Exodus and Rock Art

map shasu encampent

Rock Art connection to Exodus

Israel is an ancient nation, but its origins remain a mystery. In the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus story is narrated, but does not address the simple question, archaeologically speaking: where did the Israelites come from? Neither Egypt nor Israel have an archaeological record of Israelite pre-history. The Bible is the only written account of this period. The Bible states that Israel cemented its identity as a nation during its forty years of wandering through the Negev desert on its way to the promised land. Is it possible that the nation of Israel originated in the Negev Desert and not in Egypt?

Despite a century of archaeological research, no direct evidence of the Exodus event has been found. Exodus, as well as the story of Egyptian captivity, are absent from external sources. Therefore, two historical facts need to be explained: the emergence of the state of Israel and the belief in one god. Indeed, these are historical facts, and the only question is how they came to be.

A recent archeological discovery revealed the engraving of Israel’s God names in rock art, dated 1500BC, from the Negev Desert. There is also a theory, proposed here, regarding Mount Sinai’s multiple names which may explain Israel’s origin. According to this theory, proto-Israelites originated in the Negev Desert before moving to Canaan.

The Shasu tribe

Egyptian documents provide some insight into the character of people who lived in the Negev Desert. There is mention of the Shasu tribes that roamed the Sinai desert, the Negev desert, and the Transjordan desert. The Shasu tribes included the Midianites, Rechabite, Kenite, and Amalekites. “Sashu” is an Egyptian derogatory term given to a variety of nomadic or semi-nomadic people who did not own land. This group of nomadic tribes was called the Shasu-Yahu, Fig2, which was a common way to identify uniquely a tribe by its name and its dwelling place The Egyptians also mention temples in the desert, which are referred to as “the House of Yahu.” 

Fig 2. The Egyptian hieroglyph of Shasu-Yahu

Based on Egyptian records the Shasu tribes lived in places such as Paran, Edom, Midian, and Kushan. We can assume that there were probably several tribes scattered throughout this area, all descended from the same father Abraham, which is still considered a great father in this region even today. According to the Bible, Moses may have also been a real figure who lived in Midian and married a Midianite priest’s daughter. All desert dwellers revere him.

The Shasu Land

Egyptians recorded their territorial entanglements with the Shasu which provides us with the time frame and names of places that the Shasu tribes inhibited. According to the geographical list of Amenhotep III (eighteenth dynasty, 1379-1417 BC) found in the Nubian temple, the Shasu are isolated tribes scattered in the wilderness of Faran, Edom, Midian, and Kushan.  Records found in Ramses II tomb, tell that he took Shasu’s land and conquered Mount Seir. Ramses III of the nineteenth dynasty (1154-1186 BC) announced that he had conquered and destroyed the tribes of Shasu. Fig.3 shows the Shasu encampment including the ‘hill country of Seir’ in South Canaan and the ‘country of Yahu’ whose location is unknown.

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, it is reasonable to assume that each isolated tribe had its holy mountain or pilgrimage site. The holy mountain location was chosen in the tribe’s living area, a comfortable distance of about three walking days, 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 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 depict 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  shows examples of engraved God’s name (see also article Gods Names). 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


In my opinion, Mount Sinai is not just one mountain, but several holy mountains scattered throughout the Midianite territory. Each mountain is designated by the scattered tribe as the 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, who 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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