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Mount Sinai and the Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul (AD 5 to 62-64) is credited with authoring 14 of the 27 books of the New Testament (NT) in the first century AD. Based on passages in his letter to the Galatians (4:24-26), it can be inferred that he had some knowledge of the geographical relationship between Mount Sinai and Jerusalem.

Although the “Old Testament” account of the Exodus has been a popular topic of study, the NT references to the Exodus are often overlooked. The NT writers do confirm the historicity of the Exodus, but their discussion of its geography is scanty. The NT mentions Mount Sinai four times (Acts 7:30, 38; Gal. 4:24, 25), the Red Sea twice (Acts 7:36; Heb. 11:29), Arabia twice (Gal. 1:17; 4:25), and Midian once (Acts 7:29).

The most interesting NT comments about Mount Sinai were made by the Apostle Paul in these verses:

Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:24-26, RSV)

Although this passage could easily be glossed over as merely spiritual allegory, two distinctly geographical terms appear in the Greek text that refer to the location of Mount Sinai. Is it possible that these verses reveal ancient insights about the location of Mount Sinai?

The Apostle Paul was a high ranking, learned Pharisee, the Pharisee sect being the strictest of Judaism (Acts 26:5). He was the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6) and was taught the Hebrew law (Torah) by the respected Gamaliel (Acts 22:3, 5:34). He also traveled in Arabia (Galatians 1:17). Given these circumstances, Paul would likely have learned of the general location of Mount Sinai, if it was still known within the Jewish religious hierarchy.

As Paul’s mention of Mount Sinai is rather terse, perhaps he assumed that details of the mountain were still available to his contemporary audience. Conversely, Paul may not have had very much personal information to provide. However, Paul’s sabbatical in Arabia, and his subsequent use of Mount Sinai in the Galatians epistle, hints either of insights gained from his own visit to the area of the mountain or from contact with someone who knew its whereabouts.

This article analyzes two aspects of Paul’s treatment of Mount Sinai in Galatians 4:24-26. (1) The relevance of the phrase “Mount Sinai is in Arabia” in the context of the first century AD geographical knowledge. (2) The potential disclosure of a unique geographical relationship between Jerusalem and Mount Sinai.

Historical Background

Paul may have possessed some unique information about Mount Sinai due to his education and travel experiences. Nevertheless, his statements about Mount Sinai must be evaluated in the context of the rudimentary geographical knowledge ca AD 50, a time in which extensive travel was not routine, and maps, although imprecise, were precious rarities usually reserved for kings and generals.

The Mount Sinai of the Hebrew Exodus was memorialized in the Hebrew records more than a millennium prior to Paul. But, given the political demise of Israel and the cultural upheavals that preceded the NT period, how much of the arcane Exodus geography was still available to Paul and his contemporaries?

In Paul’s day, the world was still dominated by Greek culture, even though the Greek empire had succumbed to Rome in the prior century. Despite Rome’s power, the Greek geographical philosophy and advancements were not eclipsed by Rome. Consequently, in the NT period, amid a backdrop of Latin place names and a growing network of Roman roads, the broad geographical influence of the Greeks still prevailed.

The cultural penetration of Hellenism allowed the ideas and language of the Greeks to supersede those of the Hebrews. A prime example is the ca 250 BC Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, produced in Alexandria Egypt, the Greek center of learning. It made Yam Suph, the Hebrew term for the Sea of the Exodus, synonymous with the Greek idea of the “Red Sea” (Erythra Thalassa). Eventually, the Greek geographical template superseded any residual Hebrew understanding and became the basis for the Byzantine-era Exodus traditions. Those traditions placed the sea crossing at the Gulf of Suez near Egypt and Mount Sinai on the opposite shore within the Sinai Peninsula.

First Century Geography

Figure 1. The Near East ca. 1490. This map reflects the work of the Greek geographer Ptolemy, ca. 150 A.D. Ancient Arabia was quite extensive, with Arabia Petraea on the west, Arabia Deserta in the central and east, and Arabia Felix in the south. Note that the modern Gulf of Aqaba, which should define the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, is missing. (Adapted from Nordenskiold 1889.) Click for larger image.

Figure 1. The Near East ca. 1490. This map reflects the work of the Greek geographer Ptolemy, ca. 150 AD. Ancient Arabia was quite extensive, with Arabia Petraea on the west, Arabia Deserta in the central and east, and Arabia Felix in the south. Note that the modern Gulf of Aqaba, which should define the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, is missing. (Adapted from Nordenskiold 1889.) Click for larger image.

Some historical geography background is needed to set the stage for Paul’s Mount Sinai reference. The format of the 1490 AD map in Figure 1 can be traced to the Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, whose ca 150 AD work, Geography, was the culmination of 700 years of Greek learning. Although Ptolemy lived a couple generations after Paul, his concepts likely typified the geographical thought in the first-century NT period.

The first thing to note about the Figure 1 map is that “Arabia” applied to areas ranging broadly east, south, and southwest of Jerusalem. Hence, this “Arabia” term carried little geographical specificity. The antique map in Figure 2 shows the same kind of thinking.

Patriarchatus 1729 web

Figure 2 Arabia in the Near East, ca 1729. This map labels the entire region south of the Holy Land as Arabia Petrea, likely reflecting the concept held by the Apostle Paul (from Patriarchatus). Click for larger image.

The second aspect to note in Figures 1 and 2 is the absence of the Gulf of Aqaba, which was grossly misunderstood until the 19th century AD.  Although the milieu of the Gulf of Aqaba hosted much of the Exodus, its absence from geographical thought prevented its from being factored into the geography of Mount Sinai and the Exodus route. The longstanding Gulf of Aqaba obscurity is explained by its isolation, navigational dangers, rough terrain, and lack of freshwater, harbors, and military or commercial utility.

The 17th-century map in Figure 3 shows the ongoing replication of the Greek ignorance of the Gulf of Aqaba with its depiction of the Red Sea as a single shaft of water. There was no bifurcation at its head, no Sinai Peninsula, and no Gulf of Aqaba separating Egypt from, what is now, Saudi Arabia.

mt siani and the apostle paul

Figure 3. The Red Sea in Classical Geography. Note that the modern Gulf of Aqaba, the sea that defines the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, is completely absent. (from John Speed, Turkish Empire 1626, author’s collection) Click for larger image.

Now, here is the importance of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Exodus debate. The chief point of scholarly contention today is whether Mount Sinai was located east or west of the Gulf of Aqaba. In current terms, an eastern location would place it in Saudi Arabia. A western location would place it in the Sinai Peninsula. In antiquity, this east-west distinction could not be made because the geography of the Gulf of Aqaba was unknown. Without this detail, it could only be said that “Mount Sinai was in Arabia.”

Figure 1 reflected the first-century AD Roman tradition of dividing Arabia into three regions: Arabia Petraea (stony Arabia) on the west, Arabia Deserta (deserted or wilderness Arabia) on the east, and Arabia Felicis or Felix (happy or fruitful Arabia) to the south within the Arabian Peninsula. The persistence of this idea is reflected in the map in Figure 4, made 17 centuries after Ptolemy.

Figure 2. An 1851 Map of Arabia Showing the Classical Names. The Gulf of Aqaba (Aelaniticus Sinus), which was absent from maps for most of history, bisects Arabia Petraea, the primary locale of the Exodus journeys. East of the Gulf of Aqaba, the place names of Macna, Modiana, and Madiana are linked with the land of ancient Midian. (From Butler 1851, author’s collection) Click for larger image.

Figure 4. An 1851 Map Showing the Classical Arabian Nomenclature. The Gulf of Aqaba (Aelaniticus Sinus), which was absent from maps for most of history, bisects Arabia Petraea. East of the Gulf of Aqaba, the place names of Macna, Modiana, and Madiana are linked with the land of ancient Midian. The Bible associated Mount Sinai with Midian. (From Butler 1851, author’s collection) Click for larger image.

In this relatively modern map, the Gulf of Aqaba extends about 110 miles north from the body of the Red Sea, defining the eastern Sinai Peninsula. The head of this gulf and the Mediterranean Sea then define the breadth of the land bridge connecting Africa and Asia.

Based on the 1st century AD concept of Arabia, Paul’s note that “Mount Sinai is in Arabia” only tells us that the mountain was somewhere south of the Holy Land. Gulf of Aqaba ignorance  precluded its use to help localize the east-west position of Mount Sinai within that Arabia. Several centuries later, Egyptian Coptic Christians and the religious hermits of the desert arbitrarily positioned Mount Sinai at one of the largest mountains in the Sinai Peninsula.

Reiterating, the region of Arabia Petra, which hosted much of the Exodus journey, is bisected by the Gulf of Aqaba and its rugged coasts. Scholars who were ignorant of this geography, were never forced to position Mount Sinai within Arabia relative to this landmark. However, our modern knowledge of geography now demands that a “Mount Sinai in Arabia” be placed either east or west of the Gulf of Aqaba. This geographical conundrum is the crux of the present-day Exodus debate.

Nonetheless, Paul’s knowledge of the Tenakh (Hebrew Old Testament) would predispose him to to consider Arabia as being far to the south of Jerusalem within the Arabian Peninsula–not within the Sinai Peninsula.

For instance, 1 Kings 10:15 mentions the bounty that came to Solomon secondary to his association with the queen of Sheba: “…revenues from merchants and traders and  from all the Arabian kings and the governors of the territories” (underlining for emphasis). This information is repeated in 2 Chronicles 9:14.  

Sheba was linked with the Arabian Peninsula, specifically with Saba, or the Sabeans, the most important of the south Arabian kingdoms, whose capital was located at Marib between 1200 BC-AD 275 (Kitchen 1994, 110). Sheba is also mentioned in the Qur’an in surah 27:20-44. Islamic scholars place the Sheba kingdom in south Arabia.

Another example is Isaiah 21:13: “A prophecy against Arabia: You caravans of Dedanites, who camp in the thickets of Arabia.” Dedan was classically associated with the Arabian Peninsula, primarily with at Al-Ula, 270 miles southeast of the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. 

There are similar associations in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. “Dedan, and Tema, and Buz, and all that are in the utmost corners, and all the kings of Arabia, and all the kings of the mingled people that dwell in the desert” (Jer. 25:23-24, underlining for emphasis). In Ezekiel’s lament (27:20-22) concerning Tyre, Arabia is named in relation to Dedan, Kedar, and Sheba, areas historically identified with regions east of the Red Sea. Kedar was a son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13) and an Arabian tribe sprung from him (Gesenius 1979, 6938).

Considering these Old Testament references to Arabia, the Apostle Paul would have the historical understanding of an Arabia within the Arabian Peninsula, east of the Red Sea, and far to the south of Judah and Israel. These histories and locations do not pertain to the Sinai Peninsula.

Mount Sinai in Arabia

Here is Paul’s allegory again, with the geographical aspects emphasized:

22 “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. 24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar [Hagar]. 25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. 26 But Jerusalem which is above [Mount Sinai] is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Galatians 4:22-26 KJV)

The key point is that the symbolism in the allegory uses a clever play on words that seems to be based on a geographical reality. That is, Paul uses a physical relationship as the backbone for a spiritual illustration. If the underlying geographical relationship is fictitious, the wordplay and the allegory becomes empty. Thus, I do not believe that the geographical wordplay is accidental or fallacious

Paul’s allegory contrasts the outworking of two covenants, the bondage created by a legalistic adherence to the “Law of Moses” versus the freedom provided through divine grace of the “New Covenant.” By illustration, Abraham’s concubine, Hagar, and her offspring, symbolized a human plan, while Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and her offspring, symbolized a divine plan.

Hagar was symbolically linked with Mount Sinai, where the Mosaic law originated. Jerusalem was subsequently inhabited with the “children” of that law who were in bondage to a legalistic system of works. In contrast, the higher, more heavenly, state of Jerusalem was symbolized by Sarah’s “spiritual children,” who were born of faith and divine grace, not of works of the flesh.

The overlooked geographical underpinnings now need to be identified. A composite of the geographical phrases yields this statement:

“…mount Sinai in Arabia…answereth to Jerusalem…which is above…” (Galatians 4:25-26, KJV)

The geographical vagueness of “Mount Sinai is in Arabia” has already been discussed. Paul merely used this phrase to introduce the general position of Mount Sinai relative to Jerusalem. It must be remembered that the practice of the Hebrews was to view the world from the point of reference of Jerusalem. Amazingly, however, Paul was able to further specify the location of the mountain with just two Greek words.

“Answereth,” the first key term in the KJV, is translated from the Greek word sustoicheo. Its only NT occurrence is in Galatians 4:25. The meaning of sustoicheo carries the sense of corresponding, as in soldiers filing together in ranks (Strong 1990, #4960). Aristotle used “sustoichos,” another form of the word, in the geographical sense of “standing on the same row or coordinate” (Liddell and Scott 2000, 783). Sustoichia, also used by Aristotle, has the meaning of “a coordinate series” (ibid.). Hence, this word was useful for describing linear spatial relationships in geographical or military applications.

Paul’s use of sustoicheo seems to have been intended to refer to the position Mount Sinai relative to Jerusalem. In modern parlance, instead of sustoicheo, we might say that Jerusalem and Mount Sinai were on the same parallel of latitude or on the same meridian of longitude.

Since sustoicheo connotes a physical definition, Paul’s use of it to spiritually relate Mount Sinai and Jerusalem suggests that his word play scheme was based on a physical reality. If his scheme was simply metaphorical, he could have structured it using common Greek  words for comparison or likening such as homoioo (Strong 1990, #3666) or parab (ibid. #3846), but these terms do not carry the geographical meaning.

The second phrase, “Jerusalem, which is above [Mount Sinai],” clarified that Jerusalem and Mount Sinai corresponded to the same line of longitude. “Above” is translated from the Greek ano, a word that can also mean “upward” or “on the top” (ibid., #507). It appears in the NT nine times. Of chief interest here is its specific geographical meaning of “on the north” or “northward.” The word was used in this manner by the notable Greek historian Herodotus (Liddell and Scott 1889, 83-84). Paul’s inclusion of ano defined Jerusalem as being north of Mount Sinai on his line of sustoicheo.

With these observations in mind, the geographical concepts in Galatians 4:25-26 can be summarized as follows:

1) Mount Sinai was in the Arabia of Paul’s day.

2) Sustoicheo: Jerusalem and Mount Sinai were on the same line of latitude or longitude.

3) Ano: Jerusalem was north of Mount Sinai.

4) The north-south relationship puts Jerusalem and Mount Sinai on a similar meridian of longitude.

Plotting Paul’s location for Mount Sinai

The map in Figure 5 shows the 35-15’ E longitude meridian that passes just east of the Old City of Jerusalem. Moving southward, the line crosses the mountains of western Jordan, the ancient place of Mount Seir. Long before the Exodus, this region was synonymous with Edom, land that had been divinely granted to Esau, the brother of Jacob (Israel). Several arguments exist for not placing Mount Sinai in Edom, among them the biblical injunction that Esau’s territory was not to be violated by the Israelites.

Figure 4. The Jerusalem Meridian of Longitude. Galatians 4:25-26 implies that Mount Sinai and Jerusalem were located on or near the same meridian. Eastern Jerusalem is at about 35 degrees-15 minutes (35-15') E longitude. The peak of Jabal al Lawz is 215 miles south at 35-18.25’E, about 3.5 miles (5.7 km) east of that meridian. Jabal al Lawz, the tallest mountain in N.W. Saudi Arabia, is associated with the classical domain of ancient Midian.

Figure 5 The Jerusalem Meridian of Longitude. Galatians 4:25-26 implies that Mount Sinai and Jerusalem were located on or near the same meridian. Eastern Jerusalem is at about 35 degrees-15 minutes (35-15′) E longitude. The peak of Jabal al Lawz is 215 miles south at 35-18.25’ E, about 3.5 miles (5.7 km) east of that meridian. Jabal al Lawz, the tallest mountain in N.W. Saudi Arabia, is not necessarily within the classical domain of ancient Midian, but nearby.

Rejecting Mount Seir in ancient Edom as a site for Mount Sinai, the meridian eventually comes to the Jabal al-Lawz range, about 215 miles south of Jerusalem. Towering above the other ridges comprising the Lawz range, its 8,000+ foot peak makes it the tallest mountain in northwest Saudi Arabia.

The main Jabal al-Lawz peak is at longitude 35-18.25’ E. The longitude of the Eastern Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem is 35-14.25’ E. The four-minute difference in longitude puts the Lawz peak about 4 miles (7 km) further east. This relationship is uncanny in light of the geographical implications of Paul’s sustoicheo.

The Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37-100 AD) observed that Mount Sinai was “the highest of all mountains that are in that country” (Josephus 1960, 70). If Josephus’ information about Mount Sinai is accurate, his description agrees well with the elevations of the Jabal al-Lawz range.

In recent decades, a mountain within the Lawz range, Jabal al-Maqla, has been proposed as the precinct of the biblical Mount Sinai. Its peak is 4.25 miles SSE of the main Lawz peak as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 5. A satellite image showing the relationship between the peak of Jabal al Lawz and the peak of Jabal al Maqla. The red Xs are reference coordinates. The black areas are ancient volcanic basalt, which overlies the younger, lighter-colored granite that dominates the region.

Figure 6. A satellite image of the Jabal al-Lawz and Jabal al-Maqla peaks. The black areas are Precambrian volcanic basalt, which overlies the younger, lighter-colored intrusive granite that dominates this area. The red Xs are incidental coordinates only. “Altar” refers to a stone structure discovered on the eastern base of Jabal al-Maqla.

Jabal al-Lawz is situated east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in a region that was part of the Arabia spoken of by Paul. Based on the records of the ancient Greek and Arab geographers, one can conclude that the ancient land of Midian likely occupied this portion of modern northwest Saudi Arabia. Although the Bible does not state that Mount Sinai was in Midian, a spatial proximity is implied. For example, Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 recalled that, after Moses had fled from Egypt to Midian, he encountered the burning bush in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. Following this experience, Moses left Midian to return to Egypt (Exodus 4:18).

Ironically, this position due south of Jerusalem is seen in a number of antique maps,  such as in Figure 7. The modern annotation on this map shows a line extending south from Jerusalem, which crosses over Madian, an old term for Midian. “Mont Oreb” (Horeb) lies just to the east, “St. Catherine” (the monastery at the traditional Mount Sinai) is further east. “Sinai Mont” is still further to the southeast. Oreb and St. Catherine are located in Arabie Petree (pink), while Madian and Mont Sinai are shown in Arabie Felice (Felix).

As discussed above, the absence of the Gulf of Aqaba precluded the automatic positioning of these Mount Sinai places within the Sinai Peninsula. The representation of maps like this raises the question as to whether Mount Sinai was, in more ancient times, thought to be due south of Jerusalem, rather than southwest within the modern Sinai Peninsula.

Figure 7. This 1654 map shows the Mount Sinai locations to the south and east of Jerusalem (from Carte Des Trois Arabies by Sanson).

Figure 7. A 1654 map showing Mount Sinai locations (arrows) to the south and east of Jerusalem (“Hierusalem”). The location of Midian (Madian) was directly south of Jerusalem (yellow line). Adapted from Carte Des Trois Arabies by Sanson.

Conclusion

In Galatians 4:22-26, the Apostle Paul used an allegory based on a geographical reality to present a spiritual lesson. Within that allegory,  a play on words using the geographical terms sustoicheo and ano suggests that Paul understood Mount Sinai to lie somewhere to the south of Jerusalem. Although it cannot be ascertained exactly how Paul gained this information, one could infer that it originated from Jewish traditions and/or from his own sabbatical experiences in Arabia. In order to evaluate these points objectively, Paul’s statements need to be judged on their own merit, not according to the usual Exodus traditions that place Mount Sinai within the Sinai Peninsula.

References

Butler,  Samuel. 1851. Map: Egypt and Arabia. London: Longman & Co.

Gesenius, William. 1979. Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, trans. Samuel P. Tregelles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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

Kenneth A. Kitchen. 1994. Documentation for Ancient Arabia. Part I. Chronological Framework and Historical Sources. The World of Ancient Arabia Series, vol. 1. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press.

Liddell, H. G., and Robert Scott. 1889. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Liddell and Scott. 2000. Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Nordenskiold, A.E. 1889. Facsimile-atlas to the Early History of Cartography with Reproductions of the Most important Maps Printed in the XV and Xvi Centuries, 1970 reprint. Trans.  Johan Adolph Ekelof  and Clements Markham. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Krause.

Strong, James. 1990. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Copyright 2003 and 2016 Glen A. Fritz

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).