The Crossing of the Red Sea (Hebrew: קריעת ים סוף Kriat Yam Suph – Crossing of the Red Sea or Sea of Reeds)[1] forms an episode in the biblical narrative of the Exodus. It tells of the escape of the Israelites, led by Moses, from the pursuing Egyptians, as recounted in the Book of Exodus.[2] Moses holds out his staff and God parts the waters of the Red Sea. The Israelites walk through on the dry ground and cross the sea, followed by the Egyptian army. Once the Israelites have safely crossed Moses lifts his arms again, the sea closes, and the Egyptians are drowned.

Biblical narrative

God chooses Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the land of Canaan, which God has promised to them. The Egyptian pharaoh, who previously said the opposite, agrees to let them go, and they travel from Ramesses to Succoth and then to Etham on the edge of the desert, led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. There God tells Moses to turn back and camp by the sea at Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, directly opposite Baal-zephon.

Crossing the Red Sea, a wall painting from the 1640s in Yaroslavl, Russia

God causes the pharaoh to pursue the Israelites with chariots, and the pharaoh overtakes them at Pi-hahiroth. When the Israelites see the Egyptian army they are afraid, but the pillar of fire and the cloud separates the Israelites and the Egyptians. At God's command, Moses held his staff out over the water, and throughout the night a strong east wind divided the sea, and the Israelites walked through on dry land with a wall of water on either side. The Egyptians pursued them, but at daybreak God clogged their chariot-wheels and threw them into a panic, and with the return of the water, the pharaoh and his entire army are destroyed.[3] When the Israelites saw the power of God, they put their faith in God and in Moses, and sang a song of praise to the Lord for the crossing of the sea and the destruction of their enemies. (This song, at Exodus 15, is called the Song of the Sea).

The narrative contains at least three and possibly four layers. In the first layer (the oldest), God blows the sea back with a strong east wind, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land; in the second, Moses stretches out his hand and the waters part in two walls; in the third, God clogs the chariot wheels of the Egyptians and they flee (in this version the Egyptians do not even enter the water); and in the fourth, the Song of the Sea, God casts the Egyptians into tehomot, the oceanic depths or mythical abyss.[4]

Location of the crossing

Pharaoh's army engulfed by the Red Sea, painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1900)

The Israelites' first journey is from Ramesses to Succoth. Ramesses is generally identified with modern Qantir, the site of the 19th dynasty capital Per-Ramesses, and Succoth with Tell el-Maskhuta in Wadi Tumilat, the biblical Land of Goshen.[5] From Succoth, the Israelites travel to Etham "on the edge of the desert", then turn back to Pi-hahiroth, located between Migdol and the sea and directly opposite Baal Zephon. None of these have been identified with certainty. One theory with a wide following is that they refer collectively to the region of Lake Timsah, a salt lake north of the Gulf of Suez, and the nearest large body of water after Wadi Tumilat.[6] Lake Timsah was connected to Pithom in Gesem at various times by a canal, and a late 1st millennium text refers to Migdol Baal Zephon as a fort on the canal.[7]

The Hebrew term for the place of the crossing is "Yam Suph". Although this has traditionally been thought to refer to the salt water inlet located between Africa and the Arabian peninsula, known in English as the Red Sea, this is a mistranslation from the Greek Septuagint, and Hebrew suph never means "red" but rather sometimes means "reeds".[8] (While it is not relevant to the identification of the body of water, suph also puns on the Hebrew suphah ("storm") and soph ("end"), referring to the events of the Exodus).[9]

It is unknown for certain why the Septuagint scholars translated Yam Suph as Red Sea, or "Eruthra Thalassa." One theory is that these scholars, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt during the 3rd century B.C., specifically identified the Red Sea as we know it today because they believed this is where the crossing took place.[10] During this time, these scholars would have understood the Red Sea not merely as the body of water known today, but also extending down to the Indian Ocean.

General scholarly opinion is that the Exodus story combines a number of traditions, one of them at the "Reed Sea" (Lake Timsah, with the Egyptians defeated when the wheels of their chariots become clogged) and another at the far deeper Red Sea, allowing the more dramatic telling of events.[7]

Reeds tolerant of salt water flourish in the shallow string of lakes extending from Suez north to the Mediterranean Sea. Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier state that these reedy lakes and marshes along the isthmus of Suez are acceptable locations for yam suf.[8][11] The ancient yam suf is not confined to the modern Red Sea. Hoffmeier equates yam suf with the Egyptian term pa-tjufy (also written p3 twfy) from the Ramsside period, which refers to lakes in the eastern Nile delta.[12] He also describes references to p3 twfy in the context of the Island of Amun, thought to be modern Tell el-Balamun.[13] Tell el-Balamun was the most northerly city of Pharaonic Egypt about 29 km southwest of Damietta, located at 31.2586 North, 31.5714 East.[14][15]

Historicity

No archaeological, scholarly verified evidence has been found that confirms the crossing of the Red Sea ever took place. Zahi Hawass, an Egyptian archaeologist and formerly Egypt's Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, reflected scholarly consensus when he said of the Exodus story, which is the biblical account of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and subsequent 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land: "Really, it’s a myth... Sometimes as archaeologists we have to say that never happened because there is no historical evidence."[16]

Given the lack of evidence for the biblical account, some researchers have searched for explanations as to what may have inspired the biblical authors' narrative, or to provide evidence for a natural explanation that is so rare that the timing could be considered miraculous.

One explanation is that the Israelites and Egyptians experienced a mirage, a commonly occurring natural phenomenon in deserts (and mirages themselves may have been considered supernatural). Each group may have believed the other to have been submerged in water, resulting in the Egyptians assuming the Israelites drowned and thus called off the pursuit. [17]

Some have claimed that the parting of the Red Sea and the plagues of Egypt were natural events caused by a single natural disaster, a huge volcanic eruption on the Greek island of Santorini in the 16th century BC.[18]

Carl Drews, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the United States, has suggested that the biblical Red Sea crossing "reflect[s] a real historical occurrence," namely, a natural phenomenon known as a wind setdown that has been observed to affect bodies of water. He conjectures that such a phenomenon could have created a land path through the Eastern Nile Delta (but not the Red Sea).[19] His 2010 paper on the subject, co-authored with Weiqing Han and published in the journal PLoS ONE, treats the biblical account of the Red Sea crossing as "an interesting and ancient story of uncertain origin."[20] James Hoffmeier, an archeologist and faculty member at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, deemed the wind setdown hypothesis "plausible," arguing that the Bible story should be seen as historical.[21]

Legacy

The theme of Moses crossing the Red Sea was taken up by the panegyrists of Constantine the Great and applied to the battle of the Milvian Bridge (312). The theme enjoyed a vogue during the fourth century on carved sarcophagi: at least twenty-nine have survived in full or in fragments.[22] Eusebius of Caesarea cast Maxentius, drowned in the Tiber, in the role of Pharaoh, both in his Ecclesiastical History and in his eulogistic Life of Constantine.[23]

See also