Science explains parting of Red Sea

Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods And Kings.

Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods And Kings.

Published Dec 21, 2014


Washington - The blockbuster film Exodus: Gods And Kings opens soon in South Africa, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses.

From the trailer, you can already tell it is going to be pretty epic, and nowhere more so than in the quintessential scene in which the Red Sea parts and allows the Israelites through - only to crash down again on the Egyptians as they try to pursue.

This is, of course, thought by believers to have been a miracle - an act of divine providence to save a chosen people. However, for software engineer Carl Drews, it might have been something else.

According to Drews - who describes himself as “one of many Christians who accept the scientific theory of evolution” - the story of the parting of the Red Sea, as described in the book of Exodus, might have originated in real life as a weather event.

“I'm arguing that the historical event happened in 1250 B.C., and the memories of it have been recorded in Exodus,” says Drews. “The people of the time gloried in God and gave God credit.”

The idea may sound hard to believe -- and it certainly has its many detractors -- but Drews' research was conducted for his atmospheric and ocean sciences master's thesis at the University of Colorado, Boulder, published in a peer reviewed journal (PLOS One), and then promoted by his employer, the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, a top US research Centre.

Taken as a piece of science that establishes the physical possibility of a body of water parting, it is solid work, says Greg Holland, a hurricane researcher and colleague of Drews who is familiar with the paper.

“Did the parting of the sea really happen? We will never know,” says Holland. “But Carl Drews has used impeccable science to show both where and how it may have happened.”

Where was the “Sea of Reeds”?

The first thing you need to know about the supposed parting of the Red Sea is that according to Drews' theory, it did not occur in the actual “Red Sea” that we see on a map today -- the long, thin, nearly north-south running body of water between Saudi Arabia on the east and Egypt and Sudan on the west.

Rather, Drews explains, the original phrase from the Hebrew translates as “Sea of Reeds” - and much historical and archaeological research has gone into determining exactly where and what that could have been. But Drews argues that it would have been to the north of the modern day Red Sea in the Eastern Nile Delta region, just south of the Mediterranean Sea.

Where, exactly? In the Biblical text, the parting of the “Red Sea” occurs when Moses and the Israelites are encamped by the sea “in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon.” You might think this place would be easy to locate, given the high level of specificity in the passage above, but there is actually much uncertainty and scholarly debate about what these names might actually refer to today. (It doesn't help that the Nile Delta has shifted dramatically over time.)

Without getting into all the details of this debate, Drews' research draws on archaeological attempts to follow this trail of clues and especially to identify the all important location of “Migdol,” a “Semetic term for watchtower or fort,” according to the Egyptologist and archaeologist James Hoffmeier of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Relying on the work of Hoffmeier and others, in their 2010 PLOS One paper, Drews and his co-author Weiqing Han provide a map, which basically amounts to their hypothesis for what a particular portion of the Eastern Nile Delta looked like, circa 1250 B.C.

In Drews' theory, the “Red Sea,” or “sea of reeds,” of Exodus was actually the Lake of Tanis. The lake “was a shallow brackish lagoon, and that was the ideal place for these papyrus reeds to grow,” says Drews. “So if you want to find a sea of reeds, even today, that's it.”

Granted, this is where one large potential objection to the idea comes in -- all this depends heavily on the accuracy of these attempts to reconstruct the landscape of Exodus. That's a task laden with uncertainty -- and also one where the desire to “prove” the accuracy of the Bible may colour interpretations. At minimum, Drews does follow a particular school of thought here, similar to that of Hoffmeier, who has argued, like Drews, that the Exodus story does reflect a real historical occurrence. “He has advanced a plausible hypothesis,” says Hoffmeier of Drews' study.

How do you get winds to part water?

And then, there's the meteorology and oceanography. The relevant biblical text (Exodus 14:21) reads as follows: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” By any stretch, a weather event strong enough to move water in this way would involve some unusually powerful winds.

The second part of Drews' analysis therefore shows how an atmospheric event -- specifically situated in the landscape above, not today's Red Sea - could actually cause the parting of a body of water, so much so that a bridge or pathway of dry land is revealed that could be crossed by a group of people.

What atmospheric phenomenon could make this occur? The paper describes a coastal effect called a “wind setdown,” in which strong winds - a little over 60 miles per hour - create a “push” on coastal water which, in one location, creates a storm surge. But in the location from which the wind pushes - in this case, the east - the water moves away. Such occurrences have been observed in the past in Lake Erie, among other places - and, note Drews and Han, also in the Nile Delta itself in the year 1882.

“Wind setdown happens just as often as storm surge, but hardly ever hurts people, it just blows a harbour completely dry,” says Drews. “So this water sloshes from one side of the body to the other and leaves a dry place.”

To model the effect of winds on these waters, Drews' study used a computerised ocean model that can also be employed by researchers to study storm surges of the sort that, in hurricanes, can threaten places like New York City and the Louisiana coast. Drews himself has used the same model to study storm surge threats to the Philippines.

Still, a lot of assumptions

So what's the upshot? If you grant Drews two very large assumptions - 1) that he has the geography right, and 2) that such a strong wind event happened to occur right when the Israelites, as described in the Bible, were there to take advantage of it - then it turns out that Moses just might be able to make it (miraculously or not, of course, depending on your point of view).

“In my model, Moses has 4 hours to get across,” says Drews. The area of land that becomes available for crossing in Drews' computer model is 3 to 4 kilometres long, and 5km wide.

So far, so good - in a computer model - but some would surely question the entire premise behind Drews' exercise. That's because many scholars disagree with the very idea of trying to treat the book of Exodus as a matter of history.

Hoffmeier, who does argue for treating the story as historical, writes in a recent article that “for most of the past seventy-five years, the book [Exodus] has been considered to reflect historical and geographic reality, but in recent years challenges to this understanding have arisen.” Other researchers have called the Exodus story (and other Old Testament content) “an artificial and theologically influenced literary construct.” The archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Ascher Silberman even wrote, in their 2001 book “The Bible Unearthed,” that the Bible story “was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination.”

So from the perspective of many experts, while Drews may indeed describe an atmospheric and ocean effect that can really happen, trying to suggest this phenomenon can explain a biblical “event” is another matter entirely.

The polarised response

When Drews' study was initially published in 2010, it created a large outcry. The creationist leader Ken Ham commented that the parting of the Red Sea was a “miracle,” “an extraordinary act of God,” and “there is no need to come up with a naturalistic explanation of a supernatural event.” And Jim West, a professor at the Quartz Hill School of Theology, blogged that “scientists can no more keep their ignorant hands off the Bible than a dog can rid itself of fleas or New York its bedbug infestation.”

But some atheists were also critical. The atheist blogger PZ Myers remarked of the study, “If a paper like this were plopped on my desk for review, I'd be calling the editor to ask if it was a joke.”

For Drews, though -- who has now self-published a new book, “Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science,” to explain his ideas further -- the research is consistent with his own style of Christianity. He is not a biblical literalist. He has a history of standing up for the theory of evolution, which many more literalist Christians reject, so being on the opposite side of Ken Ham is natural for him. On Exodus, just as on the battle over evolution, he steers between these two ... seas.

“Faith and science can be compatible if you are willing to consider other interpretations of the text, other ideas of how this could have happened,” he says. - The Washington Post

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