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Holy Moses! Science May Explain Parting of Waters

Sep 22, 2010 – 11:47 AM
Theunis Bates

Theunis Bates >Contributor

(Sept. 22) -- The parting of the Red Sea (or Reed Sea, depending on how the ancient Hebrew is translated) is one of the Old Testament's most spectacular episodes. After being led out of Egyptian slavery by Moses, the Israelites find themselves trapped: before them lies a seemingly impassable body of water, while behind them the pharaoh's army is fast approaching. Moses appeals to Jehovah for help, and God obligingly blasts a "strong east wind all night" into the sea, creating a path to freedom for the Israelites and, when the wind subsides, a watery grave for the Egyptians.

Circa 1500 BC, Moses raises his rod to command the return of the Red Sea following its parting.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
This illustration depicts Moses stretching his hand out over the Red Sea following its parting. Recent research has attributed the miracle to the weather phenomenon known as "wind setdown."
Now researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., say they have found a plausible natural explanation for this apparent miracle -- though not at the Red Sea itself. Using computer models, they discovered that a strong wind blowing across the perfect spot -- a sharp bend where a shallow river meets a coastal lagoon -- with the right contours on the bottom of the waterway, could result in water being driven upstream and downstream, opening up a dry walkway.

That phenomenon is known as a "wind setdown," but, if you believe the account in Exodus, it's unlikely to have occurred at the Red Sea, notes Carl Drews -- a software engineer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the lead author of the study, published in the online journal PLoS ONE. That's because the Red Sea runs north to south, Drews told Discovery News, so an eastward wind wouldn't have been able to sweep the waters to one side.

Instead, Drews argues that the event likely took place in the Nile Delta, where a similar wind setdown was recorded in the late 19th century. A senior British army officer stationed on Lake Manzala -- a shallow, coastal lagoon on the Mediterranean Sea -- reported seeing the waters retreat in early 1882 after a "gale of wind from the eastward set in and became so strong that I had to cease work."

"Next morning ... I found that ... the effect of the high wind on the shallow water [had] actually driven it away beyond the horizon," Maj. Gen. Alexander B. Tulloch later told the Victoria Institute, a British organization set up to disprove Darwin's theory of evolution. "The natives were walking about on the mud where the day before the fishing-boats, now aground, had been floating."

Using satellite data and earlier research into the ancient geography of the Nile Delta, Drews and Weiqing Han of the University of Colorado estimated the lay of the land around 1250 BC and ran their simulation. The model suggested that the crossing could have taken place at Manzala -- about 80 miles north of the port of Suez -- where an ancient branch of the Nile entered the lagoon, then called the Lake of Tanis.

Manzala runs east to west and also matches the alternate Biblical translation of "Reed Sea," as it was once filled with papyrus reeds. Drews and Han found that if a 63 mph east wind blew across the water for 12 hours, a 2.5-mile-long, three-mile-wide stretch of mud flat would have been exposed. That path would remain clear for about four hours, giving the Israelites plenty of time to make their escape.

"The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus," Drews said in a statement. "The wind moves the water in a way that's in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides."

The researchers' findings also suggest that, if the pharaoh's troops were crossing the mud flats when the wind died down, they would have bit hit by "an advancing wall of churning water." Or as Exodus puts it, "the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them."

Drews and Han note in their paper that if "a crossing actually took place here, any debris field of military artifacts should be found to the North" of the crossing site. But even if archaeologists found ancient Egyptian skeletons and armor at the site, secularists and believers are unlikely to agree over the supposedly miraculous nature of the biblical episode. Devout Christians, Muslims and Jews will continue to see the work of a divine hand behind the unlikely combination of factors that allowed the Israelites to escape. Others, meanwhile, will argue that Moses and his flock were simply in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a rare natural occurrence.

"The value of studying the event described in the Old Testament certainly lends support to the thesis that physics is a natural phenomenon, a normal part of our universe," Stephen Baig, a researcher who has studied storm surges for the National Hurricane Center, told Discovery News. "If there is a miracle, it is that we are able to describe such events with numbers."

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