Crossing the Red Sea part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
The Crossing of the Red Sea by Nicolas Poussin (1633–34)
Crossing the Red Sea part 1
The Crossing of the Red Sea parting of the Sea of Reeds forms an episode in the biblical narrative of The Exodus. It discloses the escape of the Israelites, led by Moses, from the pursuing Egyptians, as told in the Book of Exodus. Moses holds out his staff, and God parts the waters of the Yam Suph (Reed Sea). The Israelites walked on dry ground and crossed the sea, followed by the Egyptian army. Once the Israelites have safely crossed, Moses drops his staff, closing the sea and drowning the pursuing Egyptians.
Crossing the Red Sea, a wall painting from the 1640s in Yaroslavl, Russia
After the Plagues of Egypt, especially the Tenth Plague, the death of the firstborn son, and the firstborn of the domesticated animals, Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go. They travel from Ramesses to Succoth and then to Etham on the edge of the desert, led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God tells Moses to turn back and camp by the sea at Pi-HaHiroth, between Migdol and the sea, directly opposite Baal-siphon.
God causes the Pharaoh to pursue the Israelites with chariots, and the Pharaoh overtakes them at Pi-hahiroth. When the Israelites see the Egyptian army, they are afraid, but the pillar of fire and the cloud separate the Israelites and the Egyptians. At God's command, Moses held his hand out over the water, and throughout the night, a strong east wind divided the sea, and the Israelites walked through on dry land with a wall of water on either side (Exodus 14:21&22). The Egyptians pursued them, but at daybreak, God clogged their chariot wheels and threw them into a panic, and with the return of the water, the Pharaoh and his entire army were destroyed. When the Israelites saw the power of God, they put their faith in God and Moses and sang a song of praise to the Lord for the crossing of the sea and the destruction of their enemies. (This song, in Exodus 15, is called the Song of the Sea).
The narrative contains at least three and possibly four layers. In the first layer (the oldest), God blows the sea back with a strong east wind, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land; in the second, Moses stretches out his hand, and the waters part in two walls; in the third, God clogs the chariot wheels of the Egyptians, and they flee (in this version the Egyptians do not even enter the water). In the fourth, the Song of the Sea, God casts the Egyptians into tehomot, the oceanic depths or mythical abyss.
Pharaoh's army engulfed by the Red Sea, painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1900)
The Israelites' first journey is from Ramesses to Succoth. Ramesses is generally identified with modern Qantar, the site of the 19th dynasty capital Per-Ramesses, and Succoth with Tell el-Maskhuta in Wadi Tumilat, the biblical Land of Goshen. From Succoth, the Israelites travel to Etham "on the edge of the desert," then turn back to Pi-HaHiroth, located between Migdol and the sea and directly opposite Baal-siphon. None of these have been identified with certainty. One theory with a wide following is that they refer collectively to the region of Lake Timsah, a salt lake north of the Gulf of Suez and the nearest large body of water after Wadi Tumilat. Lake Timsah was connected to Pithom in Gesem at various times by a canal, and a late first-millennium text refers to Migdol Baal Zephon as a fort on the canal.
The Hebrew term for the place of the crossing is Yam Suph. Although this has traditionally been thought to refer to the saltwater inlet located between Africa and the Arabian peninsula, known in English as the Red Sea, this is a mistranslation from the Greek Septuagint, and Hebrew suph never means "red" but rather sometimes means "reeds."
(While it is not relevant to the identification of the body of water, suph also puns on the Hebrew suphah ("storm") and soph ("end"), referring to the events of the Exodus).
It is unknown why the Septuagint scholars translated Yam Suph Eruthra Thalassa or the Red Sea. One theory is that these scholars, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, during the 3rd century BC, specifically identified the Red Sea as we know it today because they believed it was where the crossing occurred.
General scholarly opinion is that the Exodus story combines several traditions, one at the "Reed Sea" (Lake Timsah, with the Egyptians, defeated when the wheels of their chariots become clogged) and another at the far deeper Red Sea, allowing the more dramatic telling of events.
The ancient yam suf is not confined to the modern Red Sea. Reeds tolerant of salt water flourish in the shallow string of lakes extending from Suez north to the Mediterranean Sea. Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier state that these reedy lakes and marshes along the isthmus of Suez are good locations for yam suf. Hoffmeier equates yam suf with the Egyptian term pa-tjufy (also written p3 twfy) from the Ramsside period, which refers to lakes in the eastern Nile delta. He also describes references to p3 twfy in the context of the Island of Amun, thought to be modern Tell el-Balamun.] Tell el-Balamun was the most northern city of Pharaonic Egypt, about 29 km southwest of Damietta, located at 31.2586 North, 31.5714 East.
Crossing the Red Sea, Rothschild Haggadah, ca. 1450
No archaeological, scholar-verified evidence has been found that supports a crossing of the Red Sea. Zahi Hawass, an Egyptian archaeologist and formerly Egypt's Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, reflected scholarly consensus when he said of the Exodus story, which is the biblical account of the Israelites' flight from Egypt and subsequent 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land: "Really, it is a myth. Sometimes as archaeologists, we have to say that never happened because there is no historical evidence."
Given the lack of evidence for the biblical account, some have searched for explanations for what may have inspired the biblical authors' narrative or provided a natural explanation. One explanation is that the Israelites and Egyptians experienced a mirage, a common natural phenomenon in deserts (and mirages themselves may have been considered supernatural). Each group may have believed the other to have been submerged in water, resulting in the Egyptians assuming the Israelites drowned and thus called off the pursuit. Some have claimed that the parting of the Red Sea and the Plagues of Egypt were natural events caused by a single natural disaster, a massive volcanic eruption on the Greek island of Santorini in the 16th century BC. Another proposal is that a wind setdown creates a land path through the Eastern Nile Delta.
As noted above, the translation of the original Hebrew phrase Yam Suph as "Red Sea" remains dubious.
1 Corinthians 10:2 connect the Red Sea crossing to Christian baptism when it says, "all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea." The Belgic Confession of the Reformed churches takes this further and says that baptism signifies that we are sprinkled by the "precious blood of the Son of God; who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass, to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, that is, the devil, and to enter into the spiritual land of Canaan."
Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (1891), by Ivan Aivazovsky
Muslims believe the crossing of a sea led by Mūsā to free the descendants of Israel from the Egyptian tyrant certainly did happen. As per Allah's command, Moses came to the court of Pharaoh to warn him of his transgressions. Mūsā manifested the proof of prophethood and claimed to let Israelites go with him. The Magicians of Pharaoh's cities, whom he gathered to prove to the people that the person claiming to be a prophet is a magician; eventually, they all believed in Mūsā. This enraged Pharaoh. But he could not frighten them in any way. Later they were pursued by Pharaoh and his army at sunrise. But Allah revealed to Mūsā beforehand to leave with His servants at night, for they will be pursued. The Qur'anic account of the moment: When the two groups came face to face, the companions of Moses cried out, "We are overtaken for sure." Moses said, "No! Indeed, with me is my Lord; He will guide me." So We inspired Moses: "Strike the sea with your staff," and the sea was split. Each part was like a huge mountain.
— Quran 26:61-63