By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea so he and the Israelites could flee Egypt and travel to the Promised Land is one of the most famous stories from the Old Testament. What this episode means, however, remains less clear. Should this be analysed as a divine miracle alone, or does it – like many Old Testament phenomena – have its roots in something more down-to-earth?
And, even more troublingly: was it actually the Red Sea that Moses and the children of Israel crossed at all?
Let’s take a closer look at the story of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, with a view to providing an analysis of this important event in the Bible.
Moses parting the Red Sea: summary
Let’s take a look at what the Book of Exodus says about this event:
13:17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt: 13:18 But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.
We’ll return to that ‘wilderness of the Red sea’ in our analysis below, but for now it’s worth noting that the Israelites could have travelled more directly to Canaan if they’d gone directly north, rather than northeast. But they couldn’t do this, because of the Philistines, whom they wished to avoid.
13:20 And they took their journey from Succoth, and encamped in Etham, in the edge of the wilderness.
13:21 And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: 13:22 He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.
14:5 And it was told the king of Egypt that the people fled: and the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned against the people, and they said, Why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us? 14:6 And he made ready his chariot, and took his people with him: 14:7 And he took six hundred chosen chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over every one of them.
The Egyptians, having agreed to let their former slaves go, now regret such a rash decision. Pharaoh readies his chariot and prepares to go after the Israelites and recapture them. Six hundred chariots is quite a convoy, and suggests one obvious reason why, once Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the Egyptians were unable to give chase.
14:9 But the Egyptians pursued after them, all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh, and his horsemen, and his army, and overtook them encamping by the sea, beside Pihahiroth, before Baalzephon.
14:10 And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD.
14:11 And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? 14:12 Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.
Things are looking bleak for the children of Israel, when they see the Egyptian army in their chariots coming towards them in hot pursuit. Are they destined to die here in the wilderness? They’d have been better off remaining the slaves in Egypt. At least that way they’d still be alive.
14:13 And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever.
Moses, like a true leader, tells his people not to be afraid because God will fight their corner for them.
14:15 And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward: 14:16 But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.
God tells Moses to raise his rod – which, earlier in Exodus, God had transformed into a snake, investing it with divine powers – and divide the waters of the sea, so the Israelites can walk across it on dry ground, even though they’re technically in the middle of the sea.
14:21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
14:22 And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.
14:23 And the Egyptians pursued, and went in after them to the midst of the sea, even all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.
The Egyptians give chase in their chariots, but soon come a-cropper, realising that God has lent the Israelites his assistance. So they retreat.
14:26 And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.
14:27 And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.
14:28 And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.
To finish the job, Moses, under God’s command, undoes the dividing of the waters so that the path he had created through the sea disappears, the waters come over the Egyptians’ chariots, and they are all drowned. The Israelites are in awe of God’s power and thankful to him for helping them to escape Egypt for good.
Moses parting the Red Sea: analysis
Everyone knows the story of Moses parting the Red Sea so that he and the Israelites can escape the Egyptians. Except that this isn’t what the Bible says. The original Hebrew text instead states that Moses parted the waters of Yam Sūph, which is Hebrew for ‘sea of reeds’. It was a Reed Sea rather than the Red Sea. But where was this sea of reeds?
Some scholars believe that this still refers to what we call the Red Sea, but there are several issues with this theory. It appears that, as so often with these things, it’s down to an error in translation that stuck, but quite why translators of the Bible translated Yam Sūph, which doesn’t literally mean ‘red sea’ at all, as erythra thalassa (Greek for ‘red sea’) and then, into English, as ‘Red Sea’ isn’t clear.
Since they knew that the crossing of the Israelites happened in that part of the world, it’s likely they just assumed the Red Sea was the most probable location for the crossing to have taken place.
(It’s also the case that Yam Sūph, which probably initially denoted some reedy lakes in the region – as one would expect from the literal meaning of the name ‘sea of reeds’ – came to be applied to the larger body of water now known as the Red Sea.)
We don’t know precisely where the Yam Sūph or Reed Sea would have been located, but the most plausible place is between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, in the Suez. Reeds don’t usually thrive in salt water – and the water in the Red Sea is very salty, at around 4.1% salt versus something nearer 3.5% in most of the world’s oceans – but in the Suez, in a series of shallow lakes in the region, reeds do flourish despite the high salt content of the water.
A shallow reedy and marshy lake is exactly the sort of environment in which one group of people might be able to negotiate the waters and pass to safety while their pursuers came a-cropper and drowned (or, if the deaths of the pursuing Egyptians is an embellishment, given up the chase and turned back, defeated).
We don’t know which lake this would have been, but since the construction of the Suez Canal in the nineteenth century, one lake in the region has disappeared. It’s possible, given the location of that former lake, that it was the site the authors of Exodus had in mind for what is now universally known as ‘the parting of the Red Sea’.
Of course, this is speculation, but it’s tempting to suggest that the migration of the Israelites from Egypt into Canaan took this suggested route, and that it involved negotiating a reedy lake rather than a whole sea. The parting of the waves was part of the natural embellishment to the original story (whether entirely fictional from the start or an account of some genuine migration event), but the promotion of the lake of reeds to the Red Sea was down to error much later (probably) rather than conscious gilding of the lily (or reeds).