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Good Words 1860
A Journey by Sinai to Syria

No. I - The Red Sea

After travelling for five days from Cairo, we found ourselves encamped by the shores of the Red Sea; and it is at this encampment by the Red Sea that I propose to begin the account of my journey to Syria through the great wilderness of Mount Sinai For, however interesting these five days may have been to the actual traveller, introducing him, as they did, to the Desert, with its strange new life, and strange new scenery; yet I am afraid the reader would only become weary over "first impressions" and descriptions of "Wadys" and "Gebels" that have no particular historical interest. Suffice it to say, therefore, that, on an evening in March, our party, collected on the summit of the gray wall of hills which shuts in the valley of the Nile on the east, took their last look of that old land of the Pharaohs. And what a contrast did either side of that summit present! The one moment, we were gazing down on green fields, and woods, and cities—here on a steamer breasting the strength of the broad river, there on the puffing of a railway engine—while far beyond river, and wood, and city, the great Pyramids fronted us in their lonely majesty. The next moment, every trace of man was gone, and we were in the Desert, amidst silence and eternal solitudes; and for four days we journeyed through that silent, solitary desert. On the evening of the fourth, we caught our first glimpse of the Red Sea—a mere thread of blue, yet so purely blue, that it seemed, betwixt the gray desert plains and the distant silvery desert hills, as a very slip of the azure sky, seen through a break in the white clouds. Next day, we travelled nearer and nearer, till at evening our camels were crushing, with their hoofs, the bright shells and scarlet corals, thrown up on the moist sands by the transparent waves; and that night we saw the sunset followed by the throbbing splendours of evening, which dyed with its rich purples the hills of Arabia, rising beyond the opposite shore. That night, too, for the first time, we felt assured that we beheld scenes of sacred interest. Somewhere there had passed the hosts of Israel, when these same waters "stood together as an heap;" and somewhere, on that far-off coastline, had Miriam led forth the daughters of Israel, as, with high timbrels and shouts of triumph, they beheld "chariots and horsemen cast into the sea." Leaving the noise of the encampment, the growling of the camels, and perpetual jangling of the Arabs, I went off alone along the shore—with its beat and dash of waters, how musical after the dry, silent wilderness ! How strange it seemed to stand there on Africa, and look across on Asia, to realise it stretching from that on to Persia, and India, and far-off China; and to know, too, that these very hills were bordering on the ranges of Sinai and Horeb! The scene itself, independently of its associations, was very beautiful. Behind rose the high mass of Atakah, furrowed and splintered; away to the north, were the long, waste levels around Suez; to the south, steep bluffs, sweeping round from Atakah, hemmed us in in a broad plain; and over the sea, in front, and stretching far down the coast, until lost in the haze of distance, were the white, glimmering hills of Arabia. Not a tree, not a house, not a wreath of smoke, not one green spot, was to be seen, and yet the whole was very beautiful. This beauty arose chiefly from the wondrous atmospheric colouring. No words can adequately express the exquisite delicacy and transparency of the hues; the golden brightness of the outlines against the deep, soft sky; the purity of the gently-tinted shadows; and the brilliant blue of the sea, which threw the whole into relief. One felt how completely it was that colouring which formed the chief charm, by marking the contrast when that colouring was gone. The fading away of the lights of evening had much the same effect on the heart as witnessing a dissolving view. Now, it was all glowing splendour, but gradually a line of purple, like a fine mist, breathed itself along the coast, growing, bit by bit, a denser and a broader belt—creeping up and up, until there was left but a rim of gold along the ragged edges of the hills; that, too, was lost, as the purple rose up the sky—soon itself, however, fading and languishing into many hues; until, at last, all died away into a cold, gray monotony; and then, as if the "spectacle" were over, all gathered into the tent for the rest of the night.

There are many points of great difficulty connected with the determining of the probable scene of the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea. A certain decision must remain for ever hopeless, as it is not at all unlikely but that the Gulf of Suez may have covered, some hundreds of years ago, whole tracts of land that are now bare desert. The possibility must, therefore, always exist for the scene of the crossing to have been higher up, and under conditions as to which we have now no indication. The duty, however, of every traveller is, that, with his Bible in his hand, and the localities before him, he should seek the spot which impresses him as the one most in accordance with the sacred narrative.

Now, the first matter which will, to a certain extent, determine the locality of the miracle, will be the answer given to the question regarding the point from which the Israelites may have set out. As to this, there are two chief theories. One would make Memphis the place where the Pharaoh then held his court. According to the holders of this view, the Israelites, on the night of the exodus, assembled on the wide plain near Troja, and journeyed thence to the Red Sea by the Derb-el-Bassatin, along which we ourselves travelled—(see map.) Pihahiroth they place at the Wady Ramliyah — Pihahiroth signifying a narrow gorge, such as that wady is; and the plain of Tawarak, on which they thence entered, is by them made the scene of the encampment by the sea. From Memphis, Pharaoh would thus have given them chace along this same Derb-el-Bassatin; close up the Ramliyah behind them; and finding the Israelites with the Gebel Deraj on their right, the Atakah on their left, and the sea in front, he might say, "They are entangled in the land." But this theory is open to many objections. (1.) The Derb-el-Bassatin is by much too long. "We were four days, unencumbered as we were, making the journey; the Israelites could not have done it under five or six. Should it, however, be said, that the sacred narrative does not necessarily imply that Succoth and Etham were only one day's march each, and that they may have been only chief halting-places; yet the case will not be bettered, if we consider the number of days that must have been occupied, in connexion with (2.) The want of water. There are only a few brackish springs at Gandeli, about half-way to Tawarak. And supposing that water had even been miraculously supplied—a supposition for which we have no warrant—how could Pharaoh, with his chariots and horses, have passed over such a desert? (3.) It does not suit the sacred narrative. We are told when they came to Etham, the Lord commanded the host "to turn." And where between Troja and Tawarak could this bo verified? (4.) Again, the Israelites would not necessarily be "entangled by the land" on the above theory—that Pharaoh was in their rear, and they encamped on Tawarak. Unless, indeed, a portion of his army be supposed to have been sent round by the north of Atakah, shutting up the passage between that mountain and the sea, they could easily have escaped round the top of the Gulf of Suez. For these, and several other objections, the route by Bassatin seems to me an untenable theory.

The other theory has all the air of probability. This begins by fixing the "Rameses," from which the children of Israel set out, not as in the neighbourhood of Memphis, but at Abu Kasheibeh, near the crocodile lakes. We will not enter into the reasons for this identification. Dr Lepsius has very ably discussed the question, and brought forward so many evidences to the truth of it, as to have left the matter all but settled. Taking, then, Abu Kashiebeh as the scene of the setting out, we will find all the other circumstances of the narrative wonderfully consistent. For, about thirty miles to the north of this place stood the great city of Zoan or Tanis, where, according to the Psalmist, the ten plague-miracles of Moses were performed. "Marvellous things did he in the sight of their fathers, in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan" (Ps. lxxviii. 12; see also ver. 43). From Zoan it would have been easy for Moses to communicate his instructions to the Israelites assembled at Rameses; and from Rameses to the head of the Gulf of Suez their route would have been through a country at that time comparatively well supplied, as the great canal, now filled up, passed through it. From Rameses to the head of the Gulf of Suez is a distance of about thirty miles. This they might have marched in two days. Their first day's march was thus to Succoth—"the tents"— probably a mere encampment; and the second day, they came to Etham, ''on the edge of the wilderness." As they were not to take the shorter route to Palestine by Gaza (Exod. xiii. 17), when they arrived at Etham, they would find themselves about to enter on the great desert track bordering on the high levels of El Tih. No sooner, however, had the Israelites gone away from Rameses than Pharaoh repented that he had allowed them to escape. Hastily was his army summoned—"six hundred chosen chariots; and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over every one of them"—and the pursuit after Israel was begun. Through this country he would have had no difficulty, as regarded supplies for his army, and, close on his footsteps, he followed Moses down towards Etham. But when the children of Israel reached Etham, a trying and strange command came from God. They were then just about to plunge into the pathless wilderness, and, seemingly, to effect their escape from the great army on their rear, when they were arrested. For the word of the Lord came to Moses, telling him to command the children of Israel '' to turn;" and, instead of pursuing their flight by the open road on the east of the Gulf of Suez, to encamp on the western side—in fact, to put the sea between them and the very land they were journeying to. No sooner had they done this than Pharaoh saw his advantage, and, sweeping down from the north, he had them shut up between the desert and the sea. Then it was that the children of Israel, "lifting up their eyes," and seeing their retreat thus cut off, were sore afraid, and murmured against Moses.

But where was this spot on which we may suppose the Iraelites to have then been? and where may we suppose the miracle to have taken place that opened a path "through the great waters?" Here, again, there are two principal theories.

The great biblical geographer, Dr Robinson, fixes the scene of the miracle close to the present town of Suez. There are two things in the narrative which lead him to select this spot. (1.) That locality is one where he thinks the agency of wind could have had the effect described, viz., of laying bare a path by which the Israelites could have crossed, having the sea on either hand. Near Suez are certain shallows, crossing the narrow tongue of sea which runs up past the town. At low tide camels are able to ford across these shallows to the opposite shore. A strong north-east wind, says Dr Robinson, such as that described as the agency used by God, and acting on an ebb tide, would have the effect of blowing these shallows dry, leaving deep water in the channel on either side while the Israelites passed over.

(2.) This place alone is suitable, Dr Robinson thinks, if the time is considered. It all happened in one night. Giving sufficient time for the wind to act so as to bare the shallows, and taking the longest possible for the tide remaining at ebb, he finds that we can calculate only on two hours being left for the Israelites to cross. There were more than two million Israelites. Such a column, a thousand abreast, could cross in that time at the place he specifies. Every other place is too broad for the passage to be thus effected. He accordingly selects the shallows at Suez as the scene of the miracle.

Now, while we are at total variance with those who accuse Dr Robinson of "rationalism" and "irreverence," in his view of this miracle, yet we cannot agree with him in his conclusions, nor in the steps by which he arrives at them. We willingly grant that it does not destroy the sublimity of God's miracles to suppose Him using, if He pleases, such an agency as is here said to have been used by Him. Nay, more, if the narrative did not require it on other grounds, we admit that we would not be warranted in supposing in this case any thing more to have taken place than what Dr Robinson describes; and if his account were consistent with itself, with the statements in Exodus, and with the spirit of the other descriptions of the miracle which occur in Scripture, its simply destroying the ideas we have formed in childhood, more perhaps from school pictures than Bible history, would not affect us. But looking at it, first, in the light of matter-of-fact, without reference to any passage in Scripture at all, and supposing that there was nothing more than a very strong north-east wind acting on a low ebb tide, would the facts, as described by Dr Robinson, then be possible on natural grounds? Would the north-east wind that blew the water off the shallows on one side not blow the deep water on the shallows from the other? Nay, more, only fancy such a wind blowing as to hold and keep in check amass of water sufficient to drown and cover the army of Egypt, and then conceive of more than two millions of men, women, and children marching in the teeth of it! We would be compelled to suppose that a whole series of miracles had taken place of which we have not a hint.

But, again, let us look at this miracle in the light of descriptions which occur in other parts of Scripture, and I think we will be led, on other grounds, to differ from Dr Robinson. Any one who has seen the shoals at Suez crossed daily by camels without any danger, must feel that the blowing off of the shallow water that covers them by a strong wind, even if that were possible on account of the deep water on the other side, would not be a miracle that would stand very prominent amidst the wonders performed by God for the Israelites. Doubtless, with a cultivated people the moral effect of a miracle does not depend on its physical magnitude. The sudden change, too, from despair to triumph, as the Israelites saw the great army of Egypt, which was threatening them, destroyed so suddenly, would have a certain result in making that deliverance signally memorable. Still, allowing these considerations to have all due weight, one can scarcely read through the Old Testament without feeling that there was something about this miracle that, in point of intrinsic magnitude, as well as result, made it the miracle in the history of the nation. Look at the language of the song of Moses, immediately after its occurrence :—" The people shall hear, and be afraid: sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Palestina. Then the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away. Fear and dread shall fall upon them." Look, again, how, forty years after it, when the spies came into Jericho, we find Rahab telling them—"I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt." (Josh. ii. 9, 10.) Turn up the book of Psalms at random, and you will meet but few pages in which there is not some allusion to this miracle.

All these circumstances, while they do not prove anything, yet leave an unmistakeable impression on one's mind that this was a great miracle, physically as well as morally. It was one which was to strike wonder into a barbarian people, and whose report was to pass even to the cities of Palestine.

But there is evidence of a positive nature, and expressions used in Scripture which it is quite impossible fairly to reconcile, in our opinion, with the theory of Dr Robinson. In the song of Moses we have this language used :—" With the blast of thy nostrils were the waters gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea." And this exactly corresponds with the language used elsewhere,—"leading them through the depths," "the depths covering the Egyptians," being the forms of expression usually employed. All these things tend to establish the conclusion that something of quite a different nature from that which Dr Robinson supposes must have occurred. Undoubtedly wind was the agency used by God, and was in all probability the only cause apparent to the children of Israel. But yet this wind, if we are to take the language of Moses, as quoted above, to mean what it seems to do, must have been accompanied by a power producing effects which wind alone could not accomplish. Just as when Elijah smote the Jordan with his mantle, he used an agent, but that agent was merely an external sign with which there operated a miraculous energy quite independent. Just as our Lord anointed the eyes of the blind with clay. Thus, too, with this strong wind that blew, there also may have been a distinct putting forth of miraculous power, which ''divided the waters," so that "they stood together as an heap," and "their depths were congealed in the heart of the sea;" so that, while the Israelites passed, they had not merely the defence of deep waters on either side the shallows, but that the waters ''were as a wall also on their right hand and on their left." If this may be considered, as many are led to consider it, the most natural understanding of the occurrence as we gather it from the whole Scripture narrative, then we are at once freed from both of Dr Robinson's requirements. We need not, then, look out for a spot where the agency of wind alone could produce the result of clearing a passage for the Israelites to pass on dry land—nor are we any longer limited to the space of two hours for their crossing, as we have nothing more to do with the ebb tide, nor have we to ''allow" so much of the night as may be considered sufficient for the wind to act in the natural or unnatural manner above indicated.

Where, then, may we place the scene of the passage? Somewhere where the children of Israel would be "entangled in the land," where "the land would shut them in." The great plain of Tawarak is the spot fixed upon by many as the one which corresponds most to these conditions. But, if attention is paid to the true character of the ground, another scene still may be found to have, we think, more claims to be regarded as the true one than any other. If one looks at the common maps of Tawarak and the ground around Gebel Atakah, they will be led to think that, from the north of Atakah to the plain of Tawarak, there is an open, continuous strip along the shores of the Red Sea, by which the Israelites could have marched uninterruptedly down to that plain. But this by no means agrees with the fact. The Tawarak is an open plain about fifteen miles long from west to east, and, on the side next the sea, about as many broad. Speaking generally, it is hemmed in on its three sides by mountains, and by the sea on its fourth or eastern side. And on this plain the Israelites, if Pharaoh's army shut up the passage on the north, would certainly "be entangled in the land." But the traveller will  observe some very marked features in the character of this plain at its northern end, which materially affect the question as to the locality of the miracle. On the south side the plain is low and level, so that if one were moving along its southern skirts from the sea, they would find but a gentle ascent inwards. But if you traverse it from the south-west to the north-east corner, you find that, instead of descending as you draw near the sea, you are gradually ascending, till within about two miles of the latitude of Gebel Atakah, when all at once this slope which you have been ascending breaks precipitately into steep bluffs, that sweep round from the sea on the east until they join themselves to the roots of Atakah on the north and west. Their formation has the character of a great wall from 100 to 150 feet high, shutting in on the south the whole of the plain which stretches down from Suez, between Atakah and the sea, and down which we suppose the Israelites to have marched from Etham. When we de-descended from that higher plain of Tawarak, it was by a steep and rugged zig-zag, and we then found ourselves on this altogether new plain, called by our Towara "Wady-el-Edeb." It averaged from a mile to two miles in breadth, and stretched on for several miles along the coast, with Atakah rising steeply from it on the west, and joined itself on to the open ground around Suez on the north. It is this Wady-el-Edeb, further north than Tawarak, and further south than Suez, and under Atakah, that we imagined as the spot on which the Israelites were gathered, rather than on Tawarak, according to some, or on the wastes of Suez, according to Robinson. Suppose that when they were commanded "to turn" at Etham, they marched round the head of the Red Sea, past the long flats around Ajerud and Suez, southwards along the coast, until they reached the Wady-el-Edeb; suppose Pharaoh in pursuit, coming down on their rear, and his army to be thrown across from the northern roots of Atakah to the sea, and then notice how completely the Israelites must have thus been "entangled in the land." On their right, the amphitheatre of steep bluffs that I have described, sweeping round from the sea to Atakah like a wall, hemming them in from the great desert beyond; behind them, the towering masses of Atakah; on their left, the hosts of Pharaoh, cutting off their retreat; and in front, the Red Sea. Here also there is another local advantage which this spot possesses, for here they would be quite near to that long point of land which runs out into the sea towards Ain Musa, on the opposite shore. Across to the other side must be a distance if allowance be considerably under eight miles, made for the point.

Under such circumstances as these described— the Israelites being completely surrounded—we can easily recognise the details of the sacred narrative. "And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord, and they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness. And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew you to-day; for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to-day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace." And so, when the sun had sunk and night fell on them, full of fears for the morrow, the word came from the Lord, "Speak unto the people, that they go forward," and as Moses lifted up his rod in front, the strong wind swept down upon the sea, the waves were cut asunder in the midst, a path opened up before the host, ''and all that night the waters stood together as an heap." Down that path went the long column of Israel—with on either side that wall of waters—the ''depths congealed in the heart of the sea," and all the while behind them burned in the darkness the pillar of fire. Into the same depths came Pharaoh with his proud chariots and horsemen. They followed the Israelites into the midst of the sea; but when there, and in the darkest hour before dawn, the "Lord looked through the cloud and troubled the Egyptians." Their chariot wheels came off so that they could not drive, and then, as around them they heard the roar of the vexed waves, eager as hounds held in the leash, they remembered the wonders of Moses in Egypt, and a panic seized them. They thought no longer of pursuit, but escape, and in the confusion of terror they struggled backwards. But, just as the gray light of morning broke over
the white desert hills, and across the stormy sea, Moses stood forth on the Asian shore, while around him were the ten thousands of Israel. In the name of the God of Israel, he raised aloft once more the sacred rod, the sea broke her bars, the waves lifted their crests, and in one plunge, confounding chariot and horseman, the great deep rolled in relentless power over the pride of Egypt. And then came that grand closing scene, when, as the full glory of dawn burst in splendour from the east, and as every sunlit wave seemed to dance in the joy of victory, there swelled up from a million tongues that great song of praise—''Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea."

"Sing! for the pride of the tyrant is broken,
His chariots, his horsemen, all splendid and brave.
How proud was their boasting! The Lord hath but spoken,
And chariots and horsemen are drown'd in the wave!"

"The Egyptians whom ye have seen to-day, ye shall see them again no more for ever."

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