Exodus and Rock Art

map shasu encampent

Rock Art connection to Exodus

The nation of Israel is ancient, but its beginning is mysterious. The Hebrew Bible narrates the event of Exodus, but they do not answer the simple question, archeologically speaking; where the Israelites came from? To date, there is no archaeological proof of Israelite pre-history, not in Egypt, nor Israel. The Bible is the only written source documenting this monumental period.   According to the Bible, Israel crystallized as a nation through its wanders in the Negev desert for 40 years on its way to the promised land.   Is it possible that the nation of Israel also originated in the Negev Desert and not in Egypt?

After a century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists, no direct hard evidence was found of the Exodus event.  The account of Egyptian captivity,  including the tale of Exodus, is missing from external sources. Despite this and the inconclusiveness of the Mt. Sinai location, we still need to explain two important historical facts. They are the emergence of the Israel entity and the emergence of the belief in one god. These are real historical facts and the only mystery about them is their beginning.

The new archeological finding of Negev rock art engraved with Israel god biblical name and a new theory about Mount Sinai multiple names may explain it all. This new theory suggests the Negev Desert as the dwelling place of the proto-Israelites before their wandering to Cannan.

The Shasu tribe

Egyptian documents provide us with a clue about the character of Negev Desert dwellers. They mention the Shasu tribes that roamed the Sinai desert, the Negev Desert, and Transjordan. The Egyptians used the word “Sashu”, which is a derogatory description for a variety of nomadic or semi-nomadic people who did not own land. They called them Shasu-Yahu Fig2, which means, “The land of looters and their God is Yahu.”  The Egyptians also mention the existence of temples in the desert, which they refer to as the “House of Yahu”. The Shasu tribes included the Midianites, Rechabite, Kenite, Amalekites.

Fig 2. The Egyptian hieroglyph of Shasu-Yahu

We also learn from Egyptian records, that the Shasu tribes’ god-dwelling place is attributed to several sites scattered throughout the wilderness of Canaan south that includes areas such as Paran, Edom, Midian, and Kushan. It is reasonable to assume that there was probably a union of several tribes living in this area all originating from the same father, Abraham, which is considered a great father in this region, even presently. According to the Bible, Moses may be also a real figure he lived in Midian and even married a Midianite priest’s daughter. He is revered by all desert dwellers.

The Shasu Land

The Egyptians called this local tribe Shasu-Yahu which was a common way to identify uniquely the tribe by its name and its dwelling place. According to Egyptian sources, YAHU was the Shasu God, nomads originated in the Negev Desert. The geographical list of Amenhotep III (eighteenth dynasty, 1379-1417 BC) found in the Nubian temple describes the Shasu as scattered tribes in the wilderness of Faran, Edom, Midian, and Kushan. The Shasu encampment includes,  see Fig3, the ‘hill country of Seir’ in South Canaan and the ‘country of Yahu’ whose location is unknown. Records from the memorial tomb of Ramses II (1213-1303 BC) describe that he robbed Shasu land and conquered Mount Seir. Ramses III, the nineteenth dynasty (1154-1186 BC), announced that he conquered Seir and destroyed the tribes of Shasu.

Shasu Map
Fig3 Shasu Land and neighboring kingdoms.

The pilgrimage custom

The Hebrews “pilgrimage” custom described the Biblical passage “So now, let us go a three days’ journey in the wilderness to offer sacrifice to the LORD, our God.” (Exodus 3:18). The vast empty desert restricts the pilgrimage to a reasonable walking distance. Therefore each isolated tribe spread out in the desert, had its holy mountain nearby, which they made a pilgrimage to. The holy mountain location was chosen in the tribe living area, a comfortable distance of about three days walk, or about 60 km. In Ancient times, mountains and “high places” provided privileged access to heaven and the divine. They were the dwelling places of gods and the boundary between heaven and earth. When people needed to be close to their god, they made pilgrimages to the holy mountain. These special places, chosen purely for worship, were separated from the daily rhythm of life. These were the extended tribe’s gathering places for pilgrimage and a social gathering, a long tradition extending from their ancestors.

Negev Desert Holy Mountains

There are many examples of such mountains in the Negev Desert. Mt. Arqub, Mt. Rahma, Mt. Mehia, Mt. Ardon, Mt. Ramon, Mt. Tzuriaz, Mount Masa, Mt. Karkom, and more are all prominent mountains in the Central Negev Desert with a rich concentration of religious sites such as burials, temples, Masseboth, and rock art.

The Bible’s references different places, in the Negev Desert, from which God appeared: Sinai, Edom, Seir, and Paran: “YHWH, when thou went out of Seir, when thou marched out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled……” (Judges 5: 4). The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Faran…” (Deuteronomy 33: 2). This is the worship and dwelling area of the Shasu tribes. The numerous names for Mount Sinai mentioned in the Bible include the Mountain of God, Mount Horeb, Mount Seir, Mount Elohim, Mount Paran, which are holy mountains in this region, each probably a pilgrimage places for the dispersed tribe.

Fig 4. Holy Mountains, Negev Desert

Rock Art the Names of Israel God

Numerous Negev Rock art found in the Negev Desert depicts the Shasu god name, which later became the God of Israel. The Negev Desert is the only place where early explicit names of God have been found. Fig. 5 (see article Gods Names) shows examples of engraved God’s name. The prevalent engraving reads YAH, which is similar to the Shasu god YAHU. Yahu was the God of nomadic shepherds in the wilderness, the southern region of Canaan, as Egyptian documents testify. What distinguished Israel from other emerging Iron Age neighboring cultures was the belief in Yahweh as the national god. This strengthens the hypothesis that the nomads who engraved god’s name were an important part of Israel’s past.

Rock Art archeology news. god name in negev desert rock art
Fig 5 YH God name engraved in Negev Desert rock art


It is my opinion that Mount Sinai is not one mountain, but several holy mountains scattered across the Midianite territory, each designated by a tribe as its dwelling place of their God Yahu.   This may explain the references to the many Mount Sinai names mentioned in the Bible. The Bible states that the God of Israel always appeared from the southern direction, which is the Negev Desert.

The engraved name of God found on Negev Desert rock art indicates that the proto-Israelites lived in this area.   They migrated to Canaan later, and their collective memory united their holy mountains into one: the biblical Mount Sinai.  They all worshiped the same God Yahu, which later became the God of Israel.

More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.



Harris& Dann Hone,   The Names of God. The Origins and Emergence of West Semitic Alphabetic Scripts.
Colless B.   (2014)         
The origin of the alphabet

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