Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
The Great Ash Heap In the Wilderness!
When archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie examined the temple ruins at Serabit El-Khadem in the Sinai peninsula, he discovered an immense heap of ashes underlying temple additions of the 18th Dynasty. What was the SOURCE of this huge deposit? Was it a slag heap marking the mining efforts of the Egyptians, or the remains of a large number of burnt sacrifices offered up by the miners of Serabit? Read about the startling conclusions thoughtful archaeologists came up with, and how the Bible helps clear up the mystery of the ash heap in the wilderness!
by John D. Keyser
When Moses was confronted by the burning bush at the mountain of YEHOVAH God in the land of Midian, the voice of the Eternal commanded him:
Then they [the elders of Israel] will heed your voice; and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt; and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now, please, let us go THREE DAYS’ JOURNEY INTO THE WILDERNESS, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ -- Exodus 3:18 NKJV.
Following the fourth plague, Moses and Aaron were called into the presence of the Pharaoh, who said:
“Go, sacrifice to your God in the land [of Egypt].” And Moses said, “It is not right to do so, for we would be sacrificing the abomination of the Egyptians to the Lord our God. If we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, then will they not stone us? We will go THREE DAYS’ JOURNEY INTO THE WILDERNESS and sacrifice to the Lord our God as He will command us." And Pharaoh said, “I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you shall not go very far away [from or beyond this point]. Intercede for me.” -- Exodus 8:25-28, NKJV.
Three Days’ Journey
What did the phrase “three days’ journey into the wilderness” mean; and exactly what destination did YEHOVAH God have in mind for the Israelites? Let Flinders Petrie explain:
The repeated request to be allowed to go THREE DAYS’ JOURNEY INTO THE WILDERNESS in order to sacrifice is apparently unmeaning to one who does not know SINAI (Exodus iii. 18, viii. 27). But the waterless journey of THREE DAYS to Wady Gharandel impresses itself on anyone who has to arrange for travelling. It is so essential a feature of the road that this may well have been known as the ‘THREE DAYS INTO THE WILDERNESS;’ in contrast to the road to Aqabah, which is SIX OR SEVEN DAYS IN THE WILDERNESS. To desire to go the ‘three days’ journey in the wilderness’ was probably AN EXPRESSION FOR GOING DOWN TO SINAI. -- Researches in Sinai. E.P. Dutton & Co. N.Y. 1906, p. 203.
This road down into the Sinai peninsula from Egypt, is described by author Werner Keller:
From the Nile to the mountains of the Sinai peninsula stretches an ANCIENT BEATEN TRACK. It was the road followed by the countless labour gangs and SLAVE GANGS who had been digging for copper and turquoise in the Sinai mountains since 3,000 B.C....IT WAS ALONG THIS ROAD TO THE MINES THAT MOSES LED HIS PEOPLE. It begins at Memphis, crosses the top of the Gulf, at what is now Suez, and then bends south along a waterless stretch of 45 miles, without a single oasis or spring....Fifteen miles farther on to the south, exactly a day’s march, lies Wadi Gharande. A fine oasis with shady palms and plenty of water-holes. -- The Bible as History. Second Revised Edition. William Morrow and Co., Inc. N.Y. 1981, pp. 127-128.
In actuality, this road to the mines of Sinai also ran NORTH as far as the border-crossing at Sile -- close to the city of Ramesses. According to Sir Charles Marston, “Sir Flinders Petrie has suggested that ‘THE THREE DAYS’ JOURNEY INTO THE WILDERNESS’ was an expression used to denote the route to the TEMPLE OF SERABIT in the centre of the Sinai Peninsula, where the then existing ceremonies and ritual OF THE HEBREWS were observed.” (The Bible Comes Alive. Eyre and Spottiswoode, London. 1937, p. 64).
The Temple of Serabit
In the winter of 1904-5, Sir Flinders Petrie led an expedition of some thirty members into the center of the Sinai peninsula. This region was little known at the time because of its inaccessibility and the general ruggedness of the terrain. Werner Keller describes the journey from its starting point on the Suez Canal:
From the banks of the Suez Canal the expedition followed the line of the EGYPTIAN BEATEN TRACK INTO THE WILDS OF SINAI. Through the Wilderness of Sin as far as the mountains IT FOLLOWED THE SAME ROUTE AS ISRAEL. Slowly the caravan made its way along a wadi and round a sharp bend in the hills....The caravan was transported straight back into the world of the Pharaohs. Petrie ordered a halt. From a terrace in the rock face A TEMPLE projected into the valley....A jumble of pillars with one very tall one seemed to be growing out of the ground. The yellow sand round a number of little stone altars SHOWED UNMISTAKABLE EVIDENCE OF THE ASHES OF BURNT OFFERINGS. Dark caverns yawned round the cliff-face and high above the wadi towered the solid massif of Sinai....The expedition had reached SERABIT EL-KHADEM, the ancient Egyptian mining and manufacturing centre for copper and turquoise....An almost endless confusion of half choked galleries in the neighbouring wadis bore witness to the search for copper and turquoise. The marks of the workmen’s tools were unmistakable. Tumbledown settlements which housed the workers lie in the immediate neighbourhood. -- The Bible as History, pp. 131-133.
The temple is located in a beautiful setting northwest of the traditional (but erroneous) site of Mount Sinai. To the north of the temple is a large, pastel-colored plain, and strange black hills to the west and east.
Over the centuries the Egyptians sent numerous expeditions to Serabit; and cartouches (“royal rings” containing the names of kings and queens) from the Old Kingdom onwards can be found. These expeditions reclaimed the highly prized turquoise from fissures in the purplish-gray sandstone, as well as copper from nearby mines. Because the work was very unpleasant, miners from Midian were employed; and slaves from Egypt were brought over under Egyptian guard. The Egyptians acted as guards and overseers; while the Midianites provided the technical know-how. The slaves who extracted the turquoise and the copper from the mines were none other than THE ISRAELITES!
In his book, Charles Marston mentions some very intriguing facts about the temple of Serabit, and the worship that was conducted there:
The seat of worship of the miners, was a TEMPLE ON THE TOP OF A ROCKY PLATEAU, two thousand five hundred feet above sea level, and THREE OR FOUR DAYS’ JOURNEY FROM THE COAST. The expedition [Petrie’s] found the ruins of this temple, and of an intensive settlement, which had once been FORTIFIED, perhaps against the intrusion of wild beasts rather than against men [or to keep Israelite slaves in?]. The place is a day’s journey from water at the present time....Evidence that at this temple a form of worship was carried on, WHICH RESEMBLED THAT OF THE ISRAELITES, was manifested in a number of ways. This was a GREAT HIGH PLACE. Here were IMMENSE HEAPS OF WOOD ASHES, and the fuel must have been carried up to this rocky plateau from places a thousand feet below, and these ashes testified to the burnt offerings, WHICH IT WAS THE CUSTOM OF ABRAHAM’S RACE TO SACRIFICE ON THE SUMMITS OF HIGH HILLS AND MOUNTAINS. Sir Charles continues: Here there were MANY PORTABLE STONE ALTARS FOR BURNING INCENSE, AND NO LESS THAN FOUR SUCCESSIVE GREAT LAVERS, OR TANKS, FOR ABLUTIONS. A feature of the settlement itself, was a number of stone...monoliths, of large standing stones...like the one erected by Jacob at Bethel (Gen. xxviii.18).... Though the Egyptian expeditions had built and adorned the temple with their inscriptions, THE CULT PRACTISED WAS NOT AN EGYPTIAN ONE. The evidence that had been left behind, identified the religious ceremonials of its worshippers as SIMILAR TO THOSE PRACTISED BY THE ISRAELITES....The discovery, like many of the older archaeological finds, had been somewhat neglected, until a German scholar -- Professor H. Grimme, of Munster -- claimed that he had DECIPHERED THE NAME OF MOSES ON ONE OF THE INSCRIPTIONS. -- The Bible Comes Alive, pp. 168-170.
The Enigma of the Ashes!
When Petrie and his expedition examined the remains of the temple at Serabit, they made a startling discovery!
Of this period [Amenemhat IV] a very interesting result was found BENEATH THE LATER TEMPLE. Over a LARGE AREA a bed of white wood-ashes is spread, of a considerable thickness. In the chamber O [of the later temple] there is a mass, 18 in. in thickness, underlying the walls and pillars, AND THEREFORE BEFORE THE TIME OF TAHUTMES III [of the 18th Dynasty]. In chamber N it varies from 4 to 15 in. thick; west of the pylon it is from 3 to 12 in.; and it is found extending as far as chamber E or F with a thickness of 18 in. Thus it EXTENDS FOR OVER A HUNDRED FEET IN LENGTH. In breadth it was found wherever the surface was protected by building over it. All along the edge of the hill, bordering on the road of the XIIth dynasty past the STELES, the ashes were found, all across the temple breadth, and out as far as the building of stone walls of chambers extends on the south. IN ALL FULLY FIFTY FEET IN BREADTH. That none are found outside the built-over area is to be explained by the great denudation due to strong winds and occasional rain. That large quantities of glazed pottery have been entirely destroyed by these causes is certain; and a bed of light wood-ashe would be swept away much more easily. We must, therefore, suppose A BED OF ASHES AT LEAST 100 X 50 FT., VERY PROBABLY MUCH WIDER, and varying from 3 to 18 in. thick, in spite of all the denudation which took place BEFORE THE XVIIIth DYNASTY. THERE MUST BE NOW ON THE GROUND ABOUT FIFTY TONS OF ASHES, AND THESE ARE PROBABLY THE RESIDUE OF SOME HUNDREDS OF TONS.... What, then, is the meaning of this great bed of ashes? -- Researches in Sinai, p. 99.
Yes, what indeed! Many different theories have been tabled, ALL of them totally unsat isfactory. Petrie mentions some of them:
One suggestion was that it was the remains of smelting works. But smelting elsewhere does not leave any such loose white ashes; on the contrary, it produces a dense black slag. Also, there is no supply of copper ore at that level, nor within some miles distance, and the site is very inaccessible for bringing up materials. Moreover, there is no supply of fuel up on the plateau; whereas the ore has been elsewhere transported to valleys and plains where fuel could be obtained, as at the Wady Nasb, Wady Gharandel, and El Markha. The statement of Lepsius and others that there are beds of slag near the temple is an entire mistake, due to ignorance of mineralogy; the black masses are natural strata of iron ore, and not artificial copper slag. Another suggestion was that they were like the beds of ashes near Jerusalem, which were supposed to have originated from the burning of plants to extract alkali. But, again, this is the most unlikely place for obtaining a supply of plants. NEITHER OF THESE SUGGESTIONS CAN BE AN EXPLANATION. -- Ibid, p. 100.
After rejecting these hypotheses, Petrie answers his own question: “The locality itself shows the meaning....On this hill we see great evidence of BURNT SACRIFICES; and in the cave itself were many altars for burning incense....THE POPULAR WORSHIP OF PALESTINE IS HERE BEFORE US. (Ibid., p. 100, 101).
The immense heap of ashes found by Petrie is none other than the remains of BURNT OFFERINGS Moses and the Israelites offered up to YEHOVAH God on the last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread -- after they HASTILY left the land of Egypt!
It has been suggested that these ashes are the accumulated remains of centuries of sacrifices offered up by the Midianite miners of Serabit. However, if this was the case, a heap of this size could never have been formed because the elements would have continually eroded the ashes. Wind and rain would have dissipated the ashes as they were deposited. Moreover, there were never enough miners stationed at Serabit to even REMOTELY lay down a heap of this magnitude! ALL EVIDENCE SHOWS THAT THE ASHES WERE DEPOSITED HERE ALL AT ONCE -- WITHIN A VERY SHORT PERIOD OF TIME.
Dating the Ash Heap
The fact that the later additions to the temple covered the ashes, as well as the fact that these additions are clearly datable, show that the ashes were laid down PRIOR to the reign of Tahutmes III of the 18th Dynasty. In examining the ash heap, Petrie further narrowed down the time-frame:
The age of these ashes is CERTAINLY BEFORE THE XVIIIth DYNASTY. And on carefully searching a part of this stratum for pottery embedded in it, I found pieces of thin, hemispherical cups, of thick, large, drop-shaped jars, and of rough white tube-pots, ALL OF WHICH BELONG TO THE XIIth DYNASTY. We have just seen that the XIIth dynasty was the most flourishing time in the early history of the place, AND THIS AGREES WITH THE DATE OF THE REMAINS. -- Researches in Sinai, p. 99.
This fits perfectly with the dating of the Exodus! The shards found by Petrie in the ash heap were from the reign of Amenemhat IV -- the last male pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty of the so-called Middle Kingdom. It was at the end of this king’s reign that the Israelites left Egypt under the leadership of Moses.
The inevitable understanding that Sir Charles Marston came to, after examining all the excavation results, is simply this: “....the Ritual practised at the temple of Serabit, in the centre of Sinai, to which reference has just been made, and which GOES BACK TO 1500 B.C., BEARS DEFINITE RESEMBLANCE TO THE RITUAL WHICH WAS INSTITUTED THROUGH MOSES.” (The Bible Comes Alive, p. 61).
Clearly, the ashes were deposited at the time of the Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites stopped at Serabit (Succoth) to offer up sacrifices to YEHOVAH God on the last day of Unleavened Bread!
This was the destination meant by the “three days’ journey into the wilderness.”
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