Exodus and Rockart
Rock Art connection to Exodus
Copyright © 2017 by Yehuda Rotblum
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 Israelite came from? To date there is no archaeological evidence of Israelite pre-history; neither in Egypt nor in Israel and the only written source of this monumental period is the Bible itself. According to the Bible, the nation of Israel crystallized, on its way to the promised land, for 40 years wandering in the Negev Desert. 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, are missing from external sources. Despite this and the inconclusiveness about Mt. Sinai location, we still need to explain two important historical facts. They are the emergence of Israel entity and the emergence of monotheism, 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 rockart 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 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” for them, which is as 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 Midianite priest daughter. He is also revered by all desert dwellers.
The Egyptian called this local tribe Shasu-Yahu which was a common way to identify uniquely the tribe by its name and its God. According to Egyptian sources, YAHU was the Shasu God, nomads originated in Negev Desert. The geographical list of Amenhotep III (eighteenth dynasty, 1379-1417 BC) found in 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, nineteenth dynasty (1154-1186 BC), announced that he conquered Seir and destroyed the tribes of Shasu.
Fig3 Shasu Land and neighboring kingdoms.
The pilgrimage custom
The importance of “pilgrimage” to Hebrews, which is told in 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 own holy mountain nearby, which they made a pilgrimage and they all worshiped the same God named Yahu. 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 time, mountains and “high places” provided privileged access to heaven and to 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 the 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 place the dispersed tribe.
Fig 4. Holy Mountains, Negev Desert
Rock Art the Names of God
Numerous Negev Rock art found in the Negev Desert that depicts the Shasu god name, that 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 in were an important part of Israel’s past.
Fig 5 Yah God name engraved in Negev Desert rocks
In my opinion, Mount Sinai is not one mountain but several holy mountains scattered among the Midianite’s territory, each one designated by a different tribe as a dwelling place of their God Yahu. This may explain the references to the many Mount Sinai names mentioned in the Bible. According to the Bible, the God of Israel always appears from the south direction, which is the Negev Desert. This coupled with the engraved god’s name on Negev Desert rockart leads to the conclusion that this was the region the proto-Israelies habitated. Later Negev dwellers migrated to Canaan and the tribe’s 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.