Parting of the Red Sea: Feasible Scientific Explanation?

Parting of the Red Sea: Feasible Scientific Explanation? August 11, 2021

Exodus 14:1-2, 21-30 (RSV) Then the LORD said to Moses, [2] “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-ha-hi’roth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Ba’al-ze’phon; you shall encamp over against it, by the sea. . . . [21] Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. [22] And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. [23] The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. [24] And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down upon the host of the Egyptians, and discomfited the host of the Egyptians, [25] clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel; for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.” [26] Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” [27] So Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its wonted flow when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled into it, and the LORD routed the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. [28] The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained. [29] But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. [30] Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore.

In the biblical, Christian worldview, extraordinary recorded events (ostensibly miraculous at first glance) may be partly natural and not wholly supernatural events. That’s the question to be pondered with regard to Moses’ famous parting of the Red Sea. Was it a purely natural phenomena, wholly supernatural, or a combination? Any of those scenarios are possible in the biblical worldview.

Sometimes in the Bible God is described as having caused something that is actually natural. In these cases, the meaning would be that God “upholds” creation and/or caused the origin of natural laws in the first place, which now govern natural events, short of the rare miraculous divine intervention with a miracle. In His providence these natural events occur at just the right time, so that it can be said that God caused them. Other times it is purely miraculous.

I don’t have a firm position on this, myself (i.e., as to the scientific explanation I shall present). I’m not totally convinced, but I’m not averse to being persuaded. I have an open mind. I’m not trying to explain away or dismiss any miracle. I fully believe in miracles and the omnipotent, omniscient God’s capability of brining them about. I believe that whatever happened in this instance, with Moses, the Pharaoh, and a body of water some 3,300 years ago, God was behind it, for His purposes, and that it was extraordinary.

In other words, this article does not come from any sort of “skeptical / disbelieving” mindset. I believe that the Bible is inspired and infallible revelation. I’m only providing readers with this particular natural explanation of the parting of the Red Sea for the sake of pondering and consideration. If nothing else, and at the very least, it’s certainly fascinating.

Carl Drews is a software engineer, who has a Master of Science degree in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a Graduate Certificate in Oceanography. His Master’s thesis was: “Application of Storm Surge Modeling to Moses’ Crossing of the Red Sea; and to Manila Bay, the Philippines”. See a list of his other published, peer-reviewed articles and research in his Curriculum Vitae. He works for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a top U.S. research center. According to an Amazon page for his book on this topic, Drews was “confirmed at Faith Lutheran Church” and ” has taught Anglican Sunday School.”

His article that has made quite a splash (no pun intended) is “Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta”, with Weiqing Han, Plos One, 30 August 2010. It has been discussed in many well-known venues, including New Scientist, National Public Radio, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post, and a host of other news and information outlets.

As a quick summary of his proposal, I cite an NPR article from 9-26-10 (“All Things Considered”):

Carl Drews . . . looked closely at verbiage in the biblical account given in Exodus 14:21, which describes a strong east wind blowing overnight that caused the water levels to drop and part.

“This is something that is known in meteorological science as wind set-down,” Drews tells NPR’s Guy Raz.

In a computer model, Drews was able to simulate what might have happened at the Red Sea just before Moses started a journey that lasted for 40 years. After modeling a body of water that resembled the waters trapping Moses and the Israelites, Drews enforced the laws of physics and applied a wind stress to the water body.

“What I did was use a wind, sort of the strongest wind that I thought … a mixed group of adults and children could walk straight into,” Drews says. This amounts to about a 63 mph wind — a medium-strength tropical storm, as measured by the scale the National Hurricane Center uses.

But this is different from other tropical storms that occur frequently around the world.

“The wind blows on the water, and it stacks it up at the other end. The opposite component of wind set-down is called storm surge,” Drews says. He proposes that there was a bend in the body of water pointing east, and as the water shifted, it separated at the point of the bend, leaving a gap there. . . .

“The place I picked is not at the Red Sea proper, it’s at the north end of the Suez Canal in one of the shallow lagoons along the Mediterranean Sea.” As Drews points out, the term Yam Suf, a biblical term used in Exodus, means a marshy area filled with reeds. This is the same area where a British general named Alexander Tulloch witnessed a similar wind set-down event in 1882.

“He observed a strong east wind blow all night long, and in the morning the water had completely disappeared,” says Drews. “The lake was blown seven kilometers to the west.”

Drews says Tulloch’s observation is modern-day evidence of what happened when Moses reached the Red Sea, and supports his latest research.

While many researchers use science to disprove literal accounts in the Bible, Drews looks at scientific evidence that supports biblical events. “I think my account matches the biblical account pretty closely,” he says.

In an article in The Guardian (9-21-10), Drews is cited:

The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus. . . . The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that’s in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in.

Although this research and hypothesis has been widely covered, I can’t seem to find many of Drews’ own words; therefore, I’ll go right to the scientific study in Plos One itself and cite as much relatively non-technical material as I can find:


Wind setdown occurs in shallow coastal areas when strong winds blow offshore. When wind stress acts for several hours on a body of water, the free water surface acquires a low-angle tilt. This tilt causes the water on the upwind side to recede from the original shoreline, leaving exposed mud flats on the bottom. Wind setdown is opposite to storm surge and comparable in vertical displacement, although wind setdown is less well known because it usually poses no danger to lives and property. Wind setdown events on the order of 2 m were recorded by measuring stations at the western end of Lake Erie on December 1–2, 2006, and January 30–31, 2008. . . .

1.2 Study Location

Scientific literature from the 19th century contains a description of a wind setdown event that occurred in the eastern Nile delta. Major-General Alexander B. Tulloch of the British Army reported this event happening on Lake Manzala in January or February 1882:

One day, when so employed [surveying] between Port Said and Kantarah, a gale of wind from the eastward set in and became so strong that I had to cease work. Next morning on going out I found that Lake Menzaleh, which is situated on the west side of the [Suez] Canal, had totally disappeared, the effect of the high wind on the shallow water having actually driven it away beyond the horizon, and the natives were walking about on the mud where the day before the fishing-boats, now aground, had been floating. When noticing this extraordinary dynamical effect of wind on shallow water, it suddenly flashed across my mind that I was witnessing a similar event to what had taken place between three and four thousand years ago, at the time of the passage of the so-called Red Sea by the Israelites. . . .


In this paper, we utilize a modern ocean model to investigate an interesting hydrodynamic event involving the phenomenon of wind setdown. Under certain circumstances of topography and wind direction, a body of water may separate, leaving an area of exposed seabed between two points of land. Our study location is across the Kedua Gap (30.9812° N, 32.4553° E) from West to East, an area about 3–4 km long and 5 km wide (Figures 3, 4, and 8). . . .

We simulate a wind setdown event at the eastern end of the Lake of Tanis, which extended from Damietta to Pelusium during the Egyptian New Kingdom Period (approximately 1250 BC). The archaeological sites here (Hebua, Tell el-Borg) were above sea level and occupied during this historical period [9], [6]. The ROMS hydrodynamic model demonstrates that a gap opens in the waters where the Pelusiac branch of the Nile flowed into the Lake of Tanis. The resulting land bridge extends about 3–4 km eastward to the archaeological site later known as Tell Kedua. The passage is 5 km wide, and it remains open for 4 hours under 28 m/s wind forcing. The crossing remains open for 7.4 hours under 33 m/s winds, but these stronger winds may render walking too difficult for a mixed group of people. The Kedua Gap and its environs present an interesting hydrodynamic phenomenon for those interested in the history and geography of the eastern Nile delta.

Note: many Bible commentators and archaeologists have determined that numbers in the Old Testament are often not properly interpreted as literal. See, for example, my articles, How Many Israelites in the Exodus? [5-27-21] and 969-Year-Old Methuselah (?) & Genesis Numbers [7-12-21]. I cite the former:

Colin J. Humphreys, who is a renowned physicist who has also been published in leading biblical journals, wrote the article, “The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and XXVI” (Vetus TestamentumVol. 48, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1998), pp. 196-213 (18 pages); published By: Brill). He states:

It is shown that if there were “273 first born Israelites who exceed the number of Levites” (Num. iii 43), then the total number of Israelite men aged over 20 in the census following the Exodus was about 5000, not 603,550, as apparently recorded in Numbers. The apparent error in Numbers arises because the ancient Hebrew word ‘lp can mean “thousand”, “troop”, or “leader”, according to the context. . . . 

The total number of men, women and children at the Exodus was about 20,000 rather than the figure of over 2 million apparently suggested by the book of Numbers.

Unfortunately, I can’t access the entire article for free (which is always my “requirement”), but advisers to it included the greatest living biblical archaeologist, Kenneth A. Kitchen, the highly credentialed Hebrew and Old Testament scholar, Alan MillardErnest C. Lucas, who has doctorates in both chemistry and theology, and Andrew Briggs, who (like both Humphreys and Lucas) has a doctorate in physics but also an avid interest in theology. All have a high view of the Bible, so they are not theological “liberals”. They believe that this interpretation is suggested by the Bible itself. 

Obviously, this would make Drews’ theory more feasible, with 20,000 crossing dry land, rather than some two million (including 603,000 men). He posited a temporary land bridge of 3-4 km (1.9-2.5 miles) in length, which was 5 km (3.1 miles) wide, and remained open for 4 hours or 7.4 hours, depending on the strength of the wind.

The average width of a man (shoulder-to-shoulder) is about 1.5 feet. If we use that figure for each person (knowing that women and children are smaller) it could, I submit, account for space between people. Now, in an area that is 3.1 miles wide (16,368 feet), approximately 10,912 people could fit side-by-side (using the width of males).

This means that only two rows would be required to add up to 20,000 people (or ten rows of 2,000 each, which would take up one-fifth of the width available). A slow walk is about two miles an hour; a fast walk, three miles an hour. If we use the slower rate of walking, the distance could be covered in an hour and fifteen minutes, and the model allows four hours.

It is thus seen that the passage is entirely possible; not a “logistical” problem at all for this number of people. If the Egyptian army was simply far enough behind the Hebrews so that they couldn’t shoot arrows at them, then they could all get across before the Egyptians started pursuing them across the dry bed of the area formerly occupied by water.

Exodus 14:21 states: “the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night”. In Drews’ higher time estimate, the land was dry for 7.4 hours. That could easily be construed as “all night” (say, 11 PM to 6:24 AM). Once the Egyptians were on the dry bed, the waters happened to rush back due to the wind ceasing, by God’s providence: just at the right time.

The whole thing is altogether plausible, provided Drews’ figures and calculations are correct. Of course, they are able to be questioned n a number of areas: particularly regarding details of the topography and layout of the Nile Delta, with all its various ever-evolving waterways, 3,300 years ago.

Three years after his groundbreaking article, Drews published “Using Wind Setdown and Storm Surge on Lake Erie to Calibrate the Air-Sea Drag Coefficient” in the same journal. He stated:

On December 1–2, 2006 and January 30–31, 2008 there were strong windstorms over the Great Lakes that caused extreme surge events on Lake Erie. In both cases the wind came from the west, producing displacements between the water levels at the western and eastern ends of the lake of 4.2 m [13.8 feet] in 2006 and 5.1 m [16.7 feet] in 2008.

This is noteworthy because Lake Erie (about 30 miles from my home in Michigan; we visited it two days ago) is a shallow body of water, with an average depth of only 19 meters (62.3 feet). Thus, the differential in water level between western and eastern ends of the lake (it’s about 241 miles long) amounted to 22% of the average depth in the 2006 storm and 27% in 2008.

To provide a mental image of what this means, I have a small pool in my backyard that is four feet deep and 15 feet in diameter. The equivalent difference in water level, compared to these storms on Lake Erie would be a difference of depth of 10.6 inches higher on one side of the pool compared to the other (analogy to the 2006 storm), or 13 inches (analogy to 2008).

One can readily observe, then, that such wind-events could cause dry land to appear in shallower bodies of water: especially if the winds are significantly stronger.

Drews set his model (for various scientific reasons) at 3 meters (9.8 feet) depth for “the Pelusiac branch of the Nile from Bubastis to Daphnae”: where he believes the “parting” may have occurred. Again, if this calculation is correct, it’s more than enough to drown the Egyptian army. This is the second requirement to match up with Exodus 14: the water has to part, leaving navigable dry (or muddy!) land for a long enough time for 20,000 people to cross it, and it has to be deep enough when it returns to normal depths, to drown the Egyptians (14:26-28).


Related Reading

Bible & Archaeology / Bible & Science (A Collection)


Photo credit: The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt, Colman, Danby & Allston, c. 1820-40 [Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license]


Summary: Software engineer Carl Drews has set forth a fascinating natural, scientifically sound explanation for Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. Events like this have been observed in Egypt itself.

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