Philo of Alexandria and the Exodus Route: 50 AD (Jewish philosopher)


  1. Philo was a Jewish philosopher who was born in Alexandria, Egypt. His family was powerful and influential with ties, through his brother Alexander's son by marriage to the daughter of Herod Agrippa.
  2. Whereas Philo's Greek predecessors, Eratosthenes, Herodotus, Hesiod and Hecataeus, (with the exception of Strabo who understood the Gulf of Aqaba) ignored Israel, Philo focused on Israel.
  3. Philo was just one generation ahead of Josephus, who used Philo as a resource. For example, both Philo and Josephus say that Mt. Sinai was "the highest of the mountains" of the region. Philo views Arabia as the land of Midian. He does not repeat the errors of his Greek predecessors by saying Goshen was part of Arabia. He seems to have a working knowledge of both the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba.
  4. Philo describes the route to the Red Sea crossing as "a long and desolate journey through the wilderness, destitute of any beaten road, at last arrived at the sea which is called the Red Sea" an "oblique path", "off the main road", a "pathless track" and a "rough and untrodden wilderness". Two passages in the Bible describe this "wilderness before the crossing point": Judges 11:16; Exodus 13:18. Philo describes it in detail.
  5. This not only rules out the Bitter Lakes and a North Suez crossing point, it also proves Mt. Sinai cannot be in the Sinai Peninsula.

A. Red Sea crossing:

  1. Philo's description of the Red Sea crossing is puzzling. He describes Moses taking "an oblique path" off the main road and described the route as a "pathless track" and a "rough and untrodden wilderness". He also says that Moses "guessed" it must lead to the Red Sea. This would rule out the Bitter Lakes and the Suez as crossing points, since the Suez was a major shipping port for Egypt and only 120 km from Goshen with major roads leading to it. Since Darius had built a shipping Canal from the Mediterranean to the Suez, which was fed by the Nile near Goshen, there would be no guess work as to how to get to the Suez. They wouldn't need to guess the route since many of them probably were slaves at both seaports and the canal.
  2. This description therefore, fits the Straits of Tiran crossing almost perfectly. But if Moses took the coastal Plain on the east side of the Suez, there would be little guess work on this route too. He could just follow the coast. So the route in Philo's mind, seems to favour a central path down to the Straits of Tiran rather than taking the coastal plain.
  3. He then describes the camp where they crossed: "not being able to escape, for behind was the sea, and in front was the enemy, and on each side a vast and pathless wilderness". Philo doesn't comment on why Pharoah felt the "wilderness had shut them in". He seems to describe Israel camped with the sea in front, the army directly behind them and a wilderness on the left and right. We have concluded that Philo was giving a non-technical description because he does not perfectly describe any of the proposed crossing points, including the Bitter Lakes, Suez, Nuweiba, or the Straits of Tiran. The best fit is clearly the Straits of Tiran because of the graphic emphasis on the pathless and rough wilderness that preceded the crossing of the Red Sea. This wilderness before the crossing point is almost always overlooked: Judges 11:16; Exodus 13:18. Philo describes it in detail.

B. Mt. Sinai in Arabia

  1. Both Philo and Josephus, who came after, say that Mt. Sinai is the tallest mountain in the region. The current choice for Mt. Sinai, chosen by Queen Helena in a dream in 325 AD at Mt. Musa, is not the tallest mountain. Another mountain located beside Mt. Musa is taller.
  2. "Nothing suggests that Philo used 'Arabia' to refer to the Nabatean kingdom." (David Frankfurter, editor, Pilgrimage and Holy Space in Late Antique Egypt, 1988, chapter by Allen Kerkeslager, Jewish Pilgrimage and Jewish Identity in Hellenistic and Early Roman Egypt, p 166)
  3. "In addition to his use of the terms "Arab" and "Arabia," Philo gives us an even more direct indication of where he believed Mt. Sinai was. He describes the Israelites wandering eastward all the way across the Sinai peninsula to the southern edge of Palestine just before the revelation at Sinai. Philo thus places Mt. Sinai somewhere east of the Sinai peninsula and south of Palestine—in other words, in northwestern Arabia. Philo adds one more detail to our collection of traditions about Mt. Sinai; he says that Moses "went up the highest and most sacred of the mountains in its region." (Mt. Sinai in Arabia?, Allen Kerkeslager, Bible Review, BR 16:02, Apr 2000)
  4. "Why did he say, "On that day, God made a covenant with Abraham, saying, To thy seed will I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates?" (Genesis 15:19). The literal expression describes the boundaries of the space which lies in the middle, between the two rivers Egyptus [wadi el-Arish] and Euphrates, for anciently the river was also called by the same name as the district, Egypt, as the poet also testifies when he says- "And in the river Egypt did I fix My double-oared ships."" (Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis, 3:16)
  5. But on that day it happened by some chance that certain merchants [Ishmaelites] who were accustomed to convey their merchandise from Arabia to Egypt were travelling that way, and so the eleven brethren drew Joseph up out of the pit and sold him to them" (Philo, On Joseph 15)
  6. As they urged these arguments to the king he [Moses] retreated to the contiguous country of Arabia [Midian], where it was safe to abide, entreating God that he would deliver his countrymen from inextricable calamities" (Philo On the Life of Moses, I 47)

C. What Philo said:

  1. "Therefore, turning aside from the direct road he found an oblique path, and thinking that it must extend as far as the Red Sea, he began to march by that road, and, they say, that a most portentous miracle happened at that time, a prodigy of nature, which no one anywhere recollects to have ever happened before; (166) for a cloud, fashioned into the form of a vast pillar, went before the multitude by day, giving forth a light like that of the sun, but by night it displayed a fiery blaze, in order that the Hebrews might not wander on their journey, but might follow the guidance of their leader along the road, without any deviation. Perhaps, indeed, this was one of the ministers of the mighty King, an unseen messenger, a guide of the way enveloped in this cloud, whom it was not lawful for men to behold with the eyes of the body. XXX. (167) But when the king of Egypt saw them proceeding along a pathless track, as he fancied, and marching through a rough and untrodden wilderness, he was delighted with the blunder they were making respecting their line of march, thinking that now they were hemmed in, having no way of escape whatever. And, as he repented of having let them go, he determined to pursue them, thinking that he should either subdue the multitude by fear, and so reduce them a second time to slavery, or else that if they resisted he should slay them all from the children upwards. (168) Accordingly, he took all his force of cavalry, and his darters, and his slingers, and his equestrian archers, and all the rest of his light-armed troops, and he gave his commanders six hundred of the finest of his scythe-bearing chariots, that with all becoming dignity and display they might pursue these men, and join in the expedition and so suing all possible speed, he sallied forth after them and hastened and pressed on the march, wishing to come upon them suddenly before they had any expectation of him. For an unexpected evil is at all times more grievous than one which has been looked for, in proportion as that which has been despised finds it easier to make a formidable attack than that which has been regarded with care. (169) The king, therefore, with these ideas, pursued after the Hebrews, thinking that he should subdue them by the mere shout of battle. And, when he overtook them, they were already encamped along the shore of the Red Sea. And they were just about to go to breakfast, when, at first, a mighty sound reached them, as was natural from such a host of men and beasts of burden all proceeding on with great haste, so that they all ran out of their tents to look round, and stood on tip-toes to see and hear what was the matter. Then, a short time afterwards, the army of the enemy came in sight as it rose over a hill, all in arms, and ready arranged in line of battle. XXXI. (170) And the Hebrews, being terrified at this extraordinary and unexpected danger, and not being well prepared for defence, because of a scarcity of defensive armour and of weapons (for they had not marched out for war, but to found a colony), and not being able to escape, for behind was the sea, and in front was the enemy, and on each side a vast and pathless wilderness, reviled against Moses, and, being dismayed at the magnitude of the evils that threatened them, began, as is very common in such calamities, to blame their governors, and said: (171) "Because there were no graves in Egypt in which we could be buried after we were dead, have you brought us out hither to kill and bury us here? (Philo, On the Life of Moses, 1:165-171)
  2. "Now the beginning of his divine inspiration, which was also the commencement of prosperity to his nation, arose when he was sent out of Egypt to dwell as a settler in the cities of Syria, with many thousands of his countrymen; for both men and women, having accomplished together a long and desolate journey through the wilderness, destitute of any beaten road, at last arrived at the sea which is called the Red Sea. Then, as was natural, they were in great perplexity, neither being able to cross over by reason of their want of vessels, nor thinking it safe to return back by the way by which they had come. And while they were all in this state of mind, a still greater evil was impending over them; for the king of the Egyptians, having collected a power which was far from contemptible, a vast army of cavalry and infantry, sallied forth in pursuit of them, and made haste to overtake them, that he might avenge himself on them for the departure which he had been compelled by undeniable communications from God to permit them to take." (Philo, On the Life of Moses, 2:246-248)
  3. "But when the prophet saw that the whole nation was now enclosed like a shoal of fish, and in great consternation, he no longer remained master of himself, but became inspired, and prophesied as follows:—(251) “The fear is necessary, and the terror is inevitable, and the danger is great; in front of us is the widely open sea, there is no retreat to which we can flee, we have no vessels, behind are the phalanxes of the enemy ready to attack us, which march on and pursue us, never stopping to take breath. Where shall any one turn? Which way can any one look to escape? Every thing from every quarter has unexpectedly become hostile to us, the sea, the land, men, and the elements of nature. (252) But be ye of good cheer; do not faint; stand still without wavering in your minds; await the invincible assistance of God; it will be present immediately of its own accord; it will fight in our behalf without being seen. Before now you have often had experience of it, defending you in an invisible manner. I see it now preparing to take part in the contest; casting halters round the necks of the enemy, who are now, as if violently dragged onward, going down into the depths of the sea like lead. You now see them while still alive; but I conceive the idea of them as dead. And this very day you yourselves shall also behold them dead.”(253) He then now said these things to them, things greater than any hopes that could have been formed. And they very speedily experienced in the real facts the truth of his divine words; for what he thus predicted by means of the power divinely given to him, came to pass in a manner more marvellous than can be well expressed. The sea was broken asunder, each portion retired back, there was a consolidation of the waves along each broken off fragment throughout the whole breadth and depth, so that the waves stood up like the strongest walls; and there was a straight line cut of a road thus miraculously made, which was a path for the Hebrews between the congealed waters, (254) so that the whole nation without any danger passed on foot through the sea, as if on a dry road and on a stony soil; for the sand was dried up, and its usually fine grains were now united into one compact substance." (Philo, Moses II 250–254)
  4. "For, having gone up into the highest and most sacred mountain in that district in accordance with the divine commands, a mountain which was very difficult of access and very hard to ascend, he is said to have remained there all that time without eating any of that food even which is necessary for life; and, as I said before, he descended again forty days afterwards, being much more beautiful in his face than when he went up, so that those who saw him wondered and were amazed, and could no longer endure to look upon him with their eyes, inasmuch as his countenance shone like the light of the sun." (Philo, On The Life Of Moses, 2:70)


1.      Philo refutes a Red Sea crossing at both the Bitter Lakes and the North tip of the Gulf of Suez.

a.      Philo describes a long journey through the wilderness to reach the Red Sea.

2.      Philo also illustrates that at Etham, they were trapped by the wilderness:

a.      "and not being able to escape, for behind was the sea, and in front was the enemy, and on each side a vast and pathless wilderness"  (Philo, On the Life of Moses, 1:165-171)

b.      " the prophet saw that the whole nation was now enclosed like a shoal of fish" (Philo Moses II 250)

c.        This essentially guts the idea that they would travel such a short distance to cross at the Ballah, Timsah, Bitter lakes, or the Gulf of Suez.

d.      Why would I Israel even cross through these small lakes, they would simply go around.

3.      This in turn refutes the traditional location of Mt. Sinai chosen in a dream by Constantine's mother in the middle of the Sinai Peninsula.

4.      Philo's use of the terms Arab and Arabia, were restricted to the land east of the Gulf of Aqaba where Jethro and the Ishmaelite lived, and he never says the Sinai Peninsula is Arabia.


By Steve Rudd: Contact the author for comments, input or corrections.


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