Reflecting in Elim

Our travelers walk from the eastern shore of the Red Sea three days into the desert only to find bitter water at Marah. After Moses makes the water drinkable, they stay for a bit then leave and find the oasis they were looking for.

They came to Elim, and there were twelve water fountains and seventy palms, and they encamped there by the water.

Exodus 15: 27

Other translations use “springs” instead of “fountains.” But all commentaries note that there are 12 tribes and 70 elders. As if the oasis had been prepared especially for them.

Then they came to Eilim. This was close to Marah so they should not have needed to camp there. For this reason it is written “they came” rather than “they camped.” In fact, when they first arrived they did not intend to camp but only to avail themselves of the water from the springs. The twelve springs and seventy date palms signified that after receiving statutes and ordinances at Marah they were now to have appointed over them seventy elders and twelve tribal princes. Only after this are they referred to as “the community of the B’nei Yisrael,” for they are only a “community” when led by the elders.

Malbim on Exodus 15:27
Sinai. Oasis of Wady Feiran, Elim. Exodus 16:1. Matson Photo Service, photographer. 1950. [Note: This wadi is located on the Sinai Peninsula, nowhere near where I’m placing Elim.]

Was Elim in fact an oasis? I’m taking it as such. One with plenty of water for drinking, watering the animals, and bathing. And fruits there for the picking. Yet some interpretations are less optimistic.

And now removing from thence they came to Elim; which place looked well at a distance, for there was a grove of palm-trees; but when they came near to it, it appeared to be a bad place, for the palm-trees were no more than seventy; and they were ill-grown and creeping trees, by the want of water, for the country about was all parched, and no moisture sufficient to water them, and make them hopeful and useful, was derived to them from the fountains, which were in number twelve: they were rather a few moist places than springs, which not breaking out of the ground, nor running over, could not sufficiently water the trees. And when they dug into the sand, they met with no water; and if they took a few drops of it into their hands, they found it to be useless, on account of its mud. The trees were too weak to bear fruit, for want of being sufficiently cherished and enlivened by the water.

Josephus: The Complete Works. Chapter 1, section 3.
The Hebrews camping in Elim. Original drawing by Bernard Salomon, circa 1550, illustrations for Claude Paradin, Quadrins historiques de la BibleTypDr 515.S766.50q (15), Houghton Library, Harvard University


  • Malbim on Exodus.  Composed in (c.1844 – c.1874 CE). Popular Biblical commentary by Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (Malbim).
  • Josephus: The Complete Works. Chapter 1. How Moses When He Had Brought the People Out of Egypt Led Them to Mount Sinai; But Not Till They Had Suffered Much in Their Journey.
  • Elim: The Desert Oasis.  Doubting Thomas Research Foundation.

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