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. Mark R.

    I just want to say something about the translation from the original Hebrew text to the Greek. This translation was only one of many mistakes made by people working with a language and language structure (ancient Hebrew) that was not their own. The original text in the TANACH (known by the gentile world as the Old Testament) clearly states (in English phonetics) Yam Suf. This only has one meaning, and that is the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites did not cross the Red Sea.
    It was rather, we think, in one of the small lakes or tidal flats mentioned in the article.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • ratkartz

      Actually Yam Suf is a puff pastry with a creamy vanilla-flavoured centre.

      September 21, 2010 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. galileo225

    Sorry to dissapoint all of you but due to a translation error fro the original texts they have the wrong water body in the common story. It was actually the reed sea. There was no parting. Being soldiers by trade (bet yu didnt know that either, the israelites led by moses went through the reed sea which was a mud flat knowing the chariots would get bogged down and they could be easily attacked. Theres a lot more to the story but it doesnt sound as fantastic as the fake one we all know and love.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
  3. diana

    in the days of ancient greece many natural things happened ie volcanoes erupting floods earthquakes plagues all of which people at that time could not understand or explain and told stories or myths to help to make an explnation of these things they saw. What if something happened such as the article above and at the time without computer ehanced models they needed an explanation of what was happening? Remember history has a tendancy to become warped over time the more the stories are told.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Isaac

    This just is more evidence for the Bible and that what it says is true.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Steve O

    I'm looking forward to CNN's follow-up article, "Did Gandolf the Grey Actually Defeat the Balrog in the Grand Canyon?"

    September 21, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
  6. TERRY

    These natural & scientific explanations seem far-fetched and stretching the limits of what is naturally possible with the laws of nature. However, that's not the point! The Creator of the Universe created the laws of nature, so Jehovah God can be SUPERnatural ways to accomplish things - parting the waters - that are naturally impossible. Our attempts to understand Biblical miracles are like the ants trying to understand their human neighbors...they will never understand us!

    September 21, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • ratkartz

      My ants are infinitely wise, thank you very much.

      September 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • MizzB

      AMEN.

      September 22, 2010 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  7. Lucas

    @ Alison

    You wrote: The science prove that the forces of nature parted the sea. The fable is that a man did it.

    Incorrect. The fable is that GOD parted the sea, not Moses. Moses was just a part of the plan, not the Creator of the plan. ie. Moses did not part the sea, God did.

    September 21, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Luke

      Either way, Charleton Heston was amazing!

      September 22, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dalton Cain

    and where did this big wind come from ?????? GOD ! With God, all things are possible....you can keep your science for all I care. I trust in God !

    September 21, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Dee Doo

    Did they ever find Jonah's big fish remiains?? i mean whale!!

    September 21, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. will

    I believe it would be more difficult to believe that there is no God then to believe that there is a God. If you enjoy scientific facts google " answers in genesis " by Ken Ham. thanks

    September 21, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jesus Reigns

    Why can't a miracle just be a miracle?

    September 21, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. hahaha

    Moses? Everyone knows it was Santa Claus that saved the Israelis!

    September 21, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. texan

    All I can say is that I enjoyed every bit of this comment section....and I totally needed all the laughs I got. All of you were GREAT!

    September 21, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Will Haight

    It's unbelievably stupid of the NSF to support this "research."

    Why no account in Exodus of a mighty, near hurricane force, sustained wind, out of the east?

    There's a mighty wind here, all right.

    September 21, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bud O'Donnell

    I can't believe that a formerly reputable news agency like CNN is now reporting as factual news something that would more appropriately be on a faith-based website. Ultimately, those who have faith are free to believe as they choose, but those who believe in the standards of science, history, and archaeology will be mystified by such an article. I am so used to reading The Onion that I initially thought I had stumbled upon a satirical article. Given the lack of non-biblical evidence that the Exodus narrative actually occurred, the fact that CNN would focus on one of the least plausible aspects of the story makes me wonder if we have indeed entered a new dark ages, where the rules of critical thinking have been discarded. If CNN uses headlines that presume with no doubt the veracity of the Exodus narrative, how can readers expect the standards of accurate journalism to be applied in other contexts?

    What headlines can we now expect from CNN? "What are Bigfoot's favorite recipes?" "How do people in other galaxies travel through time?" The archives of the Weekly World News are sadly predictive of the standards to which mainstream media have sunk.

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