Passage of the Red Sea

Passage of the Red Sea

The Passage of the Red Sea is the account of the march of Moses, leading the Hebrews (Israelites) on their escape out of Egypt and the alleged crossing of the Red Sea as described in the Biblical "Exodus", chapters 13:17 to 15:21, so they would be able to enter the Promised Land (Canaan).


The following is a summary of the narrative according to the Book of Exodus, chapters 13:17-15:21: [ Exodus 13-15, Revised Standard Version] ]

Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, has finally agreed to allow the Israelite slaves to leave Egypt peacefully, after a series of plagues is visited upon the Egyptians by God, working through Moses and Aaron. God instructs Moses to lead the Israelites out, not "by way of the land of the Philistines", but by the Red Sea wilderness. Guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, they travel from Succoth to Etham, "on the edge of the wilderness," where they make their encampment.

But it is apparently not God's intention that the Israelites should leave Egypt without hindrance: "I will become glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army [...] and Egypt shall know that I am the LORD." God therefore has Moses turn the Israelites back again and camp "in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon." There they see the Egyptians and become frightened, but God commands Moses: "Raise your staff; stretch your hand over the sea and split it. The Children of Israel will come into the Sea on dry ground. I am even now strengthening the heart of Egypt, and they will come after them [...] " The angel of God and the pillar of cloud moves between the Israelites and the Egyptians, separating them, and "neither one approached the other all night long." God sends "a strong east wind all night," and next morning the Israelites enter the sea "on dry ground, and the water was like a wall to them on their right and on their left." The Egyptians follow, but God clogs the wheels of their chariots (or removes their chariot-wheels), and "Egypt said, 'I will flee from before Israel, for the LORD is fighting with Egypt on their behalf.'" Then God commands Moses to stretch out his rod again, and "The waters returned, and covered the chariots and the horsemen of Pharaoh's entire army, who were coming after them in the Sea; not one of them remained." Chapter 14 concludes: "On that day, the LORD saved Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw Egypt dead upon the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD had used against Egypt, and the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and in His servant Moses."

Verses 1-18 of chapter 15 constitute the "Song of the Sea", described as the song of rejoicing sung by Moses and the people of Israel. Being poetic rather than descriptive it lacks a plot, but some key elements can be picked out: "The LORD [...] has become my salvation; [...] The LORD is a man of war; [...] Pharaoh's chariots and his army He cast into the sea; and his select officers are drowned in the Red Sea [...] At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up, [...] The peoples have heard, they tremble; [...] Now are the chiefs of Edom confounded; the leaders of Moab, [...] all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away [...] they are as still as stone, till Your people, LORD, pass by, [...] You will bring them in, and plant them on the mountain of Your heritage, [...] The LORD will reign for ever and ever." Verses 20 and 21 begin a repetition of the song, this time from the mouth of Miriam, sister of Aaron, but it is cut short at the second line.

Analysis, hypothesis, and narrative

The documentary hypothesis, which, in its various permutations, represents the consensus of modern biblical scholarship on the authorship of the Torah, is a hypothesis that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament are composed from documents from different sources, and that the various narratives it contains were composed many centuries after the events they describe. According to the hypothesis, the verses from the story of the passage of the Red Sea originate as follows:

The narrative in Exodus is the briefest and the least miraculous, although God is present: He leads the Israelites out of Egypt, not by "the way of the land of the Philistines," i.e. the Mediterannean coast, "which was near," but "through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea." The Egyptians pursue the Israelites, who complain to Moses that he has led them to their deaths; but "the angel of God which would go before the camp of Israel moved, and went behind them," and removes the Egyptian chariot wheels (or clogs them), "and drove them on heavily." KJV Exodus 15:22 lets us know that the children of Israel went into the midst (middle) of the sea on dry ground: and the waters were walled (like walls) unto them on their right hand and on their left.

J begins with the Israelites being led out of Egypt by God in a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Pharaoh changes his mind about his decision to allow them to depart, and chases after them with his chariots. Moses tells the people not to be afraid, for God will aid them. The pillar of smoke then stands between the Israelites and the Egyptians all night, separating them, while God sends a wind to blow back the sea. In the morning "the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud," the waters returned, "and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore." The J narrative ends with Moses leading the Israelites in singing the Song of the Sea.

P has the most elaborate account, and the most active role for God. It is P that introduces the itinerary of Pi-hahiroth, Migdol and Baal-zephon, who tells the reader that it is part of God's plan to send Pharaoh after the Israelites in order to demonstrate His power, and who shows God commanding Moses to stretch out his rod and divide the waters, "a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left," so that the Egyptians are destroyed when Israelites cross over and the two walls collapse.

The Song of the Sea, which according to the hypothesis is the version the others are based upon, (together with lost oral traditions), is a song of triumph over the defeated enemy: "With the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, The floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea." The Song concludes with rejoicing at the effect that God's destruction of the Egyptians will have on the Israelites' future enemies: "Sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Philistia, the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away. Fear and dread shall fall upon them."

Locating the crossing

The most precise information on the site of the crossing is provided by the Priestly source, at Exodus 14:2, where God says to Moses: "Speak to the Children of Israel, and have them turn back and encamp before Pi-Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon; you shall encamp opposite it, by the sea." All three names appear to be Hebrew rather than Egyptian. The meaning of "Pi-hahiroth" is unknown, although "pi" means "mouth" and "ha" is the definite article; "Migdol" and "Baal-zephon" mean "watchtower" and "Lord of the North" respectively. [ PI-HAHIROT -- THE MOUTH OF FREEDOM] None of the three have been located, despite considerable effort. [ Meanings of place-names from Exodus 14:2] ]

In the absence of any identification of Pi-hahiroth, speculation has centred on the general rather than exact place where the crossing was made. The mainstream agreement is that the crossing took place on the Reed Sea near the present day-city of Suez, just north of the historical headwaters of the Gulf of Aqaba.

There is an unlikely, but somewhat plausible theory this incident did not happen on the Reed Sea but the Israelites went along the enclosing spit of the Sabħat al Bardawīl (a large lagoon on the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula), trying to evade pursuers. If so, Baal-zephon would be a known tell beside a gap in that spit, and the sea recession and surge would be a rise and fall of a few feet caused by wind.

The Hebrew name for the body of water crossed in the biblical story is "Yam Suph." Two major possibilities for understanding this term exist. The traditional translation is Red Sea, and can be seen explicitly as early as the Septuagint translation of Exodus into Greek (approx. third century BCE), which rendered "Yam Suph" by "Erythra Thalassa" (polytonic|Ερυθρά Θάλασσα). The other possibility, which can be seen at least as early as the 11th century CE Rabbi Rashi [] , and which has also received some modern scholarly interest, is to understand "Yam Suph" to refer to a "Sea of Reeds", perhaps an inland marshy body of water on the Sinai Peninsula. ("Suph" means 'reed' in Hebrew, and is used in Exodus 3:2 for the reedy water where Moses' mother placed his basket to hide him. See "Yam Suph" and Reed Sea for more details.) It is evident from the Bible that the Hebrews understood the Red Sea to have been contiguous from the Gulf of Suez to the Gulf of Aqaba, and indeed, the Red Sea is called "Yam Suf" in the biblical account (e.g. 1 Kings 9:26). The matter cannot be considered to have been settled conclusively.

The exact location of the crossing is not recorded, and so will always be speculative. However, the location of the crossing might be related to the location of Mt. Sinai. For example, those locating the biblical Sinai in ancient Midian (i.e. on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba) at a site like Jabal al-Lawz are more likely to have the crossing at the Gulf of Aqaba than elsewhere.


The Bible puts forward four differing views on the mechanics of the Israelites' escape from Pharaoh and his chariots, each giving a steadily more supernatural explanation. The Elohist source does not mention water at all, merely stating that the Israelites went via the Red Sea Wilderness, and that the wheels of the Egyptian chariots were "clogged". The Song of the Sea is unequivocal in describing how the Egyptians met their doom in the sea, in conjunction with a strong wind described as "the breath of Thy nostrils". The Yahwist gives a narrative structure to the image contained in the Song of the Sea, with a "a strong East wind" sent by God to blow back the waters, (although it's not clear from the narrative what body of water is involved, nor how large it is), which later return to drown the enemy. The Priestly source has the most dramatic image of all, and the one which has captured the public imagination [David Morris: [ Six in Ten Take Bible Stories Literally] . "64 percent believe the story of Moses parting the Red Sea is "literally true, meaning it happened that way word-for-word."] , with Moses, on God's instructions, stretching out his rod to divide the waters in two great walls which God holds open to allow the Israelites to pass, and then causes to collapse upon the Egyptians.

There have been considerable and varied modern attempts to find a non-supernatural origin for the story. Some of the more popular include a tsunami produced by the explosion of a volcano on the island of Thera around 1550-1500BC or 1650-1600BC (the date is contentious), with the retreating waters before the large tsunami allowing the Israelites to pass and then returning to drown the Egyptians, or a wind drying out a shallow lake somewhere near the head of the Red Sea, around the Reed Sea so that the Israelites could cross on foot but the Egyptian chariots could not follow them.

Translation of "Yam Suph"

It has been argued that the Hebrew term"Yam Suph" in Exodus 13:18; 15:4 and 15:22, traditionally understood as the Red Sea (i.e. the large salt water inlet between Africa and the Arabian peninsula) may instead refer to a "Sea of Reeds." Evidence against that proposal includes the observation that later books of the Bible refer to the Red Sea port of Aqaba as being located on "Yam Suph".

The theory that "Yam Suph" was a small, marshy body of swampwater to the north of the Red Sea allows for a non-supernatural interpretation of the crossing, and is suggested by the common meaning of "Suph" (Reed). It does not, however, explain the Exodus account of the drowning of several thousand soldiers in the same body of water.

Other translations of "Yam Suph" have been suggested:

The crossing of the sea signaled the end of the sojourn in Egypt and it certainly was the end of the Egyptian army that pursued the fleeing Hebrews (Ex 14:23-29; 15:4-5). After this event at yam suph, perhaps the verb soph, meaning "destroy" and "come to an end," originated (cf. Amos 3:15; Jer 8:13; Isa 66:17; Psa 73:19). Another possible development of this root is the word "suphah", meaning "storm-wind"...The meanings "end" and "storm-wind" would have constituted nice puns on the event that took place at the yam suph. [James K. Hoffmeier, "Ancient Israel in Sinai, The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition". Oxford & New York. Oxford University Press. 2005. ISBN 0-515546-7, p. 214]

* Cite news
title=The Yam Suph: Red Sea or Sea of Reeds?
An even-handed Christian discussion of the translation alternatives.

Non-historical arguments

Many archaeologists, including Israel Finkelstein and William G. Dever, regard the Exodus as non-historical, at best containing a small germ of truth. In his book, "The Bible Unearthed", Finkelstein points to the appearance of settlements in the central hill country around 1200, recognized by most archaeologists as the earliest settlements of the Israelites. [I Finkelstein and N. Na'aman, eds., From Nomadism to Monarchy (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994)] Using evidence from earlier periods, he shows a cyclical pattern to these highland settlements, corresponding to the state of the surrounding cultures. Finkelstein suggests that the local Canaanites would adapt their way of living from an agricultural lifestyle to a nomadic one and vice versa. When Egyptian rule collapsed after the invasion of the Sea Peoples, the central hill country could no longer sustain a large nomadic population, so they went from nomadism to sedentism. [cite book | author=Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil Asher | title=The Bible Unearthed | publisher=New York: Free Press | year=2001 | id=ISBN 0-684-86912-8] Dever agrees with the Canaanite origin of the Israelites but allows for the possibility of a Semitic tribe coming from Egyptian servitude among the early hilltop settlers and adds that "an exhaustive analysis of the topography of the northern Nile Vally in ancient times does not reveal any point where the water could have been easily forded," but also argues that any naturalistic explanation "misses the point of the biblical story" which is "The events are the "magnalia dei", the 'mighty acts of God', or they are nothing." [cite book | author=Dever, William G. | title=What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? | publisher=Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company | year=2002 | id=ISBN 0-8028-2126-X pages 16, 21]

Biblical minimalists, such as Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson, regard the Exodus as ahistorical.

Pop culture references

* In his 1956 film, "The Ten Commandments", director Cecil B. DeMille depicted a literal and dramatic parting of the sea, splicing film of trip-tanks into footage shot at the shore of the Red Sea.
* The stereotypical pose of Moses spreading his arms as the sea opens up (as with Charlton Heston's interpretation of the role) has been parodied. Gary Larson, in a "Far Side" entry captioned "Moses as a kid", depicted the boy Moses parting the milk in his cereal bowl. In a similar vein, in the film Bruce Almighty, the title character parts a bowl of (red) tomato soup to test his powers.
* In the Monty Python movie "The Life of Brian," Brian defiantly describes himself as "Red Sea pedestrian," i.e., an Israelite.
* In Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I, Moses inadvertently parts a small body of water as a side effect resulting from his raising his arms while being mugged.

ee also

* The Exodus, Exodus
* Moses, Musa
* Mount Sinai (modern) (for the actual historical site see Biblical Mount Sinai)
* Plagues of Egypt
* Thera eruption, and its Association with the Exodus


External links

* [ A collection of articles on the splitting of the Red Sea from a Jewish perspective.] at
* [ What about the famous image of a great canyon of water? Could this have any basis in reality?]
* [ BBC on the ten Plagues]
* [ Telegraph on Moses]
* [ BASE Institute, "What and where was the "Red Sea" "Sea of reeds" or Yam Suph of the Exodus?":] quotes readings and sources supporting a meaning of "suph" as "seaweed" and adduces other uses of "yam suph" in the Tanakh.
* [ Documentary, 'The Exodus Decoded'.] The hieroglyphic El-Arish stone mentions escape of evil doers through parted waters and pinpoints location.

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