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. Blake

    If you begin with God, it is not necessary to try to come up with a far fetched (and inconsistent with the Biblical text) naturalistic explanation for miracles, like the parting of the Red Sea (not the Nile). The supenatural and miracles are not a big deal if you will stop embracing the absurd notion that the physical universe can be explained as a product of time and chance.

    September 21, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sean Colvin

    I agree with you tinsoldier. Christ said they rejected me and they will reject you. If they would believe you they would have believed me. For all who might have missed it... My earlier post...Or maybe you just have no response. Let me clear the air for all the hate filled athiests who for some reason mock the faith and good will of others. First, the God of the Bible is the one true GOD of creation. Second, even if it is not true it is full of good morals and values. A central concept of the Bible is to love your neighbor as yourself. What is wrong with that? Third, science simply helps us understand the complexities of God's design. Fourth, it would be impossible for a creation to fully understand their creator without being equal to the creator in understanding. Fifth, what you choose to believe is the most important thing in life because it determines the rest of your behavior. It is central to your character and who you are. Sixth, the entire human race, let alone one person, knows enough about science or the universe to determine whether or not GOD exists. When you brake it down it all goes back to what you WANT to believe. Do you choose to put your faith in a hopeless universe that ends in death for everything and every one? Or do you choose to believe in a universe that has meaning, hope, and justice? If God does not exist then we live in a horrible existence where justice will never come, death is the final outcome for everything, and there is no true meaning in life or anything special about individual people. We would be as random as a virus mutation. Faith in God tells an opposite story where the universe is full of meaning, truth, hope, and a loving grand purpose. What do you CHOOSE to believe in? Big bang theories do not work alone. God could have created the universe using the big bang. Since God is omnipresent he could very well be the universe and Christ was the very spirit of God manifested. Also, who made the gases and space stuff that caused the big bang? Your science does not answer many questions. However, combine faith and science and you get some incredible understanding. Especially of Biblical events that were once looked at as fairy tales or impossible. As we can clearly see in the article, it is not one or the other. Both Science and Faith together can give us a more holistic understanding of the origins we are discussing. P.S. You guys are arguing and attacking each other like middle school kids. Look at the facts and have a respectful debate. Much love, PEACE BE WITH YOU!!!!!!!!

    September 21, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Artie James

    When figuring out this study, did the scientist figure in the whole high tide low tide theory. The rotation of the earth and the changing of the seasons along with a full moon could have put it in a different location. Times have changed also, There were probably a lot more glaciers then meaning the waters were not as high either.

    September 21, 2010 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. X

    Wait a minute. The Bible says that there were walls of water on both sides as they walked in middle. Look it up.

    Nice try though.

    September 21, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Daniel Lee

    The parting of sea happens everyday in Korea in some west coast islands due to tide water. In some islands, a few days in a year.

    September 21, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
  6. PGelsman

    Our tax dollars at work...........

    September 21, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bobby

    How about it just never happened. cute graphics, though

    September 21, 2010 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bill T

    We can't get the weather right on any given day, but now we are analyzing fictional meteorological events sometime in the past somewhere in the world? Give me a break. Even Jebus would find this to be a stretch...

    September 21, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Zoë

    So... I thought this happened in the Red Sea. D:

    September 21, 2010 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
  10. andybud

    A small note from the actual source materials:

    "The new study, by Drews and CU oceanographer Weiqing Han, found that a reef would have had to be entirely flat for the water to drain off in 12 hours. A more realistic reef with lower and deeper sections would have retained channels that would have been difficult to wade through. In addition, Drews and Han were skeptical that refugees could have crossed during nearly hurricane-force winds."

    Gosh, you think?

    Dear CNN: Please stop giving the scientifcally-illiterate more reasons to believe bronze age mythology with such half-assed reporting.

    September 21, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dorothy

    I have been to Egypt and Israel. I do not care where the red sea was parted. The fact remains and it is fact God parted the red sea for Moses and the Hebrews. Science will learn one of these days that it basically stinks. I think we have more important matters currently to spend our money on.

    September 21, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Sean Colvin

    My earlier post...Or maybe you just have no response. Let me clear the air for all the hate filled athiests who for some reason mock the faith and good will of others. First, the God of the Bible is the one true GOD of creation. Second, even if it is not true it is full of good morals and values. A central concept of the Bible is to love your neighbor as yourself. What is wrong with that? Third, science simply helps us understand the complexities of God's design. Fourth, it would be impossible for a creation to fully understand their creator without being equal to the creator in understanding. Fifth, what you choose to believe is the most important thing in life because it determines the rest of your behavior. It is central to your character and who you are. Sixth, the entire human race, let alone one person, knows enough about science or the universe to determine whether or not GOD exists. When you brake it down it all goes back to what you WANT to believe. Do you choose to put your faith in a hopeless universe that ends in death for everything and every one? Or do you choose to believe in a universe that has meaning, hope, and justice? If God does not exist then we live in a horrible existence where justice will never come, death is the final outcome for everything, and there is no true meaning in life or anything special about individual people. We would be as random as a virus mutation. Faith in God tells an opposite story where the universe is full of meaning, truth, hope, and a loving grand purpose. What do you CHOOSE to believe in? Big bang theories do not work alone. God could have created the universe using the big bang. Since God is omnipresent he could very well be the universe and Christ was the very spirit of God manifested. Also, who made the gases and space stuff that caused the big bang? Your science does not answer many questions. However, combine faith and science and you get some incredible understanding. Especially of Biblical events that were once looked at as fairy tales or impossible. As we can clearly see in the article, it is not one or the other. Both Science and Faith together can give us a more holistic understanding of the origins we are discussing. P.S. You guys are arguing and attacking each other like middle school kids. Look at the facts and have a respectful debate. Much love, PEACE BE WITH YOU!!!!!!!!

    September 21, 2010 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sean Colvin

    I refer you all to my earlier post. I also challenge all athiests to a respectful debate. Lets go!

    September 21, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Alan

    Moses didn't part the seas anywhere. It's a fairy tale.

    September 21, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. adam

    I don't get it. If you're not inclined to believe it was a miraculous event, wouldn't you just be inclined to think it's a story that never actually happened? What am I missing? Why do some folks try to come up with scientific explanations for miracles reported in the Bible? Just seems to me if you believe the story, there's no reason to think it wasn't a miracle.

    Did you hear the one about how the Sea of Galilee temporarily froze over enabling Jesus to "walk on water"?

    September 21, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
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