For many people, this passage conjures up images—courtesy of film director Cecil B. DeMille—of Charlton Heston as Moses with outstretched arms as God miraculously parts the vast body of water blocking the Israelites’ escape route. Whether you view this account as a reminder of God’s plan and care for the Israelites or as a reason to dismiss the Bible as a fairy tale, exciting new research weighs in on the plausibility of such a fantastic scenario.
Two atmospheric scientists demonstrated how a strong wind could produce the effect Moses describes in the book of Exodus. Numerous lakes and rivers populate the Nile River delta region—many quite large and impassable by a large group of people. The scientists analyzed one location where an ancient branch of the Nile River is believed to have flowed into a coastal lagoon known as the Lake of Tanis. If a strong wind (65 mph) blew for 12 hours from the east (as indicated by the verses above), the waters, roughly 6 feet deep, would be pushed back into the lagoon and the river. This would create a dry, even land bridge 2–2.5 miles long and 3 miles wide with walls of water on both sides. Furthermore, the passage would remain open for about four hours—long enough for a couple million people to traverse such a wide passage. When the winds stopped (or even decreased significantly), the water would come crashing back in, creating havoc and likely drowning anyone left in its path.1
This research shows that natural laws operating on the geography of the region match the biblical account. However, a couple of points warrant mentioning.
First, the exact route of the Israelite Exodus is unknown. Bible scholars and experts in ancient Egyptian history still debate the location of the place names given in Exodus 14 and the body of water usually translated as “Red Sea.” Whether the Exodus passed through this region or not requires further research, but it does provide a promising place to look for artifacts that could confirm the movement of a large group of people or the destruction of ancient military technology (chariots, spears, etc.).
Second, finding a physical explanation for the parting of the “Red Sea” does not diminish the miraculous nature of the event in any way. The Bible describes different kinds of miracles, namely transcendent, transformational, and sustaining miracles. The transcendent miracles require action beyond the laws of physics (like the big bang or the virgin birth) and are what most people think of when they hear the word “miracle.” Yet many (if not most) of the miracles in the Bible do not violate the laws of physics. The parting of the waters in Exodus provides a good example of such a miracle. Reading the text, we see that God used “a strong east wind [blowing] all night” to sweep the sea back. Thus, we should expect that scientists could find an explanation for how the miracle might have occurred. But no one can deny the miraculous nature of the event because it is a rare occurrence that happened at precisely the moment the Israelites needed an escape route.
In general, little archeological evidence exists to validate or falsify the biblical account of how the Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus. Thus, advances like this research provide additional tools to test whether the Bible is a simply a collection of “fairy-tale” stories or if it describes real, historical events. If past experience holds true, the evidence will clearly point toward the latter.