2 How reliable is the text
3 Where did the text come
Chapter 4 Was it a
crossing of the Red Sea?
5 How long ago was the crossing ?
6 Where did the Israelites start from?
Chapter 7 Where was the
Chapter 8 How far did the
Israelites travel to the Crossing?
Chapter 9 What really
happened at the Crossing?
Chapter 10 Some fanciful
Chapter 11 What the
Chapter 12 Wind and water
Chapter 13 The location
of the Crossing
Chapter 14 Why the
Israelites could cross
Chapter 15 Conclusion
TO HOME PAGE
is a revised and updated version of the 2-hour documentary
prepared and narrated by Edward Furlong (EF) and broadcast by
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in the Ideas series,
in prime time on its national network, subsequently sold by CBC to
and broadcast by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the
Red Sea Crossing by EF sets forth his view that there was a
real incident and his theory as to what actually happened at the
so-called crossing by the Israelites. This involves establishing a
translation error in the number of Israelites involved; noting
problems with the various routes suggested for the Exodus; where
the event probably took place and why there and nowhere else;
when the event took place; the likely water levels of lakes and seas
in the area at that time; a side glance at the quarrels between
various academics in journal articles as to possible Crossing
scenarios; and the problems created by a text apparently composed
of various strands and at different times with varying credibility.
suggested solution to the problem is arrived at because there is
specific wording in the Biblical text which has not been taken into
account by previous proponents of various Crossing theories but
which sets the stage for a marine phenomenon that has been well
documented and studied in our own time. Further, in the Sinai
area, which is where the book of Exodus indicates the event took
place, in EF's view there is only one place where natural events
could have combined to permit the Crossing to have been possible.
still leaves open the question as to whether Someone foresaw
the circumstances and guided the Israelites to the right place at the
As part of the preparation for the Red Sea program EF had a one hour
discussion with Dr. Gunther Plaut, who wrote the Commentary for the
North American edition of
the Torah -except Leviticus- (Torah = Pentateuch, or first five books
Bible, including Exodus). Dr. Plaut agreed with EF that there were not
600,000 armed men as described in Biblical translations into English.
The word 'thousand' is 'elef' which could also mean 'squad' or 'unit.'
That translates as 600 squads of men or probably about 3,000 in all. EF
has archived this material but it is no longer available in audio
the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea as reported in the
biblical book of Exodus:
the children of Israel went out from Egypt and Pharaoh took
six hundred chariots and pursued after them and overtook them
encamping by the sea. And the children of Israel were sore afraid and
cried out unto the Lord, and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a
strong east wind all that night and made the sea dry land. And the
children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground
and the Egyptians pursued and went after them to the midst of the
sea. And the Lord took off their chariot wheels, and Moses stretched
forth his hand and the waters returned and covered the chariots. Thus
the Lord saved Israel that day." (excerpts from Exodus
King James version - KJV )
first point I want to make is that I don't think an event that has
played such an important part in Jewish history and tradition could
have been a complete fiction. There has to be some underlying
truth in the story, and I think I can show you what the real
excerpts just quoted from the Book of Exodus don't say Red Sea, just
'the sea'. So why is it called the Red Sea crossing? To
answer that we have to look at the origins of our Biblical text.
RELIABLE IS THE TEXT WE HAVE?
course the starting point is the Bible or, in the Jewish faith, the
Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible. We're faced with a
number of problems in even trying to get to the source of the
material, because if we look at the number of translations into
English there are about 40 of them. If we get past the English
translations, back into the texts from which they were drawn, we
are looking at the Latin Vulgate, the Greek Septuagint, the
Masoretic Hebrew text, the Aramaic text, the Syriac, the Peshitta
Bible. The Dead Sea scrolls have some bearing on this, too.
are very delicate things. They shift in their meaning, and the
further you get away from words of your own immediate time and
place, the more distant the meaning becomes and it is difficult to
pin down the original meaning. For example, in our century now
that we have computers and TV, the words 'boot', 'crash' and 'dish'
take on new and completely different meanings.
A further complication is that ancient languages in the near east
didn't have punctuation. This can lead to some extraordinary
results in translation. Dr. Gunther Plaut was responsible for the
commentary on the North American edition of the Torah, except
for the commentary on Leviticus. He tells this story in one of his
Hebrew Union College in the US a professor was showing a
visiting Christian scholar around the premises. They came to the tennis
courts where there was a notice in capital letters, that read:
visitor didn't think this restriction was very appropriate in an
institute of Biblical scholarship. The professor replied, "Ah, but you
see we study the Talmud here and you must remember there is no
punctuation in the Talmud. You're not reading the notice correctly,
you should read:
VISITORS ALLOWED! "
conveys exactly the opposite meaning, but the unpunctuated
words are the same.
Exodus chapter 12 verse 37:
the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth,
about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children."
generally agreed this would mean about 2 million people
suppose they walked 20 abreast and about five feet apart front
to rear so that they didn't trip over one another. My calculation is
that the column would stretch about 100 miles long. So some would
still be at the starting point, some crossing the "Red Sea" and the
head of the column would already be in the desert of Sinai.
one word that's the problem here is the Hebrew word 'elef.'
problem with 'elef' is that it has always been translated from
the Hebrew as 'thousand' when in fact the word 'elef' can also mean
family, or group, or 'unit' and describes a small army unit like a
squad. It makes much more sense to say the children of Israel came
out with 600 armed units, and not say 600,000 which is I suggest a
mistranslation. The 600 armed units would be about 3,000 armed
men and that I suggest is about the reasonable and proper number.
a quote from Professor Garstang's book on Joshua and
of centuries has taught desert peoples how to move their
camp. Evidently this cannot be done in close order, for their animals
must feed and drink and rest during the heat of the day. But at the
same time, the method must ensure safety for their households and
non-combatants. The formation usually adopted is like a closed V. The
flocks come first over an extended front, followed in open order
by the herds and behind these, the gunmen. Then come the women
and families with the baggage, and last of all, the elders and the
A clan of 5,000 souls, complete with animals, moves on a seven mile
front and seven miles is a good day's journey. Such a day's movement
gives a good impression of what was involved in the removal of the
reading John Garstang's account of Sinai nomads on the
move, I'm inclined to think that the whole group of Israelites was
not much more than 5,000, at the most 6,000 strong. And that
makes sense in other ways, because it tells us why the Israelites took
so long to conquer the land of Canaan. The fighting force after
attrition is probably 1,000 - 2,000 men, you have to be careful not
to lose too many in action because they're going to take a long time
to replace, and therefore they would be nibbling at the territory,
taking little bits up in the hills, they came around the back way,
couldn't attempt to conquer the plains where the major cities were
and the wealthier inhabitants with the best armoury and forces.
DID THE TEXT COME FROM?
isn't the only
problem we have to deal with. The
texts themselves that we know of don't go back beyond about 300
years before the Christian era (BCE), but before that there were
various strands woven together into the final written texts. What
seem to be the oldest strands are the ones I prefer as being the
most reliable. A classic example of different strands is in Genesis,
where we have two entirely different creation stories, and two flood
stories. In one case the flood lasts 40 days and in the other 365
days. These differences occur quite often. They're known
technically as doublets. In fact, you can sometimes get more than a
doublet, and a famous one is the Patriarch's Wife, the story of
Abraham with his wife in Egypt being mistaken for a sister instead
of a wife, and this is repeated twice more in different circumstances
first with Abraham and his wife and King Abimeleck, and again
with King Abimeleck but this time with Isaac and his wife Rebekah.
So there are many repetitions and changes in the repeated material. It
can become a real quagmire.
goings out according to their journeys by the
Commandment of the Lord."
argue that Moses was
responsible for writing the first five
books of the Bible, but I really can't see how one can support that
because this is not the way it seems to hang together, unless he was
merely acting as an editor.
IT A CROSSING OF THE RED SEA?
did the crossing take place? Most
English translations say
the Red Sea. The Red Sea is a body of water east of Egypt and
about 1400 miles long, notorious for its shark population. It
divides at its northern end into two arms, each side of the triangular
Sinai peninsula. The gulf of Suez is the western arm, next to Egypt.
The gulf of Suez is about 20 miles wide and several hundred feet
Hebrew words generally translated as Red
Sea are 'yam suph.'
Many scholars seem to agree that the proper translation is Reed
Sea, based on the supposition that 'suph' is related to reeds
etymologically from an Egyptian word 'twf', taking it to mean
papyrus reeds. But papyrus doesn't grow around the Red Sea, they say,
so it probably means a reedy lake such as Lake
say 'yam suph' can mean "seaweed"
rather than "reeds". It's said by some to be used that way in the Book
of Jonah. But
another scholar claims that this is wrong because the Egyptian
determinative for 'twf' is always a plant and never water. He says it
means 'the sea at the end of the land.' Some Hebrew scholars
say if you can read Hebrew you know that 'suph' means reed. But
what the Hebrew word 'suph' means to scholars today may not
be quite the same as its meaning in an ancient Hebrew text over
2000 years ago.
come at this problem a different way. In
Exodus chapter 13 KJV the first mention is translated as 'Red Sea'.
Then we have 'sea' 16 times before 'Red Sea' in chapter 15. Next we
have 'sea' again 6
times. The last reference is in chapter 15, and it's 'Red Sea'. So we
have in all 'sea' 22 times with 'Red Sea' once at the beginning, again
near the end, and the last reference is to the 'Red Sea.'
are two references in Deuteronomy, one
at the end of
chapter 1, another at the beginning of chapter 2; both say 'Red
Sea.' Both of these probably refer to the actual Red Sea because
Deuteronomy begins after the crossing and the Israelites now
appear to be at the southern end of the Sinai peninsula. They are
told they have been by the mountain of Seir long enough, and they
are to turn northward.
the book of Numbers, chapter 33 verse 8
from before Pi-ha-hi-roth and passed through the
midst of the sea into the wilderness."
text then says they went 3 days journey
and pitched in Marah,
then came to Elim and pitched there, then (verse 10):
from Elim and encamped by the Red Sea"
from the Red Sea and encamped in the wilderness
my suggestion as to what this tells
us about the incident. First, the brief mention in Numbers makes sense.
crossed a body of water called a sea, then they went on for more
than three days and came to the Red Sea. They camped there, then
left the Red Sea and went into the desert. This tells us very clearly
that they did not cross the Red Sea. They had not even got
there at the time of the crossing. So whatever sea they crossed must
have been north of the Red Sea because geography tells us it
could not have been south of the Red Sea.
do we reconcile this with Exodus that
mentions Red Sea? Here
I think the idea of different strands can help us. Nebuchadnezzar,
King of Babylon, destroyed Jerusalem in 588 BCE and took as
prisoners to Babylon most of those he didn't massacre. The
writer(s) of a late strand, at the time of the exile in Babylon were, I
suggest, keen in those days of despair to exaggerate and make more
glorious the ancient traditions that had come down to them. There
are examples of this in Genesis and Exodus. So they began by
inserting 'Red' before the first 'sea' and end with it, to make it more
miraculous. This means it was probably meant to be 'Red' and not
one more point about the word 'sea'.
The 'Sea of Galilee' so
called to this day, is only 10 miles long and 6 miles wide. Today, in
North America, we would regard that as a small lake. So what the
Bible calls a 'sea' is to us a small lake. Therefore I conclude the
Sea' crossing took place at a small lake somewhere about 5 days
walk north of the Red Sea between Egypt and the Sinai desert.
is more factual evidence to support
this suggestion of mine. In 1841 a team of Robinson and Smith published
a three volume
work called Biblical Researches in Palestine, Sinai and Arabia. Why I
like this is because not only did they travel the route
themselves, but they document the temperatures at the time, exactly the
distance they travelled, and by what means, how much
it cost them -- which of course is totally irrelevant today. But the
rest of it is quite relevant.
there we have experienced travellers who
say from Cairo to Suez
by the route that we took is so many geographic miles, so many
statute miles. They say our total travel time elapsed was 32 1/4
hours, but then we slept at night, of course. On the way, we had to
browse the camels, so that in actual fact it took us so many hours
for travelling time. And they say therefore we conclude that the
Israelites could not possibly have got to the Red Sea using the
number of way-stations that are provided to them in the Bible in
the time allotted, which they say is three days. That is very useful
evidence, I think, for us to have.
that evidence alone, I think we can
reasonably argue that the
crossing has to be further north, quite apart from the fact that the
Red Sea itself is shown on the map today as being muddy with a
muddy bottom, in all that area around Suez and further north from
there, which would not be too suitable for crossing.
LONG AGO WAS THE CROSSING?
our era AD (Anno Domini) (the year of our
Lord) dating is by
years that just follow one another but BCE (before Christian era)
dates were based on the year of a ruler, and dating ancient events is
not a simple matter. Scholars have had many problems in trying to
put a historical date on the Exodus. There is no obvious reference to
it in Egyptian history, which is fairly well documented. Some have
even suggested there were two Exodus incidents, one led by Moses,
and a later one led by Joshua.
total spread of time between scholars'
views as to when this
might have been is not greater than about 1513 BCE. down to the
late 1200s BCE. (conventional dating). The 1200s BCE would be in
the reign of Rameses II, which was quite a long reign. Whereas his
reign was in the 19th dynasty in Egypt, you would have to move
back into the 18th dynasty to pick up the
earliest dates suggested.
a chartered accountant with considerable
experience in research
and investigations, the more I studied this biblical material, the
more it seemed to me that the Ramesside period -- the later 19th
dynasty of Egypt -- was too late, and that we should be looking
back to the 18th dynasty of Egypt, as to when it
assuming only one Exodus. Archaeologists digging among the
remains of cities in the area, for example Jericho, can't fit the dates
for their destruction to the Ramesside period. Some cities
mentioned in the Bible as destroyed by Joshua don't even seem to
have remains for that period. But if we go back about three
hundred years into the bronze age the archaeological evidence is
that these cities were destroyed.
archaeological evidence has been put
forward to move the
time of Rameses II back from the early iron age, a period of poverty
and cultural deterioration, to the splendour of the later bronze age,
the reign of Solomon who succeeded David as king of Israel. Moses
and the Exodus are then moved back close to 300 years, to the time
of Khaneferre as Pharaoh, shortly before 1500 BCE.
are still in quite a narrow time range
geologically speaking as to
possible changes in the lakes. There does not appear to be any
significant difference in the appearance of the terrain between 1500
BCE and the present except for the completion of the Suez Canal.
DID THE ISRAELITES START FROM?
way-stations referred to, for example in
the book of Numbers
saying where the Israelites stopped on the way to the crossing, could
be important because they should help fix the distance the Israelites
travelled to the crossing, and therefore where it was. Exodus 12.37
the children of
Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth..."
they took their
journey from Succoth, and encamped in
before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against
suggests three days journey to get to
the "sea" on the reasonable assumption that they stopped at the end of
travel at a way-station.
the names of the many stations mentioned
in Exodus -- Migdol, Baal-Zephon, Pihahiroth (apparently Egyptian
and Etham (Egyptian Hut Atum) have been identified by
archaeologists and excavated. They were all founded between the
7th and 4th centuries
BCE. This means that the writer of at least this
part of Exodus is referring to cities of his own time and certainly
not the time of the Exodus, about a thousand years earlier. I
suggest this is because it's a strand woven into the text by someone
writing after the destruction of Jerusalem and the survivors' exile to
Ancient texts have many errors, not through destruction of the
earlier material but by spurious additions. If a copy was required a
scribe had to copy it by hand. Scribes often wrote notes in the
margins -- glosses -- to explain or comment on something not well
understood. Later copyists might add the gloss into the text. That's
how contradictions arise. For example, Baal Zephon is between
Lake Sirbonis and the Mediterranean Sea, on the so-called Way of
the Philistines from Egypt to Canaan, but Exodus says (only 6
not (through) the way of the land of the
the word 'Philistines' is an
anachronism. The Philistines
didn't arrive in Palestine until the 12th
there is some hope of
establishing the starting point for
the Exodus. Austrian archaeologists have been working in the Nile
Delta area for over 10 years and have uncovered the lost city of
Avaris. Its population was Semitic (Caananite or Hebrew), not
Egyptian. Near the end of the 13th dynasty in Egypt there is
evidence for a deadly plague, with mass burials in shallow pits.
Afterwards most of the population are said to have gathered their
belongings and left the city. The location of Avaris has Rameses
close to it.
evidence seems consistent with what the
Bible tells us about the
Israelites: that centuries earlier in the time of Joseph they were
originally allowed to settle in choice land in Goshen in Egypt
which presumably means the delta area. And the Biblical account
of the plagues just before the Exodus has some similarity to the
archaeological evidence at Avaris.
WAS THE CROSSING?
Egypt and the Sinai peninsula is a
north-south isthmus or
narrow strip of land connecting them. At the northern end is the
Mediterranean sea. At the southern end is the Gulf of Suez, the
western branch of the Red Sea separating the southern part of
Egypt and Sinai. The total distance of this isthmus is less than 90
miles. It must have been crossed somewhere for the Israelites to get
from Egypt to the Sinai peninsula.
a string of six lakes at intervals
along this isthmus between
the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and one of them will be where
the crossing took place. Starting at the Mediterranean Sea in the
north and going south we have:
for about 20 miles, then
Ballah (Papyrus Swamp) about 10 miles
north to south, then
for about 10 miles, next
Timsah about 3 miles square, then
10 miles of land, then
Bitter Lake and Little
2 lakes are joined end to end, total
length about 20 miles,
15 miles more land
comes the Gulf of Suez (Red Sea).
think Lake Menzaleh, which connects with
the Mediterranean, or
Lake Bardawil (Sirbonis Lake, as it's known in classical sources) on
the Mediterranean coast a little further to the east are ruled out by
the reference to their not going by the coastal route, the "way of the
those earlier times at the northern end
Lake Menzaleh came
further south than it does today. At the southern end, a town called
Clysma was about three miles north of the Port of Suez and that's
where the coast was in those earlier times. That's the coast of the
Gulf of Suez, the western arm of the Red Sea. I would exclude the
Red Sea itself for practical reasons of size and depth and distance as
well as the evidence in Numbers. That leaves Lake Ballah, Lake
Timsah, and Great and Little Bitter Lakes.
would eliminate Lake Ballah as the
crossing place. First, Lake
Ballah is a reedy swamp, and I really can't see hordes of people
crossing a reedy swamp. There would be no practical purpose in it. It
would be very difficult. Next, it's also only about 20 miles due
east from where we think the Israelites started from. And Numbers
Chapter 33 says they moved from Rameses and pitched in Succoth,
left there and pitched in Etham, left there and turned towards
Pihahiroth, pitched before Migdol and then departed from before
Pihathiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the
wilderness. This seems to list too many way stations for going from
Rameses to Lake Ballah at the same latitude only 20 miles further
east. And there would be no need to turn if they were going due east
to reach the lake. Finally, Lake Ballah is a north to south lake and
the strong east wind that the Bible says blew all night would have
had no effect on this lake. So I conclude it's not Lake Ballah we're
Timsah is a squarish lake. It's fairly
shallow, but why try
to cross a squarish lake? It seems to me that you need to cross a
body of water that will give you protection once you've crossed it,
and it would be fairly long therefore and narrow where you
crossed. You don't want to cross something that's about three
That brings us to Great and Little Bitter Lakes, and that's where as
soon as I first saw them on the map and considered the whole
situation, I was convinced that this had to be the place. And the
more I studied it, the more I felt that had to be it because all parts
of the scenario seemed to fit very well there. Great Bitter Lake is a
long thin lake and joined to Little Bitter lake by a narrow strip of
water. Little Bitter lake is also long and narrow, but smaller, as its
name tells us.
to the present day the area around the
lakes is dunes, with
uninhabited areas, desert, shifting sand, gravel, shingle, flint --
type of thing. That's the far side, the side they're going to, the
eastern side. The western side is pretty well inhabited all the way
down now, in these days. There are palm trees, and way-stations
could well have existed at that time.
quite possible that the earliest strand
merely said the Israelites
travelled for three days before they reached the crossing place. Then
the writer who put in the names of the way-stations did this
much later -- about a thousand years after the event and had a poor
knowledge of the geography of the area he was writing about
which was several hundred miles away. But at least we may have a
starting point at Avaris, which a map indicates is close to the
biblical starting point of Rameses.
FAR DID THE ISRAELITES
TRAVEL TO THE CROSSING?
know Roman legions with 75 pound packs
plus their armour
and heavy equipment marched 20 miles a day. The Israelites,
encumbered with belongings, animals and children could not be
expected to travel more than 10 miles a day, perhaps 15 miles the
first day when the sense of urgency was greatest. But at the
beginning they didn't know they were going to be pursued. The
Bible clearly tells us that the Israelites turned southwards away
from the direct route to Palestine and this is confirmed by what we
quoted from Numbers as to where they went after the crossing.
total travel time of the Israelites to
the crossing area seems to
be 3-4 days travel which gives us 35 to 45 miles. The location I
suggest they reached is about 45 - 50 miles south east from their
starting point, assuming they set out from Avaris or an assembly point
somewhere east of Avaris. So it looks as though the
location I suggest for the crossing is logistically possible. The Red
Sea itself would be a further 20 miles south, which as I mentioned
earlier, Robinson and Smith showed was impossible to reached in
the time given.
we take every place listed in Exodus and
Numbers down from
their starting place to the Red Sea, we have 10 locations (Rameses,
Succoth, Etham, Pihahiroth, Migdol, Baal Zephon, Sea, Marah, Elim, Red
Sea). Numbers 33.3 says:
they departed from Rameses -- on the
fifteenth day of the
first month" --(that's April)
they took their journey from Elim and
....came unto the
wilderness of Sin which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth
day of the second month after their departure out of the Land of Egypt."
tells us it took them a month to move
through the 10 locations. So perhaps we shouldn't be too concerned with
the number of way
stations given and the speed of travel of the Israelites to get to the
REALLY HAPPENED AT THE
Bitter Lake goes southeast to
northwest and Little Bitter
Lake is slightly more north and south. I think the Israelites were
hemmed in by the Egyptians in about a 120 degree angle of Great
and Little Bitter Lakes, but managed to make their way across. This is
the only logical place for this to happen that I can see. We
have to get the Israelites across, even if the Egyptians are mired. And
when you look at these ancient chariots, and see how thin
their wheels were, you can understand why they would cut through
almost any wet surface and get mired. Especially with three men in
each chariot, because we are told each one had a captain. That
means a driver, an archer, and a captain in each, unless a scribe or
copyist added the captain in later for greater effect.
So now we need to know what happened that caused them to be
able to cross the quarter to a half mile or so that was the narrow
strip of water joining these two lakes, where they were hemmed in
by the Egyptians. But before I explain that I just can't resist
keeping you in suspense a little longer while I tell you what some
scholars have said about one another's theories as to what happened.
number of theories were put forward in the
correspondence that occurred in almost all the 1981 and 1982 issues
of the academic journal BAR -- Biblical Archaeology Review. Looking at
it from the outside, it is really quite remarkable the
things that were said between one learned professor and another. One
professor, referring to the translation of another professor, said:
references exist only in his
imagination. In his attempt to
reconstitute the daily and even hourly itinerary of the Exodus, he
becomes entangled in a fanciful scenario totally divorced from
Biblical, Egyptian or archaeological sources. The scenario is not
even anchored in the topography and historical geography of the
Nile Delta region. Some of the terms and grammatical forms he
finds in the inscription are not there at all. His reconstruction of
the Exodus itinerary is unfortunately totally confused and has very
little to do with biblical record."
in another case, a correspondent wrote:
would suggest that Professor A and
Professor B switch to writing children's fiction. There is certainly
nothing biblical in
then another wrote:
suggestion by Professor X that the
miracle of the sea is to be
found at Lake Bardawil came as a surprise to me. I have attended
two public lectures where Professor X rejected this thesis on the
basis of his own archaeological exploration."
contributor wrote defending himself:
el Ritaba is a concession of X
University and is being excavated
under my direction. Professor Y is in no position to make any
statements about the site or its archaeological evidence."
was about then that I thought to myself,
if this is what the Red
Sea crossing has done to scholars almost 3,500 years later, no
wonder Moses is reported to have said to the Lord, "Why me?"
of these suggested solutions to the
problems put forward in
this scholarly controversy seemed to me quite fanciful. And although
there is strength in parts of their arguments because of
their scholarship, in other respects they seemed to me impractical. For
example, the scholar who credits them with 25 miles a day
through the Wadi Hammamat.
then of course we have scholars
basically arguing for any point
of view, it seems to me, except from the text itself. We have one
scholar's suggestion that the Israelites embarked in boats at
Qoseir, which is beside the Red Sea itself, miles away. It's difficult
to understand why this scholar said they embarked in boats, when
the Bible tells us they walked across land that had become
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
start by looking at Exodus, chapter
13, verse 17, using Dr.
Moffat's translation, which is a little more modern than the King
James' Version. The sense is the same, though.
. . God led the people by a
roundabout road in the direction of the
desert towards the Red Sea. . .".
the Eternal" (as
Dr. Moffat here calls the Lord) "told Moses
to order the Israelites to . . .camp beside the sea. For the Pharaoh,
said, will think that the Israelites are bewildered, caught by the
think the Israelites were in a sense
caught, but not so much by the
desert, but trapped against the lakes which converged at this point,
and the Egyptians would therefore think that they had them
hemmed in next to a body of water which they could not get past,
and so they were content to wait for the morning to deal with them.
Exodus chapter 14, verse 21b:
the Eternal swept the sea
along by a strong east wind all night
'til the sea bed was dry."
little later on, in chapter 14, we come to
verses 22 and 23. Again,
Dr. Moffat's translation.
waters parted and the
Israelites marched through
the sea on dry
ground, the waters forming a wall to right and
left. The Egyptians in
pursuit of them went into the sea, all the Pharaoh's horses, chariots
let's look at verse 27.
as morning broke, the sea
returned to its wonted flow. And
while the Egyptians were fleeing against it, the Eternal overwhelmed
the Egyptians in the middle of the sea."
the word "wonted" is a bit archaic,
I am interested in the
word "flow", because that implies to me the water is tidal. Other
versions use other words. For example, the King James version
uses "strength", and the Torah with the commentary by Dr. Plaut
says "and at daybreak, the sea returned to its normal state." But
even these, to my mind, could suggest that we are dealing with tidal
flow and not static water.
think tidal flow is helpful. I think it
would contribute to the
overall effect. There
are two more verses
that I'd like us to look at,
which I think are important to us here, and this is part of the Song
of the Sea. It's thought to be the oldest part of that particular
section of the Bible. Some scholars have even said it was probably
written down very shortly after the events took place. My point
here is when you read this wording, I really don't think it's any
different in meaning from what we've previously read, and I think
it supports my position that I believe we're dealing with tidal
thy blast, the waters piled
up, the tides were dammed, the depths turned hard in the heart of the
relied rather heavily on the
translation of Dr. Moffat, but I
believe whichever version we used, we would get a similar type of
effect, that is, a parting of the waters presumably therefore into two
bodies of water. We have in every case a strong east wind
throughout the night. And then we have a returning of the waters
on to the Egyptians, who had looked out at dawn and saw the
Israelites had got across and tried to pursue them.
my earlier days I spent a few years at
sea in the Navy as a
navigating officer, and I've seen bodies of water heaping up in
lumps under certain conditions. And I think that the biblical
description in some of the verses we've just looked at, particularly
in the Song of the Sea, the oldest part, seems to me a very good
description of what can actually happen in those circumstances.
have seen the seas and the oceans in
various moods, sometimes
very beautiful, sometimes rather frightening. And winds, for
example, which we're concerned with here, the strong east wind all
night, winds can do incredible things. Wind can strip water off
very fast, and in fact wind does various things to water. For
example, there are certain parts in the equatorial area of the
world where the wind on the ocean produces a slope upwards as it
drives forward, and then in the equatorial counter currents the
slope of the water that has risen runs down again.
good example is in the North Sea, in
1953 as I recall, where
because of a very severe storm, the actual level of water in the whole
of the North Sea area was raised by about two feet, and there were
a number of storm surges taking place at the time.
phenomenon of a storm surge, is
different from a seiche and is
different from a tsunami. A tsunami is an earthquake under water
which drives the water at the surface at a very fast speed, maybe
hundreds of miles an hour. A storm surge will drive water at
maybe 30-40 miles an hour. A seiche is more a ripple effect that
takes many hours to travel back and forth. And I think what we
have here is a storm surge at Great Bitter Lake.
LOCATION OF THE CROSSING
only narrow neck of water that I can see
which fits the
requirements is the junction between Great and Little Bitter Lakes. It
is quite a short distance across, and my estimate is that it is
about 800 yards of water to cross when conditions are normal,
assuming that we begin with the Egyptians having them pinned
against what looks like 800 yards of water as the minimum point to
Bitter Lake runs from south-east to
north-west to get to its
furthest end from this crossing point as I envisage it, and that is
about 15 miles. It's about 7 miles wide. Little Bitter Lake is about
7 miles long and about 3 miles across.
800 yards channel between the two
lake-ends is intersected by
some rocky land areas but we can't expect it to have been identical
to this over 3,000 years ago.
major change since the time of the
Exodus is in water levels: eustatic and isostatic water levels --
eustatic meaning the water
moving up and down, and isostatic, the movement up and down of
the land relative to the water.
present depth varies between, as you can
see from a map, 3 to 6
feet -- that's marked in fathoms (a fathom is 6 feet)-- with one small
area there of about 12 feet deep. Today that is about 20 miles north
of the tip of the Gulf of Suez, and it's on the Suez Canal route. We're
looking at a date for the crossing, say, between 3200 and
3500 years before present, and I understand that the end of the
Gulf was about 3 miles further north then.
isostatic changes in sea level are said
to have been produced in
the general area of the Mediterranean by the melting of the huge
ice mass of 18000 years ago. These effects are still ongoing, and in
the Mediterranean area, they are currently causing a rise in sea
level generally of approximately .2mm. per year. If the present rate
of rise has been fairly uniform over about the past 3,000 years, this
so-called glacial isostatic disequilibrium gives a potential for sea
level to have been lower in this region by close to 3 feet. So
although the lakes are a little deep for our purposes today, they
weren't necessarily that deep at the time of the crossing.
we need is to have a small additional
amount stripped off to get
down to what we need, which is bare or near to bare sand or lake bottom.
WHY THE ISRAELITES COULD CROSS
happens next is that we have a very
severe easterly wind
blowing up all night and probably it is not even necessary to have it
blowing that long in such a confined area as a 15-mile-long lake, to
create a storm surge, which is what I suggest happened.
are several factors involved. First
the magnitude of the
waves. These have to be at a critical level. A critical wave level will
be cumulative, and one wave will drive into the next in such a way
that they gather momentum as they go, and the wind carries them
along so that they build up force. So therefore the wind speed, the
direction of the wind, the way the water body is formed, the depth
of water, the type of lake bed, the amount of friction it causes, the
perpendicular effect of the deflecting forces, the earth's rotation
and the atmospheric pressure -- all these have an effect on the
generation of a storm surge. It doesn't just happen, it has to have a
specific number of conjoined natural events to cause it to happen.
think the area is tidal. If we have not
the neap tide but the spring
tide (that is the high tide) it could well be that the water was being
drawn down at one point in time towards Little Bitter lake and with
the conjunction of a storm surge pushing the surface water
northwards, sucking as it were the water with it, going further
north 15 miles away, to the northern end of the lake, at the speed
that a storm surge normally travels which is say around 30 miles an
hour, the Israelites would
have time, I believe, to get across
safely. Because it's going to be about an hour before it comes back,
and possibly during that length of time getting on towards the dawn
the wind shifted a little or the wind dropped which in any case
would cause the water to come back with some force, if that were to
be occurring at the same time as the tide was beginning to come
back in again from the southern end of Little Bitter lake, this
narrow neck which could well have been stripped bare or almost
bare by the storm surge and the receding tide now would be subject
to both the returning surge and the returning tide. And studies
have shown that storm surges tend to occur most frequently on
rising tides. The tide comes from the Red Sea, which is not very far
I don't believe it's fundamentally
necessary to have tidal
water, the very wording of the text as I've pointed out, seems to me
to suggest that there was a tide effect. And in addition to that, it
would be helpful to have it, because then we would get more the
conjoining of the waters, the coming back together again of the
waters, which is specifically mentioned.
the bottom of this channel between the
two lakes is mostly sand
with some admixture of mud, which is probably not a bad surface. There
are plenty of tidal flats with not too much mud, but a high
percentage of sand, which are very good to walk on when the tide is
out. They're quite firm.
that type of surface is cut into with
thin chariot wheels, it acts
probably more like quicksand and draws the wheels down, because
the weight is not distributed over a large area as in a human foot,
but much greater weight is distributed over a very much smaller
area. The chariot horses would also project down a much greater
weight to the ground from their foot area than humans.
easterly winds there are locally called
khamsin, and they are
known to have wind speeds usually up to 8 Beaufort. That is about
68 kilometres per hour. If you have these khamsin type of winds
blowing all night you could easily have a surge. If winds are up to
12 Beaufort, you can have close to a metre surge. There are certain
seasons when the khamsin-type storms occur more frequently and
springtime is one of them.
never given any timing as to how long
the interval is between
the plagues, or indeed how long it is between the plagues and the
Exodus, except for the last plague. But there is internal evidence in
the story of the plagues to indicate that it was fairly early spring.
One crop was damaged by locusts, another crop had not yet grown
far enough to be damaged. So that tends to suggest that it was
springtime. And then we looked at the reference in the text to the
first month, and the biblical commentator tells us this was April.
think the specific area for the crossing
is between the spit of land
at El Kubrit station landing stage, and King Knoll on the far side.
There is a string of islands called Rock Island that runs parallel to
the shore about two-thirds of the way across. The depth begins at
half a fathom or 3 feet. And then it goes to 1 1/2 fathoms or 9 feet,
then 3/4 at a little shallow called the Bollards, then 2 fathoms or 12
feet, then the island. And beyond that, only half a fathom or 3 feet
again at the far shore. So our greatest depth there today is 12 feet.
are coastal structures in the
Mediterranean such as Roman
dock sides now completely under water which show that sea level
has risen relative to land, or the land has sunk relative to the sea,
by a metre or two over the last two thousand years. We also have
access to about 100 years of tide gauge data from Aden at the south
end of the Red Sea which suggests that sea level has been rising
relative to the land at 20 cm. a century. So in three thousand years
it seems quite reasonable to assume the Bitter Lake levels were
lower by one or two metres than they are today. If the sea was
connected to the Bitter Lakes at the time of the Exodus, then it
might have been about 2 - 3 metres or so less depth there than it is
think we don't need perhaps to be overly
concerned to the last
foot, because looking at this particular area we start with 3 feet and
then we go to 9 feet. And it seems to me as though the greatest
depth that they probably would be faced with if it was exactly the
same as today, would be 9 feet. Where we have 2 fathoms, 12 feet,
they could I believe have avoided that, skirted around it, and kept
into shallower water, or in fact onto maybe bare sand, or perhaps
waded through 6 inches of water. So I think already the numbers
that we're coming up with are reasonably practical.
Egyptian King Sesostris III -- that
would be about 1800 B.C.E.
(using conventional dating) -- is said to have been the first one to
link the Nile through the Lake Timsah and the Bitter Lakes area
down to the Gulf of Suez with a canal. The early Pharaohs in
particular were great canal builders. In fact, the earliest one,
Menes, the first Pharaoh of all, is said to have actually dammed the
Nile and rerouted it in order to build his capital city, and create a
lake and protective area for his own premises. These Pharaohs
were quite familiar with irrigation schemes and canal building. I
am fairly satisfied that it is not unreasonable to assume that there
were canals cut through in earlier times in that area.
Mediterranean has very small tides --
less than a foot in range
-- so the northern end of the Suez canal has very little tidal range.
But at the entrance to the Suez Canal from the Red Sea end there is
a tidal range of 7 feet. The range is the greatest difference
between high water and low water tides. From slack water to high
tide is about six hours.
long could we give the Israelites for
the crossing before the
water came back? I'm assuming there were probably about 6,000
people, and if you have them walking 60 abreast about 5 feet apart,
that's not even 200 yards or so long. They've got not more,
certainly, than 1,000 yards to cross, and 3,500 years ago with lower
water levels probably only about 500 yards including land in
between. We're looking at a maximum of 1200 yards in all, so even
walking a mile an hour, they could have crossed in well under an
hour. They could have crossed before the storm surge came back
from the northern end of the lake.
been suggested we have two commentators
or two redactors in
the Bible expressing their own views as to what happened at the
crossing. One talks about the wall on each side. That is not said by
the other who merely says that the wind stripped the water off and
left the bare ground. Now, the story of all the Egyptian soldiers
being drowned, I think that's an exaggeration. I don't think that is
what happened. But I think if you are driving chariots and even if
the numbers are exaggerated -- 600 chariots seems quite a large
number -- if there were that many chariots, or anything
approaching it, I believe they would be very easily mired and I
think the thin wheels would cut into the sand if there was some mud
and sand mixed, particularly remembering that it had been
tramped on and disturbed by thousands of Israelites. The horses
would become mired in it, they would have difficulty disentangling
themselves. And while they were trying to do this, I think if a tide
were coming in and if the wind backed or shifted or dropped and
the water started to come back from further up the lake, where the
surface water had been blown by a very strong wind, then it seems
to me that you only need about 3 feet of water for these vehicles and
their riders to be in real trouble and not able to get across
and finding themselves more or less flooded in the middle. If your
vehicle is stranded and the waters are rising around you, how do
you know when the water is going to stop rising? How are you
going to get across? I think you're more likely to try to go back
where you came from than try to get across and risk being cut off.
And then there would be others further back trying to go ahead, so
the situation could quickly become chaotic.
are we, after all our enquiries? I think we can find a
reasonable path through the mass of biblical material and
scholarship. Analysis of the biblical text into various strands seems
to make sense Some strands are more factual than others which are
unreliable and exaggerate for effect. If we discount exaggerations
and adjust translation difficulties, then first, the 600,000 becomes 5
to 6,000 Israelites. Next, yam suph. I think the word "suph" was
added to make it the Red Sea for greater effect. I don't believe it
was the Red Sea or a reed sea. It was just a body of water, and
what we in North America would call a lake. Remember, the
quotations we began with didn't mention Red Sea at all. Third, all
sorts of place names have been added in that are anachronisms. These
places didn't exist when the Exodus and crossing took place.
the text tells us in a completely
practical way how the
miraculous escape of the Israelites occurred. A strong east wind
blew all night. The wind swept the sea back to lay bare the ground,
the Israelites crossed it, then the waters came back. It's feasible in
terms of marine physics for a natural phenomenon, a storm surge,
to have performed the miracle at the Bitter Lakes narrows, and I
believe it's feasible only at the place where I suggest it took place.
our day and age, biblical scholars seem
to think in terms of
natural causes and no longer agonize between faith and science as
scholars did in the 19th century. Even many religious leaders today
seem content to interpret religious material in a causal, naturalistic
way, tacitly borrowing from science at the expense of what used to
be matters of faith. But there are still some who may say that in
this inquiry, much has been left out of the biblical narrative. Where
is the event which started the whole sequence -- God talking
to Moses from the burning bush? Where is the pillar of cloud
and fire? Where is God telling Moses what to do next? And it's
true that the Lord God, Yahweh, the Divine Presence, the Eternal,
the Immortal, has not played any part in our discussion. But to
such critics I would say: why were the Israelites led into an
apparent trap and then extricated so brilliantly? Whoever planned
that must have known what he was doing.
NOTE: For an explanation of the part
played by the pillar of cloud and fire see chapter 5 in my