Where Was the Wilderness of Shur?

saudi desert wilderness of shur

The book of Exodus states that the Hebrews traveled through the Wilderness of Shur on their way to Mount Sinai. Our research into Shur’s location provides indicates it should be on the Arabian Peninsula, further substantiating the theory that Mount Sinai is in modern-day Saudi Arabia.

The traditional location for Shur is as seen below:

Traditional location for the Wilderness of Shur.
Image via BibleAtlas.org

Several passages in the book of Genesis appear to place Shur in this traditional spot, and the Jewish Historian also placed Shur just east of Egypt, and identified it as the territory between Pelesium and the Red Sea. Some Egyptologists, such as Henry Brugsch and A.H. Sayce, have proposed that the word Shur means "wall" om Hebrew, and that Shur was a series of fortifications along the Egyptian empire's eastern border.

Sayce also believed that Shur went further east because of the scenarios with Abraham, Saul, and David, which seem to indicate the Negev region of southern Canaan. He then "stretched" Shur towards Edom to make the pieces fit.

However, Josephus, like most other ancient historians and cartographers, did not fully comprehend the Gulf of Aqaba, so this naturally led him and others to conclude that Shur must have been next to what we know as the Gulf of Suez. If the Red Sea is further east than these historians and cartographers asserted, this directly affects the proper location for Shur.

Dr. Glen Fritz, author of The Lost Sea of the Exodus, states in Appendix 7 that the Egyptian connection has remained a widely accepted assertion, in spite of the fact that there are no other Egyptian connections to Shur. The various Biblical passages that refer to Shur all relate to the Negev region, not Egypt. The contradiction only became visible with contemporary knowledge of the true size of the area, though some scholars have insisted on stretching Shur's size to fit the traditional understandings.

In spite of the historical misunderstanding, new revelations over the past 200 years about the topography of the region show that the better location for Shur is in the Arabian Peninsula, much further to the east of ancient Egypt-proper.

Ishmael Settled from Havilah to Shur, East of Egypt

One of the big clues that the Bible gives about the location of Shur is in Genesis 25:18 when the author says that Ishmael settled in the land “east of his brothers” (CEV), or “opposite Egypt” (ESV):

They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled over against all his kinsmen.

Shur, according to the text, is east of the land of Egypt, as one heads towards Assyria. The likeliest location based on that description would be the Arabian Peninsula, as it is directly between ancient Egypt and Assyria.

Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1893) supports this analysis, stating that Shur is “a part, probably of the Arabian desert, on the north-eastern border of Egypt, giving its name to a wilderness extending from Egypt towards Phillistia…The name was probably given to it from the wall which the Egyptians built to defend the frontier on the north-east from the desert tribes."

Havilah in Northern Arabia

This idea is supported by the 1992 Anchor Bible Dictionary, where W.W. Müller holds that Havilah must be in northern Arabia.[1] Egyptologist Kenneth A. Kitchen also places Havilah in modern-day Saudi Arabia.

In Appendix 7 of his book The Lost Sea of the Exodus, Dr. Glen Fritz identifies Havilah specifically as an area south and east of the mountains of Edom. Havilah may have been an ancient term that described the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula, as well.

Pinpointing an exact location for Havilah is highly difficult though, given the lack of geographical knowledge in antiquity. Dr. Fritz states that our contemporary understanding of Havilah may be limited to a broad one, similar to how the "West" and "frontier" were understood in the United States during the mid-1800s.

Joseph’s Slavery: Ishmael, Midian, and Shur

The story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers provides further
evidence that the Wilderness of Shur is in the Arabian Peninsula and, therefore, Mount Sinai should also be located there.

As previously mentioned, Ishmael settled in Shur. Therefore, identifying his descendants (the Ishmaelites) would help to identify Shur.

Genesis 37:25-28 refers to the people of Midian (in northwestern Arabia) as being Ishmaelites:

Then they sat down to eat a meal. And as they raised their eyes and looked, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing aromatic gum and balm and myrrh, on their way to bring them down to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood?

Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him.

Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted
Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt.

Verse 36 again states,

“Meanwhile, the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, the captain of the bodyguard.”

Genesis 39:1 then again indicates that the Midianites are a part of the Ishmaelite line of descendants:

“Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the bodyguard, bought him from the Ishmaelites, who had taken him down there.”

Czech explorer Alois Musil also made note of this in his 1926 book The Northern Hegaz: A Topographical Index. In the book, he stated:

Genesis 37:25, relates that Ishmaelite merchants came from Gilead on camels, bringing various fragrant spices to Egypt, and arrived at the well into which the sons of Jacob had cast their brother Joseph. According to Genesis 37:28, the Madianite merchants drew him out, bought him, and took him to Egypt. The names Madinate and Ishmaelite would here seem to be used interchangeably.

Alois Musil, The Northern Hegaz: A Topographical Index, American Geographical Society (1926), 298.

Amalekites in Shur

1 Samuel 15:7 says, “Then Saul slaughtered the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, east of Egypt.”

Dr. Lennart Möller writes in The Exodus Case that the Amalekites were an Arabian people, the oldest tribe of Arabia and the founders of the city of Medina.[2]

The Encyclopedia Brittanica states that “The district over which they [the Amalekites] ranged was south of Judah and probably extended into northern Arabia.”[3] The Jewish Encyclopedia likewise states that the Amalekites lived in northern Arabia.[4]

C. Merrill Tenny, editor of the 1975 edition of the Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible wrote that the Amalekites' territory extended from "...the Sinaitic region and the steppe land of the Negeb in S Canaan, S of Beersheba, and over E to include the Arabah region N of Elath and Ezion-geber, and possibly the more interior Arabia." [5]

Alois Musil also stated in The Northern Hegaz 's section on the Amalekites that this people group likely resided to the west or northwest of Petra, in the southern parts of Palestine, and extending into the territory towards the south as well.

Further Pinpointing the Wilderness of Shur’s Location

There is a strong case to be made that the Wilderness of Shur is in Arabia. A more precise estimate of its location can be determined by reviewing where it should be located on the Exodus route.

The Wilderness of Shur should be located to the east of the Yam Suph crossing site, commonly referred to as the Red Sea Crossing.

Exodus 15 indicates that the Bitter Springs of Marah, the first stop after the Red Sea Crossing, is located within or adjacent to the Wilderness of Shur.

Elim, where the Hebrews find 12 wells and 70 palms, should be located on a traversable path from Marah through the Wilderness of Shur. Since Elim and Marah must be in modern-day Saudi Arabia, it logically follows that Shur must also be there.

The traditional location for the Wilderness of Shur is directly east of Goshen in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, along the way of the Philistines. However, a closer look at the Biblical texts reveals a different location. These links of evidence point to Shur being in the Arabian Peninsula, and not in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.


Bibliography

[1] Müller, W. W. (1992). "Havilah (Place)." In the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Volume 3, p. 82.

[2] Lennart Möller, The Exodus Case, 4th ed. (Copenhagen,
Denmark: Scandinavia Pub. House, 2010),278.

[3] “Amalekite.” Encyclopedia Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Amalekites

[4] W. Max Muller, Kaufmann Kohler. Amalek, Amalekites. Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1351-amalek-amalekites

[5] Tenny, Merrill C. Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 123.

Last updated August 8, 2019

5 thoughts on “Where Was the Wilderness of Shur?”

    1. Our first documentary did not delve into this material. Since we released it late in 2018, we have been continuing the research into the region identifying more evidence that points to an Arabian location for Sinai. We recently came across some information about Shur and looked into it more. The evidence showing that Shur was likely in Arabia is very strong, so our research team made this page discussing the subject.

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