Anyone who has seen the classic 1956 film The Ten Commandments is familiar with the iconic scene of the Israelites walking through the Red Sea with walls of water on both sides of them. If we take a close look at the Bible’s description of this scene, found in Exodus chapter 14, we will see that there are several problems with the cinematic version.
First, let’s discuss the parting of the sea. Biblical scholars have long recognized that the event depicted in Exodus 14 is a fusion of two separate versions of the deliverance at the sea. Although we readers proceed through the text in a linear fashion (which gives the impression of a single unified narrative) there are many differences between these two versions. The first version is instantaneous and spectacular. It depicts Moses stretching his hand over the sea bringing about a sudden splitting of the sea. A trail of dry ground (yabasha in 14:16) is exposed through the center of the sea, with “walls of water on their right and on their left.” This allows the Israelites to cross through safely to the opposite shore. But when the Egyptians follow them into the dry seabed, the walls of water close over them before they have reached the other side. This is certainly the more dramatic version, and thus it is not surprising that it was featured by Cecil B. DeMille in his famous movie scene. A second version contained within the same biblical chapter depicts a much more gradual process. According to this version, all night the east wind blows, gradually drying up the sea, leaving a marshland which looks like solid ground (harava in 14:21) from afar. God throws the Egyptians army into panic, they charge into the marsh, and their chariot wheels get stuck in the mud. Unable to free themselves from the mud, they are helpless when the water closes back over them. In this second version the Israelites do not cross the sea. They do not even move at all. They are passive. Most of us do not even notice this second version hiding inside the text because it is so muted by the drama of the first version. But this version might be the key to understanding what exactly happened.
Second, let’s discuss the location. There are two major things we need to consider: (1) the name of the sea and (2) the toponyms mentioned in Exodus 14:2. Scholars have also long recognized that the term “Red Sea” – which refers to the long inlet of the Indian Ocean that separates Africa from Arabia – is not the proper translation of the site where the deliverance of Exodus 14 takes place. The original name in the Hebrew text of Exodus 14 is ים סוף (yam suph). The use of the name “Red Sea” in most English Bibles goes back to the erroneous Greek translation Ερυθρὰ Θάλασσα (erythra thalassa) in the Septuagint. A better translation of the Hebrew yam suph is “Reed Sea” or “Sea of Reeds”. Apart from Exodus 14, the word suph appears four other times in the Hebrew Bible, always referring to a marshy plant. For example, the baby Moses is placed in a basket “among the reeds (suph) on the bank of the river” (Exodus 2:3) and from the belly of the fish Jonah cries out to God: “the waters closed in over me, the deep surrounded me, weeds (suph) were wrapped around my head” (Jonah 2:5). The word suph seems to be borrowed from the Egyptian word twfy, which refers to papyrus. The Hebrew Bible uses a different term for papyrus: גמא (gomeh), so suph should be taken to refer to any variety of reed that grows in freshwater marshes. So if we want to locate the site of the deliverance at the yam suph, we need to search for a body of freshwater. The traditional location of the deliverance at the sea – Red Sea and its Gulf of Aqaba – is salt water.
Now let’s take a look at Exodus 14:2, one of the most important verses in this passage because it tells us exactly where the deliverance at the sea took place.
Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea.
Notice that the Israelites have to “turn back” from the route they originally embarked on. We know that this original route was a southeastward route, because Exodus 13:17 says: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer.” Although it is a bit of an anachronism, the “Way of the Philistines” is another name for the famous “Way of the Sea”, the most important international highway in the ancient Near East. It connected Egypt to Mesopotamia and ran along the Mediterranean Coast of Canaan. Later, during the Roman period it was called the Via Maris. The Israelites are instructed not to use this route, because “if the people face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt” (Exod. 13:17). These fears were certainly justified. Egyptian texts list a series of desert fortresses that lined this route, guarding the northern border of Egypt against nomadic bandits. The Bible says that they Israelites departed from the city of Ramses in Exod. 12:37 and reached Succoth. We don’t know where Succoth (in Hebrew this means “booths”) is, but most assume it is south of Ramses. A few verses later in 13:20 they reach Etham which also has not been identified, but likely is south of Ramses. So, if God instructs the Israelites to “turn back” in 14:2, this must mean going back north to reach the Sea of Reeds.
The verse in question contains three toponyms which we need to explain: Pi-hahiroth, Migdol and Baal-zephon.
The location of Pi-Hahiroth is not known, but as Yohanan Aharoni has written, it might be based on the Hebrew root hrt meaning “to dig”. Maybe this is a reference to irrigation channels commonly dug in the region of the Nile Delta. By contrast, we have a much stronger idea of where Migdol is. The word migdal means tower in Hebrew and is likely one of these Egyptian desert fortresses which protected the Way of the Sea. The Bible refers to Migdol at the northern extremity of Egypt. For example Ezekiel proclaims the following curse against the Egyptians:
Because you said, “The Nile is mine, and I made it,” therefore, I am against you, and against your channels, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Ethiopia. (Ezekiel 29:10)
Syene has been identified as Aswan, the site of the Nile’s first cataract and today a massive dam. This was the traditional southern border of Egypt. So the phrase “from Migdol to Syene” means from “the very north to the very south”.
Baal-Zephon is perhaps the most interesting toponym here. As I explained in a previous post, “Baal” is the name of the Canaanite storm god and “Zephon” is his dwelling place, Mount Sapan (Jebel el-Aqraa) in Syria. What is Baal-Zephon doing all the way in Egypt? Scholars think that this might a southern version of the same Baal cult up in Syria. Archaeological proof for this is that Greeks built temples to Zeus Cassius both on Mount Sapan and on the Mediterranean Coast of Egypt. Zeus is the Greek equivalent to Baal, so presumably these two temples preserve the site of earlier temples to Baal. The best guess we have for the site of Baal-Zephon of Exodus 14:2 is on the isthmus directly north of Lake Serbonis (Lake Bardawil). This is a freshwater bog right on the Mediterranean Coast. In antiquity it was a well-known place for armies to sink in the mud, as John Milton relates in Paradise Lost:
Beyond this flood a frozen Continent
Lies dark and wilde, beat with perpetual storms
Of Whirlwind and dire Hail, which on firm land
Thaws not, but gathers heap, and ruin seems
Of ancient pile; all else deep snow and ice,
A gulf profound as that Serbonian Bog
Betwixt Damiata and Mount Casius old,
Where Armies whole have sunk. (2:587-594)
So I think that the best candidate for the yam suph of Exodus 14 is Lake Serbonis. The situation I would like to propose is as follows. The Israelites departed from Ramses and headed south to Succoth and Etham, until God told them to turn back and head north towards the Sea of Reeds. They camp in a location that is well east of the Nile, beyond the irrigation of channels at Pi-Hahiroth but not quite as far east as the temple to Baal-Zephon. They are standing on the isthmus that surrounds Lake Bardawil: “between Migdol and the [Mediterranean] Sea.” Here, on this narrow strip of sand dunes, they wait for the Egyptians to arrive. Night falls and the east wind covers the shallow lake with a covering of sand, forming a dangerous quicksand. This is the “dry ground” mentioned in 14:21 (in Hebrew harava literally means “wasteland”). In the morning the Egyptians are panicked and charge right through this bog. They are mired in the quicksand and end up “dead on the seashore” (14:31). The Israelites who are camped on the isthmus observe the whole scene and burst out in song. Reassured that the Egyptians have been neutralized, they continue on their way to the Wilderness of Shur (15:22).
What I have tried to show in this post is the most likely sequence of events that took place at the deliverance at the Sea of Reeds. This does not mean that the famous parting of the sea did not happen. Science can neither verify nor controvert such a miraculous event. Instead, I have tried to show that: (1) if we set aside the supernatural, instantaneous parting version of the story and focus on the more natural, gradual east wind version and (2) if we closely examine the names in Exodus 14:2 using the tools of historical geography, what emerges is a very understandable, even plausible story of how the Israelites defeated the Egyptian army before entering the wilderness.
It is also worth noting that the situation presented here bears great resemblance to another Israelite military victory in the Bible: Deborah and Barak’s defeat of Sisera in Judges 4. The Israelites know that they are outgunned by the Canaanites who have iron chariots and control the strategic Jezreel Valley. Rather that enter a head-on conflict, they wait for a rainy day and lure the Canaanites into the muddy overflowed banks of the Kishon River. In both Exodus 14:24 and Judges 4:15 exactly the same word וַיָּהָם (vayahom) is used to describe God’s act of “panicking” the soldiers, causing them to rush into the mire.