The parting of the Red Sea is one of the most epic, exciting and legendary biblical stories. The image of Charlton Heston as Moses ordering water to open a path for his people to leave Egypt is still in our retinas, a scene that, updated by modern special effects, we see again in the new Ridley Scott’s blockbuster ‘Exodus‘, this time with Christian Bale as a prophet. The movie, now in billboard, has focused attention on the miracle of the parting of the sea over 3,000 years ago. Could it really happen? Is there a scientific explanation, outside the faith that sustains such a phenomenon? Archaeologists and Egyptologists have found little direct evidence to corroborate this story of the Exodus, and scientists have endeavored to find a natural cause.
Some have speculated about a tsunami, which would have caused the waters recede and advance rapidly. But such an event would not have caused the temporary gap as described in the Bible. A study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Colorado University at Boulder (CU) was at the time an alternative explanation: wind movement.
Computer simulations show that a strong east wind, blowing overnight at 63 miles per hour, could have pushed back the water from two ancient watersheds merged into a U-shaped curve, with a river (a former Nile‘s tributary) and a coastal lagoon (Lake Tanis) along the Mediterranean Sea, to create a dry land bridge from 2 to 2.5 km long and 3 km wide, allowing people to walk through the marsh safely for about nine hours. As soon as the wind died down, the waters returned to cover everything like a tidal wave.
The research was based on a reconstruction of the possible locations and depths of the waterways of Nile Delta, which have varied considerably over time. ‘The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus’, said Carl Drews, NCAR researcher and lead author of the study in PLoS ONE. ‘The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that’s in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in’.
The explanation of Drews fits remarkably with Exodus, which describes how in their escape from Pharaoh’s armies, Moses and the Israelites came to a body of water that has been translated as the Red Sea. In a divine miracle (wind, for Drews), the waters parted leaving a passage of dry land (the land bridge) with water on both sides. When the Israelites were already on the other side, the waters came back together (the wind stopped) and the Egyptian soldiers drowned.
Drews’ study does not confirm that the biblical fact actually occurred, but it shows that the pafting of the waters has perhaps happened based on physical laws.