The Wilderness of Shur/Etham (Ex 15:22; Nu 33:8) Bir Abu Suwayr, Wadi Tumilat, and Lake Et-Timsah.

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

23 April 2010 (Revisions through 25 June 2010)

Below, various maps showing "the way to Shur" from Hebron and Beersheba crossing the Sinai and ending in the vicinity of Lake Timsah and the modern city of Ismailia founded circa 1869 at the time of the Suez Canal's dredging.

The Greek historian Herodotus (circa 425 BC) asked Egyptian priests: "What lands are Egypt?" They replied that "Egypt was the land covered in the flood waters of the Nile." 

Maps from the 1800s-1860s, before the Suez Canal was constructed, reveal that the annual Nile inundation reached and filled Lake Timsah. Thus Wadi Tumilat through which the flood waters flowed to fill Lake Timsah would be regarded to be a part of Egypt for the priests.

Israel camps at a location called Etham which is described as being "at the edge of the wilderness" (Ex 13:20; Nu 33:5). This suggests for me that Etham is probably Wadi Tumilat and Lake Et-Timsah, also rendered at-Timsah, et-Temsah, an Arabic word meaning "crocodile." Crocodile's existed in the Nile in antiquity and via the Nile's annual flood waters could wind up in Lake Timsah, "the lake of the crocodile."

If I am correct in proposing that Tumilat and Timsah are Etham and part of Egypt, then the wilderness of Etham is probably the Isthmus of Suez east of the lake. Archaeologists found at Tell el-Maskhuttah in Wadi Tumilat a silver bowl dated circa the 5th century BC dedicated to the Arab goddess ilat, a feminine form of ila "god," perhaps Wadi Tumilat is a combining of two deities' names: Tum or Atum an Egyptian sun-god who's Ramesside statues were found in Wadi Tumilat and the 5th century BC Arabic goddess ilat?

I have proposed that Marah, the Greek Septuagint bible's Merrah, is the Bitter Lakes called Murra or Murrat in Arabic. Thus the "wilderness of Etham, for me, extends from the vicinity east of Timsah to the Bitter Lakes.

The Bible notes a track which begins in the Negeb south of Judah extending to a location called "Shur which is before Egypt." I note that the various below maps show this track as extending to the vicinity of Lake Timsah.

Other Bible verses suggest that the wilderness of Etham was also called the wilderness of Shur (compare Ex 15:22 with Nu 33:8), suggesting for me that Shur and Etham are alternate names for the same area. Having proposed that Etham is Wadi Tumilat and Lake Timsah I have accordingly sought a location in this area whose toponym in Arabic resembles somewhat Shur, Hebrew: shuwr. I find it at a location called Abu Suwayr on the north side of Wadi Tumilat, just W of Lake Timsah. I note that the caravan track called the Darb es-Shur beginning at Beersheba passes the northside of Lake Timsah and goes on to Abu Suwayr and the Egyptian Delta. Thus for me, shuwr is suwayr and Etham is et-Timsah/Tumilat and "the wilderness" of Shur/Etham is the Isthmus of Suez east of Lake Timsah ending in the vicinity of the Bitter Lakes (Arabic murrat, meaning "bitter" whose doube "r's" recall the Septuagint Bible's Greek rendering of Hebrew Marah as Merrah).
Below, a satellite image of Abu Suwayr rendered on the map as Abu Suwerr, today the site of a modern Air Base.
Below, a map published at Paris in 1826 based on a cartographic survey of 1796-1798 by Napoleon Bonoparte's French Army Corps of Engineers showing that the track passing to the north of Lake Timsah (C. L. F. Panckoucke. Paris. 1826. Scale: 1:100,000. "Canal de Suez") is in fact the same "way to Shur" on the above bible atlas maps. Abu Suwayr is rendered Bir Abou Soyair. Bir means "well," so Abu Suwayr was not only directly on the Way to Shur, its well made it an important stop for caravans between Judah and the Egyptian Delta. The French map calls this track to the way to Belbeis (in the Delta) from Bir Maktal. Suwayr does "lie before Egypt" as described in the Bible 
(1 Samuel 15:7). Soyair/Suwayr does not receive the Nile's water so it is not a part of Egypt, it lies in the wilderness north of Wadi Tumilat. The Wilderness of Shur is an apt description of the arid land not only about Abu Suwayr but to its east, the Isthmus of Suez. Apparently the arid wilderness east of Tumilat/Timsah was called the wilderness of Etham. Thus we have at last the reason why the Bible called this area by two different names. Please click here to access this map at the David Rumsey Historical Maps Archive.
Below, close-ups of the above map published in 1826 but surveyed in 1796-1798 showing Bir Abou Soyair (Abu Suwayr) on the track going to Belbeis in the Delta from Bir Makdal ENE of Timsah. To the viewer's lower right corner is a portion of Lake Timsah.
The French inscription on Lake et-Timsah (Lac Temsah) states that the lake received its water at the time of the annual flood or great inundation (French: "grande inundations du Nil"). This suggests to me that most of the year Timsah evaporated away into a stagnant marsh with a few crocodiles and marsh reeds and grasses deposited in its bed by the annual inundations from the Nile. 
Professor Hoffmeier (2005) on Etham and Shur being near Lake Timsah:

"The proximity of Etham to Egypt is undeniable, as it was a a toponym encountered prior to reaching yam suph, and was reported to be "on the edge of the wilderness" (Exod. 13:20; Num 33:6). The fact that the itinerary included Etham both before and after the crossing of the sea shows that a circuitous route was taken, which brought the Israelites back to the general area of Succoth and Etham (figure 1). In other words, when Israel turned back at Etham (Exod. 13:20, 14:2) they headed northward away from the Lake Timsah region where they encountered yam suph, that is, the Ballah Lakes, according to our reconstruction...Once they crossed it from its northern side, the Israelites would have traveled south, which would allow them to once again be in the wilderness of Etham. This reconstruction, as it turns out, is precisely like that of the Oxford Bible Atlas (2nd edition) and the revised Macmillan Bible Atlas. The reference to Shur in Exodus 15:22 reinforces this interpretation because of the consensus opinion that it lies in the vicinity of Lake Timsah, where the way to Shur terminated. Thus the reference to Shur and Etham place the Israelites in approximately the same place, that is, east of the lakes of the Isthmus of Suez, evidently traveling in a southerly direction."

(p. 161. "Wilderness of Shur/Etham." James K. Hoffmeier. Ancient Israel in Sinai, the Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition. Oxford & New York. Oxford University Press. 2005)

Hoffmeier believes that Israel's daily rate of travel was approximately 20 miles a day, the rate of a travel of a camel caravan, which varies from 16-23 miles a day. He has Israel crossing the Red Sea or Yam Suph at the Ballah Lakes north of Lake Timsah. He locates the wilderness of Etham/Shur near Lake Timsah at Wadi Tumilat's east end. He locates Marah at Bir el-Mura in agreement with Professor Menashe Har-El of Tel Aviv University (1968). Israel's 3 days in the wilderness of Shur/Etham is for Hoffmeier a distance of 60 miles (roughly 20 miles a day) from Lake Ballah to Bir el-Mura east of the port of Suez (Bir el-Mura is 7 miles north of 'Ayun Musa).

Hoffmeier (2005) on the Red Sea crossing at Lake Ballah and Marah being Bir el-Mura east of the port of Suez:

"...a connection between the site named in Exodus 15:23 and the present day Bir el-Mura is certainly plausible, and it would fit within the distance of a three day's journey or approximately ninety-six kilometers/sixty miles from our proposed crossing point on the south side of the Balah Lake (figure 1)."

(p. 162. "Marah and Elim." James K. Hoffmeier. Ancient Israel in Sinai, the Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition. Oxford & New York. Oxford University Press. 2005)

Hoffmeier on how many miles can be covered in a day's journey by camel or donkey caravans (16-23 miles):

"Travel in the Bible and in other Near Eastern texts is measured in terms of the number of days of travel required to cover the distance...Nineteeth-century explorers who traveled typically on camels, in the desert terrain of Sinai and adjacent territories, attempted to determine the distance one could travel in a day. One such investigator, H. Clay Trumbull, calculated that fifteen to eighteen miles (twenty-four to twenty-nine kilometers) approximates the distance. A more recent study based on texts from across the ancient Near East from the second and first millenniums was made by the historical geographer Barry Beitzel, who makes the following observation: "The evidence is generally uniform and mutually corroborating that one day's journey in the ancient world incorporated between 17 and 23 miles" (twenty-seven to thirty-seven kilometers)...An early second-millennium text from Mari, for instance, suggests that a caravan could move around twenty-two miles (thirty-five kilometers) per day in desert environs. This figure accords well with ethnographic evidence gathered from camel and donkey caravans, which travel between sixteen and twenty-three miles (about twenty-six to thirty-seven kilometers) per day."

(pp. 119-120. "The Wilderness Itineraries." James K. Hoffmeier. Ancient Israel in Sinai, the Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition. Oxford & New York. Oxford University Press. 2005)

Three days in the wilderness of Etham/Shur extending from the crossing of Yam Suph (the Red Sea) to Marah would equate to either 48 or 69 miles at a rate of either 16 or 23 miles a day. One day's travel from Marah to Elim would be either 16 or 23 miles. Hoffmeier has Israel crossing Yam Suph at Lake Ballah and Marah at Bir el-Mura 7 miles north of Ayun Musa; he posits a distance of roughly 60 miles from Lake Ballah to Bir el Mura which upon being divided into 3 days in the wilderness of Shur/Etham has Israel's daily rate of travel at 20 miles a day.


The Bible's statement that it took Israel 3 days to cross the Wilderness of Shur/Etham (Ex 15:22 & Nu 33:8) has been explained as being the same location, the Isthmus of Suez east of Bir Abu Suwayr and Lake Et-Timsah, ending at the Bitter Lakes (Arabic: Murrat), biblical Marah, the Greek Septuaginta's Merrah.

The "way to Shur" (Hebrew: shuwr) from Beersheba on various bible maps passes to the northside of Lake Timsah and the Napoleonic map survey of 1796-1798 shows this track, north of Lake Timsah, to pass by Bir Abou Soyair (Suwayr). The caravans from Judah and Jerusalem to the Delta would probably stop at Suwayr for water. Suwayr is not a part of Egypt, it does not receive the Nile's waters. It is in the wilderness near Etham (Wadi Tumilat and/or Lake Et-Timsah?). It is "before Egypt, or east of Egypt" because the track after leaving Suwayr continues on to Belbeis in the Egyptian Delta as revealed on the Napoleonic map.

Etham "at the edge of the wilderness" (Ex 13:20) is _in_ Egypt as Wadi Tumilat and Lake Et-Timsah receive the Nile's water via the annual inundations as noted on the Napoleonic map surveyed in 1796-1798, published 1826 at Paris. So the Bible is giving us two reference points for the Wilderness of Shur/Etham:

(1) A reference point _outside_ of Egypt, in the arid wilderness: Bir Abu Suwayr on the great caravan route from Belbeis in the Delta to Beersheba in the Negeb.

(2) A reference point _in_ Egypt: Etham at the "edge of the wilderness": Wadi Tumilat and Lake Et-Timsah which receive the Nile's waters and thus are "a part of Egypt" according the Egyptian priests Herodotus consulted.

For 200 years scholars have in error thought Shur was a "wall" of some sort, envisioning a system of ancient Egyptian forts or posts east of Egypt barring access to the Delta by nomads. If I am correct Shur is not a "wall" its a "well," 
Bir Abu Suwayr on the caravan route from Bilbeis in the Delta to Beersheba in the Negeb!

Please click here for the location of the Red Sea crossing which preceded 3 days in the Wilderness of Etham/Shur.

Please click here for the location of Marah the Septuaginta's Merrah in Greek, Arabic Murrah, the Bitter Lakes.

Please click here for the location of Elim's 12 springs and 70 palm trees as Ayun Musa's 12 springs and palm trees.

Please click here for the location of the Wilderness of Sin, either El Sanawi, Hosan abu Zenna or Ras Abu Zenimeh.

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