Moses’ mighty wind

Have you heard the old joke about the Sunday School teacher trying to convince her students that it was not the Red Sea but the Sea of Reeds that the Israelites crossed? She explains that Moses hadn’t miraculously parted the water to enable the crossing. Rather, the sea was actually very shallow — only a couple of inches or feet deep, in fact. So while God did rescue his people, he didn’t use supernatural means.

“That’s amazing!” says Billy, one of her young charges.

The teacher explains that God is amazing but that this crossing wasn’t such an amazing feat. In fact, Red Sea was a mistranslation. It was a sea of reeds. A Reed Sea. And so the Israelites only had to cross a very shallow sea.

“Wow! That’s super-amazing!” says Billy.

Exasperated, the teacher asks him what, exactly, was so amazing about the Israelites traversing the Reed Sea.

“That the entire Egyptian army drowned in a few inches of water!”

Okay, so I thought of that again when one of our favorite readers sent in some stores about how scientists in Boulder have figured out how this miraculous event might have happened. Over at First Things, Joe Carter says that every few years, attention-seeking scientific researchers try to sucker journalists and bloggers into writing about how their computer model explains how the parting of the Red Sea might have happened. And he says he falls for it every time. (Here was the entry from a couple of years ago.) In this case, I actually thought some stories were good and others weren’t.

Let’s begin with the bad. Reuters couldn’t help themselves with this lede:

Moses might not have parted the Red Sea, but a strong east wind that blew through the night could have pushed the waters back in the way described in biblical writings and the Koran, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.

I don’t quite get what the reporter is trying to say but there’s no need to speculate on Moses’ role. The media can just report what the scientists say without going completely beyond what the scientists allege (as we’ll see below) to suggest that Moses was a fraud. Doing so doesn’t just give readers the impression that the media is out to debunk the Bible, it also shows a particular illiteracy about the Bible.

Here’s Exodus 14:21:

Then 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 into dry land, and the waters were divided.

So if Scripture says that the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong wind that lasted for hours and scientists say such a situation is physically possible, it doesn’t disprove anything about Moses.

And the researchers didn’t attack Moses so much as show off some pretty fancy computer modeling work. This Telegraph story handles their science — and the religious claim in question — a bit more seriously:

Analysis of archaeological records, satellite measurements and maps allowed the researchers to estimate the water flow and depth at the site 3,000 years ago.

An ocean computer model was then used to simulate the impact of a strong overnight wind on the six-foot-deep waters.

The scientists found that an east wind of 63 mph blowing for 12 hours would have driven the shallow waters back, both into the lake and the river channel.

For a period of four hours, this would have created a land bridge about two miles long and three miles wide.

The waters really would have been parted, with barriers of water raised on both sides of the newly exposed mud flats.

As soon as the winds dropped, the waters would have rushed back, much like a tidal bore. Anyone stranded on the mud flats would have been at risk of drowning, said the scientists, whose findings are reported today in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.

Well, attention-seeking scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, or not — I think it’s worth a news story or two.

Anyway, the reader who submitted the story also thought it interesting that ABC News filed the story under “Technology.” It is a technology story, of course, but just interesting that it’s filed that way. More examples — some better than others — here.

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  • http://kwleslie.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    ABC broadcast the story on World News Tonight yesterday, Sept. 24.

  • northcoast

    So the wind left a dry hard surface firm enough for foot traffic, and the Hebrew men, women, and children crossed the sea bed with their possessions and animals despite gale force winds? Wouldn’t that require a couple of miracles?

    Do the reporters just question everything from a Judeo-Christian source and report without question anything from a science source?

  • Pamela Zohar

    In a dry country, it works – we have playa lakes here, and a strong continuous wind can blow an entire ‘lake’ (a couple of feet deep or so) from one side of a valley to another side, and the mud will be dry enough to walk on – but – significantly – not dry enough to support something like a narrow wheel (as bikers have learned to their sorrow) or anything truly heavy (like a car). But people on foot – sure thing. And it does take a while for the water to move back when the wind dies down.
    Not saying this has ‘proven’ anything at all about the Exodus story, but having the text say ‘a strong east wind blew all night’ is certainly suggestive of a ‘real occurrence’, no matter where exactly this took place- and personally, if I were being chased by a bunch of mad people in chariots, I’d be hiking across that mud flat just as fast as I could manage, no question about it.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    That Reuters report is very strange. The lede implies that the Biblical account is somehow in question, then only 2 paragraphs later, this appears:

    “The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus,” Carl Drews of NCAR, who led the study, said in a statement.

    The scientists involved seem to have come to the exact opposite conclusion, that their research reinforces the Biblical account. (Whether or not that’s warranted or wise is a whole other conversation.)

    Reuters also added some references to the Koran, as well as some curious waffling. The parting of the Red Sea is indeed referenced in the Koran (sura 20:79), but the NCAR’s press release refers only to Exodus. Reuters goes on to report, “Religious texts differ a little in the tale…”, but the translation of the Koran on my bookshelf simply says that God told Moses,

    Go forth by night with my servants and cleave for them a dry path in the sea.

    Less detail, sure, but not much difference, unless there’s somewhere else in the Koran where another account is given. It’s definitely interesting that the Koran refers to the parting of the sea, but the story of Exodus would have been well-known to the Koran’s original audience (Mohammed had many interactions with local Jews). We’re not dealing with two independent sources for the event. Reuters’ additions just seem like unnecessary elaboration all around.

  • Jerry

    So if Scripture says that the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong wind that lasted for hours and scientists say such a situation is physically possible, it doesn’t disprove anything about Moses.

    That’s true, of course.

    This story is part of a larger trend of scientists looking at the Bible from archeological and other perspectives. Thus on one hand, there is little if any archeological and historical evidence for the Israelites being in Egypt. On the other hand, we now have some evidence that parting the waters was possible by virtue of the laws of science. That gives credence to the Bible having at least some historical accuracy. I find that personally interesting.

    Given the lack of scientific and religious knowledge on the part of too many in the media, the coverage is about what I’d expect: mixed.

  • Kevin

    I shoulda been a proofreader, but of course I chose something else for my career…..your joke at the beginning of the piece starts with a male Sunday School teacher. Then he becomes a lady Sunday School teacher!
    I know the church has become tolerant in this day and age, I didn’t realize just how tolerant though. Just kidding…..:)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Kevin,

    Thank you so much! Fixed it.

  • http://klingonword.org Joel

    FWIW, anyone who followed up to read the original article Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta, would see that the author, Carl Drews, is also the owner of a site, http;//theistic-evolution.com, which certainly suggests this is no attempt to debunk the Bible.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    BTW, NPR picked up this story as well. The audio version of the story features a Q&A between NPR’s Guy Raz and Carl Drews, the author of the story, which I thought was pretty well-done: focused on the science without distorting the Exodus account.

  • http://acd.ucar.edu/~drews/parting.shtml Carl Drews

    Pamela Zohar -

    You may have solved the mystery of how Moses and company could escape on “dry ground”, while the chariots “drove heavily” and became clogged (with mud)! Can you tell us more? Where are these lakes that you describe?


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