Marah of the Exodus (the Septuaginta Bible's Merrah) is the Bitter Lakes (Arabic: Murrah)?

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

21 April 2010 (Revisions through 12 June 2013)


I have proposed that Elim and its 12 (15) springs and palm trees is Ayun Musa, the "Springs of Moses" which according to some scholars possesses 12 artesian fountains (springs).

As Marah preceded Elim it is my understanding that the Bitter Lakes, called murrah or murrat in Arabic meaning "bitter" are the Bible's "waters" of Marah.

Waters in Hebrew is mayim, the "-im" suffix being understood at times to be a plural form. 

From various English translations it seems that there is more than one source of bitter water as Marah's water is referred to as "waters" not water and the accompanying plural form "they were bitter" rather than "it was bitter":

Exodus 15:23

New American Standard Bible 
When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah.

King James Bible
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.

American King James Version
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.

American Standard Version
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.

Douay-Rheims Bible
And they came into Mara, and they could not drink the waters of Mara, because they were bitter: whereupon he gave a name also agreeable to the place, calling it Mara, that is, bitterness. 

Darby Bible Translation
And they came to Marah, and could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore the name of it was called Marah.

English Revised Version
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.

Webster's Bible Translation
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah; for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.

World English Bible
When they came to Marah, they couldn't drink from the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore its name was called Marah.

Young's Literal Translation
and they come in to Marah, and have not been able to drink the waters of Marah, for they are bitter; therefore hath one called its name Marah.

of the waters
mayim  (mah'-yim)
water; figuratively, juice; by euphemism, urine, semen -- + piss, wasting, water(-ing, (-course, -flood, -spring).

http://scripturetext.com/exodus/15-23.htm

If more than one source is what is intimated by the term mayim "waters," the Bitter Lakes seem to fit the requirement of a multiple source of water as both lakes, al Buhayrah al Murrah al Kubra (Great Bitter Lake) and 
al Buhayrah al Murrah as Sughra (Little Bitter Lake) bear the name murrah in Arabic (the Septuaginta Bible written in Greek at Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd century BC for Jews by Jews renders Marah with two "r's" as Merrah which seems to be preserved in modern Arabic's murrah). These bitter lakes are north of my Elim (Ayun Musa) proposal Ayun Musa possessing 12 (15) springs and palm trees according to various authorities. Please click here for my article identifying Elim with Ayun Musa's 12 (15) springs.

The distance from the Bitter Lakes to Ayun Musa is approximately 23 miles from the southernmost shore of the Little Bitter Lake. By camel caravan this would be about a 10 hour ride, said caravan averaging roughly 2 1/2 miles an hour, or a day's journey (S. C. Bartlett in 1879 stated he was in the saddle of his camel for 10 hrs. upon reaching camp at 7 p.m. at Wady Gharandel from Wady Sudr south of Ayun Musa, having left Sudr at 9 a.m.). Professor James K. offmeier has suggested that Israel's daily rate of travel in the Exodus was roughly 20 miles a day, but suggests up to 31 miles could be covered ( He is proposing Etham is the area of Lake Timsah and the "turn back from Etham" is to the Qantara area and the Ballah Lakes)?

"A trek north from the Lake Timsah region and around the western side of the el-Ballah Lake system to its northern end would take one to the presentday Qantara region, a distance of around fifty kilometers (thirty-one miles). This could plavce the ancient Israelites in the vuicinity of the toponyms recorded in Exodus 14:2, that is, Pi-hahiroth, Migdol, Baal-zephon, and the sea through which they would pass." (p. 73. James K. Hoffmeier. Ancient Israel in Sinai, the Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition. Oxford University Press. 2005)

Hoffmeier on 20 miles as the "average" days' journey for Israel:

"Using thirty-two kilometers (twenty miles) as the approximate distance for the average day's journey..." (p. 161. Hoffmeier. Ancient Israel in Sinai. 2005)

Most scholars suggest that Marah is Ain el Hawara, a 2 hr. camel ride N of Wady Gharandel. It is usually described as possessing bitter water. However, at least one scholar noted that on his visit the water was palatable. He suggested that when the pool was low the water was bitter, when freshwater from rain filled it up to capacity it was less bitter. If this be so then Hawara's water is not always bitter, which would not make it a candidate for Marah. Another strike against Hawara is that it is only one spring disqualifying it as possessing "waters."

Palmer on Hawwara being a solitary spring:

"...we reached 'ain Hawwarah, which most previous travelers have sought to identify with the Marah of scripture. It is a solitary spring of bitter water, with a stunted palm-tree growing near it...The quality of the water varies considerably at different times, and on the present occasion it was not only drinkable but palatable...Hawwarah, signifies a small pool, the water of which sinks into the soil by little and little, leaving the residue unfit to drink..."

(p. 45. E. H. Palmer. Desert of the Exodus. New York. Harper. 1872)

Bartlett said it was 2 hrs. by camel from Hawara to Gharandel, these sites he understood to be Marah and Elim. If this be so how did a 2 hr camel trip morph into a day's journey for Israel from Marah to Elim? It makes no sense, the distance is too short to be a day's journey.

Bartlett:

"...in one hour fiftyfive minutes from Ain Hawwara we entered Wady Gharandel...We followed the wady toward the sea...till, in a little circle of trees and shrubs, we found our tents nearly ready...after being about ten hours (nine hours and fortyfive minutes) in the saddle...Arriving in camp about seven it was past eleven when dinner was over."

(p. 203. Samuel Colcord Bartlett. From Egypt to Palestine through Sinai the Wilderness and the South Country. New York. Harper. 1879)

We have three strikes against the proposal of Marah being Hawarah:

Strike One:
Only one pool of water exists negating the terminology of mayim meaning "waters" and "they were bitter."

Strike Two:
The water quality varies from palatable to bitter according to Palmer (1872); most bible scholars understand Marah, meaning "bitter," implies its waters were _always_ bitter, not sometimes bitter, sometimes not.

Strike Three (and your out of the ball game):
The distance of 7 miles between Hawara and Gharandal appears to be "too short" for a day's journey, it was covered in under 2 hrs. by Bartlett's camels in 1879.

Because I understand Elim's 12 springs are to be identified with Ayun Musa's 12 springs, Ain el Hawara cannot be Marah as it is south of Ayun Musa. Marah must be north of Ayun Musa and about a day's journey. The ten hour camel ride of Bartlett in 1879 from Wady Sudr to Wady Gharandal (9 a.m. to 7 p.m.) suggests the Little Bitter Lake is one day's journey to Ayun Musa/Elim by camel caravan.

Bartlett (1879) thought Marah was Hawwarah understanding it would have been a three days' journey, Israel assembling at Ayun Musa after God's victory over Pharaoh. It took him 6 hrs by camel from Ayun Musa to Wady Sudr where he camped. The next  day's ride was apparently from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Sudr to Gharandel (6 hrs. Ayun Musa to Sudr + 8 hrs. Sudr to Hawara = 14 hrs, + 2 hrs. from Hawara to Gharandel, thus from Ayun Musa to Gharandel = 16 hrs.) 

"In favor of this place as the Marah of the scriptures, there are the distances from Ayun Musa (a fair "three days" journey for such a company)..."

(p. 200. Samuel Colcord Bartlett. From Egypt to Palestine through Sinai the Wilderness and the South Country. New York. Harper. 1879)

Bartlett on the travel time being three days or 16 hours from a Red Sea Crossing near Ayun Musa to Hawwarah (about 47 miles) for the Israelites which averages out to about 15.5 miles a day for Israel's daily rate of travel (Gharandel is 7 miles S of Hawara):

"The distance, given by Burckhardt, Ebers, and Laval as fifteen and a fourth hours, by Robinson sixteen and a half, found by ourselves and Graul sixteen hours, and by Tischendorf fifteen or sixteen hours, would be a good "three days" march to a cumbered host like the Israelites; and a suitable site for Elim is also found in due time."

(p. 198. Footnote 8. Bartlett)

Bartlett mentions a 6 hr. ride from Ayun Musa to Wady Sudr (p. 190) If we add his 10 hours from Sudr to Gharandal and subtract 2 hrs from Hawwara to Gharandal (p. 203) it was 14 hrs from Ayun Musa to Hawwara via camels, and 16 hrs. from Ayun Musa to Gharandel.

Another factor in favor of Marah being the Bitter Lakes area is its prominence. All caravaneers who crossed into Egypt via the Sinai from Judah and Jerusalem would know of the Bitter Lakes which are quite large. Before the Suez Canal was completed in 1869 maps circa 1800-1850 showed these lakes to be low-lying salt-marshes. Obviously their saltiness would make their waters taste bitter.

I am not the first to suggest Marah of the Exodus might be the Bitter Lakes, that honor goes to a 19th century AD German scholar: Dr. Brugsch who proposed this notion as early as 1872 (He had Israel crossing the Red Sea at the Classical Lake Serbonis, modern Sabkha Bardawail east of Qantara in the northern Sinai).

Professor Brugsch (1881):

"The bitter waters, at the place called Marah, are recognized in the Bitter Lakes of the Isthmus of Suez."

(p. 398. Vol. 2. Heinrich Karl Brugsch. A History of Egypt Under the Pharaohs: Derived Entirely From the Monuments. to which is added a discourse on the Exodus of the Israelites. London. John Murray. 1881. Translated from the German text)

Classical Greco-Roman geographers commented on the Bitter Lakes noting they received this name after their bitterness, but that when a canal from the Nile passed through them they lost their bitterness and grew reeds and marsh grassses becoming the haunt of fish and migrating water fowl:

Strabo (64 B.C.-25 A.D.) on the Bitter Lakes which lost their bitterness with the freshwater from the Nile diverted through the Red Sea Canal (via Wadi Tumilat) which emptied into the Arabian Gulf (Gulf of Suez):

"There is another canal which empties into the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf near the city of Arsinoe, a city which some call Cleopatris. It flows also through the Bitter Lakes, as they are called, which were indeed bitter in earlier times, but when the above-mentioned canal was cut they underwent a change because of the mixing with the river, and now are well supplied with fish and full of aquatic birds. The canal was first cut by Sesostris before the Trojan War -though some say by the son of Psammitichus, who only began the work and then died- and later by Darius the First, who succeeded to the next work done upon it."

(Strabo. Geography. 17. 1. 25 [p. 77 of The Loeb Classical Library Edition. Vol. VIII.] Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1932. Reprint of 1996)

Below, a map in French, showing the Bitter Lakes as a marsh labeled Lacs Amers; near the right bottom edge of the map ESE of the port of Suez is Ayun Musa rendered in French as Fontaines de Moise (Published at Paris 1818 by C. L. F. Panckoucke. Map title: Carte geographique de l'Egypte et des pays environs). 

Below, a close-up of the above map:
I understand that the Red Sea Crossing whose nearby sites appear as Pi-ha-chiroth, Migdol and Baal-zephon appear on the above maps in French as Marais de Karach, Bir Makdal, and Ras el Ballah near Bir Abou Rouq, sites ENE of Lac Temsah or Bahr Timsah (my Etham). That is to say the Red Sea crossing for me is Ras el Ballah el Moyeh, "the headland of the waters of Ballah," a track crosses Lac Ballah at Ras el Ballah headed E for Bir Abu Rouq and Bir el Makdal. From Makdal a track head due S to the Bitter Lakes, Arabic Murrah and from thence to Ayun Musa (Elim). 

I do recognize an "alternate location" and perhaps _more compelling location_ for the Red Sea crossing, it might be at Qantara on the N side of Lake Ballah rather than at Ras el Ballah at the S side of Lake Ballah. 

Why? 

Commonsense says Pharaoh would not pursue Israel into a sea that was split apart by God with towering walls of water on either side as portrayed in the Cecile B. DeMille film epic titled Exodus.

Commonsense would instead ask: "Under what conditions would Egyptian chariots be willing to cross a body of water between Egypt and Sinai? 

The answer: Either a shallow ford or an area possessing a bridge. Israel crossed the area in ox-carts which could navigate either a shallow ford or a land bridge. 

When Pharaoh Rameses II marched against the Hittites at Kadesh on the Orontes bas-reliefs of his tent encampment show oxen and ox-carts to haul his army's baggage (20,000 troops) along with horses and chariots. So apparently in the 13th century BC Egyptian army troops, chariots and ox-carts crossed Qantara for Kadesh.

If Qantara (Qantara Tresor on the above map, in Arabic qantara means "bridge" and in the 1800s pontoon bridges existed for the caravans going to Syria) is behind the recast Exodus account any one of the migdol forts near the Ta Denit bridge could have been the Bible's Migdol near Yam Suph. Pi-ha-Chiroth if it means "mouth of the canal" might allude to the Ta Denit waterway. Baal-zephon (zephon means "north") might allude to Lake Ballah located in the northern part of the Ishtmus of Suez.

A 19th Dynasty bas-relief shows Pharaoh Seti driving Asiatic slaves before his chariot and Egyptians acclaiming his approach to Egypt's border at a reed-lined waterway or canal called Ta Denit "The Dividing Water," a bridge spans this waterway and its approach is guarded by a migdol fort. Herodotus (circa 425 BC) asked Egypt's priests where was Egypt's border? They told him all land inundated by the Nile's waters is Egypt. Land not inundated is not Egypt. Lake Ballah receives its waters from the Nile via Lake Menzalleh it being an inlet of that lake. So the crossing of Lake Ballah at Qantara is the leaving of Egypt's border from an Egyptian perspective. Lake Timsah according to maps 1800-1850 received Nile water only at the time of the annual inundation so it too was part of Egypt. If I am correct that et-Temsah/at-Timsah is Etham, then this area was part of Egypt too like Ballah; further east was the wilderness of Etham/Shur (the Isthmus of Suez), land not watered by Nile inundations and not part of Egypt.

Perhaps the Hebrews recast the Qantara physical setting into the Red Sea crossing of Yam Suph? Yam can mean sea and lake (the Sea of Galilee is a lake or yam, the Dead Sea is another lake or yam). Suph can mean "reeds" according to some scholars and reeds existed at Ta Denit (along with crocodiles). Qantara's sea would be Lake Ballah famed for its marsh grasses and sedge (Ballah is actually an inlet of Lake Menzalleh and receives its water from the Nile allowing such grasses to grow in its brackish waters). The bridge at Qantara would have witnessed Asiatic slaves driven before Pharaoh's chariots as in the Seti relief somewhat recalling Israel being driven into the Yam Suph (Reed Sea) before Pharaoh's chariots.

Below, a line-drawing showing Pharaoh Seti I (1291-1279 BC) driving Asiatic slaves before his chariot, a bridge spans a waterway called Ta Denit "the dividing waters" alluding to the Nile's waters marking fertile Egypt off from the sterile desert wastes. The bridge is flanked on either side by migdol forts. In the water are crocodiles and fish, the banks are lined in reeds and rushes, Egyptians await his arrival into Egypt with musical instruments and bowing acclaim with hands raised in praise. The color photo shows how much detail has been lost due to modern air pollution. 
Click here for more info. 

Driver (1911) on the distances in miles between Suez, Ayun Musa, Hawarah (Marah) and Gharandal (Elim):

"...'Ayun Musa, 9 miles below Suez...Jebel Musa is Sinai, Marah is commonly placed at Hawwarah, 47 miles SE of "Ayun Musa...Elim in Wady Gharandel, 7 miles beyond Hawwarah."

(p. lviii. Reverend S. R. Driver. Doctor of Divinity. The Book of Exodus In the Revised Version with Introduction and Notes. Cambridge. The University Press. 1911)

Finally, it must be noted that I do not understand the Exodus as portrayed in the Bible to be a real event. It is fiction, but a fiction based on a recasting of real events and real places. For me (in agreement with Professor Donald B. Redford, a prominent Egyptologist), the fictional Exodus is recalling the Hyksos Expulsion of circa 1540/1530 BC from Avaris-Rameses. The real Exodus route was the way to the land of Philistines, the very route the Bible says Israel did not take (Ex 13:18). How did I arrive at this strange conclusion?

Archaeology has established that the Philistines did not settle in Canaan until the days of Rameses III circa 1175 BC so they were not in a position to harass Israel and deny her pasage through their land to Canaan in an Exodus of 1540 BC, 1446 BC or 1260 BC. 

The biblical narrator was _unaware _of this, he thought the Philistines had been in Canaan since Abraham's days, circa 2100/1800 BC (Ge 26:1). So he understandably routed Israel south to the Red Sea or Gulf of Suez to Mount Sinai (Ex 13:18), thence north to the Negev/Negeb and Kadesh-barnea. Thence to the Arabah and via Moab to Jericho. No Israelite camps have ever been found in these areas despite repeated careful searches by archaeologists revealing the Exodus is a mythical account combining real events from different eras, Early Bronze Age II 2300 BC to Iron Age II (6th century BC). Israel's camps will _never_ be found, the real Exodus was the Hyksos Expusion of circa 1540/1530 BC along the way to the land of the Philistines.

Professor Menashe Har-el, unwittingly, provided the evidence that revealed the Exodus encampments, as identified by all scholars, were impossible and fiction as Israel's herds of sheep, goats and cattle would limit her to a daily rate of 8 to 10 miles. Any faster, and the animals' young would collapse of exhaustion, he knowing this, being once a professional shepherd. So, not any of my Exodus site proposals, nor Hoffmeier's nor Har-el's, nor any one-else's can present a series of sites or encampments 8 to 10 miles apart from each other, daily, from Rameses to Kadesh Barnea.

My interest in all this research at my website is to unravel the pre-biblical origins behind Israel's fictional history preserved in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) by comparing the findings of archaeology with the biblical story and arriving at sensible explanations for "why" Israel presented a fictional history of her origins. 

I have concluded that part of this fiction was based on misunderstandings of the physical evidence which existed in Egypt, the Sinai, Negeb, Edom, Moab, Philista and Canaan. 

The narrator writing this account in the Exile circa 562-560 BC thought, in error, sites physically in existence in the 8th-6th centuries had been in existence since the days of Abraham circa 2100/1800 BC, but they weren't, many came into existence after 1200 BC something neither he nor his Exilic audience were aware of, he dating the Exodus to circa 1446 BC (1 Kings 6:1) for some Conservative Protestant scholars.

The Pentateuchal narrator or his 8th-6th century BC Jewish sources probably mis-identified the thousands of seasonal campsites with corral-pens for sheep and goats of nomadic shepherds found in the Sinai, Negeb, and Arabah dating from Stone Age to Iron Age II times (5000-600 BC) as being the physical evidence of hundreds of thousands of Israelites with their goats, sheep and cattle fleeing Egypt under Moses to settle in Canaan. It was not until Sir Finders Petrie and his successors (professional archaeologists) in the late 19th century AD developed pottery chronologies that anyone would come to realize the correct age of any of these nomadic shepherds' camp sites as well as their nearby burial cairns or graves.
Below, a picture of an old stone bridge at Qantara (Kantara of the 1800s) on the trade route from Egypt to Syria showing camels crossing it in both directions, east and west (p. 189. Rev. Samuel Manning. LL.D. The Land of the Pharaohs. Egypt and Sinai: Illustrated by Pen and Pencil. The Religious Tract Society. London. 1911). Click here to access this beautifully illustrated tome.

Below, a map of 1807 showing the Bitter Lakes ( the above 1796 French maps' Lacs Amers) to be a "Salt Marsh below the level of the sea at Suez." (Aaron Arrowsmith, cartographer. A Map of Lower Egypt from various surveys communicated by Major Bryce and other officers. London. Available at the David Rumsey Historical Map Archive on the internet). Today two lakes exist in this area due to the waters of the Suez Canal which passes through this great depression.

Professor Hoffmeier noted that salty water tended to be called mlh in Hebrew and malih/malha in Arabic, (p. 162. Hoffmeier) and that marah, meaning bitter (Arabic murr) seemed to him , an inappropriate term for a site who's waters were salty. Nevertheless, the salty marshes of Bitter Lakes were called in Arabic not malih but murra/murrat meaning "bitter" (The Encyclopedia Britannica renders them al-Buhayrah al-Murra al-Kubra, "Great Bitter Lake," and al-Buhayrah al-Murra as Sughra, "Little Bitter Lake"). The area encompassed by these two lakes today is about 250 kilometers. Such a huge area containing bitter water, seems, for me, to be a more likely Marah of the Exodus than Hoffmeier's choice of tiny, little, Bir el Mura (p. 162. Hoffmeier) opposite, east of, Suez.
Below, a map of 1967 showing the Great Bitter Lake and Little Bitter Lake formed by the Suez Canal's water. Arabic murr/murra/murrat means "bitter."