Poetic Justice at the Red Sea

A scholar explains what happened at the great biblical event. /

The recent Exodus: Gods and Kings made a splash by deviating from the biblical story—even the preview made one wonder how much liberty the director would take. Outside of Hollywood’s liberties, many have wondered if this story is even true. Maybe the whole story is a “special effect,” a fable. Many biblical scholars beg to differ, and Nicholas Perrin, professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College, is one of them. In the following portion from his book The Exodus Revealed: Israel’s Journey from Slavery to the Promised Land, he helps us grasp not only how the Israelites experienced the events surrounding the sea’s parting, but also how we might understand that “special effect” scientifically.

The Scriptures inform us that a pillar cloud had led the tribes the whole way [from Egypt]. Whatever its physical appearance, the column-like cloud would be all the more awe-inspiring by virtue of what it represented, for the Lord was in the cloud (Ex. 13:21). Moses, Aaron, and the tribal leaders instantly interpreted this as God’s leading presence, whether the average Israelite understood it as such—we don’t know. I believe so. Ancient Near Eastern mythology is filled with stories of gods who ride on the clouds. Although the Israelites knew so very little about this God to whom they were entrusting their very lives, they would have naturally associated a bright pillar cloud with theophany. The God of Israel was with his people.

“But,” the Israelites surely wondered in their hearts, “would that be enough?” We can hardly imagine the swirl of emotions. On the one hand, the cloud, having appeared quite suddenly, must have inspired feelings of gratitude, security, and comfort. On the other hand, we can also imagine the sense of terror the moment stragglers on the rear guard noticed another cloud, a cloud of dust, rising on the distant horizon behind them: Pharaoh’s army. In the distance, yes, but also closing in quickly.

With the sound of agitated shouts and the sight of arms now intermittently pointing backward, word quickly spread. A collective cry of terror from the back soon made its way like a rolling wave, gathering momentum and volume, all the way to the front—up to Moses and Aaron, who were presumably leading the march at the vanguard as they themselves followed the cloud toward the sea.

On any account, the Israelites were completely cornered. To the rear was the army of a ruthless, vengeful ruler who—in addition to having been bereaved of his son—had been thoroughly humiliated by Moses and his unruly pack of foreigner slaves. No one had any doubt that if Pharaoh could manage to catch up, he would surely take out his pent-up fury on the Israelites and their children. Did they have any hope of out-running Pharaoh? Hardly. With the charioteers leading the charge, Egypt’s army was an agile and fast-moving military machine; Israel by contrast could only trudge along no faster than its slowest-moving walkers or pack animals. Could the Israelites turn and fight? This would have seemed equally absurd. The Egyptian force was made up of a fully equipped company of professional soldiers, while the Israelites had no martial training whatsoever (we can be sure that Pharaoh would have officially discouraged such opportunities) and probably very little in the way of weaponry except for clubs and a few swords. Of course, the Egyptian force had numerous other advantages: communication procedures, a well-established chain of command, and most of all, military experience. For any thinking Israelite, the issue wasn’t fight versus flight, for neither option was feasible.

Behind the Israelites came a blood-thirsty army; before them stood the sea. Its brooding presence had not only very practical implications (in that it hemmed in the Israelites), it also had symbolic implications.

To understand this, we first have to view the sea through ancient eyes. We may have a cheerful mental image of the seashore where families go for holiday, where bleached-blonde surfers spend their summer days, and where carefree children splash about and make castles in the sand. But for many ancients, the sea was the last place a person would go for personal recreation, much less relaxation. The sea, with its deep associations of chaos, betokened the deep unknown, the demonic, and death. Could the Israelites swim into the sea? The vast majority would not know how. Even for those who could swim, the thought of dog-paddling in the Sea of Extinction would have been psychologically repulsive in a way that we cannot easily understand. To die on the land would be far better than to die at sea, where the body would be lost altogether and deprived of a proper burial.

No wonder the Israelites were plunged into such a frenzy. Some shouted prayers as they pressed forward. Others—the leaders—pulled Moses aside if for no other reason than to express their indignation for having been (at least so they thought) badly misled. The rabbinic tradition relays that at this time the Israelites began gathering rocks with which to stone Moses. The biblical text does not state this, but perhaps it is exactly what happened. After all, if the Israelites could show Pharaoh a dead Moses, the Egyptian ruler might be more inclined to show mercy to his former slaves. Whether through death or life, Moses knew he was on the verge of being deposed.

At this point, Yahweh again instructs Moses to stretch out his arms. As Moses complies, God sends a stiff east wind that blows all night, over time cumulatively driving the water from the basin depth (Ex. 14:21). Apparently, this is not impossible. Russian researchers Naum Volzinger and Alexei Androsov attempted a computer-simulated model of a “wind setdown” (a phenomenon in which a strong and steady wind can move water from one area within a body of water and pile it up downwind) and estimated that 74-mph winds could have possibly exposed an underwater reef in the Suez, thus providing the Israelites a walking path.

More recently, in 2010, Carl Drews (National Center for Atmospheric Research) and Weiping Han (University of Colorado at Boulder) also presented a workable model for the Exodus, requiring only 63-mph winds. Their investigation presupposed a lake crossing to the north but also presumed, unnecessarily in my view, that the width of the escape route must have been two to three miles in order to accommodate a party that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But if, as I believe, the Israelites only numbered between 25,000 and 30,000, then this would correspondingly require a path not nearly as wide. (If Drews and Han modified their model to match a narrower path, this would require, in turn, less wind.) The wind-setdown theory strikes me as preferable to the theory of tsunami, not least because it coheres with the biblical account’s depiction of a steady wind as opposed to a sudden occurrence. On either version of this reconstruction, other questions remain: How could the Israelites have managed to walk in the face of hurricane-force winds? Would not the basin have had places with extended dips that would require fording or wading through troughs of water? Yes, there are questions, but studies like these are a good start.

As my friend and Wheaton colleague and geologist Steve Moshier will tell you, today’s Egyptian coastline is not the same coastline of 3,500 years ago. (Working alongside James Hoffmeier, Steve has done very helpful work in reconstructing the geological landscape of the New Kingdom era.) Sea levels change; sedimentary deposits also change the contours of the ancient map. Indeed, if we contemplate the Suez Gulf in Moses’ time, we can see that the salt water extension could actually have come up to the edge of the lake in the north, which in effect would make the Sea of Reeds versus Red Sea debate almost moot. In short, we have to remember that when we are talking about geography in Moses’ day, we are doing a good deal of guesswork.

That said, we might imagine Israel beating across a path that was anywhere between twelve and twenty miles in length—perhaps going as far as two hundred feet below the original water level. On this basis, let’s just say that it took the Israelites a good three to four hours (at least) to cross the water basin to the eastern side. As the Israelites made their way to the east side of the shore into the wee hours, they were wondrously grateful for the divinely wrought escape route through the water, but they were nevertheless aware that they were still being followed.

In his determination to bring his slave force back into captivity, Pharaoh had marshaled more than six hundred chariots. This fits the historical record very well. The Egyptians had in fact learned about the usefulness of chariots from their archenemies, the 16th century B.C. Hyksos. By the time of the Battle of Kadesh (1274 B.C.), Ramses II had developed the chariot as a key component of his overall military operations. He would have used—on the assumption of a late Exodus—the chariots as a kind of elite special force. Those in the “chariot division” would be the ones to go in and break down the enemy line, while the foot soldiers would follow after and do the mop-up fighting. Chariots made for a good moving platform for longbow shooters, effective in picking off their enemy at great distances. Since longbows were unwieldy on horseback, and a chariot gave the archer room for a virtually endless supply of arrows, even a mere dozen such chariots approaching the retreating Israelites would have spelled certain slaughter.

The ancient Egyptian chariot had a downside, however. While modern-day tanks do well in various kinds of terrain, the Egyptian chariots—not so much. And this is exactly the point where Pharaoh’s chariot unit is undone. As the chariots begin to get jammed with muddy sediment from the gulf bottom (Ex. 14:25), the wheels begin to come off of Pharaoh’s military operation—quite literally. Physically immobilized and psychologically intimidated by the sight of the walls of water around them (the memory of the Ten Plagues was still fresh in many of their minds), the army fell into a panic. At that point, once Israel had safely crossed, Yahweh instructed Moses to stretch out his arms one last time—this time not for salvation but for judgment. The waters came crashing down, and the Egyptians perished. Even if some among the Egyptian chariot riders could swim, many of the drivers and the archers would have been roped to their chariot by the ancient equivalent of seat-belts or body straps. In that case, the water need not have been more than six feet deep.

Ironically, when the contest between Yahweh and Pharaoh first began, Yahweh’s snakes had swallowed those of Pharaoh and his magicians (Ex. 7:12); now at the true close of the contest, the sea swallowed Pharaoh’s entire army (Ex. 15:12). Much as Pharaoh had given orders to drown the Israelite male infants at the beginning of our story, now at the end of our story came time for Egypt’s men to be drowned in the water. Israel’s salvation and Egypt’s judgment were both accomplished in a single stroke. The Exodus story draws to a close on a note of poetic justice.

In the morning dawn, with the grisly sight of the drowned Egyptians, the Israelites had much to work through, much to ponder. Through God’s power they had evaded capture by one of the most powerful military forces in the world. They had successfully crossed the Red Sea by God’s intervention alone; they also had looked on as their enemies met a sure destruction—equally by God’s intervention. And while they had much to ponder, with some soberness, they also had much to celebrate. The Israelites did so in spontaneous response to God’s saving activity (Ex. 15). As the Israelites reflected, they discovered that God had never once expected Israel to do the fighting or to take their destiny into their own hands. Rather, just when the tribes were at their most helpless and vulnerable, God intervened. From that point on, Israel’s God would go down in history as the God of the poor and needy.

Nicholas Perrin, PhD, is the Franklin S. Dyrness professor of biblical studies and dean of the graduate school at Wheaton College. This article is excerpted from The Exodus Revealed: Israel’s Journey from Slavery to the Promised Land (Faith Works, 2014) with permission.

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Issue 15 / February 5, 2015
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