Monthly Archives: February 2016

Was Mount Sinai a Volcano?

Glen A. Fritz © 2016

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And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. (Exod. 19:18)

During the Exodus, the Hebrews spent eleven months and five days at Mount Sinai. During the initial months of their stay, the mountain was associated with a frightening display of dense clouds, smoke, fire, thunder, lightning, earthquakes, the sound of a loud trumpet, and the voice of God. Multiple scriptures reference these phenomena, e.g., Exod. 19;16; 20:18; Deut. 4:11-12; and 5:23.

Giving of the Law

The Volcanic Theory History

The polytechnic-like descriptions have led some investigators to propose that the mountain was a volcano. In so doing, traditional locations within the Sinai Peninsula had to be jettisoned because it has no geological evidence of “recent” volcanic activity. The only area in the region potentially meeting this requirement are the lava fields (ῌarrah) in northwest Arabia.

The first investigator to propose the volcanic idea was British explorer and Bible scholar Charles T. Beke, who published the pamphlet “Mount Sinai a Volcano” in 1873. Beke surmised that the mountain should be located along the route that Moses took on his return to Egypt from Midian (in northwest Arabia). Hence, he focused on the mountains at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, in particular, Mount Baghir (Mt. Sheikh Mohammed Baghir), or Jabal an-Nur (“mountain of light”). Its 1550 m (5090’)-high peak (at 29.592° N, 35.129° E) is about 10 miles northeast of Aqaba (Figure 1), on the north shoulder of the key Wady Ithm pass.

Figure 1. The locations of Hala-l-Bedr, G. Baghir, and Ain Qadeis. (Adapted from Oberhummer 1912, Plate 3.)

Figure 1 The locations of Hala-l-Bedr, G. Baghir, and Ain Qadeis. (Adapted from Oberhummer 1912, Plate 3.)

When Beke visited his surmised “Mount Sinai,” he found that it was not volcanic and withdrew his volcanic theory. Only slightly crestfallen, he still advocated the place as Mount Sinai:

I believed I should find a volcano where I placed Mount Sinai. I find the ‘Mountain of Light,’ but no volcano. I am therefore now bound to confess that I was in error in regards the physical character of Mount Sinai, and the appearances mentioned in Scripture were a little volcanic as they were tempestuous (1878, 436).

Fifty years later, Alfred Lucas (1938, 71) also favored this same site for Mount Sinai, although he did not expect it to be volcanic.  But, his explanation of its location was rather confused because he stated that it was in Midian, However, this locale also was part of the Seir range (ibid. 78), which he placed in the territory of ancient Edom: “the identity of Seir with Edom is certain” (ibid. 74). If Mount Baghir was in Mount Seir, and it was considered part Edom, then a conflict exists because the Hebrews were not permitted to violate Edomite territory (Num. 20:17-21; Deut. 2:5).

Following Beke, other commentators persisted with the volcanic theory. German theologian Hermann Gunkel turned his attention to the volcanic areas of northwest Arabia, noting that the Sinai Peninsula lacked volcanos (1903, 3058; 1904, 160; Dorner 1905, 69). Eduard Meyer (1906, 69), followed suit, based largely on the observation of German theologian Julius Wellhausen that Mount Sinai was in Midian (1889, 349). Adding extra-biblical intrigue, Meyer fancied that Jehovah was originally a volcanic fire god indigenous to Midian (Oberhummer 1912, 674).

Wellhausen suspected a northwest Arabia location for Mount Sinai based on its association with the Madian (Midian) of the ancient classical geographers. Citing Deut. 33:2, “The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran,” he observed:

The Midian of Exodus 2 tells us most: it is probably Madian on the Arabic shore of the Red sea. In our passage Sinai seems to be southeast of Edom; the way from Sinai to Kadesh is by Seir and Paran (1883, 364, n. 1; Wellhausen, et. al. 1885).

Baltimore Professor Paul Haupt (1909) similarly opined that “Mount Sinai cannot be located on the Sinaitic Peninsula; it was a volcano in the land of Midian” (Oberhummer 1912, 675). Professor Oberhummer, in his 1912 treatise, “The Sinai Problem,” proposed that Mount Sinai was likely Hala-l-Bedr, the dormant volcano described in 1908 by explorer Alois Musil (1926). The location of Hala-l-Bedr is shown in Oberhummer’s map in Figure 1.

Despite Musil’s detailed description of Hala-l-Bedr (1926, 214-216), he ultimately opted for a Mount Sinai location within the supposed domain of ancient Midian:

We locate Mount Horeb by the sêcĭb [sheib] of al-Hrob, in the northeastern part of the al-Hrajbe table-land” (ibid. 263).… The main camp of the Israelites…[was] twenty kilometers to the north of ‘Ajnuna (ibid. 269).

Hrob may be an Arabic form of the Hebrew Horeb. A sheib is a wide, shallow, ephemeral stream bed. The watershed of this sheib originates to the northeast in the “az-Zihed” mountain range (ibid. 117). Musil’s sheib of al-Hrob, az-Zihed, and Ajnuna are shown in Figure 2. The Jabal az-Zuhd peak (28.306° N, 35.299° E) is quite distant from Hala-l-Bedr, which lies 225 km (140 mi.) to the east-southeast.

Musils Mount Sinai Annotated

Figure 2 The Location of Musil’s “Mount Sinai” in Midian. Sheib al-Hrob is circled. The triangle designates the peak of Jabal az-Zihed. The Ajnuna (Aynunah) settlement is 20 km (12 mi.) south near the Red Sea coast (adapted from Musil 1926).

Hala-l-Bedr is an extinct cinder cone volcano perched on Jabal Thadra (“Tadra,” ibid. 214) in Al Jaww (Brown et al. 1989, A153). Figure 3 views the formation from the sout. Hala is Arabic for volcano or lava, while Badr means full moon. It is suspected to have been active in the last 10,000 years, considering Musil’s report that Bedouin and their flocks were destroyed there in historic times (1926, 214). The 1500 m (5000’) crater elevation rises 300-450 m (1000-1500’) above the surrounding terrain. It is situated at 27.253° N, 37.247° E, about 335 km (210 mi.) southeast of the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. The mountain and its foothills exhibit stone circles and other evidences of historic or prehistoric activity.

Hala-l-Bedr Viewed from the South

Figure 3 Hala-l-Bedr Volcano viewed from the south. The crater is located just left of center (image derived from Google Earth).

Following Oberhummer, Rev. W. J. Phythian-Adams (1930) provisionally affirmed “the identity of this mountain, Tadra-Hala el-Bedr with the Biblical Mountain of God, Horeb-Sinai” (ibid. 209). He also opined that it explained the pillar of cloud and fire that the Hebrews followed in the Exodus:

The stupendous pillar which rose from the far horizon existed not from fantasy, but in fact; nor could a more unerring guide have been chosen to lead the way to the Mount of God, since it was from the mouth of the Mount itself that this beacon of smoke and flame lifted its towering head (ibid. 138-139).

Phythian-Adams noted that Old Testament scholar Hugo Gressmann (1913, 192) had, years earlier, given this same explanation for the pillar. Nonetheless, this notion presents some difficulties.

The biblical mentions of the pillar infer both proximity and motion, not a static phenomenon emanating hundreds of miles in the distance. For instance, when the Hebrews left Egypt,

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: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people (Exod. 13:21-22).

As a practical matter, a volcanic eruption in the Arabian Peninsula would not likely illuminate the night path for travelers 350-550 km (220-350 mi.) distant in the Sinai Peninsula. If its eruption was of that great magnitude, no multitude would have been able to assemble at its base, and Moses would not be able to ascend its peak.

Furthermore, when the Hebrews were encamped at the sea, the pillar was locally manifest and moved between them and the Egyptians (Exod. 14:19). At later times, the cloud stood above the tabernacle, entirely separate from the mountain (Exod. 43:9; 40:34; Num. 12:5). As the Hebrews traveled beyond Mount Sinai, “the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys” (Exod. 40:38). This phenomenon was still occurring near the close of the Exodus (Deut. 31:15). A careful reading of the pertinent scriptures argues against a volcanic basis for a moving pillar of light and cloud.

The Volcanic Theory in the 21st Century

In recent decades, Jean Koenig (1971), and then Colin Humphreys  (2003), also advocated Hala-l-Bedr as the site for Mount Sinai. Humphreys  went into great detail to explain his idea, summarizing that

The Old Testament description of Mount Sinai fits perfectly an eyewitness description of an erupting volcano, even down to the details like the loud trumpet sound produced by gases escaping through cracks in the rocks (ibid. 310-312).

His location for Mount Sinai was based on two basic criteria: 1) a volcano that was active in the last 10,000 years, 2) located within 11 days’ travel from Kadesh. The evidence for the historical eruption activity of Hala-l-Bedr chiefly stems from the report of Musil (1926), cited above. Although Humphreys  found three volcanos that met his distance criterion, he chose Hala-l-Bedr because it had the highest explosive index, which gave it a potential three-mile-high eruption column.

The 11-day parameter is derived from Moses’ statement in Deut. 1:2 that “there are eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir unto Kadeshbarnea.”  Kadeshbarnea or Kadesh, on the southern bound of the land of Canaan (Num. 12:16; 13:26), was the key destination after leaving Mount Sinai. For his calculations, Humphreys  chose the traditional site for Kadesh at Ain Qadeis, in the eastern Sinai Peninsula, 135 km (85 mi.) northwest of the head of the gulf (Figure 1). Without going into detail, Ain Qadeis,  the default site by tradition, does not fully comport with the biblical geography of Kadesh.

According to Humphreys, the Mount Sinai volcano had to be within 412 air miles (663 km) of Ain Qadeis in order to be within 11 days’ travel. This idea was based on historical Hajj caravan rates of 60 km (37.5 mi.) per day using camels. But, this assumption has three problems: 1) air miles don’t equate to overland miles, 2) the 37.5 mi. per day travel rate is very ambitious, and 3) Exodus-era caravan rates were not necessarily comparable with the more recent Hajj rates.

Other Hajj rate estimates are much lower, in the range of 25-26 miles per day (Al-Wohaibi 1973; Lipschitz 1978), or 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 miles per hour (Ritter 1866). Furthermore, Hajj travel was facilitated by roadbed improvements and a rigid itinerary relying on prepositioned water and supply stations. The Exodus-era caravan travel referenced by Deut. 1:2 did not have this same degree of advantage.

Humphreys calculated the Hebrews’ ground distance between Hala-l-Bedr and Ain Qadeis at 352 mi. (567 km), which he divided into 11 “stages,” each averaging a very brisk 32 mi. (52 km) per day. For the sake of comparison, the Hebrews may have averaged 20.5 miles (33 km) per day in their hurried transit between Egypt and a Yam Suph located at the Gulf of Aqaba (Fritz 2016).

Ironically, Humphreys’ route between his “Mount Sinai” and Kadesh did not retrace the path that he had mapped for the Hebrews’ journey to Hala-l-Bedr (2003, 329). Instead of routing them back through Aqaba, he sent them along the east side of Mount Seir, as far as Petra, where they turned west to traverse the mountains of Edom. The problem with this idea (mentioned previously) is that the Edomites prohibited any Hebrew passage through their territory (Num. 20:14-21; Judg. 11:17).

Another glitch is that there were 14 encampments in the journey between Mount Sinai and Kadesh (Num. 33:16-30), not the 11 “stages” that Humphreys proposed. The key to deciphering this itinerary is to recognize that Kadesh was not named. Instead, Moseroth was used as a proxy for Kadesh in Num. 33:30-31. In explanation, the verb root of Moserah (pl. Moseroth) means “chastise” (Strong 1990, H3256, H4147), referring to the punishment of the Hebrews for their ignoble behavior at Kadesh. Following this pattern, Moserah was given as the place of Aaron’s death in the 40th year of the Exodus (Deut. 10:6). Aaron actually died on Mount Hor (Num. 20:28), which was adjacent to Kadesh, based on the sequence of events in Num. 20:14, 22, 23, 28; 21:1, 4.

Although Humphreys provided a grand exhibition of his Hala-l-Bedr theory for Mount Sinai, the details involve numerous geographical difficulties.

Summary of the Volcanic Idea

There is a 130-year history of volcanic theories for Mount Sinai. The main problem is that the theory must add significant distance to the two-month journey between Egypt and the wilderness of Sinai (cf. Exod. 12:2, 6, 51 with 19:1). In addition, Hala-l-Bedr is distant from the classical domain of Midian, which was located east of the Gulf of Aqaba and northeast of the head of the Red Sea. The heart of this region appears on Musil’s map in Figure 2. The southern fringe of this territory is about 130 air miles (210 km) from Hala-l-Bedr, with a ground distance that equates to about a weeks’ journey on foot.

L'Eruzione del Vesuvio. 26 Aprile 1872 LOC

Figure 4 The Eruption of Vesuvius 1872 (Library of Congress)

The Mount Sinai Activities

The volcanic theories reviewed above all seem to ignore the potentially noxious environments associated with active volcanoes. The “elephant in the room,” the obvious element missing from the arguments, concerns the incompatibility between human activity and volcanic eruptions. To provide a visual, an 1872 eruption of Mount Vesuvius is shown in Figure 4.

As mentioned above, Humphreys (2003) selected Hala-l-Bedr because it had the potential for a three-mile-high eruption column. The products of this sort of eruption would include ejecta or tephra, steam, gasses, and molten lava flows. Tephra denotes pyroclastic materials of all sizes: ash, blocks, and semi-solid or molten bombs. Ash refers to particles less than 2 mm in diameter, composed of various minerals, pulverized rock, and volcanic glass. Gasses include water vapor, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen, and hydrogen sulfide.

The tephra fallout from volcanic plumes is very hazardous, easily deadly to man, animals, and vegetation. Surface accumulation of ash prior to the arrival of the Hebrews would inhibit, if not preclude, pastoral and habitation activity. In the least, ash is a significant respiratory and eye irritant. It has been observed that sheep that survive volcanic ash falls may become immobilized by its weight in their wool.

A review of the biblical human interaction with Mount Sinai is needed to highlight the potential problem. Of note is the protracted human activity within the mountain and the fact that Moses spent more than 80 days in its heights.

Upon the arrival at Mount Sinai, the Lord called to Moses out of the mountain (Exod. 19:3) saying, “I have come in a thick cloud that the people may hear when I speak with you…” (19:9). The inference is that the cloud shielded the people from the deadly energy field (“glory”) of the Lord, allowing him to be close enough to be heard.

The people were told to prepare for the third day, when the Lord would come down upon the mountain (19:11), and a trumpet would signal them to come to the base of the mountain (19:13). On the third day, there were thunders, lightnings, clouds on the mountain, and the voice of a trumpet (19:16). “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like [simile] the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (19:18 RSV).

The Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain (19:20). He was told to go down to warn the people to stay back, under penalty of death, and to bring Aaron back up with him (19:21, 24). It is important to note that death would be administered at the hand of man, by stoning or spearing (Exod. 19:13), not by injurious properties of the mountain.

“And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off” (20:18). “…and Moses  drew near unto the thick darkness where God was” (20:21). “And he said unto Moses, come up unto the LORD, thou, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and worship ye afar off” (24:1). “Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” (24:9). These men saw the God of Israel with a pavement of sapphire under his feet; and they ate and drank (24:10-11).

Moses was told to go up further in the mount to receive the tables of stone. He took Joshua with him, while the elders tarried. The cloud continued to cover the mountain (24:12-15), with the “glory of the Lord” abiding on Mount Sinai for six days. On the seventh day, Moses was called up (24:16). The glory of the Lord was like [simile] a devouring fire (24:18). Moses then spent forty days and nights in the mountain (24:18). At the end of this period, Moses (and Joshua) returned to find the people corrupted, worshipping the golden calf, and Moses broke the stone tablets (32:15-17).

Moses asked of the Lord to see his glory and was instructed to stand on a rock in the mountain near the Lord’s presence. When the Lord passed by, he put Moses in the cleft of a rock to protect him (33:18-23). Moses was instructed to go down and hew tables of stone like the first, and then return to the top of the mountain (34:1-4). Upon When Moses’ return to the heights, the Lord descended in a cloud and passed before him (34:5-6). “And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (34:28).

In this series of events, Moses made about five trips up the mountain. On one excursion, he was accompanied by over seventy people, who experienced benign conditions under which they could tarry, and eat and drink. Moses spent two, forty-day periods in the heights. All of these men moved freely up and down the mountain without mention of being hampered by supposed pyrotechnic phenomena: heat, fumes, ash, or lava flows. In all, the Hebrew multitude and their vast herds spent eleven months and five days around Mount Sinai.

Over the last century, volcanologists have well-documented the attendant geophysical dangers of erupting volcanos. The theories proposing that Mount Sinai was a volcano seem to fantasize about the prospect without adequately addressing the unpredictable and dangerous aspects of volcanic activity.

Theophany at Mount Sinai

The ongoing phenomena observed at Mount Sinai are best described as a theophany: a visible manifestation of God to humankind. In fact, the Lord explained his manifestation: “I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee…” (Exod. 19:9).  In Exod. 24:16 and 17, “the glory of the Lord” (Hebrew: h’kavod YHWH) abode on the top of Mount Sinai as a “cloud” and “like devouring fire.”  “The glory of the Lord” phrase, which occurs 33 times in the KJV, usually signals a theophany. It is most frequently associated with a “cloud,” and less frequently with “fire.” The phrase was first used when the Hebrews entered the Wilderness of Sin, 30 days beyond Egypt and “the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud” (Exod. 16:7 and 10).

Despite their benign intent, the divine displays at Mount Sinai were frightful to the Hebrews, who pled with Moses, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exod. 20:19). The Psalmist gave this retrospective:

O God, when thou wentest forth before thy people, when thou didst march through the wilderness; Selah: The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God: [even] Sinai itself [was moved] at the presence of God, the God of Israel” (Psalm 68:7-8 KJV).

References

Beke, Charles Tilstone. 1873. Mount Sinai a Volcano. Tinsley Brothers.

Beke, Charles T. Beke, Emily Beke, ed. 1878.  The Late Charles Beke’s       Discoveries of Sinai in Arabia and of Midian. London: Trübner & Co. 

Brown, G. F., D. L. Schmidt, A. C. Huffman, and A. Curtis, Jr. 1989. Geology of the Arabian Peninsula; Shield Area of Western Saudi Arabia. U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper no. 560-A. Reston, Virginia: U. S. Geological Survey.

Dorner, Albert. 1905. Beiträge zur Weierentwicklung der christlichen Religion. München.

Fritz, Glen A. 2016. The Lost Sea of the Exodus: A Modern Geographical Analysis, 2nd Ed.. San Antonio: GeoTech.

Gunkel, Hermann. 1904. Ausgewählte Psalmen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Gunkel, Hermann. 1903. Deutsch Literatur-Zeitung.

Gressmann, Hugo. 1913. Mose und seine Zeit : ein Kommentar zu den Mose-Sagen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Haupt, Paul. 1909. The Burning Bush and the Origin of Judaism. Philadelphia.

Humphreys, Colin. 2003. The Miracles of Exodus: a scientist’s discovery of the extraordinary natural causes of the Biblical stories. New York: Continuum.

Jean Koenig. 1971. Le site de al-Jaw dans l’ancien pays de Madian. Paris: Paul Geuthner.

Lipschitz, Ora. 1978. Sinai, Part I. Tel Aviv: Simor Ltd.

Lucas, Alfred. 1938. The Route of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. London: Edward Arnold & Co

Meyer, Eduard, and Bernhard Luther. 1906. Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstämme. Halle: Max Niemeyer.

Musil, Alois. 1926. The Northern Hijaz: A Topical Itinerary. American Geographical Society Oriental Explorations and Studies No. 1, J.K. Wright, ed. New York.

Phythian-Adams, W. J. 1930. The Mount of God. Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (July): 135-149, 192-209.

Ritter, Carl. 1866. The Comparative Geography of Palestine and the Sinaitic Peninsula, trans. William L. Gage. New York:  D. Appleton and Co.

Strong, James. 1990. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Wohaibi, Abdulla Al-. 1973. The Northern Hejaz in the Writings of the Arab Geographers 800-1150. Lebanon: Al-Risalah.

Wellhausen, Julius. 1883. Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels. Berlin: Reimer.

Wellhausen, Julius, J. Sutherland Black, and Allan Menzies. 1885. Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Edinburgh: A&C Black.

Wellhausen, Julius. 1889. Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels 5th ed. Berlin: Reimer.

 

Wind and the Exodus Sea Crossing

wind and the exodus sea crossing

Glen A. Fritz ©2010, 2016

Introduction

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 (Ex. 14:21 KJV).

Numerous Bible verses describe the parting of the Exodus Sea as a divinely orchestrated, miraculous event. The wind has often been credited as the mechanism employed to split the sea. Extending this thought, some Exodus commentators have attempted to explain the event apart from specific divine action. As a result, various Exodus scenarios have developed that route the Hebrews through shallow water venues that could reasonably be affected by wind conditions.

For instance, Har El (1983) placed the crossing at the Great Bitter Lake in the southern Isthmus of Suez (see Figure 1). He proposed that the crossing occurred at a ridge in the lake estimated to have been less than four feet deep, which was exposed by a southeast wind (ibid. 351). However, the Bitter Lakes were created on March 18, 1869 (Nourse 1884) when they were flooded with sea water during the construction of the Suez Canal. There is no evidence that they existed during the time of the Exodus (Fritz 2006).

Map_SuezCanal-detail

Figure 1. A 19th-century map of the Suez Canal in eastern Egypt. The canal traverses the Isthmus of Suez, linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez.

Humphreys (2003) proposed a crossing site 160 miles to the east at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba, at an ancient marsh where the city of Eilat now stands. He assumed that these marsh conditions were created by higher sea levels during the Exodus (ibid. 197). However, the high sea level proposition is not borne out by geological or archaeological data (Fritz 2006, 2016). For example, 3000 years ago at Dor, Israel, the Mediterranean Sea was about 1 meter lower than the modern sea level. Around 4000 years ago, the sea was 2 meters lower (Sneh and Klein 1984).

Nof and Paldor (1992, 1994) analyzed wind conditions needed to produce an Exodus crossing scenario at the head of the Gulf of Suez. They calculated that sustained northwest winds of 20 meters per second (44.7 mph) could have caused a wind setdown, pushing the water over a kilometer away from the shore, and producing a local sea level drop of more than 2.5 meters. However, they admitted that the wind was not from the east, as indicated in the Bible, and that the “walls of water” of Ex. 14:22 could only be envisioned if a land ridge had existed within the setdown area.

A similar examination of a crossing site in the Isthmus of Suez was done by Hellstrom (1950), under the assumption that it was covered by the sea during the Exodus. However, as mentioned above, the elevated sea levels envisioned by Hellstrom are not supported by the historical data.

Evaluating the Wind Question

Despite the traditional focus on the wind, the underlying question is whether the Bible really attributes the sea parting to the wind. If so, was the wind natural or supernatural? What physical factors pertaining to the sea and the wind need to be taken into consideration?

The Supernatural Component

There are a variety of biblical texts that infer that the parting of the sea was a divine action. For instance, Exodus 15:12 declares, “Thou [the Lord] stretchedst out thy right hand, the earth swallowed them [the Egyptian army].” Isaiah 51:10 (NASB) asks, “Was it not You who dried up the sea, The waters of the great deep; Who made the depths of the sea a pathway For the redeemed to cross over?”
The biblical narrative “clearly intends to relate a miraculous event, and whoever attempts to explain the entire episode rationally [naturalistically] does not in fact interpret the text but projects his own ideas in place of those expressed by scripture” (Cassuto 1997, 168).

Physical Factors to Consider

The Nature of the Biblical Sea
The biblical qualities ascribed to the Exodus Sea suggest a substantial body of water that would require immense wind forces to produce any sizable displacement. Whether one argues that a fortuitous natural wind parted the sea, or that a supernatural wind performed all of the work, the scale of the sea relative to the potential wind dynamics must be considered.

The Bible explains that the Hebrew sea crossing was through a sea named Yam Suph [1]. The early Greek Septuagint translators (ca. 250 BC) equated Yam Suph with their concept of the Red Sea, which always referred to a true sea, never to an inland marsh or lake.

The biblical Hebrew descriptors of Yam Suph indicate that it was deep. For instance, the Lord rebuked Yam Suph, “…and it was dried up: so he led them through the depths [tahomot], as through the wilderness” (Ps. 106:9 KJV). In this passage, tahomot (singular tahom) is associated with the idea of great depths, an abyss, or great quantities of water (Gesenius 1979, #8415). The same term appears in Isaiah 51:10 (KJV): “Are You not the One who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep [rav tahom]….” This verse then mentions that “…the depths [ma’amaqim] [2] of the sea” were made into a road “for the redeemed to cross over,” adding the sense of “deep” or “profound” (Gesenius 1979, #6009). A list of Yam Suph descriptors is given in Table 1.

Table 1

Table 1

Then, there is the idea of walls of water. “The people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall [khomah] to them on their right hand and on their left” (Ex. 14:22 RSV). The Hebrew word khomah, which appears 133 times in scripture, refers to “generally the wall of a town…rarely of other buildings” (Gesenius 1979, #2346). This usage pattern suggests that the height of the walls of water was not insignificant. A similar idea is expressed in Ps. 78:13 (NKJV): the Lord “…divided the sea and caused them to pass through; and He made the waters stand up like a heap.”[3]

Wind Mechanics
Overall, the biblical account of the sea crossing poses difficulties for the proposition that an east wind was the sole mechanism of its parting. Here are some considerations:

1. Ample Velocity: The wind forces would need to be adequate to both displace the sea and to sustain the walls of water on the large scale described in the Bible.

2. Maximal Velocity: The wind force could not be so great that it would hinder the passage of the Hebrews or the Egyptian army. The wind theories usually note that the wind blew all night long (per Ex. 14:21), which presumably provided time for the water displacement. Yet, they are not quick to acknowledge that the Hebrews crossed the parted sea during this same night. The event ended when the Lord instructed Moses to lift his hand over the sea and “the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared” (Ex. 14:27). [4]

3. Wind Direction: A single wind direction would not readily exert force in the multiple vectors needed to sustain a lengthy walled path.

4. Misguided Geographical Priorities: Instead of seeking the location of Yam Suph on the basis of its biblical geographical context, supremacy has often been given to the topographical settings with wide, shallow bodies of water deemed suitable for the wind theories. Here is an example of this sort of focus:

“…If we believe that a passage was miraculously made for the Israelites it is useless to look for a suitable spot, for it might have happened anywhere. On the other hand, those who believe that the Israelites reaped the advantage of a natural phenomenon so impressive as to appear to them in their circumstances miraculous have met with little success in trying to find a spot where an east wind could have produced the effect attributed to it” (Peet 1923, 144).

Such methodology has produced some untenable geographical frameworks for the Exodus route. The emphasis on wind theories has also contributed to the popularity of the Reed Sea notion, in which the Exodus crossing is assigned to shallow swamps [5] that could conceivably be affected by wind conditions. Even though some commentators allow for a degree of divine guidance or timing, natural mechanisms have generally been substituted for the miraculous. In fact, the anti-supernatural view has come to dominate the literature:

Authors today generally agree that natural phenomena were employed by divine providence at the crossing. The occurrence is not isolated in history. From classical sources we learn of the winds that drove back the waters of the lagoon and thus enabled Scipio to capture New Carthage. The text itself informs us of the part the wind played in facilitating this crossing for the Hebrews through the shallow waters of the Sea of Reeds (Brown et al 1968, 54).

 

Challenging the Wind Theory

The wind theories and traditions stem from two verses.

…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 (Ex. 14:21 KJV, emphasis mine).

At the blast of thy nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea (Ex. 15:8 KJV).

Exodus 14:21
The important word in this verse is the preposition by. In English, it could be presumed that the wind was the agent of the parting. Perhaps this is what the early translators intended to convey.

The entire verse, worded more literally from the Hebrew, says “the Lord yolek [caused to go] the sea, b’ruakh [with wind], east, strong, and made the sea to dry and divided the waters.” There are three verbs/actions listed. The sea was: a) caused to go [yolek], b) made to dry, and c) divided. The question here is whether the text is telling us that the wind was the agent of one or more of the actions, or perhaps, not an agent at all.

In Exodus 14:21, the Hebrew b (beth, ) is prefixed to ruakh,[8] the word meaning wind [9]. The beth prefix is a preposition with a variety of potential meanings: in, among, within, at, on, near, and with. With the exception of the NIV, which used “with,” Bible translators usually supply the meaning of “by.” But, there is a problem with this use of “by.” The authoritative Gesenius’ Lexicon explains the Hebrew meaning of by only in terms of “nearness,”[10] and not as a “causative.” The idea of “nearness” does not fit well in this passage.

The more suitable meaning of this beth preposition is with. Gesenius (1979, 98-99) explains that the Hebrew idea of with can apply in two different ways: 1) of the instrument, or 2) of accompaniment. His example of the instrument usage is “with the sword” (b’kherev), meaning that the sword was the agent performing an act. Conversely, the accompaniment sense is passive, that is, a sword could be with (carried by) a man, but not used as an instrument.

Gesenius further states that the accompaniment condition especially applies “when placed after verbs of going,” which “gives them the power of carrying…, to come with anything, i.e., to bring it” (ibid. 98-99). In Exodus 14:21, the beth preposition follows the common verb yalak [11], meaning to go, lead, carry, or walk (Gesenius 1979, #3212). This situation exactly matches the grammatical condition cited by Gesenius, which strongly suggests that the wind accompanied the movement of the sea, but was not the instrument of the movement.

Exodus 15:8
The phrase “at the blast of thy nostrils the waters piled up” pictures wind (ruakh) coming from God’s nostrils (apheyka), perhaps implying that wind was the instrument. However, two things need to be clarified that make this possibility unlikely. First, this text is in a poetic section that employs anthropomorphism to describe God’s actions.

Secondly, “nose” (aph) is a common Hebrew idiom for anger or wrath. It also appears as a metonymy for “countenance” (Gesenius 1979, 69, #639 (3)). These observations are taken into account by Young’s Literal Translation of Exodus 15:8, which states, “by the spirit of Thine anger have waters been heaped together….”

The identical anthropomorphic imagery of the wind and the nose occurs in the book of Job, which has nothing to do with the sea parting event: “by the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed” (Job 4:9 KJV). Thus, it is unlikely that Exodus 15:8 is ascribing the sea parting to a wind mechanism. However, it is crediting it to an act of God.

Conclusion
The assumption that the east wind was the sole instrument of the sea parting boils down to the interpretation of a single beth in Exodus 14:21. In this verse, the Hebrew grammatical pattern indicates that the wind accompanied the event, but was not the instrument of the parting. As a practical matter, wind phenomena would be expected from the inrush of air into the void created by the displacement of great volumes of water and by changes in atmospheric pressure gradients.

Alternatives to the Wind Theory

Excepting the Exodus 14:21 and 15:8 verses just discussed, other biblical references to the crossing do not focus on the wind. Overall, the references to this event imply that it was immense and complex, exhibiting both meteorological and geological phenomena.

Such circumstances resonate in the stern reminder to the Hebrews in Psalm 106:22, to remember the “fearful” things that happened at Yam Suph. Earlier, Psalm 77 provided some of the fearful details:

With your mighty arm you redeemed your people…
The waters saw you, O God…and writhed;
The very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
The skies resounded with thunder
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,[12]
Your lightning lit up the world;
The earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea, .
Your way through the mighty waters,
Though your footprints were not seen.
You led your people like a flock
By the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Ps. 77:15-20 NIV, underlining for emphasis)

Earthquakes are also mentioned in another Psalm: “The sea…fled, the mountains skipped like rams, the little hills like lambs. What [ailed] thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest?” (Psalm 114:3-5). Seismic activity could have been induced by the relatively sudden unloading of millions of tons of water from the seabed. The Gulf of Aqaba is already located in a seismically active zone, and cradled within a transform fault hosting several fault blocks (Ben-Avraham 1985, Ben-Avraham and Von Herzen 1987).

Sea turbulence, i.e., “the waters…writhed; the very depths were convulsed” (Ps. 77:16 NIV), may have killed some large sea life: “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: Thou brakest the heads of the sea-monsters in the waters” (Psalm 74:13, ASV).

The frightful scene at the crossing was also described by the Jewish historian Josephus:

“As soon…as…the whole Egyptian army was within it, the sea flowed to its own place, and came down with a torrent raised by storms of wind, and encompassed the Egyptians. Showers of rain also came down from the sky, and dreadful thunders and lightning, with flashes of fire. Thunderbolts also were darted upon them…” (Josephus 1960, Antiquities II.xvi.3).

Josephus also noted that the Egyptians did not know they were entering the seabed: “…but the Egyptians were not aware that they went into a road made for the Hebrews, and not for others and thus did all these men perish…” (Josephus 1960, Antiquities II.xvi.3). This circumstance suggests that the seabed matched the consistency of the shore and that they were not aware of the walls of water. The latter point may indicate that the path in the sea was much wider than the formation of the Egyptian army and/or that the visibility obscured the conditions.

While there is one biblical reference to wind at the sea crossing, the Bible uses a multitude of verbs to describe the parting of the sea that do not necessarily involve wind. Table 4 lists nine different verbs that were used to depict the process. Baqa, meaning to split or cleave, is used most frequently. The verb ragah in Isaiah 51:15 may denote an instantaneous change. Thus, while we may not understand the manner in which the natural laws were divinely utilized or circumvented, there are a variety of scriptures that describe results without mandating a unique wind.

Table 4. Hebrew verbs used to describe the passage through Yam Suph.

Table 4

Summary

The traditional understanding that the wind parted the sea hinges on the interpretation of one letter of one verse. In that instance, there are sound grammatical reasons to conclude that the wind merely accompanied the event and was not a cause. The complexity of the event, and the Bible’s use of descriptors and verbs that are not necessarily dependent on wind, point to factors beyond a simple east wind.

Conclusion

The envisioned wind mechanism is a simplistic tradition that has done an injustice to the size and scope of the event, especially where the miraculous has been removed by commentators.

Grammatically, the Hebrew wording and context pertaining to the sea parting indicates that the wind was incidental and not instrumental. It is a logical fallacy to claim that two events have a cause-and-effect relationship simply because they occurred simultaneously. “Correlation does not imply causation.”

The biblical description of the sea parting places it in the category of the miraculous in every sense of the word. By definition, a miracle bypasses the known laws of physics, which makes it difficult to cite a particular physical mechanism. However, the many phenomena associated with the parting (e.g., thunder and lightning) seem to have occurred within the laws of nature, perhaps as a result of atmospheric changes. However, these phenomena, along with the accompanying east wind, need to be separated from the miraculous movement of the water.

If the biblical record concerning the geography of Yam Suph is valid, then the miraculous circumstances of its crossing must be carefully considered, even if they cannot be fully explained with scientific tools.

References

Ben-Avraham, Zvi. 1985. Structural framework of the Gulf of Elat (Aqaba), northern Red Sea. Journal of Geophysical Research 90:703-726.

Ben-Avraham, Zvi, and Richard P. Herzen. 1987. Heat flow and continental breakup: The Gulf of Elat (Aqaba). Journal of Geophysical Research 92(B2):1407-1416.

Brenton, Sir Lancelot C.L. 1997. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. USA: Hendrickson Publishers.

Brown, Raymond E., et al. 1968. The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Cassuto, U. 1997. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press.

Fritz, Glen A. 2006. The Lost Sea of the Exodus. USA: Instantpublisher.com.

Fritz, Glen A. 2016. The Lost Sea of the Exodus, second edition. San Antonio: GeoTech.

Gesenius. 1979. Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, trans. Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Hall, John K. 2000. Bathymetric Map of the Gulf of Elat/Aqaba. Geological Survey of Israel.

Har-El, Menashe. 1983. The Sinai Journeys. San Diego: Ridgefield Publishing Company.

Hellstrom, B. 1950. The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea. Stockholm: Royal Institute of Hydraulics.

Humphreys, Colin 2003. The Miracles of Exodus. San Francisco: Harper.

Josephus, Flavius. 1960. Josephus Complete Works, trans. William Whiston. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Nof, Doron, and Nathan Paldor. 1992. Are There Oceanographic Explanations for the Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea? Bulletin American Meteorological Society 73(3): 305-314.

Nof, Doron, and Nathan Paldor. 1994. Statistics of Wind over the Red Sea with Application to the Exodus Question. Journal of Applied Meteorology 33(8): 1017-1025.

Peet, T. Eric. 1923. Egypt and the Old Testament. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company.

Sneh, Y., and M. Klein. 1984. Holocene Sea Level Changes at the Coast of Dor, Southeast Mediterranean. Science, New Series 226(4676): 831-832.

Strong, James. 1990. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

End Notes

[1] Ex. 15:4, 22; Deut. 11:4; Josh. 2:10, 4:23, 24:6; Judg. 11:16; Neh. 9:9; Ps.       106:7, 9, 22; 136:13, 15

[2] rooted in the Hebrew verb amaq

[3] Heap comes from the Hebrew ned (Strong 1990, #5067)

[4] Passover and the start of the Exodus coincided with a full moon. A sea crossing 15-20 days later would have occurred just after the new moon, meaning that no moonlight was available for the Egyptians. Thus, they would have had to wait until first light to determine that the Israelites had decamped and to begin their pursuit.

[5] Among the Egyptian sites proposed for Yam Suph are Lake Menzaleh, Lake Sirbonis, Lake Ballah, the Bitter Lakes, the northern shore of the Gulf of Suez, and a supposed inland sea covering the southern Isthmus of Suez in antiquity (see Fritz 2006).

[6] During the Exodus, Edom occupied the southern mountains of modern western Jordan, just northeast of the modern Gulf of Aqaba. The biblical Mt. Seir was located within Edom.

[7] The southern limit of the land of Canaan had a curvilinear bound extending between the foot of the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea (see Num. 34:1-12).

[8] b’ruakh, written בְּר וּחַ

[9] Strong 1990, #7307

[10] “by,” meaning “to designate either nearness and vicinity…or motion to a place so as to be near it” (Gesenius 1979, 97B).

[11] Yalak (Strong 1990, #3212) is the root form. Yolek is the Hiphil parsing, the imperfect tense, indicating a single process preliminary to its completion.

[12] Whirlwind is translated from the Hebrew gilgal, referring to circular winds (Gesenius 1979, #1534).