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The Israelite Escape: The Red Sea Incident

an essay by Ken Wear posted May 2001, edited May 2007

Let us accept for the moment that the Egyptians pursued the Israelites as they fled from Egypt and see if the Bible provides sufficient information that can explain such an event as parting of the waters to allow the Israelite escape. Hollywood has presented a graphic picture of water held back by invisible hands (thus defying gravity) to create a wall of water on either side of a dry passage. I shall shortly present frequently overlooked statements from the Biblical account that assist in a more believable interpretation.

It is well established that the sea level of the Atlantic Ocean varied significantly during the last centuries of the last ice age, reaching as much as 25 feet below its present level some 3200 years ago. Gibraltar must have been one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls and no doubt contributed to the legend of seafaring peoples in the Mediterranean about falling off the edge if they went too far west. During the period from 2000 B.C. to the Christian era the level of the Mediterranean varied by several feet, oscillating up and down until it finally leveled out near the beginning of the Christian era at essentially today's level. This fluctuation is well known to oceanographers.

Exodus 14:21 presents the simple statement of fact that an east wind blew all night to divide the waters so the land became dry. Meteorologists and geologists advise us that, in marshy areas in that part of the world, where land is essentially flat, a sustained wind coupled with the tide may drive the water for miles. Evidently a strip of higher ground would not only become dry, with water on both sides, but with a sustained wind may form a crust strong enough to support lightly loaded people on foot. But verse 25 indicates the Egyptian chariot wheels became clogged and "drove heavily," indicating that their heavier vehicles were breaking through the crust into the fluidized sand underneath. Since verse 21 indicates the wind blew all night, it perhaps should be assumed that the wind ceased; that, coupled with the tide, inundated the ground where it had been dry and passable.

One must examine the practicalities of such an event. Exodus 12:37 tells us 600,000 Israelite men plus women, children, flocks and herds left Egypt. It is patently ridiculous to insist that many people traversed a strip of ground, even hundreds of feet wide, in the time allotted by scripture. I have searched the scripture for signs of the size of the Israelite or the Egyptian force involved in this escape event; I find nothing to suggest numbers involved. Scripture does not reveal how the Israelites were divided into groups of manageable size so we must make an assumption. Apparently this was a contingent of the Israelite force pursued by a forward element of the Egyptian force and, when word reached the main Egyptian force, they were so disheartened as to give up pursuit.

We may ask what element of this episode reflects divine intervention or even interest. I suggest that Moses learned of the specific location so he could take advantage of the behavior of wind and tide as it affected dry ground. To me it is miracle enough that he was instructed when and where this action could benefit his army so they could lead their pursuers there.

Where could such an event have occurred? Many people hold that it was at the Red Sea, whose northern extreme was significantly altered during construction of the Suez Canal; but let us look closer. The level of the Mediterranean fluctuated up and down over the centuries; I have no suggestion how that affected the flow of water in the river that became the Suez Canal. But it seems reasonable that the level of the Indian Ocean would not differ significantly from the level of the Atlantic so there must have been widening and narrowing of the Red Sea. If we can pin-point the time of the Exodus account, oceanographers can tell us a most likely geography at that time. Armed with that information and data on elevations at water's edge we can assess the most likely places to examine for evidence to support the Biblical account. Whether Red Sea or Mediterranean is, in my mind, uncertain, since either would lead into desert not too far from Sinai. In fact, students of scripture suggest that geographic exactitude may have been sacrificed to the purpose of demonstrating God's power.

I have no doubt that there lies somewhere, awaiting discovery, sunken down into the fluidized sand, the remains of chariots, horses and armed men. Postulating the date of Exodus and therefore having a most likely water level in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and armed with data on water depth (since I estimate the area is presently under shallow water) we can select areas where wind and tide could lay bare the ground. Since it was an East wind, it is likely the western shore of what was then a body of water.

Hopefully I have presented enough data that archaeologists may be motivated to look more closely at water levels and depths to narrow the search for sites for exploration. If Egyptian war machines contained enough iron, sensitive magnetic devices may pin-point suggested locations.

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