The Parting of the Red Sea: Miracle or Natural Event?

By Wayne Jackson

It is a well-known fact that religious modernists read the Bible through the rose-colored lenses of their own naturalistic presuppositions. Take, for example, the Old Testament narrative regarding Israel’s passage through the Red Sea.

“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and Jehovah caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left” (Exodus 14:21-22).

That this was a miraculous event admits of no doubt to those who take the biblical text seriously. Moses later wrote: “The floods stood upright as a heap; the deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea” (Ex. 15:8).

The psalmist declared: “He clave the sea, and caused them to pass through; and he made the waters to stand as a heap” (Psa. 78:13).

And all of this happened just when Moses held out his hand over the water.

Liberal theologians attempt to explain the passage through the Red Sea in several naturalistic ways. For example, The Interpreter’s Bible notes: “To childish minds miracles seem necessary lest man should ascribe his escape to his own ingenuity.”

Another writer in the same volume says: "In flat marshy districts large areas are often intermittently covered by shallow water or laid dry by the action of the wind. . . " (Buttrick, pp. 937-8).

It is commonly suggested that the designation “Red Sea” (yam sup) should be rendered “Sea of Reeds.” Supposedly then, the place at which Israel left Egypt was but a “marshy” area that was dried out by a temporary wind. This view is argued upon the supposition that the Hebrew term sup is related to an Egyptian word meaning “reed.” It is also possible, however, that sup may relate to the Hebrew term sop, which signifies “end” or “conclusion” (of the earth), and thus could refer simply to several connected bodies of water extending southward from Palestine and Arabia (Myers, p. 876).

In 1 Kings 9:26 sup refers to the Gulf of Aqabah, where Solomon’s navy was kept. Professor Kenneth Kitchen believes that yam sup extended from the Egyptian delta north of Suez, along the line of the present Suez Canal to the Gulf of Suez and Aqabah—and even beyond that area (Douglas, pp. 1077-8). Wherever the exodus took place, it was at a point where the sea was deep enough to drown the entire Egyptian army.

A few years back some writers argued that a volcanic erruption on the island of Santorini (about 500 miles north of Egypt), c. 1450 B.C., could have produced a tidal wave that parted the Red Sea. There is no evidence for this view. Others have suggested that a volcanic explosion in the 13th century B.C. parted the Red Sea. Such would hardly have accommodated the Israelites, since the exodus under Moses occurred in the mid-15th century B.C.!

Conservative Bible scholars have long viewed this incident as a clear example of a supernatural event on behalf of the Hebrew people. One writer notes:

“[W]ind alone did not do all that was necessary in this instance. God alone had to intervene with additional supernatural power. We know that the water involved was deep, and not merely that of a marshy area, for later the Egyptians were drowned in it (Exod. 14:27-28). Moreover, the lake bottom was made sufficiently dry (Exod. 14:22, the Hebrew using yahbashah) so that Israelites could drive their wagons over it. Still further, the path had to be very wide, perhaps as much as a mile, to permit more than two million Israelites to cross during part of one night. To push back water for a half mile on one side and a half mile on the other side would indeed take the miraculous power of Almighty God” (Wood, p. 106).

Professor John Davis has forcefully shown that a “natural wind” could never satisfy the language demands of the Exodus context. He cites four reasons why this situation must be viewed as miraculous.

(1) It is doubtful that a purely natural wind could produce a “wall” of water (v. 22).

(2) If a strictly natural wind blew from the east, the water most likely would have been walled up in a north/south direction, which would have prevented the Israelites’ crossing.

(3) Two walls of water rose up, which suggests that the waters were divided by a special wind (v. 16).

(4) If a natural wind came from the east, and continued its force, sustaining the north and south walls of water (which later returned and drowned the Egyptian army), how could the Israelites possibly have crossed the area in the face of such a fierce velocity? (pp. 165-6).

Moreover, H.A. Han has noted that a strong wind currently blows from north to south in the northern vicinity of the Gulf of Suez (where the Israelites are commonly believed to have crossed the sea) about nine months out of the year. Thus an “east wind” parting the sea would be quite unusual, “truly an act of God” (see Pfeiffer, et al., p. 1447).

It is rather tragic that some, who profess respect for the Bible, have been so profoundly influenced by liberalism that they attempt to explain this supernatural event in a naturalistic fashion. One of our own has written:

“When you discuss the credibility of the Bible, you have to be careful not to try to explain something that is presented in the Bible as a miracle. A miracle is, by definition, something that you cannot explain naturally. Many times, however, the Bible presents an event as a natural act of God. The parting of the Red Sea is one such event” (Clayton, emp. added).

Sources/Footnotes
  • Buttrick, George A., Ed. (1952), The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon), Vol. I.
  • Clayton, John N. (1992), “News & Notes,” Does God Exist?, July/August.
  • Davis, John J. (1971), Moses And The Gods Of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker).
  • Douglas, J.D., Ed. (1962), The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Myers, Allen C., Ed. (1987), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Eerdmans Publishing Company).
  • Pfeiffer, Charles, Vos, Howard, Rea, John, Eds. (1975), The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: Moody), Vol. 2.
  • Wood, Leon J. (1986), A Survey of Israel’s History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.