THE RED SEA CROSSING

INDEX

Preface

Chapter 1 The Problem

Chapter 2 How reliable is the text we have?

Chapter 3 Where did the text come from?

Chapter 4 Was it a crossing of the Red Sea?

Chapter 5 How long ago was the crossing ?

Chapter 6 Where did the Israelites start from?

Chapter 7 Where was the Crossing?

Chapter 8 How far did the Israelites travel to the Crossing?

Chapter 9 What really happened at the Crossing?

Chapter 10 Some fanciful theories

Chapter 11 What the Bible says

Chapter 12 Wind and water

Chapter 13 The location of the Crossing

Chapter 14 Why the Israelites could cross

Chapter 15 Conclusion


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PREFACE

This 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 United States.


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.


The 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.

This still leaves open the question as to whether Someone foresaw the circumstances and guided the Israelites to the right place at the right time.

(Please Note
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 of the 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 cassette form).

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CHAPTER 1

THE PROBLEM

Here's the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea as reported in the biblical book of Exodus:

"And 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 chapter 14, King James version - KJV )

The 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 event was.

The 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.


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CHAPTER 2

HOW RELIABLE IS THE TEXT WE HAVE?

Of 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.

Words 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 books:

At 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:

STUDENTS ONLY

NO VISITORS ALLOWED

The 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:

STUDENTS ONLY?

NO! VISITORS ALLOWED! "

This conveys exactly the opposite meaning, but the unpunctuated words are the same.

Here's Exodus chapter 12 verse 37:

"And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children."

It's generally agreed this would mean about 2 million people altogether.

Let's 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.

The one word that's the problem here is the Hebrew word 'elef.'

The 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.

Here's a quote from Professor Garstang's book on Joshua and Judges:

"Experience 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 chief. 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 Israelites."

After 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.



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CHAPTER 3

WHERE DID THE TEXT COME FROM?

Mistranslation 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.

Numbers 33.2 says:

"Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the Commandment of the Lord."

Some 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.



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CHAPTER 4

WAS IT A CROSSING OF THE RED SEA?

Where 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 deep.

The 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 Menzaleh instead.

Others 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.

I 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.'

There 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.

In the book of Numbers, chapter 33 verse 8 says (KJV):

"And they departed from before Pi-ha-hi-roth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness."

The text then says they went 3 days journey and pitched in Marah, then came to Elim and pitched there, then (verse 10):

"And they removed from Elim and encamped by the Red Sea"

and verse 11:

"And they removed from the Red Sea and encamped in the wilderness of Sin."

Here's my suggestion as to what this tells us about the incident. First, the brief mention in Numbers makes sense. The Israelites 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.

How 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 'reed'.

There's 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 'Red Sea' crossing took place at a small lake somewhere about 5 days walk north of the Red Sea between Egypt and the Sinai desert.

There 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.

So 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.

On 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.



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CHAPTER 5

HOW LONG AGO WAS THE CROSSING?

In 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.

The 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.

As 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 had occurred, 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.

Recent 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.

We 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.


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CHAPTER 6

WHERE DID THE ISRAELITES START FROM?

The 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 says:

"And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth..."

Exodus 13.20:

"And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham..."

Exodus 14.2:

"turn and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, over against Baal-Zephon..."

This suggests three days journey to get to the "sea" on the reasonable assumption that they stopped at the end of each day's travel at a way-station.

But the names of the many stations mentioned in Exodus -- Migdol, Baal-Zephon, Pihahiroth (apparently Egyptian Perharty) 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 Babylon.

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 verses earlier)

"....God led them not (through) the way of the land of the Philistines..."

Even the word 'Philistines' is an anachronism. The Philistines didn't arrive in Palestine until the 12th century BCE.

Fortunately 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.

This 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.


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CHAPTER 7

WHERE WAS THE CROSSING?

Between 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.

There's 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:

Lake Bardawil (Sirbonis)

Lake Menzaleh

land for about 20 miles, then

Lake Ballah (Papyrus Swamp) about 10 miles north to south, then

land for about 10 miles, next

Lake Timsah about 3 miles square, then

another 10 miles of land, then

Great Bitter Lake and Little Bitter Lake

These 2 lakes are joined end to end, total length about 20 miles, then

about 15 miles more land

then comes the Gulf of Suez (Red Sea).

I 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 Philistines".

In 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.

I 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 looking for.

Lake 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 miles square.

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.

Even to the present day the area around the lakes is dunes, with uninhabited areas, desert, shifting sand, gravel, shingle, flint -- this 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.

It's 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.


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CHAPTER 8

HOW FAR DID THE ISRAELITES

TRAVEL TO THE CROSSING?

We 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.

The 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.

If 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:

"And they departed from Rameses -- on the fifteenth day of the first month" --(that's April)

Exodus 16.1 says:

"And 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."

This 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 crossing area.



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CHAPTER 9

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT THE CROSSING?

Great 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.


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CHAPTER 10

SOME FANCIFUL THEORIES

A number of theories were put forward in the longest running 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:

"These 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."

And, in another case, a correspondent wrote:

"I would suggest that Professor A and Professor B switch to writing children's fiction. There is certainly nothing biblical in their stories."

And then another wrote:

"The 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."

Another contributor wrote defending himself:

"Tel 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."

It 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?"

Some 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.

And 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 temporarily dry.


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CHAPTER 11

WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS

Let's 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. . .".

"Then the Eternal" (as Dr. Moffat here calls the Lord) "told Moses to order the Israelites to . . .camp beside the sea. For the Pharaoh, he said, will think that the Israelites are bewildered, caught by the desert...."

I 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.

Here's Exodus chapter 14, verse 21b:

"Then the Eternal swept the sea along by a strong east wind all night 'til the sea bed was dry."

A little later on, in chapter 14, we come to verses 22 and 23. Again, Dr. Moffat's translation.

"The 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 and cavalry."

Now let's look at verse 27.

"Then, 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."

Although 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.

I 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 waters.

"At thy blast, the waters piled up, the tides were dammed, the depths turned hard in the heart of the sea."

We've 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.


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CHAPTER 12

WIND AND WATER

In 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.

I 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.

Another 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.

The 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.


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CHAPTER 13

THE LOCATION OF THE CROSSING

The 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 cross.

Great 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.

The 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.

One 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.

The 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.

The 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.

All 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.


INDEX



CHAPTER 14

WHY THE ISRAELITES COULD CROSS

What 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.

There 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.

I 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 quite 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 away.

While 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.

On 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.

Once 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.

The 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.

We're 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.

I 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.

There 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 today.

I 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.

The 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.

The 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.

How 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.

It's 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.


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CHAPTER 15

CONCLUSION

Where 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.

Finally, 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.

In 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  The Obelisk


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