Eating the Apple

Eve did it. Adam did it. Now it's my turn to take a bite. Why not? Hey! It's delicious.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Where Did Moses Cross the Sea?


Where did God part the waters for the Moses and the Israelites? How did they escape from Pharaoh and his his chariots? Practically every good Christian 'knows' that God parted the waters of the Red Sea. The Hebrew term for that location is 'Yam Suph', which means 'Sea (or Lake) of Reeds'. It is somewhere to the east of the Nile Delta. But where? That question has tied scholars in knots for centuries. Did it happen at the Red Sea, according to many Christian translations of the Book of Exodus, or did it happen, according to the Hebrew text, at the Sea of Reeds? And exactly where is the Sea of Reeds? It could be anywhere along a string of ancient lakes that have been incorporated into the Suez Canal.

The first Greek translation, the Septuagint, mistranslated Yam Suph as Red Sea. The Yam Suph cannot be the Red Sea because reeds do not grow in salt water. Unfortunately, that mistranslation has become entrenched in Christian bibles. Even the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which aims to be "as literal as possible," translates 'Yam Suph' as 'Red Sea'. The more conservative New International Version (NIV) also uses Red Sea in the traslation. But the NIV Study Bible places (the probable location of) Yam Suph at the southern end of Lake Menzalah. This lake receives fresh water from the eastern branch of the Nile River and empties into the Mediterranean.

In this paper I shall offer the ultimate chutzpah by presenting a comprehensive solution for the Yam Suph. I shall identify not only the place, but an exact date and time for the parting of the sea. And I shall support my thesis with reasonable and plausible arguments.

Many authorities have tried to chart the course of the Exodus. But one has succeeded in setting forth a scenario which satisfies the vast majority of scholars and commentators. Etham, Pihahiroth, Rephidim, Mount Sinai/Horeb -- no has positively identified these locations beyond a reaonable doubt. No one has offered an itinery that matches every point of the Exodus story in the Old Testament. Consequently, any one who proposes a solution must decide which verses to accept and which to doubt. Unfortunately all of the commentaries that I know of don't identify the verses they reject. I will discuss some verses that I reject and explain why I reject them.


Here is my thesis concerning the place, date, and time of the 'parting' of the sea:

The Israelites were encamped near the southern end of a fresh-water lake near the Mediterranean Sea, i.e. Lake Menzalah. East of the camp were mud flats. Pharaoh's chariots attacked the Israelites from the west at sunset on the sixteenth or seventeenth day of of the second month (Ziv). This was one or two nights after the full moon, and about thirty two days after the Israelites left Egypt. A 'land breeze' removed water from the mud flats, providing an avenue of escape for the Israelites.

The Location:

I cannot know for sure that this was the case. But I believe that this scenario best fits the main features of the Exodus story. In reaching these conclusions, I see an important clue in the first half of Exodus 14:21. This passage points to a specific location for the Yam Suph.

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night ...

Since I am an atheist, I do not suppose that any god caused the strong wind that drove back the waters. Rather it was a natural event. The key factor, the strong wind, has not been fully appreciated by scholars. What is this strong east wind? What kind of wind rises up in the evening and abates in the morning? Sailors are familiar with such a wind. They call it a 'land breeze'. That is a wind that blows from the shore over the sea.

[Land and sea breezes arise because of temperature differences between land and a neaby sea. A land breeze rises as the land cools at night and becomes cooler than the nearby sea. The air above the land cools and descends, pushing the air near the ground toward the sea. When this air flows over the sea it warms and rises. Then it flows high over the land, cools and descends. This results in a circular flow of air. At ground level the air flows from land toward the sea.]

The Date and Time:

Another important clue is provided by Exodus 14:19-20. This passage helps establish the date and time of Pharaoh's attempted attack on the Israelites:

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them. And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to the Egyptians, but it gave light by night to Israelites so that the one came not near the other all the night.

The Strong Wind:

The biblical writers lived in the Israelite kingdoms of Judah and Israel. And in western parts of the Levant near the Mediterranean, a nocturnal east wind is a 'land breeze' that blows from the land to the sea. The closer to the shore one is, the more intense is this wind. In Egypt, however, a land breeze is a wind from the south that blows northward over the Mediterranean.

During the daytime the land heats up. This produces the opposite wind, the sea breeze, flows toward land. At the Yam Suph, a daytime sea breeze blows the surface water toward the south end. What happens?

The Yam Suph:

What happens depends upon the exact configuration of the Yam Suph. I postulate a lake with mud flats at the southern end but deep elsewhere. The layer of mud was six to twelve inches on top of a base of sand. With no wind, the southern end was an inch or two above or below the surface of the lake. During the day, a sea breeze pushed water toward the southern end of the lake. The water covered the mud flats by a few inches or perhaps a foot.

The Attack:

Just before sunset the chariots were observed by the Israelites at some distance from the camp. At sunset it became too dark for the chariots to proceed safely. So the chariots stopped to wait for the rising of the moon. (See Exodus 14:19-20.) This gave Moses time to organize and prepare the Israelites for their retreat. He would most likely ringed the camp with a line of archers and spearmen.

Soon the sea breeze abated and stopped. The water started to drain off of the mud flats under the force of gravity. The moon rose in the east. Then Moses raised his staff over the waters. Soon the land breeze started to blow from the south in seeming obedience to the command of the prophet and the will of God. The south wind started to push the water off of the mud flats. Soon high spots in the mud flats were exposed. In a few minutes the moon rose in the east. The Israelites could look directly at the moon just over the mud flats. The moonlight shone from the remaining water. They saw exposed patches of mud emerging from the water. This gave them them the confidence that they could travel over the mud flats. Then the Israelites started to struggle across the mud flats. Their feet sank in mud, but were supported by the sand below. The herders pushed and pulled their herds and flocks through the mud toward safety.

Remember that the charioteers had stopped on account of darkness. Now with the moon barely above the horizon, there is enough light for the Israelites to retreat over the mud flats. But the moon is not high enough for the charioteers. The charioteers need to wait about an hour until the moon reached 10 to 15 above the horizon. thent obstacles or depressions in the ground can be identified by the shadows. This explains Exodus 14:19-20 which I quoted above.

While I thoroughly discount the action of angels, I can understand that centuries later a writer would use an angel to explain something he didn't understand -- why the charioteers had to stop.

During this time of poor light Pharaoh's infantry arrived. They can march safely in bad light. When the moon rose some 10-15 degrees above the horizon, Pharaoh's chariots could lead the attack on the Israelite camp.

By this time the women, the children, and the animals had fled across the mud flats to safety. At the same time the archers and spearmen formed a line along the shore of the Yam Suph. When the chariots appproached, the archers fired their arrows at the chariots, disabling some of them.

When the charging chariots reached the Israelite line, the defenders jumped aside and allowed the 600 chariots to pass through. The charioteers saw the mud flats ahead of them. In the moonlight, the charioteers might have thought that the mud flats were dry ground and safe for their chariots. When they charged onto the mud flats they came to grief. The horses' feet went down into the mud, causing the horses to stumble. The wheels of the chariots become mired and many chariots toppled. This threw the charioteers onto the ground. The Israelite spearmen followed and quickly dispatched the fallen charioteers. When the infantry saw what happened to their comrades, they became too terrified to follow. Only a few Egyptian survivors made it back to the shore.

The Israelite fighters disappeared across the mud flats, leaving Pharaoh and a remnant of his chariot force in possession of the Israelite camp and a few dead Israelites. Later a Pharaoh, maybe this one, erected a victory stela that proclaimed, "I destroyed Yisrael".

At daybreak, "Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea." (Ex. 14:27)

There is no mention of the wind in this verse. But, reading this along with Exodus 14:21, one can conclude that the strong night wind ceased. Then in a few minutes the sea breeze began to blow. That blew water over the mud flats, covering the scene of battle and completing the 'miracle' of Yam Suph.

Pharaoh thought that a surprise attack at night would give him an easy victory. But Moses, wise in the ways of the wilderness, turned the tables on Pharaoh.

Why Attack at Night?

And now we have to ask an important question. Why should Pharaoh choose to attack at night? Night battles are difficult, confusing, and dangerous for the attackers as well as the defenders. For chariots, a night battle are especially dangerous because the charioteers have dificulty seeing obstacles on the ground. This is why night battles are rare.

In the Old Testament there are two important examples of night battles. The first battle is where Abram/Abraham defeated the forces of Chedorlaomer. (Genesis 14) In the second battle, Gideon defeated the Midianites. (Judges 7) Both of these battles have much in common. A surprise attack at night allows a small force to panic and rout a much larger one. In both cases, the attackers were badly outnumbered. Abram commanded a force of 318 fighters. Gideon reduced his force to only three hundred, (possibly to emulate Abram). In both cases, the commanders picked the best fighters that they had. Abram certainly picked 318 of his best fighters from of a much larger force. He would not have left his women and children unprotected. In both cases the attackers panicked the defenders and made them flee.

Pharaoh might have had a similar plan, to use six hundred picked chariots to attack the Israelite camp at sunset. I do not know what specific plan Pharaoh had in mind, but let me use my imagination. Pharaoh attacked from the west, with his forces hidden in the glare of the setting sun. His chariots would be closing in on Israelite camp before the defenders knew what was happening. The Israelites would panic and flee north and south along the shore of the lake. The chariots would chase them, cut them off and corral them. Then Pharaoh's infantry would come up and help herd them back to Egypt. I cannot say whether Pharaoh had this plan in mind, but it is a reasonable plan when only six hundred chariots can be used against a much larger force.

How Many Chariots?

"Wait," you say, "Pharaoh took all the chariots of Egypt, a lot more than six hundred." Exodus 14:7 states that Pharaoh "took six hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt ..." This verse is problematic. It appears to be self-contradictory. The first part says that Pharaoh chose some chariots, and the second part says he didn't. Furthermore, it is not credible that he could call up all of the chariots of Egypt. Egypt is spread out along 1000 miles of the Nile River. And Pharaoh would have had to send orders to all of the cities of Egypt. To send a message to the distant cities on the Nile would take some 40 days, provided the messengers could travel 25 miles each day. Then it would take a few weeks for the chariots to travel to the Nile Delta. With anger burning in his heart, Pharaoh would not wait two or three months for chariots to arrive from southern Egypt.

It makes sense that Pharaoh would pick the best of his charioteers from nearby cities-- Ramesses, Pithom, Succoth, and perhaps Avaris. Six hundred picked chariots is a credible number -- all the chariots of Egypt is not.

We should ask the question, why would Exodus 14:7 say that all the chariots of Egypt were used, if indeed that was not true? I think that there is a simple explanation -- originally the Book of Exodus said that just six hundred chariots were used. At some point it became accepted that the Israelites had 603,550 armed men -- a highly inflated number. (Ex.38:26, Num. 1:46, Num. 2:32) Then some biblical scribe asked the question, how could 600 chariots prevail against six hundred thousand armed men? If each of the Israelite men had just one spear apiece, then each chariot would have to survive a rain of one thousand spears. The horses are especially vulnerable. Disable a horse, and the chariot is useless. At these odds, Pharaoh's chariots would have been wiped out very quickly.

Consider chapter 4 of Judges. It says that 10,000 infantry under Deborah and Barak defeated the 900 chariots of Sisera. By that standard, Moses should have been able to defeat 54,000 Egyptian chariots. Even if Pharaoh tried to bring all of the chariots of Egypt to the battlefield, I can't imagine that this would come to half that number.

Why then did the Israelites have to flee from Pharaoh? Was Moses a coward? That thought was unacceptable to the biblical writers. Admitting cowardice on the part of Moses would undermine their own power and authority. So the biblical writer added 'all of the chariots of Egypt' to make it seem as though the Israelites were in real danger.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of many scholars, the figure of 603,550 Israelite men is vastly inflated. Even the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901 edition) calls this number 'fanciful'. A figure of 6,000 men seems much more likely -- but this is just my guess. There is a real chance that 600 chariots could defeat 6000 armed men. And the chance of a successful attack rises for a suprise attack at night.

When is the Best Time?

Also we must ask the question, would Pharaoh do better by attacking two or three nights before the full moon? The moon rises before the sun sets. There is no period of darkness in the early evening that is dangerous for chariots. At sunset the moon is between twenty and forty degrees above the horizon. Thus any dangerous obstacles or depressions in the ground cast shadows that can be seen by the charioteers. Two or three nights before the full moon seems like the ideal time for a night attack.

I do not know the answer. I can only suppose that either Pharaoh did not appreciate the importance of the moonlight or that The attack was delayed for some reason.

The Israelites left Egypt in the middle of the first month under a full moon. Very few Israelites were physically prepared for the rigors of a long march. The multitude included pregnant women, women carrying babies, and pregnant women carrying babies and herding toddlers. With many women, children, elderly people, and animals, they had to travel slowly. It is not likely that they could travel much more than five miles a day. I suppose that it would take them three weeks to travel from Ramesses to Pithom to Succoth to Etham and then to the Yam Suph. That would put the Israelites at Yam Suph a few days before the next full moon.

Some Difficulties:

Having presented my thesis, I must now admit that there are difficulties that must be addressed. I feel compelled to offer explanations for matters that might seeem yo contradict my thesis.

First, is there any hard evidence that a lake satisfying my conditions has ever existed? The problem is that the likely locations of the Yam Suph have been incorporated into the Suez Canal. However there may be old maps or old accounts that describe a suitable location. I have to leave this question open.

Second, in quoting verse 21 above, I omitted the last two clauses: " ... and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided". I did this because I do not consider this to be credible. The phrase 'dry land' contradicts verse 25 which indicates that the chariots became mired in this 'dry gound'. In the first place, when water is drained from mud flats, the result is mud. It may take days for the mud to dry. But if the lake bed were to become dry land all of a sudden, it would have supported horses and chariots. This would give the charioteers all night to overtake and slaughter the Israelites. That violates the main idea of the story, namely that the Israelites escaped unscathed.

Nor do I find credible the second half of verse 22: "the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left." I cannot imagine how a wind could divide the waters unless it blew in two directions at once. That idea is contradicted by verse 21which says that an 'east wind' was the agent that drove the waters back and produced dry land. But I am not a meteorologist. Is there any meteorological explanation for the two walls of water? I doubt it. I note that in the movie "The Ten Commandments", the waters were held back by artificial walls. Cecille B. DeMille did not achieve this effect with a wind machine. That would have been a miracle.

I believe that most of verse 21 is credible and represents an early account of the 'miracle' of Yam Suph. Now ancient peoples were storytellers. And a story like this grows in the telling. Storytellers know that they should not let the facts get in the way of a good story. So exaggerations were added to the story to make to seem all the more miraculous.

Other Locations?

Third, are there other suitable locations? No location fits the entire exodus story. But I do believe that the location I have described is the best fit. Here, near the Mediterranean Sea, the land and sea breezes have maximum effect. Here are likely locations for Migdol and Baalzephon. Migdol means tower -- most likely a lookout tower used by Egyptian border guards to watch for invasions from Gaza. The most likely route for Canaanite invaders would have come from Gaza along the Mediterranean coast. Baalzephon was probably the location of a shrine to Baal, a Canaanite god. There are several known shrines to Baal in the eastern part of the Nile delta.

However there is a second location that should be considered, namely the Bitter Lakes. This location is shown on a map in the Jewish Study Bible. That is a possible location provided that these lakes can generate a strong land breeze and provided reeds can grow in these waters. But this location is south of the Land of Goshen, and less likely to have a tower and a shrine to Baal-zephon. But there is another serious problem with identifying the Bitter Lakes as the Yam Suph. At the Yam Suph, the people do NOT complain of bitter water. And Moses does NOT show the people how to make the bitter water sweet. That happens at Marah, three days after the Israelites left the Yam Suph. The Bitter Lakes could be Marah, but probably not the Yam Suph.


My conclusions will have to stand up to the scrutiny of experts in several fields -- ancient history, biblical interpretation, meteorology, and military tactics. My hope is that my efforts will, in some small measure, advance the understanding of the biblical texts.

Many scholars doubt that Moses actually existed. Such people may believe that the story of the Exodus is just pure fiction. I do not accept this position. I do suppose that there is a factual basis of the story of Moses. The great challenge is finding that kernel of truth.

I do suppose that long ago that Egyptian troops attacked a large group of escaping slaves, but the slaves escaped. Soon the story passed into the oral tradition. As the story was told and retold, people exaggerated some elements, glorifying the deeds their heroes. Eventually the story acquired mythic elements -- a charismatic leader and divine interventions. Some elements of the story were forgotten. Other elements were confused as the story was handed down from generation to generation. Hundreds of years later priests attempted to reconstruct the story as they wrote it down. Later scribes inserted 'clarifications' and 'explanations' when they copied the text. Theological disputes left their 'fingerpints' on the text. It is for modern scholars to try to separate the wheat from the chaff, to illuminate the lives of our ancient ancestors.


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