.
Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet.
Marah was among the first encampments of the Israelites after the death-defying sea crossing. It was traditionally believed to be an oasis presently called Ayun Musa (Moses’ Wells). The site fit the biblical description of springs and palm trees. I was uncertain if the date palm around the wells was the same species that turned brackish into potable water during Moses’ time.
We continued further south of Sinai through the Desert of Sin where gorges and Sinai’s widest wadi – a dry riverbed – cut through granite mountains. Flowing water long evaporated etched this desert highway used by ancient caravans of camel-riding nomads and present-day convoys of tour buses. Multi-colored striations on rocky slopes made for an otherworldly sight, save for power lines tracing the road. All these natural formations had been created over the millennia. I was most likely awed by the same age-old beguilingly vivid desolation as the Israelites. Colors were alive but harbored no life.
We reached Al Menwra Madina, a pit stop midway from Suez Canal and the southern tip of Sinai Peninsula, at sundown. This restaurant in the middle of nowhere seemed to be the only business in the small village I explored out of curiosity and the need to move my legs. A garden of date palms across the highway indicated an oasis.
The Israelites found no such luxury. Instead, they encamped at desiccated Rephidim and grew increasingly testy as they got thirsty. The children of Israel threw tantrums.
So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
The murderous meltdown was not necessary. They were a stone’s throw away, literally so, from Wadi Feiran, Sinai’s largest, that collected melted snow into pockets of oases, not merely mirages, throughout the parched wasteland.
The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
This land of physical and spiritual refreshing empowered the Israelites to defeat blood-thirsty Amalekites in battle at Rephidim.
So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
The next day, we set foot on sacred ground: Jabal Musa, or Mount Moses, traditionally considered to be the biblical Mt. Sinai, used interchangeably with Mt. Horeb, although my Bedouin guide pointed out that they were two distinct peaks. What took the Israelites three months to reach, we accomplished on the second day. It was on Mt. Sinai that Yahweh laid down the Ten Commandments after 40 days and nights, hence it came to be called “the Mountain of God.”
On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.
Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
While awaiting entrance into Saint Catherine’s Monastery, I shared the shadow of its brick wall with a Bedouin man name Mohammed. His frail frame belied his job as a mountain guide. As a friendly gesture, I put my arm around his shoulder and felt bones, not flesh. Bedouins were known for hospitality; Mohammed was no exception. He consented to be interviewed on video. I had not expected that he was only eight years older than I was. How awkward that I mistook him for an elderly man. Half a century in this harsh environment could take its toll on the body.
Bedouins comprised numerous nomadic tribes in Arabia and North Africa. Although their traditional life was seemingly unchanging as the desert, no ancient culture could remain untouched by modern life. These days, most Bedouin men had traded herding goats to guiding tourists, perhaps both occupations required the same skill set. As desert dwellers this side of the Levant, Sinai Bedouins were possibly the modern descendants of the biblical Edomites. If so, they would be cousins of the Jewish people. The Israelites had a brush with them as Moses recalled:
Then the Lord said to me, “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north. Give the people these orders: ‘You are about to pass through the territory of your relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.’”
If only such respect for the Bedouin’s ancestral lands were accorded by national governments that laid claim to the wilderness that had been their home through the ages, descendants of Esau or not.
Within the ancient monastery, we took a flashback from the Exodus route we were tracing. Enshrined therein was the burning bush from which Yahweh called Moses to be God’s official messenger and to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
Our group crowded a small courtyard to glimpse the biblical bush draped over a stone wall, thriving to this day. It would be the oldest living thing I had ever laid eyes on if tradition counted as scientific evidence. Endemic to the Middle East, this species of bramble related to roses and raspberries could neither flower nor bear fruit. Perhaps that explained its extremely long life. The plant was pretty chill yet resilient. Small wonder that Yahweh chose it as His ground zero.
We backtracked even further in our flashback. Somehow, another milestone in Moses’ life occurred in the site that would become this monastery. The well where Moses met his future Midianite wife, Zipporah, was assumed to be located here as well. I had thought Midian was on the opposite shore of the Red Sea.
When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.
Moses was a murderer and a fugitive then, inciting the ire of the Pharaoh for slaying an abusive Egyptian. He went from zero to hero when he championed women’s rights and snagged the heart of a priest’s daughter.
Our group spent the previous night at swanky Renaissance Sharm El Sheikh Golden View Beach Resort, quite a mouthful for a hotel name. At the tip of Sinai Peninsula, the resort faced the Gulf of Aqaba, the eastern arm of the Red Sea. The spectacular sunrise over the narrow strip of sea separating us from the Arabian shore was worth the early start. Apparently, quails could easily be blown over such a distance.
Now a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea. It scattered them up to two cubits deep all around the camp, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers. Then they spread them out all around the camp. But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the Lord burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. Therefore the place was named Kibroth Hattaavah because there they buried the people who had craved other food.
At this point, Yahweh was triggered by the Israelites’ constant complaints, this time with deadly consequences.
In contrast, our grateful hearts were blessed with a lunch buffet of local and international cuisine at Morgenland Holly Village, an oasis of luxury in the middle of this wasteland. We had our fill of couscous and all things halal. Pilgrims had never had it so good. The Egyptian staff were a friendly lot. One even looked East Asian to me.
The Israelites had finally reached the far side of Sinai. The Promised Land was within reach. But even then, the power of fake news proved even stronger than divine plan. The Israelites fell for the incredibly false report of fierce giants and hostile lands by ten of the twelve spies who had been sent on a 40-day reconnaissance to Canaan.
That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
Yahweh who had freed them from slavery, parted the sea, thwarted their enemies, drew water from arid rock, fed them with manna from heaven, guided them with a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night was unable to follow through with his promise, apparently. Their lack of faith purged their generation from “the land of milk and honey.”
The wasteland through which our north-bound bus traversed took on spiritual significance. This temporary passage became permanent doom. The infertile valleys of sand, the lifeless mountains of rock were to be the lives of unbelieving Israelites until death.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this wilderness; here they will die.”
The Israelites remained at Kadesh Barnea for four decades, just as Yahweh declared. An entire generation that had come out of Egypt died out in the fringes of Negev Desert in present-day Israel.
Our trip through Sinai fell short of that final encampment. We spent a night at Taba Hotel & Nelson Village at the border town of Taba. I could see four countries from my hotel window: Saudi Arabia and Jordan across the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel and Egypt on my side of the shore. This was the most international location I had ever been.
The next morning, our group filed out of the hotel and simply walked across the border to Eilat, Israel. It was our own stroll-style exodus.
The Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness mirrored a period of quarantine which, ideally, meant 40 days in isolation. Forty was significant, even sacred, in Judaism. Both Moses and Elijah spent 40 days each in fasting and communion with Yahweh on Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb, respectively. Jesus Himself fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Each of these occasions resulted in spiritual transformation.
Forty signified border control of sorts, literally so for the Israelites from Egypt, whereby only the faithful could cross over. Sinai was a place of extreme testing that could result to only pass or fail, cross over or stay, live or die; there was no middle ground. The Israelites were spiritually quarantined in the wilderness where their old self died before the renewed gained entrance to the Promised Land.