Thursday 3 December 2009

Did Moses really part the Red Sea?

For a very long time, the history of the Biblical story of Exodus has been subjects of discussion among a great many people. Crossing the Red Sea is the Biblical account of the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses and the Israelites in their flight from the pursuing Egyptian army. It is a part of the Exodus narrative of their journey out of Egypt, which is found in chapters 13:17 to 15:21 of Exodus found in the Old Testament. According to the Book of Exodus, God parted the Red Sea for the safe passage of the Israelites, after which the pursuing Egyptians army was drowned when the tide came in.

There has never been any real substantial clear evidence discovered in Egypt, or elsewhere, for that matter, to support the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, although there is certainly no small amount of conjecture and theories suggesting that there was an exodus led by Moses and that the crossing took place somewhere in the Gulf of Aqaba (and not across the Gulf of Suez) of which both are north of the Red Sea and are separated by that body of land called Sinai. The alleged location of the crossing was supposed to be short distance north of the Red Sea.

Let me state right from the beginning with respect to the crossing of the Red Sea by Moses and his followers; it’s my opinion that it didn’t happen. The Red Sea is 116 miles 187kilometres) wide with an average depth of 1,606 feet (490 meters). Even if God did part the Red Sea for Moses and his followers, there’s no way that they could have crossed over to the eastern shore of that body of water before the tide came in to drown the Egyptian soldiers. The bottom of the sea would be extremely mucky and walking through the muck would be time consuming. It generally takes the average person 20 minutes to walk a mile on firm ground and if you multiply that by 116 miles, you get 2,320 minutes and that comes to at east 38 hours which is almost a day and a half. Now let’s presume that because of the thick mud at the bottom, they only traveled half that speed, then you are looking at a time period of a little over three days. The Egyptians would have caught up to them long before that.

It follows that there is no way that he would have brought his people south to the Red Sea especially when you consider that they left the area of the Nile delta where the Nile’s many tributaries are spread out in all directions, resulting in ideal fertile ground for planting and where the Egyptian rulers lived and used the Israelites as slaves.

In Exodus 1:11, it has been told that the pharaoh put the enslaved Hebrews to work on two ‘store-cities’ called Pthom and Raamses. (the latter named after the pharaoh, Raamses the Great) That would have put them in the area of the Nile delta that is north of Cairo and to the west of the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez. It makes sense that the pharaoh would choose to rule Egypt from the Nile Delta because that was the bread basket of Egypt. I remember my wife and I flying over the Nile delta in 1995 on our way to Cairo where I was to give a speech at a UN conference and I was amazed at just how green that area was.

It was from the city of Raamses that the exodus actually began. That ancient Egyptian city was in the area of Goshen which was near the eastern edge of the Nile delta and bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Here is the actual route Moses and his people took to get to Sinai. They left the city of Raamses and headed directly southeast to Sucooth (now called Tell el-Maskhua) Then they turned east and walked to a small lake called Lake Timsah. They then turned north and walked on the western side a mumber of small bodies of water called the El-Ballah Lakes. They then crossed in between one of them. That small area between two of the lakes is where the Sea of Reeds was located and it was in that area of a city called, abu Sefin (now called Quantara) which has been for a very long time, divided by the Suez Canal. It was in this area that Moses and his people crossed the Sea of Reeds and the Egyptians who followed them, perished.

Actually, the Sea of Reeds was more like a marsh of reeds. I should point out however that the entire area has changed. It was all desert in that area for the most part then but now the lakes are no longer there anymore as the Egyptians drained them and in their place are farms on the west side of the canal and desert on the east side of the canal.

In Exodus 13:15, and throughout the Exodus narrative, the term Yam Suph is used to describe the place where the crossing took place. This phrase has traditionally been understood to refer to the salt water inlet located between Africa and the Arabian peninsula, known in English as the Red Sea. However, more recently, it has been proposed that yam suph is better translated as the Sea of Reeds. This might also be one of the reasons why the word ‘sea’ was used in Exodus 14.2. It is more likely that they crossed over a freshwater marsh in that area.

Why was there confusion as to whether or not the crossing took place at the Red Sea or at the Sea of Reeds? The reason is obvious. The definition of the word, red referring to the Red Sea, is translated from Hebrew as soof which means ‘reed’ in English, which can mean any freshwater plant that is a reed, like the papyrus in Egypt, or the cattails in the U.S. The word, soof is used in Exodus 2:3 to refer to the reeds on the bank of the freshwater Nile River amongst which Moses was placed as a baby. Reeds are broad-leafed grass, about 5 to 16.5 feet (1.5 to 5 metres) tall.

While the Red Sea obviously existed in the time of the Israelites, none of the four hypotheses of their route intersects it. The Sea of Reeds is believed to have been a marshy, freshwater area north of the Gulf of Suez, near one of the currently existing nearby lakes. The Reed Sea is located somewhere along the marshy lake district of the Isthmus of Suez which separates the cultivated Nile delta from the barren desert. Everything prior to the sea crossing would have taken place in the area from the easternmost branch of Nile delta (Goshen) to the marshy lakes. Everything on both sides of the crossing was desert.

It is alleged that they crossed the Gulf of Ababa because the remains of chariots and the bones of humans were found at a certain location in the water some distance from the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. But those remains and bones could have been there because of them being brought across the gulf on a boat that later sank before it reached the other side.

To suggest that Moses and his people crossed that particular area doesn’t make any more sense that suggesting that he crossed the Red Sea. The distance across that part of the Gulf of Aqaba is 106 miles (170 km) and if anyone was walking that distance at 20 minutes a mile, it would take them at least 35 hours to cross it and double that if they were tramping through the thick mud all the way. That being as it is, it would take them at least three days to cross it.

But one is forced to ask why it would take the pharaoh so long to reach Moses before they supposedly crossed the Gulf of Abada. His men had chariots whereas Moses’s speed would be determined by the people who lagged behind.

As I said earlier, it doesn’t make sense that Moses would head south to cross a large body of water (Gulf of Aqaba) when the easier way to get to Sinai (which was his first main destination) would be to cross the northern part of Sinai in which the route was closer to the shores of the Mediterranean then the Gulf of Aqaba.

Exodus. 14:9,20 states; "... the Egyptians pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh ... and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pi-ha-hi-roth, before Baal-zephon ... And the pillar of clouds came between the camp of Israel: and it was a cloud and darkness to them ..."

Exodus 14:2 states; "Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn back and encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal Zephon. You shall encamp opposite it by the sea.”

In those days, even lakes were called seas. As an example, the large lake in the middle of Israel is called, the Sea of Galilee and the lake in southern Israel is called the Dead Sea. In California, there is a lake near Palm Springs that is called the Salton Sea.

I can imagine how an army traveling in heavy chariots would have been bogged down in a sea of reeds. In the case of traveling though a sea of reeds, Moses and the Israelites would have had just as much trouble traversing through that veritable 'jungle' of reeds in a potentially deep swamp as the army would have. I believe that Moses did part the Sea of Reeds by virtue of parting the reeds before him as everyone else did) and in doing so, he led the Israelites through an otherwise impassable area to the other side of the large marsh. The Hebraic context takes nothing away from that incredible feat under the proper reading of the text. And at the same time or shortly thereafter, an army of Egyptians being carried in heavy chariots could have easily been bogged down in the mud and drowned in ten feet of water after the tide has risen just as easily as if trying to cross a large body of water, such as the Gulf of Aqaba especially considering the additional problem of mud and reeds that can be found in marshes.

I remember watching that fascinating movie, The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston playing the role of Moses. What really intrigued me were the special effects depicting the parting of the Red Sea. It was a great movie and it as always been a great story but alas, like many stories, especially those told about the past, some of it was a myth. Parting of the Red Sea? Give me a break. Next thing they will be telling me is that there is truth in the statement that the moon really is made of cheese.

No comments: