September 21st, 2010
02:10 PM ET

Where did waters part for Moses? Not where you think

An illustration based on new research shows how wind could have moved and split waters from two ancient basins.

The parting of the waters described in the book of Exodus that enabled Moses and the Israelites to escape the pharaoh's army is possible, computer simulations run by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado at Boulder show.

To test the theory that the biblical account may have depicted actual events, the researchers studied maps of the region, archaeological records and satellite measurements to find a topographical feature where such an event might have been possible. They settled on an area south of the Mediterranean Sea where some oceanographers say a branch of the Nile River drained into what was called the Lake of Tanis, a coastal lagoon 3,000 years ago.

The computer model shows a 63 mph east wind blowing across the area and its 6-feet-deep waters for 12 hours. In the scenario, the wind pushed back the waters into both the lake and the channel of the river, exposing a mud flat 2 to 2.5 miles long and 3 miles wide for four hours. As the winds died down, the waters quickly flowed back in and in theory would have drowned anyone on the mud flat.

“The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus,” said Carl Drews of NCAR, the lead author of the study published in the online journal PLoS ONE. (Read the full study)

“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.”

YouTube: Parting the waters, Part 1: The physics of a land bridge

Parting the waters, Part 2: Carl Drews on wind setdown research
The biblical account of Exodus has Moses and his followers trapped by the pharaoh forces against a body of water, which has been translated to both the Red Sea and the Sea of Reeds. In the account, a strong wind comes up after night falls and parts the waters behind the Israelites. Moses leads them into the breach but when the pharaoh army pursues them at daybreak, the gap disappears and the army is lost.

Previous research has focused on areas of the Red Sea near the modern-day Suez Canal where the biblical miracle may have been possible. The NCAR/CU team said their research shows those scenarios unlikely. They ran a series of 14 computer simulations to pinpoint the area where the parting of the waters was most likely.

“People have always been fascinated by this Exodus story, wondering if it comes from historical facts,” Drews says. “What this study shows is that the description of the waters parting indeed has a basis in physical laws."

Drews conducted the Exodus research as part of a larger project on how winds can affect water depths.

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  1. justmeanddog

    If I could only remember how I did that "parting" thing, but it was so long ago and I did so many things like that.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. River Rat

    Stupid, pointless arguments aside (Whew! Give it a rest, Guys!) I have seen this phenomenon happen in the Indian River (Lagoon) in Brevard County, Florida. A good strong (20+ MPH) easterly wind for a day 'er so would push the water away from the eastern shore, so you could walk out onto the flats for literally hundreds of yards. Where this occured, when I was a kid, has changed now, as barrier islands topography is wont to do, but the possibility of this happening for Moses, or whoever for that matter, is entirely possible. Open your minds...

    September 21, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ningirsu

      Problem is...we can open our minds so far that our brains fall out. Sometimes absence of evidence is just that...in other words, the event did not occur the way the text describes. But, to your point about the water and the Lake of Tanis...Pharaoh was not stupid...neither is there any indication in the Bible (the only place where this story occurs) that God made Pharaoh go into the path the Israelites were taking. So, why doesn't he just take his army around and easily meet them on the other side as they come out?

      For Pharaoh to take his army into the water, he had to have no other option...thus, the body of water had to be much, much bigger than a lake. Many people, scientists and others, try to find physical evidence for this story. They somehow cannot take into consideration that it is a deity war, and fits beautifully in the genre of gods beating the crap out of other gods...and the tales may have physical experiences behind them, such as earthquakes, floods, eclipses, locust swarms, etc, but they only serve to provide the fodder for the elaboration in the story. They are things with which the population is familiar and they make the story meaningful to the original readers. We, however, go nuts trying to prove that what probably did not happen, actually could have.

      As a result, we end up not thinking...we accept the limited data without thinking of the ramifications...and our brains fall out.

      September 21, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. El Harlo

    In all this, has nobody bothered to ask the following questions?
    Is it reasonable to think that the wind would blow consistently at 63 miles an hour in one direction over the same area for 12 hours? The wind changes. Even in places on earth that are legendarily consistent, as the sun rises and sets, the wind changes directions and speeds.
    What are the chances that a process like this would result in the waters coming together so quickly that an army would be drowned? Wouldn't they see it coming and just walk out again? How long a stretch of water, exactly, could have been parted under these conditions?
    Does it matter if it's possible, if it's heinously unlikely?

    And in the end, it leaves us in exactly the same situation as before. There's a God and It made some highly improbably stuff happen, or there's a God and It didn't, or there's no God. I, for one, can't tell and don't much care to argue between those possibilities, because the nature of a God is that Its existence cannot be proven or disproven.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. fordis

    I heard another theory about this my senior year of college from my zoo-geography professor. What if Moses' crossing actually took place on the Nile delta, and coincided with the Tidal Waves set off by the explosion of the huge volcano in the central Mediterranean Sea that left the Greek Island Santorini, or Thera, as it's remnant?

    September 21, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ningirsu

      One of the difficulties with the Santorini eruption is that it occurred several centuries before the traditional dates of the exodus...supposedly under Ramses II (a dating that is not possible either). But, there is no suggestion in archaeological finds that the slavery took place at the time of the Santorini event, nor is there any biblical suggestion of it either.

      September 21, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mitch

    The evidence is MOST compelling that the crossing occurrred at Nuweiba on the Red Sea. The evidence is quite substantive, overwhelming in fact.

    See arkdiscovery dot com

    Fantastic!

    September 21, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ningirsu

      But, the only place where the story occurs, in the Bible, indicates consistently that the Sea of Reeds is the Gulf of Eilat.

      September 21, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Luke

    Pretty funny model here. The real trouble arises when we study from an archeological standpoint and realize that no society ever actually lived in the desert for 40 years as described by the Exodus stories. We have no fossil record nor any remnants of a culture living in the areas described in the bible. We would have found clay pots and dwellings. Instead, we have found sand, sand and more sand. A much more likely scenario is that it never happened and is pure myth.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. JoeD

    The story I got from my Egyptian friends were that the Hebrews while looking for hospitality went into Egypt. They were offered work and eventually left Egypt,, There was no slavery involved, but the work was hard.

    As an aeitheist, these are the two opposing stories which prevail as far as I am concerned. Who really cares?

    September 21, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • mary

      adressing JoeD your egyptian friend does not know because he did not live back then shows how smart you athiest are not very

      September 21, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mary

    it is a waste of time not because they are fabels but becasue they are miracles you either believe or you dont

    September 21, 2010 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • JoeD

      Mary, I don't want to bust your bubble on fact v. fable, but my Egyptian is a scholar in Ancient Egypt. He has a papyrus that says "they left". For the aethiests, who cares? The Book is all about lessons for the children. Children love miracles.

      September 21, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. JAB

    I think it is folly to think that God doesn't use physical laws to produce miracles in a world where physical laws control everything else. I think it is a simple explanation. He created those laws, why wouldn't he use them?

    September 21, 2010 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Robear in Ojai

    How often does a 63 mph wind blow across the Nile Delta? I wonder if the scientists have figured that too...

    And anyone who is familiar with the mud & silt on the bottom of the Nile River and its branches would laugh at the thought of thousands of Israelites trying to walk and cart across such a mud flat. They would have gotten stuck in the mud, never to be heard from again...

    Myth and propaganda to me, nothing more!

    September 21, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  11. AJ

    Not surprised here.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. readthis

    or it could have been aliens theres proof every where tht they had a big influence on our culture mostly religious.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. freeddoom

    there were no slave jews in egypt to flee the egyptian army and cross the nile or red see or anything else.all bs.for those of you with a low IQ,that means zero historical evidence for the presence of slave jews in egypt and no evidence for them to winder the sinai for a week ,let alone 40 years.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Joon

    Jesus Christ is coming back soon. Non-believers may ask, "how come God doesn't just show himself and prove that He lives?" He will very soon, and there will be consequences. Non-believers may ask, "how come God sends kind people to hell just for not believing?" It's not about believing in him, but having a relationship and loving Him. Why would you want to be stuck with a person for all of eternity if you don't even like that person, because that's what Heaven is like. Therefore, if you don't believe, you go to Hell, which is something the non-believers would actually want any way.

    God lives and he is true. I believe in science as much as I believe in Christianity. But science only explains certain things that God has created. To believe in science without God is greater faith than to believe in God without science. Believing in God with science, now, that's the best way to go.

    If there was no God, then Christians are just living a fantasy and the end result will be the same for us as it is for non-believers. Death, then dust, then nothing but forgotten memories. There is no point to this thing called life because ultimately, either the Big Collapse or the Big Freeze will happen and everything will die. But if there is meaning for our intelligence to even be able to fathom of a God, maybe that's a sign that there is a God.

    No one can prove God but also no one can disprove God. If you believe and you're right, you get all the blessings. If you believe and you're wrong, you probably just lived a good life, but that's about it. If you don't believe and you're wrong, then you get all the wrath. If you don't believe and you're right, you probably just lived an okay life, but that's about it. You gotta make the choice. Life is short. Make your decision quick. Jesus Christ is coming back soon!

    September 21, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  15. sluggohead

    Why is this in the news? No one believes this actually happened....

    September 21, 2010 at 7:27 pm | Report abuse |
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