Did the Red Sea Really Split?

In the Hagadah, Jews everywhere chant the “Dyenu” (It would have been enough!) song. Let me give you one of my favorite stanzas that I translated for my students one year:

The Red Sea truly split in half

When Moses raised his mighty staff,

But if no sea had split in half, then dyenu!

This of course raises an interesting question: Did Moses’ mighty staff magically or supernaturally cause the sea to split as commonly portrayed in the movies? Or let us ask in more precise terms: How did the Sea of Reeds actually split? What are the clues of the text?

Details of the biblical story indicate that the splitting of the sea was facilitated by a strong east wind. Intrabiblical criticism suggests that other natural forces played a significant role as well. By the term “intrabiblical,” we mean other biblical passages that elucidate and amplify earlier scriptural narratives, e.g., Passage A expounds Passage B.

The first commentaries of the Bible were not Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, or even the Targum; rather, the other biblical writers served as expositors. It follows that the exodus out of Egypt occurred as a direct result of a massive earthquake that devastated Egypt. The “death of the firstborn” in Egypt could fit this description, for as Rashi observes, “firstborn” could mean ‘preeminent,” hence, it alludes to the “flower of Egypt.” An earthquake could also explain how the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds since it was probably an aftershock that produced a low tide.[1]

Although the ancients were not historians in the modern sense of the term (for the first “modern” historian begins with Herodotus), they nevertheless transmitted ancestral memory through its poetry (e.g., the Odyssey). Consider the following biblical text:

With your arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
The waters saw you, God;
the waters saw you and lashed about,
trembled even to their depths.

The clouds poured down their rains;
the thunderheads rumbled;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
The thunder of your chariot wheels resounded;
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.

Psalms 77:16-19

Personally, I have never believed or accepted supernatural interpretations; Jewish exegetes like Maimonides and Gersonides, stress how God typically utilizes natural law to achieve His purpose. Such an attitude allows for a more modern interpretation that does not strain the imagination. After all, the Torah speaks in the language of people, and language also includes poetry and hyperbole–the metaphors of our text.

Similar occurrences have been known to occur throughout history. From the works of the classical sources we learn that Alexander the Great, exploited a similar natural phenomena that enabled his men to ambush the more powerful Persian forces when he found a passage through the Pamphylian Sea in his conquest of the Persian Empire.[2] Once this occurs, human history changes forever. Isn’t it amazing how nature plays a decisive roll in how battles are ultimately determined?

Roman historian Livy records how the winds drove back the waters of the lagoon which enabled Scipio Africanis to capture New Carthage.[3]  Clericus in his commentary on the Pentateuch, also records a similar incident in the Engish-Dutch war in the year 1672. At that time,  the waters recessed at an extraordinary ebb and this natural phenomena  prevented the English from overtaking the Dutch armies.

Human history is often shaped by odd meteorological conditions. Continue reading “Did the Red Sea Really Split?”