Did the Israelites cross the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?

Jan 12, 2022

וְאַתָּה הָרֵם אֶת־מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה אֶת־יָדְךָ עַל־הַיָּם וּבְקָעֵהוּ וְיָבֹאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה׃

And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.

Exodus 14:16

After allowing the Jews to leave Egypt, Pharoah suffered a change of heart and gave chase. The situation seemed hopeless as the Jews stood trapped between the sea and the advancing Egyptian army composed of 600 chariots, horsemen, and warriors. The Jews despaired, questioning Moses and calling to return to slavery in Egypt. God told Moses to lead the people forward. Moses lifted up his staff, a strong east wind blew, and the sea split, allowing the Jews to pass through on dry land. God stiffened the hearts’ of the Egyptians, causing them to follow the Jews into the sea.  Once the Israelites crossed safely, Moses dropped his staff, closing the sea and drowning the Egyptians.

Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (Ivan Aivazovsky)

The Ramban asks how it was that the Egyptians, who had already witnessed the miraculous plagues, did not foresee the catastrophe that lay ahead of them. The Ramban explains that it was for this reason that God sent the wind; to give the appearance of a natural occurrence. 

The Jerusalem Talmud explains that when faced with the oncoming Egyptians, the Children of Israel divided into four groups. One group said, “Let’s go into the sea and end our lives!”  Another group said, “Let’s return to Egypt!”  Another said, “Let’s make war on [the Egyptians],” and the fourth group said, “Let’s cry out against them!”   To the group that said, “Let’s go into the sea,” Moses said to them, “Stand and see the liberation that God will work for you today.”  To those who said, “Let’s return to Egypt,” he said, “The Egypt you see today you will never see again…”  To those who said “Let’s make war with them,” Moses said, “God will fight for you,” and to those who said, “let’s cry out….” he said, “Be quiet!”

The Midrash gives beautiful detail to this powerful story which, according to the Sages, was so powerful that “what a maidservant saw on the sea, the prophet Ezekiel did not see [in his Divine visions].” 

One midrash explains that the sea did not immediately divide so when Moses gave the order to move forward, the people hesitated. One man from the tribe of Judah named Nahshon son of Amminadab went into the sea. When the water reached above his nose, the sea split and the rest of the nation followed his lead.

The verse in Psalms 136:13 says:

Who split apart the Sea of Reeds, His steadfast love is eternal

According to Rashi, the sea split into 12 separate pathways so that each tribe passed through in its own lane. 

The biblical verses tell us that the seabed was dry, and the Sages add that the sea walls grew fruit and spouted fresh water for the travelers. 

According to the Midrash, the sea spit the Egyptians’ remains onto the seashore so that the Israelites wouldn’t think that the Egyptians survived by walking through the sea in another miraculously dry passage. This image increased their faith in God.

Roman Jewish historian Josephus Flavius speculated that the parting of the Red Sea “might be of God’s will or of natural origin. Let everyone believe at his own discretion.” Indeed, skeptics claim the miraculous splitting of the sea was no miracle but, rather, it was an incredibly timely natural phenomenon. Software engineer Carl Drews wrote in an article in the Washington Post in 2014, based on his master’s thesis, in which he described the Biblical account as a “weather event.” Drews claims the crossing took place through Lake Tanis, a small brackish lagoon in Egypt. Drews claims the event was generated by a “wind setdown,” in which strong winds — a little over 60 miles per hour — create a “push” on coastal water which, in one location, creates a storm surge.

“Wind setdown happens just as often as storm surge, but hardly ever hurts people, it just blows a harbor completely dry,” Drews claimed. “So this water sloshes from one side of the body to the other and leaves a dry place.” 

In his documentary, Exodus Decoded, Simcha Jacobovici suggested that the Exodus coincided with the catastrophic eruption of the volcano on the Greek island of Santorini, 700 kilometres north of Egypt, at around 1500 BCE. The film contends that the tsunami unleashed by the Santorini upheaval can also account for why the Israelites were able to cross the parting sea ahead of Pharaoh’s army, and why the Egyptians were subsequently engulfed. But Mr. Jacobovici says the sea Moses crossed was not the Red Sea, as is traditionally thought, but a smaller lake, known in Egypt as the Reed Sea. Its Egyptian name, translated into Hebrew, means “the place where God swallowed up.”

Pharaoh’s army engulfed by the Red Sea (Frederick Arthur Bridgman)

Those who believe in God understand that everything, even what we call natural phenomena, are the results of His divine will.

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